Jesus and Nicodemus
3 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
Thoughts on the passage:
Is it good to be critical? As I was growing up, I remember there being an emphasis on critical thinking. It was lifted up as a good skill to have. Critical thinking allowed us to look at challenges and problems and to probe deeper for solutions. Today I am going to go against my earlier learning and look at how critical thinking can bring out the negative in all of us. When we give up negativity for Lent we need to recognize the ways that it creeps even into good functions like critical thinking.
When I was in middle school I was in the pit orchestra for the school musical. One year it was called “Phantom of the Opry.” One of the lines from a song was “he who can creates, he who can’t writes reviews.” For those who have seen the children’s movie Ratatouille, at the end it expresses a similar sentiment, the critic simple serves to cast judgement on the hard work and effort of others. Often this is done at the expense of actual enjoyment by the critic.
I will openly acknowledge that I am guilty of this when it comes to listening to sermons. It takes effort for me to move from a critical mindset to one of being open to what the Spirit is saying to me in the preaching. When I was in seminary, I sat through a sermon where someone incorrectly called Jeremiah a minor prophet. Much of the rest of the sermon was lost on me because I was so caught up in their failure to properly categorize him as one of the major prophets. My focus on the mistake kept me from hearing the larger message.
Sometimes we do this to other people. Other times we do it to ourselves. A trait that I have inherited is the ability to be self-critical when it comes to cooking. Often rather than enjoy a meal I get caught in thinking about what did not turn out right and what I wish I had done better. Fortunately, Marianne is usually good at pointing me back to the positive parts of the meal rather than dwelling on how the pizza dough did not turn out just right or whatever my concern is.
In our story in John, we see another danger of critical thinking. Sometimes we get caught up in the little details and totally miss the big picture. Nicodemus goes from being in awe of Jesus and the wonders he is doing to trying to decode how a person can be born anew. Instead of focusing on the message, Nicodemus gets hung up in the analogy.
There is a delicate balancing act between faith and intellect. We do not need to check our brains at the door, but we do need to remember that we cannot reason our way to faith. Faith is the culmination of reason and experience, of the heart and the head. Nicodemus, for all his learning and critical thinking is trying to reason his way to faith in Jesus. Instead he needs to trust more in what his heart is telling him about the wondrous signs that Jesus is doing.
When you seek ordination, you get asked a lot of different theological questions. One of my fellow seminarians, was asked what happens at the resurrection to people who are cremated. This feels like the sort of question that Nicodemus is asking when he asks about being born again. It is one step away from “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” It can be so easy to get caught in philosophical and theological questions about things that do not really mean anything.
Jesus is telling us something amazing. He is telling us about how much God loves us. He is telling us about how we are offered a new life. Rather than appreciate the wondrous things that he has done and is continuing to do, Nicodemus, and others like me, get caught up in the critical thinking. We ask how a person can be born again. We parse his words and wonder what it means to believe in Jesus. It is as though Jesus gave us a great present and after opening it we are still playing with the wrapping paper.
There are times that I think the problem is that Western civilization is largely based around the principles of the scientific method. We believe in things that can be tested and proven. We privilege facts and tangible results. In general, this is a good thing. It has helped us explore the depths of the seas and soar far into space. It has given us access to amazing medicines and wonderful technology. The problem is that it cannot do anything with things that cannot be measured and tested. It is largely useless when it comes to God.
Jesus reminds us that the Holy Spirit is like the wind. We cannot see it. We do not know where it comes from and we do not know where it goes. God transcends our world. We cannot ever fully know or understand God. We are never going to be able to prove God’s existence. If we get caught up on what we can know and understand rationally, we are missing the point.
Jesus comes to give us a new way of looking at God. The passage talks about how Jesus must be lifted up. While usually this is thought to refer to Jesus being put on the cross, I wonder if there is a second meaning. Jesus is lifted up as an example of this love that God has for us. In his willingness to suffer and die, we see the lengths that God goes to care for us, to love us, and even to forgive us. We can never fully know or understand God, but when we look at Christ’s life, his death, and his resurrection, we see what kind of God it is that we follow. We don’t need critical thinking skills to understand that, because it grips us at a much deeper place, in our hearts and in our souls.
Questions to Ponder:
What does being born again mean to you?
When is a time that you found yourself being too critical of others?
How will giving up negativity help you embrace God’s love?
Loving God, we try to make it so hard to understand your message. We look for deeper truths and hidden meanings, when your message is plan and obvious. You love us. You forgive us. You are with us. Help us to remember and embrace that knowledge in our thinking and our living. Amen