March 20, 2011 – 2 Lent A
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
I used to see it everywhere—on bumper stickers, across the front of t-shirts, and, of course, on homemade signs displayed at sporting events. It’s printed on the bottom rim of every paper cup sold at In-and-Out Burger on the west coast. It’s on the tag in every article of clothing produced by several different niche designers. At times, Tim Tebow would print it on his eye black before taking the field, and a minor controversy arose when Fox refused to broadcast a Super Bowl commercial that portrayed two fans who, after seeing it written on an athlete’s eye black, took the time to look it up on their smart phones. At one point, it seemed to me like “John 3:16” was written everywhere and on anything that would hold still. And maybe it still is. Maybe I’ve just become so used to it that I don’t notice it as much anymore.
For many Christians, no other sentence encapsulates their faith more effectively than 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.” Those twenty-seven words are so familiar that even a short-hand reference scrawled on a piece of poster board held aloft in the stands of a huge sports arena can convey volumes about our faith. Clearly, a lot of Christians think that John 3:16 is an important verse in the bible, and, if given the chance to share one sentence with a non-believer, this would be it. But I’m not convinced that this foundational verse is intended for audiences out there. Instead, after reading the rest of this morning’s gospel lesson, I think it might be more important for us to hold up a sign like that in here.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:1-3)
Something was nagging Nicodemus. So he came to Jesus at night and began a conversation with him by saying, “Look, we know you’re from God, but we don’t understand what you’re talking about.” So Jesus tried to explain what he stood for by speaking of the need to be born again. “If you want to see God’s kingdom,” he said, “you must be born anew.” The rest of this gospel lesson is a dance between Nicodemus and Jesus, with the Pharisee asking over and over, “How can that be?” and Jesus saying again and again, “Don’t you understand what I’m telling you?”
As I read their back and forth, I wonder why it is that Nicodemus had such a hard time figuring out what Jesus was talking about. It’s not because he was stupid. He had risen to the highest ranks of the Jewish elite, becoming a member of the Sanhedrin, a judge respected by his peers. And it isn’t because he was unfamiliar with the faith that he and Jesus shared—quite the opposite. As a Pharisee, he stuck out in a crowd because he knew and practiced that faith with unsurpassed fervor. In fact, as the frustration built between these two, an exasperated Jesus asked Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Yet for all his intelligence and despite his intimate knowledge of the faith, something was missing in Nicodemus—something that kept him up a night and bothered him enough to bring him to Jesus.
Have you ever been so close to something that you couldn’t see it? Have you ever been so intimately a part of a situation that you were unable to gain any real perspective on it? That’s what happened to Nicodemus. His identity as a leader of the Jews and a teacher of Israel made him the definition of the inner circle of Judaism. He knew every rule, every commandment, every prescription. He was connected with anyone who was anyone and knew the faith inside and out. And yet he was so focused on the way things were—on his life as a faithful Jew—that he couldn’t see that Jesus had come to do something new and different. He didn’t understand what it meant to be born again.
You and I are a lot like Nicodemus. We come to church at St. John’s, which means we know enough about Christianity to come to a church that assumes we can find our way around a prayer book and a hymnal and find our way from a kneeler to a communion rail and back again without much direction. And most of us are from the American south, which means we can remember a time when stores were closed on Sunday and grew up thinking that religious diversity meant having a Baptist, a Methodist, and a Presbyterian in the same room. We are on the inside. We may not think of ourselves as being at the very center of Christianity, but each of us lives pretty close to it—close enough to know what John 3:16 says without having to look it up.
And, since we’re part of the inner circle, Jesus’ words for Nicodemus are intended for us as well. He wants us to make sure that we understand what it means to be born again. But do we? Do we know what it means to be born anew? Sort of, I suppose. We’ve heard the language, and, having grown up as Christians, I’m sure we’re familiar with the concept of being born again. But do we really understand what that means?
People on the outside—those completely unfamiliar with Christianity—instinctively get what it means to be born anew. Up to the point of their conversion, they’ve lived a life apart from the faith of Christ, so, when they hear the good news for the first time, it represents a radical change in their lives. For them, being born again is simply a necessary step in coming to the Christian faith. But we’ve been here—on the inside—for our entire lives. Most of never needed a radical new birth in order to belong to this family. We were born here the first time. Why would we need to be born again?
That’s exactly the question Nicodemus was asking. By virtue of his biological birth, he was already a part of God’s inner circle. How could another birth improve that? But John 3:16 and the faith it encapsulates envision a life that requires a spiritual rebirth regardless of how close to the center one might be. “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.” That eternal life is not and cannot be more of the same life that we already have—and that’s why this verse is directed at us here on the inside. In order for us to live in the kingdom of God forever, we must leave this life behind and be born anew.
But that’s so hard for us to see because it’s so easy for us think that we’re already there. Look at us. Look at where we are. In a place like this, you and I can’t help but think that we’re already as close to God as we will ever need to be. Yet, unless we are born again, we are as far away as we could ever get. Until we are born anew, until we start over from scratch and begin to live the new life that God has given us, we cannot enter God’s kingdom. Start that new life today. Let go of a life that is dedicated to this world and embrace a life that is dedicated to God. Your heavenly father sent his only son to give you new life—a new life that will last forever. Yet, in order to receive that life, you must be born again. Amen.