Sermon May 30 2021 John 3:1-17 Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you pride yourself on being prepared? Planning ahead? Ensuring things are organized and you're basically on top of them?
If so, then you can probably relate to Nicodemus. Nicodemus who visits Jesus in the passage we heard read just now. Because he seems like a organized sort of fellow, doesn’t he. A leader in his community, he’s learned, he’s respected. And he seems to like to think things through: he’s not governed by whim.
When he gets this idea to visit Jesus, for example, he doesn’t just chase after Jesus in a crowd. Others do that: all through the scriptures we see Jesus getting chased down by people, people with needs, people with questions… But Nicodemus? He’s just not that type.
He wants to talk to Jesus, yes. Just as so many others do, and just as urgently. But he’s simply not the type for an ambush. That is no way to achieve a worthwhile discussion, and a worthwhile discussion is what Nicodemus wants. So he considers, and he prepares, and he conducts himself appropriately.
He goes to Jesus by night. Under cover of darkness? In secret? There’s no particular evidence of that, despite what we might first think. There’s no sense in this conversation that Nicodemus feels he’s putting himself at risk. It’s far more likely, quite frankly, that he simply wants the kind of discussion with Jesus that can’t happen in the middle of the busyness of the day, with the crowds around. Nicodemus doesn’t want a quick answer, a quick healing, a quick miracle. He wants to sit down with this man Jesus… and really talk.
So yes, he goes by night. For a good, deep, theological discussion. That’s what he’s expecting, that’s what he’s ready for, that’s what he’s looking forward to! Because he has studied his whole life – studied the scriptures, prayed in the temple – he’s shaped his whole life around the coming of God’s Messiah. And what it will mean for Israel. And what it will mean for the world.
And he’s been watching Jesus. He’s been listening to what people have been saying. Jesus could be the One. And so Nicodemus wants to know more. He’s always been thoughtful, he’s always made good choices, had a careful plan, tried to live a faithful life – talking to Jesus just makes sense. It might shed some light on the scriptures, or even on the path ahead, help make his next steps even clearer. And who doesn’t need THAT in an uncertain world.
And Jesus welcomes him, exactly as he’d hoped. So he begins. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one could do these signs without the presence of God…” And he’s about to keep going, to ask HOW, to quote from the scriptures, to seek more insight – when Jesus suddenly interrupts him.
“No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born anew,” Jesus says.
And Nicodemus is stopped dead. Because what does that even mean?
He thought he was prepared, he had questions, he's thought this through -- but this is NOT what he expected. It doesn't even make sense.
Because “How can anyone be born anew,” he asks, “after they’ve already grown old? Can someone go back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?
And he’s not making fun of Jesus, as ridiculous as the question sounds. He truly doesn’t understand, and he wants to. Jesus is, Nicodemus thinks, the one whom God has sent. The one for whom Nicodemus has been waiting. He really wants to understand. It’s a serious question. And if it’s beyond his present comprehension, well, that’s why he wanted this conversation in the first place. To widen, to deepen, his comprehension. Nicodemus really wants to understand.
But Jesus is no help at all. “To see the Kingdom of God,” he tells Nicodemus, “You must be born of water and the Spirit.” Nope, Nicodemus is still confused.
So Jesus continues. “What’s born of flesh is flesh and what’s born of spirit is spirit.”
Yeah, nope. Nicodemus is still not getting it.
So Jesus tries a third time. “Do not be astonished,” he say. “The spirit blows where it will and you hear the sound of it but you don’t know where it comes from and you don’t know where it’s going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” And at that point? Nicodemus finally gives up. “What on EARTH are you talking about?” he explodes.
And frankly, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him. Because what he came expecting, prepared for, was a good deep discussion. Guidance. Direction. What he came prepared for was to learn what everything he was seeing in Jesus and hearing from Jesus was going to mean for him, for his community. Rabbi, we know you are of God – tell us what to do. What’s going to come next? What does God want, what will this mean, where will this lead?
And in return he gets… nothing he can get his head around. Only the gentle, if somewhat convoluted, message that when it comes to faithfulness the only preparation needed is the need to not be prepared, but to let the Spirit blow where it will. To just be open to the Spirit and let it do its work. “Nicodemus, my friend,” Jesus might have said, “Many things are orderly. But faithfulness is not one of them.”
Nicodemus wanted guidance and he wanted direction and what he gets instead is the promise of a Spirit he just has to be open to.
Which might seem sort of regrettable or not quite fair. And in fact we don't have any idea how he responded at the time because the poor fellow is rendered speechless for the remainder of the passage.
But here's the thing. The one thing we DO know is that when all the disciples at the foot of the cross fled from the broken body of Jesus, Nicodemus stayed. And Roman soldiers notwithstanding, it was Nicodemus who laid Jesus’ body in the grave himself.
So something did happen that day for Nicodemus. The spirit blew where it would, and he he decided to be open to it. Knowing it wasn't likely to be orderly but also knowing it must be astonishingly powerful.
Because it's a Spirit that has the capacity to actually empower essentially, metaphorically, a rebirth. A whole fresh start. A letting go of the past. A rebeginning, healed and whole.
And we don't know Nicodemus. Yes, we know some things about him. We know he's a scholar and a gentleman, a leader in the community, respected and respectable.
But we don't know him. We don't know what burdens he carries. What regrets he has. We don't know if he's hauled around bitterness for most of his life, or if he keeps the pieces together with a few stiff drinks every night. We don't know if he's too afraid of failing to try new things, or wishes he wouldn't lash out in anger so often, or if he loathes the face he sees in the mirror, or just wants to be less selfish.
We don't know Nicodemus. We don't know what reasons he might have had for leaning into the Spirit that can empower that kind of new birth and fresh start, and letting go of burdens and brokenness and regrets. But that must be what he did.
And honestly? It may not have been what he prepared for and it may not have been what he sought, but it was obviously what he needed.
Good news for him and good news for us too that the Spirit of God isn't limited by the parameters of our preparation or the specificity of what we seek.
This is a Spirit that sees and knows and responds to and empowers the healing and the freeing and the born-again fresh starts that we NEED.
That we need individually. That we need as a community.
That we emphatically and firmly and desperately need as a country, as the bodies of 215 indigenous children, buried unnamed and unmarked, are lifted from the grounds of only ONE of the 139 residential schools that the churches helped operate in Canada.
Send, O God, your Holy Spirit.
Let us pray...
We pause with horror
At the thought of children
taken from their families
As indigenous people across this land
grieve and mourn and rage
at the enormity of this crime
and the shattering loss it represents,
Send into their midst your great Spirit of comfort and strength.
Shake us and overturn us by that same Spirit, O God,
to see clearly and to repent for
not only the crimes of the past,
but also their legacy of pain and brokenness,
and the injustice and the racism that continue.
Move us and push us by that same Spirit, O God,
to honour the Treaty that governs us on this land,
locating within it seeds of reconciliation, right relationship, and rebirth,
as we pray for peace on our waters when summer fishing begins.
Your Holy Spirit empowers us to set down our burdens
To embrace freedom from behaviours and patterns and addictions that bind us
To dream new dreams
And make fresh starts.
Thank you for going beyond our own faltering prayers
And hearing our deepest needs.
As you bless and watch over all your people
We remember especially those who are lonely and those who are ill,
Those who are frightened, and those who are hurting.
Send us hope, send us peace, help us to love generously,
and to breathe deeply your gift of life.