Lent 2, March 8, 2020 John 3:1-17
Today's Gospel reading sys: "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." Martin Luther called John 3:16 "the Gospel in a nutshell."
John 3:16 is a well-known scripture in our culture--you see it on billboards, on bumper stickers, hats, pillows, to name a few. It is a verse that we all know, and it hardly needs a sermon to explain it.
John 3:16 is well-known and quoted all of the time, but how many of us could go on to quote John 3:17? Does everyone know anything about Nicodemus? How many of us could have identified Nicodemus as the one whom Jesus is speaking in John chapter 3?
Nicodemus was a leader among the Jews. In public, Nicodemus's loyalties were clearly devoted to the Jewish establishment. But in private, Nicodemus had his doubts. And so, he visits Jesus under the cover of night.
"Rabbi," Nicodemus says, "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."
To put it another way, Nicodemus saw that Jesus was a good teacher and a knowledgeable interpreter of Torah, but Jesus was also filled with God's life-giving Spirit, and Nicodemus wanted that kind of relationship with God, too.
Then, as Jesus so often does, he says something that utterly astounds everyone: "Very truly, I tell lyou, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
In other words, glimpsing the Kingdom of God isn't a matter of praying a certain way or believing a certain way or following a certain set of liturgical customs; it's about a complete rebirth of our entire existence!
On hearing this, Nicodemus asks an honest question that seems rather quaint and naïve to our 21st century ears: "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"
Nicodemus' question might seem strange to us, might it not also demonstrate something important about the way God tends to work?
Consider, for example, Abraham and Sarah. God promises them a son. The scripture says, "It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women" (Gen. 18:11b). In other words, she was too old to become pregnant. When she heard the absurd promise of a child, Sarah laughs! Even the name of the promised child--Isaac-- means "he laughs."
Just as astonishing is God's decision to convert the Apostle Paul. The Book of Acts recalls that Paul was "still breathing treats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1a) when God sent a dazzling bolt of light and called him to become an apostle.