John 3:1-17 “Honest Questions”
June 3, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell
St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Greenwood Village, CO
John 3:1-17 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.”
I went to a Memorial Day barbeque last Monday. You may know the kind. We are long time friends of the people who gave the party but don’t really know the other guests as well, maybe only met some of them once or twice before in the last decade. I found myself standing next to a new acquaintance, chit-chatting with him about the town I grew up in because he had lived there briefly after college. I was enjoying the connection of someone simply knowing background without needing to share it all.
From a few feet away came a voice, “I like your leg.” The man looked over to the boy, around 9 years old, and said, “Thanks.” The boy said, “It’s the color of skin.” I looked down and for the first time noticed his prosthetic leg and looked up to the man looking at me, and he smiled and winked at me. Then the boy said, “How’d you lose your leg?” “Hunting accident.” The man looks at me and smiles and winks again. The boy continues, “What kind of accident?” “I was shot.” “Oh, and they had to cut off your leg?” “Yes.” And then, as suddenly as the conversation began, the boy was done with it.
At home, this scene played in bits and pieces in my head as I sat down to read my book of the moment. So much so that I finally had to put my book down, pull out my laptop and sit down and write it out because I couldn’t stop the chatter in head between this boy’s straight questions in the daylight of high noon and Nicodemus’ questions of Jesus in the dark of night. Boy…honest questions… and Nicodemus…honest questions…
When I picture Nicodemus, I see him in firstly in the dark of night, well, mostly because that’s what the story says. And then I see him doing that tip-toeing and sneaking around that we get to see in episodes of Scooby Doo. You know the kind – dink…dink…dink… with lots of looking this way and that way to make sure no one is onto him. He has some questions and he thinks that maybe Jesus has the answers. But he is also an educated man and a religious leader in a group that doesn’t really know what to make of Jesus except they know enough that they’re uncomfortable about him. It is out of this discomfort that Nicodemus tip-toes over to Jesus and asks questions. Nicodemus has big questions and Jesus has big answers about being born from above by water and the Spirit and being sent from God into the world not to condemn it but to save it. All very clear and easily explained answers to Nicodemus’ questions – or maybe not.
I was 17 when I left the fundamentalist church in which I was raised. God was scary, big and unpredictable, and Jesus was someone who made me very, very uncomfortable. So, I left the church and ran away from Jesus. In the years followed, I met two women – Moni when I was about 20 and Lisa when I was about 26. These women were church-goers, Christians. I was mystified by their faith and connection to the church. But I began to suspect, perhaps a little like Nicodemus, that there might be something to this Jesus thing. I asked each of them at some point in our friendships why they went to church and what was up with that Jesus anyway. Both of them replied, “It just works for me.” No big speech, no stumbling around and handing over John 3:16 to me, only their simple evangelical message, “It just works for me.”
As providence would have it, I also married a Lutheran. I always say you have to watch out for those Lutherans with all the unconditional grace zinging around. 15 years ago we had the first of our two children. My husband seemed unscarred from his Lutheran upbringing so our children were baptized and we began to raise them in the church. And slowly, oh so slowly, the message of grace, the good news about God not condemning the world but saving it through Jesus, captured me. What we don’t see on those John 3:16 signs at football games is the juicy news in John 3:17 – “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.”
We also don’t get to see to see to the end of the Gospel of John in our passage today so I’m going to jump ahead and give you a glimpse into the last tidbit we are offered about Nicodemus in John 19:39. Jesus had just been executed on the cross and it was time to bury him. Verse 39 reads, “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”
What happened to Nicodemus? In chapter 3 today we read that he’s tiptoeing around at night and in chapter 19 we read that he turns up in the light of day, thudding along with 100 pounds of spices, risking his own life to bury Jesus’ body. We get one other brief verse about him in chapter 7. While we could have a ton of fun wondering and guessing about what happened to Nicodemus, one thing we do know about the in-between time is that Jesus was hung on a cross and died.
Nicodemus was not privy to the resurrection at the time of burial. The hinge point for him, indeed for the Gospel of John, is the cross. All the God, Son and Spirit talk in the Gospel of John points us there and draws us, like Nicodemus, to faith through it.
But for us, as 21st century evangelists, as bearers of the good news of Jesus, the cross is a tricky place to start. There is the reality of Jesus’ execution on a cross recorded by the Romans as a historical event. And there is the swirling mystery of the Trinity – of Father, Son and Spirit – active on and through that same cross and drawing us to faith through it. But how many of us, and I include myself in this, are prepared to give a neat and tidy speech about why the cross stuff is a good thing to someone who has never heard a good word about Jesus and perhaps is tip-toeing towards Jesus with some questions of their own about him and his church?
This week, as the season of Pentecost, the season of the Spirit working through the church begins to heat up, I invite you to think about the words you would use as people of the good news of Jesus Christ. What might you say? Where might you begin? My two friends, my two evangelists, started something with a very simple piece of good news. “It just works me,” they said. And this gave me something to think about all by itself. They kept it simple much like the man at the party kept it simple about how he lost his leg. Obviously, in both scenarios, there is much more that could have been said. Once back in church, while I was nervously tip-toeing about the edges as others seemed to get it, there was one verse that spoke to me – one verse in the whole Bible that made any kinds of sense. 20 years ago, one friend; 17 years ago, one husband; 16 years ago another friend; 15 years ago, one verse! That’s a lot of tip-toeing.
Nicodemus went from tip-toeing toward Jesus in the night to lugging 100 pounds of spices for Jesus’ burial in the daylight. There is a lot that happens during the in-between time that is difficult to fully explain. Being born from above is just the kind of thing that is difficult to fully explain. As talked about by Jesus to Nicodemus, the Spirit is involved along with water which for church has meant baptism.
One thing I’m clear about is that all the action belongs to the Spirit who, through the cross of Christ, through the waters of baptism, draws us to faith daily. And, in drawing us to faith, the Spirit draws a confession of good news out of us. This is not to be confused with confession of having done something hurtful to ourselves or our neighbor – although the Spirit does that too. The kind of confession I’m talking about is the kind that the Spirit draws out of us the about who God is and the good news that comes with God. The Apostle’s Creed is one such confession as we join our voices with our ancestors of the faith and speak it together. My friends offered me a very different but also powerful confession. I’m certain that their longer confession would blow me out of the water as they bore witness to Christ by the power of the Spirit. And it is these confessions, and others like them, confessions born from above that are the good news shared through us to people like Nicodemus.
May the Spirit of God ignite your confession of this good news that is for the world as it is also for you.
For, “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.”