Meditation on John 3:1–17
March 8, 2020
The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, OH
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.
We have a special treat today, an opportunity to help our youth as they seek to serve the Lord and their congregation and be equipped for their own ministry. Some of your youth, along with adult volunteers, are preparing an Italian feast after worship to raise money to attend the Montreat Youth Conference in June. You may be wondering, well, what is the big deal about our youth traveling to the hills of North Carolina for a Presbyterian event? How can this make a difference in the lives of our youth?
Well, I will tell you. First of all, this is a rare chance for them to be around hundreds of other Presbyterians their own age. That doesn’t happen here in Coshocton. They need to see that the Kingdom of God is full of young people and doesn’t just look like their home congregation.
This year’s conference theme is, “We Are,” celebrating unity and diversity in the Body of Christ. More than five thousand teens from churches all over the country will travel to Montreat College over the course of 6 weeks this summer.
We gather for worship each day in a beautiful, open air, circular stone auditorium. Many of the youth help to lead worship through drama, scripture readings, liturgical dance, and music. Our youth will get to experience worship with energizers, accompanied by popular songs, and modern technology, with words to the songs, photos, graphics, scripture and video clips displayed on large screens. They will hear messages that are relevant, meaningful and enjoyable for youth and adults. The keynote speakers are great story tellers and Bible teachers, and they share from the heart. They never talk down to the students, some of whom are seekers and haven’t yet made a commitment to following the Savior in their own lives. They seek to challenge and inspire us to believe and live courageously, as a bold witness for Jesus Christ.
Each of the students is assigned to a small group that meets for several hours every day. Small groups nurture both faith and friendships. But the best thing about the Youth Conference, I think, has nothing to do with the program; it is simply a time and space for the wind of the transforming Spirit to blow—an opportunity for students and leaders to take a break from their routine and leave all the distractions of home behind. The teens and adults have time to hang out together without an agenda—to talk, eat, and play, and be still and listen for God.
My experience with the Montreat Youth Conference is that it’s a place where differences are celebrated, doubts and uncertainties are shared, and questions about faith and life are welcome.
If you need evidence that Jesus welcomes questions, look no further than our gospel reading in John today. Who is this Messiah that leaves his door open at night for any seeker to wander in? This is our accessible God—who became human for our sakes so that we would be able to talk with Him, face to face. This is the one who, in John 1:14 is the Word that became flesh and lived among us and allowed us “to see his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The law was given through Moses; but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. … It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews—and yet he wasn’t an enemy of God! How often do we read about Pharisees and roll our eyes, because they must all be legalistic and cold-hearted? But here is a Pharisee who wants to know the truth. He has seen and heard about Jesus and his signs. In chapter 2, our Lord turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana and this, the first of his signs, reveals his glory, and his disciples believe in him. And then he goes to Jerusalem for the Passover and cleanses the temple of the money changers and those selling animal sacrifices and getting rich off the poor. And many believe in Christ’s name, because they see the signs, says John 2:23.
Then Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night in John 3 and says, “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.” And Jesus teaches him about the Kingdom of God—how no one can see it without being “born from above.”
Nicodemus fires questions at him. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” He is talking about himself. He is the one who has grown old. And Jesus seems to be talking in riddles. “What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit. Do not be astonished,” he says, sensing that Nicodemus is really struggling. The older man knows he is missing something, despite all his years of study and practice of the faith of his ancestors. He knows there’s something more. “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it,” Jesus says, “but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus, with every seeker for generations to come, boldly asks, “How can these things be?”
Jesus’ answer isn’t meant to belittle his guest. He isn’t being sarcastic! It’s meant for us to hear that an important, learned teacher of Israel still cannot fathom the things of God, without the help of the Spirit. We can know everything about the Bible and go to church our entire lives, yet still not know Jesus as our Lord and Savior!
The first step is knowing our need for Him and admitting that we can’t find our way back to God through our own reason or intellect. Like Moses, who lifted up the serpent on the pole in the wilderness to save God’s people, the Son of Man would also be lifted up, crucified, so that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” And it isn’t enough to believe in the Son, without taking any action. Reading beyond our lectionary passage, we find out that one must do what is true and come to the light, so that “it may be clearly seen that (our) deeds have been done in God.”
We don’t know exactly what happened to Nicodemus after his visit with Jesus. But we do know that Christ’s words penetrated his heart. He became born of the Spirit. He continued to be a respected teacher of the law and at the same time, his good deeds done in God were clearly revealed. In John 7:51, he defends Jesus. “Our law does not judge people,” he asks, “without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”
We will meet Nicodemus one more time in this gospel—at the cross. In John 19:39, he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to remove Christ’s body and bury him in a new tomb. Nicodemus must have been a wealthy man, because he brings with him a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing an extraordinary 100 pounds to anoint Christ’s body!
He is no longer a secret follower. The Spirit, like a wind, has blown and stirred his faith and courage to grow.
Friends, we have an opportunity today to be bold in our witness to Christ—and help our young people. If you cannot stay for their meal, you could still offer a financial gift and encourage them as they seek to be obedient to Christ’s call. And there’s one more thing we must do for our youth.
Pray! Pray that the Spirit will blow like a fierce wind on all of us—and that we will all be reborn from above. Pray that the God who loves us and has a plan for us will use this trip to bring us closer together and nearer to Him. Pray that we may be more courageous, like Nicodemus, in our witness to the One sent by the Father to save the world through Him. May we all be empowered to act on our beliefs, to do what is true and come to the light, and clearly reveal our deeds done in God.
And friends, I pray that we will become known in our community not as the frozen chosen or the wealthy church, but as the congregation with a heart for ministry to children and youth. Where differences are celebrated, doubts and uncertainties shared, and questions about faith and life are welcome.
Let us pray.
Holy One, we thank you for loving the world so much that you sent your only Son so that those who believe on him wouldn’t perish, but would have eternal life with you. Lord, teach us not to rely on our own intellect and reason, but to seek your Spirit, and be reborn from above. May the wind that cleanses us from unrighteousness stir us to be a courageous witness to the saving work of your Son. And Lord, we ask that you bless our ministry to children and youth and help us to help them be equipped to minister to the world that you love, for the sake of your Son, through whom we pray. Amen.