Sermon May 26 2024  John 3:1-17                                                 Rev. Betsy Hogan

Do you pride yourself on being prepared? Planning ahead? Ensuring things are organized and you're basically on top of them?

If so, then you can probably relate to Nicodemus. Nicodemus who visits Jesus in the passage Terry read for us just now. A leader in his community, he’s learned, he’s respected. And he seems to like to think things through: he’s not governed by whim. 

When he gets this idea to visit Jesus, for example, he doesn’t just chase after Jesus in a crowd. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: all through the scriptures we see Jesus getting chased down by people, people with needs, people with questions, and Jesus pauses and takes time with them… But Nicodemus? He’s just not that type.

He wants to talk to Jesus, yes. Just as so many others do, and just as urgently. But he’s simply not the type for an ambush. That is no way to achieve a worthwhile discussion, and a worthwhile discussion is what Nicodemus wants. So he considers, he prepares, he plans a bit about what he wants to asks, and then off he goes.

He goes to Jesus by night, the gospel tells us. Under cover of darkness? In secret? There’s no particular evidence of that, despite what we might first think. There’s no sense in this conversation that Nicodemus feels he’s putting himself at risk. It’s far more likely, quite frankly, that he simply wants the kind of discussion with Jesus that can’t happen in the middle of the busyness of the day, with the crowds around. Nicodemus doesn’t want a quick answer, a quick healing, a quick miracle. He wants to sit down with this man Jesus… and really talk.

So yes, he goes by night. For a good, deep, theological discussion. That’s what he’s expecting, that’s what he’s ready for, that’s what he’s looking forward to! Because he has studied his whole life – studied the scriptures, prayed in the temple – he’s shaped his whole life around the coming of God’s Messiah. And what it will mean for Israel. And what it will mean for the world. 

And he’s been watching Jesus. He’s been listening to what people have been saying. Jesus could be the One. And so Nicodemus wants to know more. And there’s a reason he’s a leader in his community -- he’s always been thoughtful, he’s always made good choices, had a careful plan, tried to live a faithful life So talking to Jesus just makes sense. It might shed some light on the scriptures, or even on the path ahead, help make his next steps even clearer. And who doesn’t need THAT in an uncertain world.
And of course Jesus welcomes him, exactly as he’d hoped. So he begins. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one could do these signs without the presence of God…” And he’s about to keep going, to ask HOW, to quote from the scriptures, to seek more insight – when Jesus suddenly interrupts him.

And says “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born anew.” 

Which, what? That’s not even where Nicodemus was going here, he was all ready, he was all prepared -- and anyway, what does that even mean? 

So “How can anyone be born anew,” he asks Jesus,  “after they’ve already grown old? Can someone go back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time? 

And he’s not making fun of Jesus, as ridiculous as the question sounds. He truly doesn’t understand, and he wants to. Jesus is, Nicodemus thinks, the one whom God has sent. The one for whom Nicodemus has been waiting. He really wants to understand. It’s a serious question. And if it’s beyond his present comprehension, well, that’s why he wanted this conversation in the first place. To widen, to deepen, his comprehension. Nicodemus really wants to understand.

But Jesus is no help at all. “To see the Kingdom of God,” he tells Nicodemus, “You must be born of water and the Spirit.” Nope, Nicodemus is still confused.

So Jesus continues. “What’s born of flesh is flesh and what’s born of spirit is spirit.”
Yeah, nope. Nicodemus is still not getting it.

So Jesus tries a third time. “Do not be astonished,” he says. “The spirit blows where it will and you hear the sound of it but you don’t know where it comes from and you don’t know where it’s going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” And at that point? Nicodemus finally gives up. With a “What on EARTH are you talking about?” Or in the somewhat politer Bible version, “But how can these things be?”

And frankly, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him. Because what he came expecting, prepared for, was a good deep discussion. Guidance. Direction. What he came prepared for was to learn what everything he was seeing in Jesus and hearing from Jesus was going to mean for him, for his community. Rabbi, we know you are of God – tell us what to do. What’s going to come next? What does God want, what will this mean, where will this lead?

And in return he gets… nothing he can get his head around. Only the gentle, if somewhat convoluted, message that when it comes to faithfulness the only preparation needed is the need to not be prepared, but to let the Spirit blow where it will. To just be open to the Spirit and let it do its work. “Nicodemus, my friend,” Jesus might have said, “Many things are orderly. But faithfulness is not one of them.”

Nicodemus wanted guidance and he wanted direction and what he gets instead is the promise of a Spirit he just has to be open to.

It might seem sort of regrettable or not quite fair. And in fact we don't have any idea how he responded at the time because the poor fellow is rendered speechless for the entire remainder of the passage. Jesus keeps on, delivering the spectacularness of among other things John 3:16 – God so loved the world that he gave his Son, not to condemn the world but to save it – but from Nicodemus? Nothing more.

But here's the thing. Later on, when all the disciples at the foot of the cross had fled from the broken body of Jesus, Nicodemus stayed. And Roman centurians notwithstanding, it was Nicodemus who with Joseph of Arimathaea lifted Jesus body down from that cross. It was Nicodemus who laid Jesus’ body in the grave himself. 

So something did happen that day for Nicodemus. The spirit blew where it would, and he… decided to be open to it. Knowing it wasn't likely to be orderly but also knowing it must be astonishingly powerful.

Because it's a Spirit that has the capacity to actually empower essentially, metaphorically, what Jesus has called a rebirth. A new life, a new way, a rebeginning, changed and more and whole.

And we don't know Nicodemus. Yes, we know some things about him. We know he's a scholar and a gentleman, a leader in the community, respected and respectable. 

But we don't know him. We don't know what burdens he carries. What regrets he has. We don't know if he's hauled around bitterness for most of his life, or if he keeps the pieces together with a few stiff drinks every night. We don't know if he's too afraid of failing to try new things, or wishes he wouldn't lash out in anger so often, or if he loathes the face he sees in the mirror, or just wants to be less selfish. 

We don't know Nicodemus. We don't know what reasons he might have had for leaning into the Spirit that can empower that kind of new life and new way, letting go of burdens and brokenness and regrets. But that must be what he did.

And honestly? It may not have been what he prepared for and it may not have been what he sought, but it was obviously what he needed. Or he wouldn’t have leaned into it. And I say leaned into it for a reason.

Because this is not a dramatic moment. That language of being born again, it’s language that’s been appropriated. It’s language that’s been used in Jesus’ name as gatekeeping. First to describe a dramatic moment of radical fall-on-your-knees conversion, overcome and overwhelmed by trust and love and readiness to follow Jesus’ way – 

And second, and more egregiously, as gatekeeping for what kind of trust and love and readiness “counts” and makes that following “real”. And frankly, that’s absolute nonsense. Jesus is not gatekeeping here. If he were, then the fact that Nicodemus’ faithfulness DOES take root and later finds him at the foot of the cross would make any apparent moment of Nicodemus having radical moment of conversion – born again – the sort of thing that the gospel writer DEFINITELY would have included.

But it’s not there. This isn’t gatekeeping. It’s just an invitation. It isn’t a prescriptive description of the necessary content of a moment of conversion. It’s just an invitation.

The Holy Spirit blows where it will. Lean in. Let it do what it does. Because what it does, if we let it do what it does, is like a rebirth. It’s like getting our life handed back to us, but changed. Oriented in a different way, with different values, different assumptions, different purpose. 

And of course sometimes that’s dramatic. And it might have been for Nicodemus. If he was filled with bitterness or struggling to cope or lashing out in rage, his life handed back to him changed when he leaned into the Spirit would have been the Spirit firmly reorienting him toward forgiveness and trust and a different understanding of “success” and a new purposeful patience.

But it could just as easily have been, for Nicodemus, that there was no need for such radical dramatics – and all he really needed was a sense of life as purposeful at all. Like, where’s its meaning? What is it for? Does it matter? And if so, how?

What is the shape of a meaningful life? And Jesus’ answer to that is that a meaningful life doesn’t just happen by virtue of our being born. A meaningful life has to be chosen, it has to be leaned into. It’s invited – God so loved the world – it’s an invitation, the Spirit blows where it will – lean into it and let it do what it does. 

Because it hands our life back to us in the shape of meaningful. It reorients us into a life that we can recognize and feel is meaningful, just by virtue of being lived with the consciousness that Godness IS. That all of this was made and is held and God pronounced all of it good and loves it intimately in the constant swirl of God’s Spirit. 

That every tiny moment of love and beauty and goodness, every tiny reason for gratitude, every incremental shift toward justice, all of these matter. 

Born again, it’s just an invitation – the Spirit blows where it will, no planning or preparation necessary. We lean in, and it hands our life back to us in the shape of meaningful, over and over and over again, as often as we need it. Thanks be to God. Amen.