March 8, 2020

A Conversational Sermon-Being Born from Above

John 3:1-17

 

Today’s gospel lesson is the surprising tale about Jesus meeting with a leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus, under the cover of night. Why did he come, and just who was he? He was a man of great standing in Jerusalem. He is described in today’s passage as a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, he was one of 6,000 men chosen to live holy lives in obedience to the laws of God as found in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. The name, Pharisee means “Separated ones” in Hebrew. When a Pharisee began his calling, he pledged before at least 3 witnesses to follow every part of God’s law, for they believed that the law was the most sacred and perfect thing in the world, a way of following and honoring God.

 

Now at first, Pharisees followed the laws of God as they interpreted them to be. In time, however, these laws became refined and were broadly expanded upon. For example, take the law to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, and not to work on such a day –not you or you with any of your livestock or servants. (Exodus 20:8)-Initially, this statement was enough. However, by the 4th Century A.D. according to theologian Jim Wallis, “But not content with that, the later Jews spent hour after hour and generation after generation-defining what "work" is, listing the things that may or may not be done on the Sabbath day. I discovered that in the Mishnah, the first section of the Talmud, the section on the Sabbath extends for no fewer than 24 chapters.” This was an attempt to cover every conceivable situation in life with God’s law, and it must have been incredibly taxing to follow. Pharisees like Nicodemus in the first century had no fewer than 632 laws to remember and follow.

 

Not only was he a Pharisee. This passage also tells us that Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, a ten-member council who had jurisdiction over every Jewish person in Israel. The powers of the Sanhedrin were extensive. Now that we know his background, it is somewhat astonishing that he would want to speak with Jesus, a homeless itinerant prophet from the small town of Nazareth, who challenged the Pharisees and their power.

 

Questions

  1. When we call someone a Pharisee today, what do we mean?
  2. Do you think the Pharisees' intent to cover every conceivable way to honor God’s law in life was noble or misguided? Why?
  3. Why would a man like Nicodemus come to see Jesus? Perhaps he felt as if something was lacking in his spiritual life. Despite following all the laws God and interpreters of God’s word had given him to follow, he was interested in this Rabbi and wanted to know him better.

So Nicodemus came to Jesus and said: “We know that you are of God.” He then mentioned that they knew of the signs he had done-In John’s gospel there are but 2 signs Jesus did before this encounter: He changed water into wine at a wedding in Cana, and drove out money changers from the temple with a whip of chords. Based upon those and possibly some unnamed miracles, Nicodemus saw Jesus is more than just a wise Rabbi. Jesus said to him, he can’t quite truly see without being “born from above.”-or in Nicodemus’ understanding, born again.

 

Questions

  1. Have you ever had discussions with Christians who say you must be born again to be a true Christian? Have you asked them what they mean? From the Billy Graham web site-To be born again means [God] will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you” (Ezekiel 36:26). “Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4); we have “passed from death into life” (John 5:24). The new birth brings about a change in our philosophy and manner of living.
  2. Is that the same kind of Christianity or different from what you believe? Is this just semantics?

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be "born of water and the Spirit" in order to enter the kingdom of God, in order to see clearly.

 

Question

  1. What do you think Jesus means?
  • Water is the symbol of cleansing and of baptism. Water was used ritually to cleanse hands, used in Mikvah baths, and baptisms were sometimes done in Jewish rituals.
  • The Spirit, the other symbol used by Jesus is always the symbol of power. One way the Spirit enters our lives happens as we are baptized. This enables us to enable us to do and be what we ourselves, by ourselves, could never be. The Spirit of God in us gives us a fresh perspective, helps us to see ourselves, others and the world in which we live in a new way. So being born of water and the Spirit includes both cleansing and strengthening.
  1. Do you think the Spirit of God only enters us through Baptism? John 3:8 says, “The Spirit blows where it wishes.” How else does the Spirit enter us-work in our lives? (What is your own experience of the Spirit?)

 

Then Jesus says, “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of spirit is spirit.”

 

Question

  1. What do you think this means? (By ourselves we are just flesh, and we see from a limited perspective. If, however, we are born of Spirit-That is if the spirit of God is within us, then we can see this world and all of its struggles from a faith perspective.)

Next, Jesus admonishes Nicodemus for not being able to see some of the signs of faith in front of him-the winds of the spirit and being born from above. After wondering aloud how he could believe in heavenly things if he doesn’t understand the present earthly realities before him, Jesus begins to speak of his mission.

 

In verse 14, Jesus speaks of Moses. This refers to when God sent poisonous snakes to judge rebellious Israel in Numbers 21:4-9. God condemned the people for their lack of faith, yet provided an instrument of salvation for them when Moses interceded for his people. God provided a way of salvation in the form of a raised bronze serpent. Anyone who looked upon the snake and had been bitten would live. Just as this passage in Numbers was a message of God’s salvation, so it is in John; we see a new instrument of salvation. The bronze serpent is replaced with the Son of Man, Jesus. Then Jesus utters the main reason for his ministry, 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."

 

Question

  1. How have you heard this passage, or seen it proclaimed?
  2. What do you think the main message is from it?

Clement of Alexandria. 2nd-century bishop wrote, “For the sake of each of us, he laid down his life-worth no less than the universe. He demands of us in return, our lives for the sake of each other.”

 

In closing, let’s focus upon Birth, Rebirth-Being Born from Above.

Now, my wife, Paula is a nurse who works in labor and delivery at Asante hospital in Ashland. She can attest to the fact, as can any of the women who have given birth in this sanctuary that birth is NOT easy. Labor can go on for hours, even days. Births are often complicated, difficult struggles, as infants lay hold of new life. I believe that the birth Jesus speaks of in John’s gospel-our second birth-being born from above, being reborn by water and Spirit is also a continuous struggle. Sometimes we can see things from a faith perspective, and sometimes, when we forget our baptisms of water and spirit we are drawn down and see things from a flesh perspective.

 

Questions

  1. Why do we struggle sometimes in our faith?
  2. What helps you most when you are having difficulty in your faith?

 

What about for Nicodemus? Is he ever born from above? He is mentioned again in 2 sections of John 7:50-51;

  • He spoke out in defense of Jesus at the temple before the chief priests and Pharisees. Then after Jesus’ death, in 19:39-he is mentioned along with Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial-The passage says he brought an excessive amount of spices, almost 100 pounds to anoint Jesus’ body. These two passages suggest that Nicodemus did indeed find birth from above-faith in Christ.
  • He spoke out for Jesus against a hostile crowd and buried his master. It must’ve been a struggle for him to see things from above, a man of great standing within Jewish society, who turned away from all of that to follow the Messiah.
  • He likely struggled with rejection from his friends and family. But then, rebirth is not easy.

So, we give thanks for Nicodemus, and for his faith in Christ. He is venerated as St. Nicodemus in Eastern Christian and Roman Catholic churches and was reborn by water and spirit, and in time became a follower of Christ. May God be with us, as we, like him, continually struggle to be born anew, to be born from above, so that we can share God’s justice, love, and mercy and follow Christ in our lives. Amen.

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