We are in the season of Lent. And, as you already know, it’s during Lent that we renew our commitment to follow Jesus on the way.
Last time we met him in his solitude in the wilderness, where he underwent temptation. In those moments of temptation, we too feel very much alone.
But solitude is temporary. It is not meant to last. Jesus comes out of the wilderness, strengthened in his resolve to do God’s will. To be sure, he and he alone can do what God is impelling him to do. But he does not intend to go his way alone. He seeks followers to join him, to be his companions on the way.
Of course, before you can join him, you have first to become convinced of his claims: namely, that he is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing in him, you may have life in his name. In short, you have to become a convert.
In this season of Lent we have before us portraits of conversion. The subjects include the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, as well as his sisters and Martha and Mary. We will meet them in the coming weeks.
But today we meet a man named Nicodemus. At first glance, we may wonder how we can group him together with these others we have just mentioned. Can we really regard him as a convert?
Actually, there is no consensus in the tradition on how to regard him. Is he one who fails to understand and believe in Jesus? There is no evidence to suggest that at the end of the conversation he is any closer to believing in Jesus than at the beginning.
Indeed, he is spiritually obtuse. He is Israel’s teacher, and yet fails to grasp even the most basic spiritual truths. That failure stems from a heart that stubbornly refuses to accept the testimony of God about his Son, because that heart is closed up in unbelief. That at any rate is one way to regard him.
Or is he one who may very well likely come to faith, if not now then later? He does come to Jesus respectfully, addressing him by the formal title “Rabbi.” He acknowledges that the signs that he has performed authenticate him as a teacher who has come from God. He comes at night, not because he fears the scorn of his peers, but because it’s the time when Jesus will be free from the distractions of the day and therefore able to give this seeker his undivided attention.
At the very least, Nicodemus is a man genuinely interested in learning more about Jesus and his teaching, according to this way of regarding him.
And if there still be any doubt, consider also what we see in him later in John’s Gospel. When the Pharisees and the chief priests are angry at the temple police for not arresting Jesus, Nicodemus stands up for him, arguing that Jesus too has a right to due legal process.
And when Joseph of Arimathea removed the body of Jesus to prepare it for burial, Nicodemus brings a large amount of costly myrrh and aloes.
These later appearances in the Gospel show that Nicodemus continued to be concerned about Jesus. He was willing to speak up for him and go to great expense to honor him in death. It’s hard to imagine all this from someone who did not at least sympathize with Jesus and his cause.
No doubt we have all known people like Nicodemus. Maybe there are people like him in your own circles of family and friends. They are decent, thoughtful, and maybe even well-educated people. They do not want to be openly involved with Jesus, but they are fascinated by him. They are open to the claim that he is a teacher who has come from God. They are even willing to acknowledge that there is something different about him. But they will not (or cannot) go farther.
In a Gospel whose purpose is to draw readers into full believing, Nicodemus is an ambiguous figure who raises perplexing questions for us about people who are “seekers,” of whom he, in some ways, is a model.
What is it, then, that prevents him from full faith in Jesus? What are the obstacles that keep Nicodemus from believing in him? And, by extension, what are the obstacles that prevent people like him from believing in Jesus today?
At first, Jesus doesn’t seem too intent on removing those obstacles. He doesn’t recognize himself in Nicodemus’ characterization of him and his mission, and bluntly tells him so. Evidently, what Nicodemus has said to Jesus is not in accord with the truth. Nor can it be unless it is preceded by a new birth. For no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above.
This declaration evokes a response: “How can a man be born when he is old? How can a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4).
It is an unusual response on more than one level. What we don’t see is that it depends on the ambiguity of the word translated “from above.” It can also mean “again,” and that’s evidently how Nicodemus hears it, as is suggested by his perplexity at having to enter a second time into his mother’s womb.
Nicodemus’ question is poignant. He has grown old. With age comes experience. No doubt the lessons he has learned through experience have been hard won.
Is this not true about all of us? It’s the hard lessons that teach us how to deal with life on the terms that it gives us. Would not reverting to a time when Nicodemus has to enter this world again mean forfeiting all that he has learned from those lessons? How is that possible or even desirable? He has already so much invested in them. They have already made up so much of who he is. To let them go is to let go of who he is.
Viewed from this perspective, Nicodemus’ question does not betray the depth of his spiritual obtuseness; on the contrary, it reveals the depth of his awareness of human limitations.
When we are young, the possibilities seem limitless. Myriad paths lie before us. But as we age, those possibilities diminish. We have to choose two or three of them and try to make a life for ourselves.
Over time we settle into our habits and routines, for better or for worse. We get “set in our ways.” Beyond a certain point, change–not to mention deep and radical change–seems impossible to us. Indeed, the very suggestion intimidates us.
In this connection, authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey speak about our immunity to change. This concept really refers to our inability to change, because of the assumptions we have formed and the commitments we hold. These become so deeply entrenched in us that they operate unconsciously and serve to filter and even distort how we see and experience our lives in the world.
Immunity to change is not the same as resisting change. One may recognize the desirability of change, but be unable to act on it, because those assumptions and commitments have so strong a hold.
Kegan and Lahey refer to these as an immune system, because like our biological immune systems, they are meant to protect us from potential threats. But, also like our biological immune systems, they can also sometimes incorrectly identify those threats.
Indeed, sometimes our immune systems misread the data of our bodies so badly that they attack the very things we need to survive. Consider failed organ transplants and the various autoimmune disorders, for example.
The concept of the immune system gives us an image of what is going on inside us when opportunity for desirable change is presented to us. Our immune system, whose job it is to keep us safe, misreads this desirable change as potential threat—in order to keep us safe. And we fail to seize the opportunity.
Jesus patiently instructs Nicodemus. It is not about a physical birth that he is speaking. What is born of flesh is flesh. But one has to be born both of water and the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God.
What does this mean? Author David F. Ford in his fine commentary on the Gospel of John tells us that water here too refers to physical birth. Water, so far in the Gospel of John, was used as material for the first sign (when Jesus turned it into wine). So there is nothing negative about either water or flesh. But that is not all there is to someone.
The other dimension is the spirit. There is an ambiguity here. Since there are no capital letters in the original manuscripts, there is no simple distinction we can draw between the human spirit (breath of life) and the Holy Spirit. For example, when Jesus died, he gave up his spirit or breath (19:30). And after his resurrection, when he shares the Holy Spirit with his disciples, the word for “breathed” used there is the same word used in Genesis 2:7 when God breathed the breath of life into Adam.
But the Holy Spirit is also unambiguously connected with Jesus as that which comes to him from above. Remember the scene of his baptism, when John proclaimed: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him (1:32)? Later Jesus is called the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (1:33).
The upshot is that water, like flesh and breath is a good creation, but there is transformation brought about Jesus. Just as he changed the water into wine, so also the breath that carries his words change the lives of his disciples.
Nicodemus does not know this. He knows Jesus only as the teacher who has come from God. That is not wrong, but it is entirely inadequate to describe who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8).
Jesus engages in word play here. Breath, spirit/Spirit, and wind…are the same word in the original language.
Jesus’ language about the Spirit, which, like the wind, has no defining borders, opens up a mystery that explodes all the categories Nicodemus has about Jesus.
Ford expresses it well: “the verse evokes imaginatively a God who is free (the wind, Spirit, who blows where it chooses, who overflows our categories, who challenges our knowledge of origins and purposes (where it comes from or where it goes), who has an energy we cannot harness, who can spring endless surprises, who is unseen yet effective, and who can blow us in new and unexpected directions.”
New and unexpected directions—could it be that this is what attracts Nicodemus even as it makes him afraid and hesitant to believe in Jesus?
The verse contains another word play. Just as “wind” can be translated as “Spirit,” so can sound be translated as voice, so that it reads: “The Spirit blows where he chooses, and you hear his voice, but you do not know where he comes from or where he goes.”
Believing in Jesus Christ is not a human possibility. Recognizing Jesus as he claims to be and as he is in fact—that is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit.
A woman once approached my cousin who was her pastor at the time and asked: “Pastor, why don’t we see miracles in this church?” And my cousin replied: “Do you remember when Sandra placed her faith in Christ last month? That was a supernatural event. That was nothing less than a miracle.” We witness a miracle each time a person believes in Jesus Christ, and receives new life in his name.
The first step in coming to terms with this awesome mystery is to recognize that you do not know (3:8) and that you do not understand (3:10). The next step is amazed questioning, and that is what Nicodemus does: “How can these things be?” (3:9).
This is the question that prompts Jesus to reveal plainly his person and mission to Nicodemus.
Bible students have pointed out that the next few verses contain the summary of the gospel. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so also must the Son of Man, Jesus Christ be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
The reference here is to that time when the people of Israel sinned against God and Moses in the desert, bringing disaster upon themselves. There came among them fiery serpents, which bit and killed many of them. In their distress, they asked Moses to intercede with God for them. God then instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and place it on a top of a pole, so that all who looked at it might live (Numbers 21:4-8).
When we look at Jesus lifted up on the cross, we see the supreme expression of God’s desire to heal and to save his people. The testimony is that God invites us, poisoned as we are by our sins, may look to him there and live. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16).
Let us conclude by asking about Nicodemus and those people in our lives like him. What are the assumptions and commitments they have that prevent them from believing? What if someone or something that does not fit in with these assumptions and commitments sweeps upon them? Are they willing to change? How confident are they that they have a comprehensive understanding of reality apart from this gospel? Are they open to surprise?
Nicodemus is being faced with a person and message that does not fit with his assumptions and commitments and is being challenged to change.
So too are many like him even today. Let us not give up on them, but let us continue to pray to God to work in them by the Holy Spirit, so that they may come to understand and believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that by believing in him, they may have life in his name. Amen.