By The Rev. Sherry Crompton
March 20, 2011
Read: John 3:1-17
“No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus has seen something in Jesus that has intrigued him, but from the conversation that follows, we will see that Nicodemus has witnessed just enough to make him curious, perhaps, but not enough for him to understand… at least not fully.
That happens sometimes. John Claypool told a story a number of years ago. A family had been living in Richmond, Virginia while the father had been assigned to do work there. Their home was near Monument Avenue, one of the major thoroughfares in Richmond. It is where statues have been erected in honor of the Confederate generals of the Civil War, the most notable, of course, being the one of Robert E. Lee. Lee is shown sitting on his horse, holding the reins of his bowing steed. The only caption of the monument is found on the base, and it simply reads “Lee.”
This family had a young son who enjoyed playing at Lee’s statue. Word comes that the father is being transferred to another city. On the day they are moving, the little boy asks his father if he can play one more time at Lee. “Sure,” his dad says, “in fact I’ll go with you.” After awhile, the boy is told they need to leave. “Dad, I do have one question before we go.” “Yes, son, what is it?” “Who is that man sitting on Lee?”
The boy had noticed what he wanted to notice, and knew just enough about the statue to see it but not to know the significance of it. Is that Nicodemus? “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.”
And Jesus, who appears to be a bit disingenuous himself, does not answer Nicodemus directly. “Very truly, I tell you,” he says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Actually, the word has a double meaning. When Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” it could also mean born again. It’s like this… suppose someone has something in his hand and he holds out both hands telling you that before you can have it you must choose which hand it is in.
That’s what Jesus is doing with Nicodemus. He offers him a word that can mean at least one of two things. Anothen could mean either “from above” or “again.” Nicodemus chooses the latter meaning. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” “Daddy, who is that man sitting on Lee?” And when Jesus opens up his hand it is empty. Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. He can’t see the forest for the trees.
Jesus meant one thing, and Nicodemus heard the other. So, puzzled, he asks, “How can a person be born again?” Nicodemus understood biology, after all!
Jesus explains. He is clearly talking about a different kind of birth than human birth. He is talking about a new birth of the spirit, one that only God can accomplish. No earthly power can do what God can do. Only God can give us new life; only God can transform us into people of faith and children of God; only God can give us second birth! God’s Spirit, like the wind, blows when and where it wishes, and when the Spirit blows into our lives, we are transformed into beloved children.
Now Nicodemus is completely baffled. He just doesn’t get what Jesus is talking about, just doesn’t see. He is stuck at the earthly level, trying to understand God as he would try to understand everyday human life. But God won’t be understood in that way.
And finally Nicodemus, who seemed so confident when he first approached Jesus, is reducing to a stumbling, stammering fool. All he can do is mutter, “How can these things be?”
Nicodemus just doesn’t see.
And neither, sometimes, do we.
God is mysterious. God is like the wind, Jesus says, difficult to see, impossible to comprehend fully–mysterious. God is so different from us, in so many ways, that we, like Nicodemus, often feel as if we’re in the dark when God is at work–that is, if God is at work at all!
I like what Corrie ten Boom had to say about the Holy Spirit. Corrie was a Dutch Christian whose family sheltered Jews from Hitler’s forces during World War II. Corrie and her family ended up in one of Hitler’s death camps — but Corrie managed to survive. She later became famous as a Christian author and speaker, because she was so obviously filled with the Spirit of God. Listen to what Corrie ten Boom said to one of her audiences. She said:
I have a glove here in my hand. The glove cannot do anything by itself, but when my hand is in it, it can do many things. True, it is not the glove, but my hand in the glove that acts. We are gloves. It is the Holy Spirit in us who is the hand, who does the job. We have to make room for the hand so that every finger is filled.
It’s great imagery. It tells me something that I already knew — that by myself I am not likely to do much that will be truly important. Like that glove, I am only limp and lifeless as long as I am working by my own meager power. I might be a cloth gardening glove — or a buttery smooth leather dress glove — but it makes no difference. Without a hand in the glove, it can do nothing important.
But that imagery also tells us that WE CAN BE someone important — that WE CAN DO things that will reverberate throughout eternity — that our lives CAN BE important. All we have to do is to let God’s Spirit fill my life as a hand fills a glove. When we do that, our life becomes God-powered, and there is no limit to what God can do as he works through us!
When God’s Spirit is at work, great things happen. Faith, is not a once-and-done action of the believer but rather is an ongoing work of the Spirit who, as Jesus says, blows where it chooses (3:8). For some the coming of the Spirit and faith will be a dramatic event; for others it will move more slowly.
Notice that God does not ask the world if it wishes to be the recipient of God’s love. God just goes ahead and loves, and not only loves but gives the world God’s only beloved Son over to death. The one who dies for you clearly has a significant claim on you, and John makes that clear. God’s love — surprising, all encompassing, unasked for and undeserved — is also given unconditionally. God loves us, that is, whether we like it or not. In the face of that kind of love, we will likely either yield to God’s love or run away screaming, for no one can remain neutral to such extravagance.
Either way, God’s judgment is revealed: God loves this world, even the God-hating world that crucified the Lord of glory. At this place in our Lenten journey, we would do well to pray that by the gift of the untamed Spirit we might perceive in Jesus’ cross God’s redemptive act and in this way be drawn into fellowship with all who dare believe in Jesus and, indeed, the whole world that God loves so much! Amen.
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