“What’s Possible” Colchester Federated Church, March 8, 2020, (John 3:1-17) Second Sunday in Lent
Last week on the First Sunday in Lent, we were with Jesus in the wilderness as he was facing down the Tempter. The Tempter who preyed on Jesus’ desires to not be starving and be able to feed hungry people, his desire to show the might and glory of God and his own identity as God’s Son, and his desire to have everyone everywhere accept those Kingdom of God values Jesus would spend his ministry teaching and embodying. Jesus overcame the Tempter trying to manipulate his good desires. And the angels came and took care of him in the end, to give him strength for all that was to come.
This week Jesus has another important encounter. Although it’s not quite as dramatic as those moments with the devil in the wilderness. Now Jesus having deep and important conversations with various figures will become apparent as we continue on in this Lenten season. Last week it was an encounter with the tempter, next week it’s the Samaritan woman at the well, the week after that it’s a man born blind from birth, and so on. These are rather long Gospel stories where Jesus meets someone and spends a great deal of time focused on them and their human conditions and the questions they carry. Extraordinary things result from these one-on-one meetings that are part of the Lenten Lectionary this year, so keep this in mind as this holy season progresses.
This week Jesus’ one-on-one encounter is with the Pharisee Nicodemus. It’s true that Jesus is often depicted as arguing with the Pharisees and the Sadducees throughout the Gospels. Jesus was attempting to reform Judaism from within so arguments about how to do this best abounded during his lifetime. (Because religious people are always so open when people come along and mess with our traditions, right? Pastors are often fond of advising each other when we are off to serve in a new congregation to never change the bulletin on the first Sunday. Because, yikes!) Though it’s also true with the religious landscape of Jesus’ day that some of the Pharisees and Sadducees were genuinely interested in Jesus’ new teachings, healings, and other miracles he performed. It wasn’t all hostility all the time. Nicodemus would fall into that category.
Now Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night. Perhaps because he didn’t want to deal with any fall-out from some of his fellow religious leaders about associating with Jesus of Nazareth. But more likely John (who loved using light and dark metaphors throughout the Gospel to symbolize states of belief and unbelief) wanted to emphasize that Nicodemus is here because he is confused and struggling and wants to believe. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the murky shadows of unbelief. That’s why he says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” That right there was quite a statement from a religious leader among the Pharisees like Nicodemus. He’s clearly been observing Jesus and knows that there really is something special about him and the signs that he is performing, he wants to learn more. And Nicodemus can see this as a Pharisee, part of a different religious group within Judaism than Jesus himself.
We must bear in mind that when John’s Gospel was written, the community to whom he was writing were in the midst of a difficult time. Professor Karoline Lewis (who teaches Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary) reminds us that the Gospel of John was written during an intra-Jewish debate. We can think of this as the Gospel being written at the height of a family fight. And are we all at our best in the midst of family fights?
There were Jews who came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, and they were in conflict with those who didn’t. The best evidence is in the Gospel according to John when a Greek word (aposynagogos) is used three different times that means being put out of the synagogue (John 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2.) Lewis explains, “John is writing for a community that had been ostracized for belief in Jesus and now needed to hear what Jesus means in no uncertain terms. The absolution of this Gospel, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me’ is an example of this kind of sectarian language, representative of a community that sees itself as most certainly outsiders, but then in a position of having to justify to themselves and to others their choice to follow and believe in Jesus.”
Thus, Professor Karoline Lewis encourages Christian preachers to alter the text in places and when John writes “the Jews” say instead the “Jewish leaders.” That’s what some modern translations of the Bible will use anyway, the Common English Bible being one of those translations. Because that’s who we’re really talking about here since all of Jesus’ followers were Jews as was Jesus himself, of course! Now this may all seem too specific or getting into the nitty gritty, who cares? But considering acts of anti-Semitism, the language we use in Christian churches matters because there has been this idea perpetuated by some Christians that “the Jews” killed Christ. Horrible acts of hatred against Jews were often committed by Christians in Europe after seeing passion plays right around Good Friday. So Lent is the best time to remind ourselves that Jesus died a Roman death on a Roman cross. And there were even some Jewish leaders (like Nicodemus who we encounter in our Gospel story today)—who came to Jesus to affirm that Jesus had to have come from God because how else could he perform miracles? Nicodemus truly came to learn from Jesus. Being nuanced in our understandings is important if we seek to follow our Christian faith wholeheartedly while also respecting the faiths of others.
What Jesus has to say to his fellow Jewish religious leader, Nicodemus, is that it’s possible to see the Kingdom of God. It’s possible to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It’s possible to have new life now. The Kingdom of God Jesus was talking about wasn’t focused so much on life after death, but on creating heaven on earth here and now. Because for John, Jesus is the way into eternal life in the present. So no, we don’t have to enter our mothers’ wombs for a second time in order to experience being born anew, in order for our lives to be transformed.
Even though some Christians focus on John 3:16 and emphasize Jesus’ promise of eternal life after death, the passage today ends with Jesus’ remarkable words “God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” So if Jesus the Christ didn’t come into this world to judge the world, it would seem that it’s not the job of his followers to judge the world either. What Jesus is offering to Nicodemus and to us is the transformation that can come when we follow Jesus. But maybe let’s leave the judging up to God since that’s not even Jesus’ job to do.
This all makes me think of those videos easily found on YouTube when people who are colorblind are given glasses that help them see in color, sometimes for the first time in their lives. They put the glasses on and look around and can finally differentiate colors. Family members will often have balloons or other brightly colored objects that can be visually experienced. Often these folks (no matter what age) burst into tears because it must be overwhelming to all of a sudden see the beauty of the world with new eyes. To see what people mean when they’ve talked about certain colors that one may have only imagined in one’s mind.
Or remember how revolutionary The Wizard of Oz was back in the day for that moment in the movie when Dorothy lands in Oz, opens the door, and the picture bursts into marvelous technicolor? Her humble house is spinning in the tornado and it’s that swirling murky brown sky that the audience sees (and that’s been the only color up until that point of the film.) Landing with a thud, Dorothy is holding Toto and looking around at her still intact home. She gets up from the bed, picks up her basket from the ground, and opens the door to see where they landed. The music swells with “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in the background and Dorothy steps out onto the yellow brick road and the beautiful, colorful land of Oz is waiting for her to explore.
Remember that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. That detail is important. By the time Nicodemus leaves this one-on-one encounter with Jesus, Jesus has just spoken to him about being born of water and the Spirit. He’s talked to him about being born anew. That God’s Spirit blows where it wishes and we can hear its sound, but we don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. It’s the same with everyone who’s born of the Spirit and willing to put their trust in God, even not knowing exactly where the path ahead will lead. As Nicodemus listens to Jesus explain these concepts, he can’t help but ask, “How are these things possible?”
Jesus tells Nicodemus—a Pharisee and a Jewish leader—that God loves the world so much that God gives his only Son. And God didn’t send his only Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved. Yes, so that we might be saved for new life here and now. Nicodemus must have had that moment of the world all of a sudden coming into brilliant technicolor, of seeing with new eyes, of understanding the depth of the love God has for us. Because it ends up that God can sometimes make the impossible possible. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Photo by Rev. Lauren Lorincz.