A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
March 16, 2014
Second Sunday in Lent
Psalm 121:1-8; John 3:1-17
I rarely comment on television shows, and for a very good reason. While I enjoy television as much as anybody, there is very little redemptive value to what you see on the boob tube, so it’s usually not worth mentioning. That is not to say that I don’t watch television. It’s just that I don’t often comment on it, at least from the pulpit.
However, did you see last week’s episode of The Good Wife? In the story, based on the exciting but very fictional lives of those who inhabit a couple of law firms in Chicago, not to mention the office of the governor of Illinois, a couple of young employees of the National Security Administration (NSA) are eavesdropping on everyone’s telephone conversations.
Now, I wonder where they got that idea?
You see, Hollywood is not exactly the purveyors of original thought. They obviously borrowed this idea from real life. Caught with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar, it has come to light that the NSA has been spying on the goings-on of other nations, even those considered to be our allies. Not only that, it was discovered that they have been listening in to regular folk like you and me.
Needless to say, there has been a public outcry, not unlike when it was discovered that certain groups were being targeted by the IRS. And just in the last week members of Congress accused the CIA of spying on them. And just as needless to say, not much has come from it, nor probably will. After all, they’re only looking out for our well-being, right?
And while the roles, played by those folks on television, are fictional, the NSA is not. So who’s to say that there aren’t some people sitting at their computers observing what we do every day? They may just be aware of what you had for lunch yesterday or who you’ve been talking to on the phone, perhaps what you’ve been streaming on the Internet. And by the way, the same goes for Amazon.com and Facebook, so it’s not just the government that’s playing this little game.
Are you feeling paranoid yet?
All of this is to say that now you know how Jesus must have felt. Everywhere he went he was being watched. The religious authorities had their spies listening in on every conversation and observing everything he did. It’s no wonder he often went off to be alone, away from his disciples. Who’s to say there wasn’t a spy in the ranks? Who’s to say that Judas didn’t have his hands in the pockets of the Hebrew equivalent of the NSA from the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, his treachery only came to light late in the game, and in truth was ready to turn on Jesus from the very beginning of things?
How do we suspect this? Well, in that infamous nighttime encounter between Jesus and the Pharisee named Nicodemus, Nicodemus says to him, “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” How does Nicodemus know that Jesus has been doing signs? He’s the epitome of religious aristocracy. Put him in today’s world and he might be the equivalent of the secretary of state. Surely it’s beneath him to be following Jesus around himself. Learned Pharisees, religious leaders and members of the esteemed Sanhedrin like Nicodemus, don’t do that kind of thing. No, they have others to do such work for them.
Have you seen the movie Son of God? I don’t plan to watch it in the theater. It’s just a re-hash of the version, with some variations I am told, of the original that aired on television a year or so ago, and I did watch that (there I go, commenting on television again!). But I do recall from the TV version that there was one Pharisee, or scribe, in particular who was always present at just about everything Jesus did. When he preached, the man was there to listen carefully. When Jesus performed miracles – or signs, as John likes to call them in his gospel – he was there to observe. On occasion, he would take issue with something Jesus said or did, but the point is that he was always there.
I don’t agree entirely with the way they portrayed biblical events, but I would imagine that this is a fairly accurate depiction of how it went down. There were probably the usual one or two – a handful at most – who tracked everything Jesus did and then reported such goings-on to the religious authorities back in Jerusalem… authorities like Nicodemus and his group of Pharisees.
And that’s how Nicodemus knew what Jesus had been doing. He had seen and heard the reports.
The Pharisees and Sanhedrin… can’t you just imagine how their meetings must have gone? When they would project the agenda on the screen, using PowerPoint, the first bullet point was devoted to the financial report. All meetings in the history of humankind begin with the financial report. But the rest of the meeting was devoted to a discussion of Jesus of Nazareth… a report from their spies as to where he was, what he was doing, what he was saying, and how they were going to counter this upstart zealot from Galilee who was becoming such a nuisance and threat. Can’t you just see the map on the wall, with arrows pointing to his every movement?
For most of the Pharisees, such discussions gave rise to anger… righteous anger. They were the guardians of the faith, and if anyone was going to preserve their way of life, it needed to be them. This upstart, so-called rabbi was a threat to their well-being, and they weren’t going to stop at anything to put an end to his blasphemous ways. Individuals were granted a good bit of leeway when it came to straying from normal religious behavior, but the religious establishment was not quite so willing to allow for a mass movement which threatened its way of life.1 And that is exactly what Jesus is doing from their point of view. He’s building up an army of believers, a movement, and they just can’t allow it.
But this was not how all of them felt, evidently. There were at least a couple of the Pharisees who were intrigued by this young man. One of them was Joseph, the wealthy Pharisee from Arimathea, the one who eventually would pay for having Jesus buried following his crucifixion… in his own tomb, nonetheless. The other was Nicodemus, the one who came to see Jesus at night.
Nicodemus was a curious sort, not given to quick judgment nor, evidently, completely enamored with how things are going in Jerusalem with the religious upper crust. He could see the collusion that was taking place between the high priest and the Romans, and he didn’t like it one bit. But despite his solid reputation and standing in the community, he knew there was little he could do to change things. The one thing he could do was satisfy his own curiosity about this obviously-gifted young rabbi from Galilee. And the only way to satisfy that curiosity was to meet with Jesus himself, one-on-one, face-to-face.
Nicodemus brings to the meeting his talking points. We can’t be sure if these are his and his alone, or if he is representing all the Pharisees. Do his questions come from his own curious mind, or do they represent a strategy on the part of his fellow religious leaders? We can’t know for certain, despite what John tells us later; namely, that Nicodemus assisted Joseph in seeing that Jesus was given a proper burial following his crucifixion. That would paint Nicodemus, you see, in a more positive light.
All we can know for sure is that Nicodemus does come to Jesus at night with questions. But as soon as he opens his mouth, Jesus starts controlling the conversation and heads off in a different direction from where Nicodemus had planned to go.
I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions. But I did this year… a couple, in fact, and this is the first time I’ve said this to anyone. One of my resolutions has to do with kindness. I think kindness has become something of a lost art, and I would like to treat people the way I want to be treated. So, I’m trying to be more kind in my contact with others. The other resolution has to do with listening. I want to be a better listener. So, if you and I are in conversation, and you don’t feel that I’m giving you my full attention, feel free to call my hand on it. I want to be a better listener.
The way this story is told, however, Jesus did not make that New Year’s resolution. He hardly gives Nicodemus a chance at all to say what he wants to say. It’s as if Jesus has such a rare opportunity to talk with someone of his visitor’s stature that he’s going to get his point across whether Nicodemus wants to hear it or not.
Nicodemus begins by paying Jesus a compliment. First of all, he calls him Rabbi, though there is no evidence that Jesus ever went to seminary and earned a degree that would make such a title official. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
“Oh, well that’s a nice thing for you to say, Nicodemus. I appreciate your sincerity.” No, Jesus doesn’t say anything like that at all. The first word out of his mouth is amen. The translation in that pew Bible in front of you says, “Very truly.” If you’re a reader of the King James, the words are verily, verily. But in the Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word is amen, which means there is no question about it, you can go to the bank with it, this is the gospel truth. It is Jesus’ way of speaking as did the prophets… “Thus saith the Lord.”2 “Amen, amen, I say to you (you can be certain this is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth), no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” We put the amen at the end of our prayers, but Jesus puts it at the beginning of his most urgent and assured pronouncements,3 and this is one of them. And it has absolutely nothing to do with what is on the mind of Nicodemus.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone in which you say something and the person responds by making a statement so off-the-wall that it makes no sense to you whatsoever? That must have been how Nicodemus felt. It’s disorienting, to say the least.
“O-k-a-y. That’s not exactly the response I was looking for when I paid you that compliment, but I’ll go along with your line of thinking by asking an obvious question… How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
“How can this be?” is what Nicodemus wants to know.
One commentator has said, “… Jesus leads him into unexpected topics. Nicodemus strives to keep up but soon surrenders. The dialogue becomes a monologue. Jesus is not trying to accommodate Nicodemus; he is trying to unsettle him.
“And Jesus succeeds.”4
Has Jesus ever unsettled you? I confess, I am unsettled by this passage of scripture. Always have been. I’m not sure at all that I understand what Jesus meant when he told Nicodemus he must be born again. Oh, I know the orthodox explanation for what Jesus said, the one we all grew up with, but I’m not convinced at all that the orthodox answer is necessarily the right answer… or at least the complete answer. What does Jesus mean?
May I simply offer a suggestion? Look deeply within yourself and consider your shadow side, that part of you that you know exists, but you don’t want to admit it to anyone else, maybe even to God. Being born anew is to reverse your shadow side, to do a one-eighty that turns you in a new direction, a journey that eventually leads to what we know as eternal life. Being born anew, or from above, is to experience the presence of the kingdom of heaven right here and now, to completely turn your life around… to see and know, led by the unseen Spirit of God.
So what is it like in the kingdom of heaven, a place that, like the wind that blows in the trees, is unseen… at least to us right now? I think of it as a place where everyone’s needs are taken care of, and every person makes a vital contribution to the betterment of all. Picture a world where every unblessed child on earth now has a loving parent. Picture a world where every abused spouse experiences nothing but gentle touches and kind words and knows the power of selfless love. Picture a world where every poor soul who craved an addiction and was slave to destructive behavior has been set free, and never feels those death-dealing compulsions again. Think of a world where there is more than enough food for everybody, and none of it goes to waste, where everyone is perfectly content with what he or she has. That would just be a start in the kingdom of heaven.
But it doesn’t sound much like what we know here on earth, does it? That’s the point. Being born anew, or from above, is beginning the journey toward such a place and experiencing at least a part of it right here and right now. It is understanding earthly things from a heavenly perspective. It is to live in opposition, counter-intuitively, to the way most of the world operates. Look at Jesus’ life – what he said and what he did – and you’ll find that this is who he was.
Yeah, and look at what it got him… a cross. Did we say it was easy? No. And because of that, in our orthodox way of looking at it, because we seek the easy way, we have reduced our understanding of being born again to saying a few words and going to church… too often nothing more and nothing less. But it is much more than that. It is diving fully into the depths of God’s presence and offering ourselves completely to the One who so completely gave himself to us, regardless of what the cost may be.
By all accounts, Nicodemus was hesitant to embrace such a life. He had too much to lose. The same was true of Jesus’ followers… at first. You may feel the same way. But I would encourage you to consider what you will gain by giving yourself more fully to Jesus. It may be an unsettling experience indeed, but it leads to eternal life.
Lord, we pray for that which will strengthen our commitment to you. Whatever it takes and wherever it takes us, find us giving ourselves more fully to you and your kingdom. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1William E. Hull, The Broadman Bible Commentary, Volume 9 (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1970), p. 239.
4Chris Blumhofer, “Living By the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century, May 30, 2012, p. 22.