Meditation on John 3:1–17
Pastor Karen Crawford
First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY
Second Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2023
An audio file of Pastor Karen sharing her message:
On Thursday night, a group of women gathered at the church to pack about 86 cloth bags of school supplies for Church World Service to distribute to children in need. You provided the school supplies and/or the money to purchase them so that we could show the compassion and generosity of Jesus Christ to children around the world.
For this, I am truly thankful! You are living out your faith through shared mission in Christ’s name!
Some of the women stayed to enjoy pizza and a movie called The Cokeville Miracle. The 2015 film is based on a true story—the Cokeville Elementary School hostage crisis of 1986.
The story takes place in a small, close-knit town in Wyoming, with a population of 500 something. It’s a kind of place where everybody knows everybody and their families. While I don’t want to spoil the movie for you by telling too many details, I will talk about the problem of the main character—a young police officer, Ron, who has a wife and two young kids. This is a Christian family with a habit of family prayer every evening, but Ron has a crisis of faith. He has seen something on his job that has led him to doubt and question a God who allows bad things to happen. Where is God? He wonders. Is there a God? He is no longer able to pray.
The next day, he decides to take a long drive to get his head together. While he is away, a madman, with a homemade bomb and guns, and his wife terrorize the elementary school where Ron’s children are students. The man threatens to kill a child every hour if a large ransom isn’t paid. He threatens to detonate the bomb if anyone tries to outsmart or overpower him.
With no police officers available and Ron hours away, there’s nothing anyone can do—but pray. And the whole town prays. Even the students in the classroom are asking God for help.
The bomb goes off. In the firy blaze, the children and the teachers escape from the burning classroom, helping each other to safety through windows and doors. One elderly woman, a teacher, goes back into the classroom, over and over, until all of the children have made it out alive.
A few days later, Ron is interviewing the people involved, trying to determine what happened. He hears a pattern to the stories—beginning with how it was a miracle that the homemade bomb didn’t kill everyone because it had the power to do so. But the greatest miracle was that after the children prayed, they saw angels all around, protecting them from the blast, directing the blast up and away from them. And the angels the children saw were people they recognized as relatives, some whom they had only known through photos because they had died long ago. Each story the children told was unique. One girl said the angel took her by the hand and led her out of the burning school—and then disappeared.
The children’s visions of angelic rescuers and protectors didn’t change Ron’s heart. He is still angry with God, unable to sleep, unable to pray. He has more questions. He wants proof that there is a God who loves the world. A God who isn’t far away, removed, uncaring, for the problems and struggles of human beings.
Nicodemus has doubts and questions, too. What has stirred Nicodemus to visit Jesus at night? The esteemed teacher in the faith community has seen the signs and wonders Jesus has done—and he believes the power comes from God. He has hope that Jesus can answer his questions. He wants to believe!
Jesus doesn’t let Nicodemus off the hook with easy answers. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus responds with astonishment, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
This passage may be interpreted as our own faithful response to believing in Jesus, our Lord and Savior. We must be reborn of Water (baptism) and the Spirit. It isn’t enough just to say we believe in Jesus. We have to live changed lives, as new people, claimed by and belonging to Christ.
But we also don’t have any control of the Spirit. So it’s not just up to us! Jesus says, “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.”
So, is it our choice to believe in Jesus and follow—or not? What role do WE play in our rebirth and our salvation? Paul hints that it is a divine and human process—our being changed—that continues throughout our lives. He says in Philippians 2: 2, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
James in chapter 2:14-17 says that faith alone isn’t enough. “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
If our example is Nicodemus, then we would play an active role in our life of faith—seeking Christ, alone, when we feel the restlessness of the Spirit. If our example is Nicodemus, then we are to bring our questions and doubts eagerly to the Lord, expecting not only understanding of spiritual truths, but to know God more.
Jesus never tells Nicodemus that he is wrong or isn’t saved. But he acknowledges that there are both earthly and heavenly things he doesn’t know—and that he needs to know for his prestigious position in the faith community. Jesus asks, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
Jesus slips in a reference to the healing of the Israelites, bitten by snakes in the wilderness, when Moses lifts up the serpent on a pole. Jesus is the serpent on the pole in our wilderness, granting eternal life and healing to those who believe when he is lifted up and gives his life as a ransom for many.
This God is not a faraway God who doesn’t care about the problems and struggles of human beings! This is a God who loves sacrificially and inclusively. There’s not one human being that God doesn’t love—not even a madman with a bomb in an elementary school or a police officer with a crisis of faith. God did not send the Son to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Did Nicodemus come to believe in Jesus after his night of questions and astonishment? Did he come to be, eventually, born from above? Well, I can’t imagine that his encounter with Jesus would be known and retold over the centuries if Nicodemus himself didn’t come to believe and share his testimony.
He makes another appearance in this gospel, asking questions of his colleagues in chapter 7, beginning at verse 50, pleading with them. “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before and who was one of them,” (a Pharisee), trying to seek due process for Jesus, says,“Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”
Nicodemus will make a final appearance in John—after the Lord is crucified. Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, receives permission to remove Christ’s body from the cross. “Nicodemus,” we read in 14:39, “who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”
Now that I have shared the story of Nicodemus, are you wondering what happened with the police officer who had a crisis of faith? Was he ever able to pray, again? Did he come to believe in the Cokeville Miracle?
What matters to me is your story. Do you believe that the Son of Man came to be lifted up, like the serpent on the pole that Moses lifted up so the people who looked on in faith would be healed?
Do you believe in miracles or have you given up hope? Are your hearts and minds open and ready to be astonished and amazed by the work of the Spirit?
Do you believe in the power of prayer, and do you pray to a God who isn’t far off, but has come near in Jesus Christ, a God who loves the whole world and has no desire for any to perish in our sins?
What matters to me is, “Do you believe?”
Let us pray.
Holy One, we believe in you. We open our hearts and minds to you and trust that you are here with us now and in your love for the whole world. We are ready to be astonished and amazed, like Nicodemus, who wasn’t afraid to ask sincere questions. We understand that there are many things about you that we don’t and won’t understand, but that doesn’t keep us from trusting in your Son. Stir us to hope, to believe in miracles and angels, all around! Teach us to pray boldly, confidently, and often, not waiting to come to you when there is a crisis, and our loved ones are in danger. O God, keep us from judging others as unredeemable, for you didn’t send your Son to condemn the world, but in order for the world to be saved through him. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.