This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, February 17, 2008, the second Sunday in Lent. The text is John 3:1-17, and the title is “Born From Above.” Hope you have a great day tomorrow!
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “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.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
What We Think We Know About This Text
Today is the second Sunday of Lent, and we come to a very familiar Gospel reading today. This passage from John’s Gospel, chapter 3, contains what is probably the most famous verse in the New Testament — John 3:16:
“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.
Immediately, we think, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before. I know what that means. God loves me, Jesus died for me, and I have accepted him, so I’m saved.” And, certainly those ideas are there in John 3:16. But, the verses that surround this most famous verse give us the real clues to what this conversation was really all about. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, maybe because he’s afraid of being seen with Jesus, or maybe he waited for a time when the crowds around Jesus had drifted back to their homes for the evening. Whatever the reason, Nicodemus is certainly the nicest Pharisee we meet on the pages of the New Testament. Now, before we get into the story, I want to offer a disclaimer, and here it is: I’m using the phrase “born from above” intentionally, rather than “born again.” The text can be translated either way, but the term “born again” has taken on meanings that aren’t here in the text.
“Born again” has come to mean a person has had an experience of being saved. But, it has also come to mean “born again” Christians from evangelical churches versus mainline Christians from Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, and other expressions of our faith that do not place the emphasis on the “crisis experience” of becoming a Christian, but also allow for a more gradual “growing into” faith. I don’t want us to think about those distinctions today, so I’m using the term “born from above,” and I think you’ll see why as we look at this passage more closely.
The Conversation in Four Parts
Have you ever spent an evening talking to a friend, and the conversation flows from one topic to another, until finally someone says, “Well, how did we get off on that?” This conversation that Nicodemus has with Jesus has that kind of flow, moving from one idea to the next related idea, until we wind up in a totally new place. Here’s the first part of the conversation:
Part 1: Born from Above
As I said a moment ago, Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, comes to Jesus one evening and says –
“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.”
This statement in itself is amazing. Here is a Pharisee, and a leading Pharisee at that, saying that “they” know Jesus is a teacher come from God. And, Nicodemus goes on to reinforce that statement by saying, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” This is the only time a Pharisee will come anywhere close to saying that Jesus ministry is of God. At every other encounter with Jesus, the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus, challenge him on his observance of the Law of God, and prevent him from becoming more popular with the people.
So, just the act of sitting down with Jesus is a big stretch for a Pharisee, but Nicodemus not only sits with Jesus, he acknowledges that Jesus is from God, and doing the work of God.
Now at this point, you might think that Jesus would say, “Well, thank you, Nicodemus, that’s the first time a Pharisee has ever said that to me.” But, Jesus makes a strange reply that at first glance seems to have nothing to do with Nicodemus’ statement. Jesus says,
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
What does that have to do with Nicodemus’ statement to Jesus. Nicodemus is not asking “how can one see the Kingdom of God?” Nicodemus is making a statement to Jesus that he believes that Jesus is from God, and that God is with Jesus as he performs signs of God’s presence. But, in reply Jesus says “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
The conversation then continues on the topic of being “born” with the following exchange:
- Nicodemus: “How can anyone be born after they are old? Can they enter a second time into his mother’s womb?”
- Jesus: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
So, the first part of the conversation is about being born from above, and Jesus explains the difference in being born “of the flesh” and being born “of the Spirit.” But, back to Nicodemus’ question — how does one get “born from above?” Jesus has the answer –
“It’s like the wind which blows where it will, and you hear the sound of the wind, but you don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes.” And to make this even clearer, Jesus says, “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Let’s stop and recap here:
- Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is from God.
- Jesus says to see the kingdom of God, you must be born from above.
- Nicodemus doesn’t understand.
- Jesus says, being born from above is like the effect of the wind — you hear it, but you don’t know where it came from or where it’s going.
- Nicodemus still doesn’t understand, and asks, “How can these things be?”
Here’s my take on this:
- Unlike every other Pharisee, Nicodemus recognizes and confesses who Jesus is.
- Jesus’s comment to Nicodemus is much like his comment to Peter later when Jesus asks Peter, “But who do you say I am?” To which Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” To which Jesus replies, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father has.”
I think Jesus is saying the same thing to Nicodemus. I think Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, you have it exactly right. You’ve been born from above by the Spirit of God. That’ how you know who I am and what I’m about.”
Of course, all this talk about being born from above, born anew, is confusing to Nicodemus. He can’t hear what Jesus is saying to him, because he’s stuck back at the concept of being re-born. But it is the Spirit of God who has blown over Nicodemus. Nicodemus doesn’t fully realize it yet, but the evidence — his words — show that God’s Spirit has re-made him, given him new life, changed his perspective, opened his eyes, given him fresh insight into who Jesus really is. That is the work of the Spririt of God.
I know that this isn’t how most folks see this conversation, but it’s the only interpretation that makes sense out of what Nicodemus and Jesus are talking about. But, let’s look at the second part of the conversation and see if the flow continues.
Part 2: Earth and Heaven, Flesh and Spirit Meet
Jesus appears to change the subject when he says –
If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
Jesus is referring to the conversation about being born of the flesh and born of the Spirit — one earthly, the other heavenly. Nicodemus obviously did not comprehend that point, so Jesus simply asks, “If you don’t believe what I’m telling you about what happens here, how can you believe about what happens in heaven?”
I heard a preacher not too long ago, I think it was David Jeremiah, who said something like, “If we believe God can save us and take us to heaven, we need to start believing that God is at work in our lives here.” Same idea. Jesus has explained to Nicodemus that being born from above, born of the Spirit, takes place here on this earth. But, Nicodemus doesn’t understand how God can do that. Jesus point is — if you don’t understand how God is at work in your life here and now, how can you possibly understand how God is at work in heaven, in eternity, in the future?
We have the same problem today. We trust God to save us in the future and take us to heaven, but we’re short on what God is doing in our lives now. Then, continuing this line of thought, Jesus says,
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended, from heaven, the Son of Man.
In other words, Jesus is saying I’ve been there, in the presence of God, and now I’m here to show you what that means. Which is another way of saying, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, says that in Jesus, heaven and earth meet. And, also flesh and Spirit meet. Jesus is the intersection of God and Man, flesh and Spirit. He has been born of both physical birth, and Spiritual birth. Jesus is the new Adam, born both in the body and in the Spirit.
But, as they say in the Ginsu knife commercial, “But, wait! There’s more!”
Part 3: What Kills Us Saves Us
Jesus doesn’t stop with the notions of earth and heaven, he uses a real life example. He says,
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
What does this statement have to do with being born from above? Well, to understand that we have to understand the story that Jesus refers to, the story of the poisonous serpents, found in Numbers 21. The nation of Israel has left captivity in Egypt (the Passover), and is on their way to the Promised Land. But, the story of their getting to the Promised Land is a story of disobedience to God over and over again. We’ve been talking about that on Wednesday nights as we moved through the first books of the Old Testament. On one occasion, after having to fight their way through a particularly aggressive army, the people begin to complain to Moses — “Why have you brought out here in the wilderness to die? There’s no food, no water, and we hate this manna!”
This did not please God, and so poisonous snakes invaded the camp. If you were bitten by a snake, and many were, there was no cure. You died. Well, the people got the message real quick, and realized that their impatient complaints to Moses were disobedience to God. So, they came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.” Then they asked Moses to pray to God to take away the serpents.
But God does an interesting thing — God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole. If anyone is bitten, all he has to do is look at the serpent and he’ll live. So, God doesn’t remove the snakes, but sends a way to be saved from them. Look and live!
So, that’s the story. But, what has always bothered me about that story is “Why make a bronze serpent?” Why not something else? Why did God use the thing that was killing them as their salvation? Reading this passage from John this week, I think I understand it now. And it has to do with being born of the flesh and being born of the Spirit.
Remember I said that Jesus is the only person who has been born of both flesh and Spirit? Jesus is the only one who has come down from heaven to show us what the unity of flesh and Spirit looks like? Okay, remember that point.
Now, what is the cause of our own death? Not serpents. It’s our flesh, our humanity, our willfulness, our sin. So, if the same thing that kills us saves us, what is that? Again, not a bronze serpent. Are you ready for this? If our humanity is what kills us, and it is, then we need another human to save us. But, that’s not possible. Until we have a human who is both human and divine — both flesh and Spirit.
And that’s why Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Part 4: For the World
Born of flesh and born of Spirit, Jesus becomes the only one who can save us. And, then he tells us why he came –
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.
God so loved the world. Not just the people in the world, but creation. All of it, including us. And God’s love for His creation led him to save us in it, so we could again be stewards of it. Listen to what Wendell Berry, poet, farmer, and Christian, writes –
The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil.
Healing is impossible in loneliness…To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.
He goes on –
The soul, in its loneliness, hopes for “salvation.” And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity among soul and body and community and world?
The Bible’s aim, as I read it, is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.
So, our being born from above, our being born of flesh and spirit, our being born anew because God so loved the world is so that we can love the world, too. It is so that we can unite that which sin has sundered — ourselves, others, God, creation — so that all can be made new as God intended. Being born from above changes everything, even if like Nicodemus, we don’t understand it yet.
St. Kevin of Glendalough was a Celtic Christian hermit, who loved God’s creation. He said, “All the wild creatures on these mountains are my house mates, gentle and familiar with me.” St. Kevin’s calling was to live alone with God’s creation, and pray for Creation’s care. Here is a prayer taken from the Celtic tradition that St. Kevin might have prayed –
There is no plant in the ground
But is full of His virtue,
There is no form in the strand
but is full of his blessing.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!Jesu! meet it were to praise him.
There is no life in the sea,
There is no creature in the river,
There is naught in the firmament,
But proclaims His goodness.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!Jesu! meet it were to praise him.
There is no bird on the wing,
There is not star in the sky,
There is nothing beneath the sun,
But proclaims His goodness.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!
Jesu! meet it were to praise Him.
– Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints, Mary C. Earle & Sylvia Maddox, pg 58.
For God so loved the world, that He sent his only son…