Do you remember a high school teacher or a college professor who was kind of a jerk but in a good way? I don’t mean someone who just likes to be mean or degrading. I mean someone who has really high expectations and seems to care more about the message being taught than you as a student? I had one or two of those. One of my mentors in the Chemistry Department at Birmingham-Southern, the late Dr. John Strohl, was one of them. One day I was in his office, and I asked him about his cacti, and he looked at me with deep disappointment. “That’s not a cactus. It’s a succulent. You’re not going to be a very good scientist, are you?” On the other side of student-teacher relationships like that one, I came away appreciate both class and teacher. At the time, though, it was really difficult to have someone push at me like that.
In Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 3:1-17), I think Jesus is acting like a secretively sympathetic jerk. Nicodemus comes to him at night. He’s desperate for an answer. He can’t sleep. He’s torn up inside trying to make sense of who this Jesus is. His peers, the leaders of Israel, have come out against Jesus, but Nicodemus can tell from the works Jesus is performing that there must be something there. So he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness and says, “Rabbi, teacher, tell me what’s going on here.” And Jesus lets him have it.
Jesus: You can’t see the kingdom of God unless you’re born again.
The reason you can’t make sense of this is because you’re stuck in your old life.
Nicodemus: How can someone be born a second time?
I still don’t understand what you’re talking about.
Jesus: You must be born of God’s spirit. Otherwise, it’s like chasing the wind.
I’m not going to make this any easier for you. You’ve got to figure it out on your own.
Nicodemus: How can these things be?
Help me out, please. Throw me a bone, Jesus. I’m still not getting it.
Jesus: Are you a teacher of Israel and still you don’t get it?
What are you an idiot?
Jesus breaks Nicodemus down the way a wise college professor breaks down an eager but self-absorbed nineteen-year-old. He pushes him, refusing to dumb down the message, until Nicodemus is a swirling, whirling, reeling mess of confusion. All of Nicodemus’ preconceived notions of what it means to be a person of faith have been blown out of the water. Jesus has completely disoriented his theological bearing and taken away his compass. Nicodemus now has even more questions than he started with.
And then Jesus builds him back up.
Jesus: Let’s start over. It begins with the Son of Man. That’s the only one who really knows the answer to heavenly questions because he’s the only one who has been to heaven.
Do I have your attention now? Listen carefully. This is important.
God so loved the world that he sent his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have [everlasting] life.
We take that famous verse—John 3:16—for granted. But that’s because our theological orientation has always understood that verse as its bearing. But Nicodemus and his contemporaries didn’t grasp it. They couldn’t. It was too new, too different. It’s like asking a college freshman to understand everything she’ll learn in four years after the first day. We have to give up our biases so that a new foundation can be built.