When I was little, the small country church I went to in Westernville had a big emphasis in Sunday School on memorizing Bible verses. Every week we’d spend some time going over verses, and in the older classes, we’d actually get 5 cents for every verse we could memorize. I was certainly inspired by promise of such riches, and could memorize quite a lot of verses! Today we don’t focus so much on memorizing verses, which has some pros and cons – a single verse taken out of context doesn’t always do you much good, and in fact, can lead you to wrong conclusions when you don’t know the rest of what’s happened in a passage! So we tend today to focus more on teaching whole stories, rather than memorizing single verses. Nonetheless, you probably still know this verse by heart, in the King James Version even – John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Yet, even though we know that verse so well, here’s a perfect example of what I was talking about – do you know the context? How does Jesus come to say these words? As we continue our Lenten journey, and listen in on the voices pulling at our gospel characters, today we meet up with a man named Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader among the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the scholars and interpreters of the law with whom Jesus was most often in conflict, because the Pharisees, Jesus argued, tried to put too many rules and regulations on the people for being “good Jews,” while managing to miss the heart and soul of it – that is, relationship with God. Nicodemus is sort of stepping out of the pack by coming to see Jesus – he’s taking a risk because he has some questions that he really wants Jesus to answer. But also note that he’s protecting himself and his position too – he comes to see Jesus at night, when he can meet with Jesus without drawing attention to himself.
Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus’ legitimacy – “no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God,” he says. But Jesus pushes him: “Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Remember, the kingdom of God being here and now – that’s the core of Jesus’ message. Jesus turns the focus away from himself and his power, and to Nicodemus – and whether or not Nicodemus wants to be part of the kingdom of God. Jesus is always an outside-the-box thinker, but Nicodemus can’t understand what Jesus is getting at – “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he wonders. Can you enter the womb again and be born? But Jesus explains that he means that we have to be Spirit-born as well as born in flesh, and wonders how one who is a teacher of Israel can’t get it.
Then Jesus says, “and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This is a strange verse if you don’t know the context. Jesus is talking about something we can find in the book of Numbers, chapter 21, this story of the bronze serpent. The Israelites, still wandering in the desert, were complaining to God and Moses about food and water, when poisonous snakes were sent among the people. The snakes would bite the people, and the people would die. The people understood these snakes to be a punishment on them from God. So they came to Moses and confessed their sinfulness, and asked Moses for help. Moses prayed for the people, and heard God’s voice, telling him to create a serpent out of bronze that would be fixed to a pole. The passage concludes, “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
Jesus says “and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The serpent, raised up for the Israelites, gave them earthly life. Jesus, raised up – and the word here for raised up is actually the same as “crucified” – Jesus, raised up, gives life too – real life, eternal life. Then, finally the verse that we know so well, and its match – “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. 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.” Jesus is the life-giver – that is his purpose – to give life, not to condemn and judge, but to save, and make whole, to help people see, be part of the kingdom of God.
What we don’t know is how Nicodemus responds, at least immediately, to what he hears from Jesus. Clearly Jesus’ words have overwhelmed him. It is a lot to take in. And the scriptures record no response. What we do see in the gospels in Nicodemus appearing later – first when the Pharisees are urging action against Jesus, and Nicodemus reminds them that the law doesn’t condemn people without giving them a trial first. And then, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. So we know that Nicodemus doesn’t immediately drop his nets, so to speak, to follow Jesus. But it seems like something might be sinking in by degrees – willing to raise his voice amongst his peers on Jesus’ behalf, and then, at the end, participating in honoring Jesus for his burial.
In some ways I related to Nicodemus more than others who encounter Jesus in the gospels. When Jesus calls Simon Peter, for example, Peter just drops his nets and follows. I find it hard to imagine that kind of complete, life-changing response, so immediate and total. No time to think or plan or process. It is so hard to imagine being like that, when it seems a struggle to make just the simplest of lasting changes in my life. But Nicodemus – a skeptic maybe, confused, believing and not yet acting on what he’s beginning to believe, what he knows to be true somewhere buried inside – I find I can relate to Nicodemus. The people who already have nothing, like fishermen and tax collectors, prostitutes and poor folk, who already have been told they count for nothing – embracing Jesus makes sense. But for those who have something to lose, some power to give up, some control to hand over to God in order to enter this kingdom as peers, co-workers with the “least of these” – well, the choice is a challenge, the conflicting voices – called to the status quo or called to God and new life that requires being born, spiritually, all over again.
You might wonder why we celebrate the baptisms of children and infants. In baptism we affirm what Jesus speaks of here – born of water and Spirit. But don’t we have to wait until we can know for ourselves, claim for ourselves that we want to be reborn? Renewed? Recreated? But what we do in baptism, when her parents and godparents and all of us take vows on Ella’s behalf – what we do is commit to helping her hear God’s voice, when we know how hard that will be sometimes in her life. And we acknowledge that even now, even already, even as she came into being, God’s voice was already calling to her, offering life. We commit to helping her claim that gift. Like Nicodemus we struggle with letting Jesus change us, even when we believe what Jesus says – and so we begin now with Ella, that she might have a whole lifetime to be a disciple.
For God so loves Ella – for God so loves me – for God so loves you, that God gave Jesus, that you who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life. Amen.