by Alyce M. McKenzie
If we start letting the wind of the Spirit blow through our souls, our church, our families, who knows what might be blown out and what might blow in? No wonder Nicodemus was scared.
John's Gospel is the opposite of the game "Show and Tell." It's "Tell and Show." In the Prologue (Jn. 1:1-14), John tells us who Jesus is, the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh. Like the Prologue to a Greek tragedy, this information sets the audience up to know things the characters in the story do not. After this initial "Tell," the rest of the Gospel is the "Show." It shows us what happens when the Wisdom and Word of God Incarnate encounters various individuals, each of whom reminds us of an aspect of our own lives. These people include the royal official, the crowds, the disciples, the woman caught in adultery, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the man born blind, the High Priest and Pilate, the man by the pool in John 5, the woman at the well in John 4, and Nicodemus, "a leader of the Jews," in John 3. All of these encounters prove that, in John's Gospel, it is a risky thing to be engaged in conversation by Jesus. It leads to a challenge and a chance for transformation. Not everyone Jesus meets embraces that opportunity. Nicodemus, for example, is man for whom not to decide is to decide.
What is Nicodemus doing up at this hour? Maybe he was studying the Torah. Rabbis often stayed up late studying scripture. Or maybe his Ambien had worn off.
There is nothing wrong with Ambien; sometimes people go through life stages where they need help falling and staying asleep. I think Nicodemus was in such a stage in his life because he couldn't decide what to do with Jesus. It was making his mind race when he lay down to sleep. Doctors prescribe sleep medications for people whose minds race at night, whose thoughts are like those fireworks that keep shooting off new displays from the center of the old ones. Maybe Nicodemus' thoughts went like this: "I heard he turned water into wine (Jn. 2:1). They're saying he is the Messiah, the Son sent from God. I wonder if they're right, because how can he make wine out of water if he is not sent from God? But if he is sent from God, why has he not studied with our rabbis? If he is sent from God, why is he critical of our practices? What does that say about us?"
A few years ago, I was invited to Anthony, Kansas to preach a series of sermons. I drove there from my home in Allen, Texas, a town about thirty miles north of Dallas. I left Allen at 3:15 in the afternoon and got to Anthony at 9:30 at night. I started out when it was light on wide, straight roads. I ended up in the dark on narrow, bendy roads. My car's bright beams weren't bright enough for these roads. If it hadn't been for the yellow signs with black arrows on them where the road curved, I'd have driven off the road into a field of darkness at least once or twice.
I discovered something on that drive: It's easier to find your way in the light. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night along his fevered mind's winding roads. In John's Gospel, night is a symbol for the life that results when one rejects Jesus, refuses to receive him and believe in him. John's gospel conveys to us that believing in Jesus means more than just reciting an affirmation of faith.
Here is Nicodemus late at night, knock knock knockin' on Jesus' door.
Jesus opens his door and is backlit by the oil lamps in his room. Nicodemus comes into the light out of the darkness, temporarily. As I imagine the scene, Jesus looks at him expectantly. Nicodemus falls into the trap we often do when we meet someone famous: we start babbling about how great we think they are. "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent from God. For no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."
Jesus, not an easy mark for flattery, cuts right to the chase. "I know why you are here. You want to get into the kingdom of God, don't you? Well, here is the deal: No one can see (participate in, experience) the kingdom of God without being born from above." (Anothen in the Greek can be rendered "born from above" or "born again.") Many of us are more used to the translation "born again." That was how Nicodemus heard it and he interpreted it in a literal sense. "Born again? How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" (3:4)
He is not the only one who prefers to understand "born again" (anothen) in a literal way. A lot of people today prefer it too.
I was in the waiting area at our local Discount Tire store last week waiting for my new tires to be put on my car. I picked up a women's magazine and was intently reading an article called, "How to supercharge your metabolism." I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. I like my personal space while I'm waiting for my tires. Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: "How to be born again" and I heard a man's voice ask, "Wouldn't you like to read something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?"
I looked up into the face of an earnest man in his mid 40s who now sat next to me, looking at me expectantly. When I didn't reply immediately, he asked, "Well, have you?" I said, "I'm glad you asked that question. I've been reflecting on Jesus' words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don't think Jesus means 'born again' as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it's over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that's done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it's a lifelong process." At that the man shook his head as if to say "Geez, lady, it's a yes or no question. How hard is that?" He took his tract back and moved on.
Nicodemus, do you want to be born "from above"? It's not such a simple question for him. That's why his whole life his answer seems to have been "Yes, well no. No, well yes. Yes and no."
Being born from above—what is that? I was at a meeting recently in which a group of Methodist church leaders were talking about our Wesleyan heritage and how we can translate it for the next generation. We were trying to come up with a definition of the reality of divine Grace. Said one person, "I know Grace is amazing, but beyond that, how would we explain it to someone who had no church background?" Richard Heitzenrater, a Wesley scholar from Duke Divinity School, spoke up. He said, "For Wesley, Grace is what God is doing at the depths of your life by the power of the Holy Spirit." We all looked at each other like "Well, why didn't we say that?" Being born from above is letting the Holy Spirit do what God wants done at the depths of our life.
According to the Gospel of John, that is a gradual journey from night to day, from darkness to light. It is a daily pilgrimage from belief as reciting a creed to belief as opening the door to our soul and letting Jesus in. It's a daily process of flipping the card on our door that says to God "Please do not disturb" to "please come in and help us clean our room."
What does God want to do through the power of the Holy Spirit at the depth of our lives according to John's gospel? Forgive our sins for one thing. Give us and our community the courage to live with joy and purpose for someone other than ourselves for another. Give us peace and the assurance of eternal life for yet another.
Nicodemus, do you want to be born from above? Come on, man, yes or no? What are you afraid of?
He is afraid that being born from above will mean losing control, and he liked control; he liked knowing who was righteous and who was a sinner, what to eat and what not to eat, with whom to associate and whom to label "unclean."
To him, Jesus' comparison of being born from above with the action of the wind was probably a frightening one because the wind is unpredictable, wafting away items to which we have become attached and blowing in others we would not have chosen.
If we start letting the wind of the Spirit blow through our souls, our church, our families, who knows what might be blown out and what might blow in? Resentments and prejudices we have cherished for decades might blow out the window. One of us may sit in church next week and sense some of our usual sorrow, wafting out the back of the sanctuary, in its place a fragrant breeze bearing hope. Next week when we come to church, some people we don't recognize may be sitting on the back pew or standing behind the pillar looking in, waiting for an invitation to come into the arena of light and warmth. And we may feel our feet moving in their direction.
Anything can happen when it comes to wind. The fog might lift from a whole church that thinks their best days are behind them. A whole church could feel the brisk, energizing breeze of hope, and purpose stronger than their pain. If we say yes to the question, "Do you want to be born again or born from above?" the belief in Christ we now recite with our lips could become the blood running through our veins.
In graduate school, I struggled with a particular course I had to take. It took me a while to get with it, but gradually I caught on, and my grades improved. At the end the instructor told me I had made great progress. "You have to start somewhere," he said. "It is not where you start out but where you end up." This late night encounter could be the start of a life of deep faith and devotion to Jesus for Nicodemus.
Or not. We don't really know what happened to Nicodemus after this initial encounter. I suspect he endured a lot of sleepless nights. Perhaps he kept a scrapbook of Jesus' appearances and achievements, following them from a distance.
After chapter 3, Nicodemus makes two more appearances in John's gospel. One is in John 7:50 where he makes a halfhearted defense of Jesus to other Pharisees. A second is in 19:38 where he brings 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to help Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus' body and wrap it in spices and linen cloths.
As Nicodemus packs Jesus' body with spices, I imagine the air around him is thick with regret. Like the ending of most operas where the lovers, separated for so long, reunite, but there is no time left because one of them is dying. Like a Greek tragedy when the tragic hero realizes, too late, that he should have made a different choice.
Many of us have had the experience at the coffin of a family member or beloved friend of almost overwhelming emotion. If the relationship was loving, we say to ourselves, "If only we had had more time." If the relationship was distant and strained, we say to ourselves, "If only we had had more time."
Unlike Nicodemus in chapter 19, we do have more time with Jesus. With Nicodemuss as a cautionary tale, we now need to decide what we're going to do with it.
About the Author:
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.
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