Do you ever have questions about faith? Why God says or does certain things—or doesn’t do them? Ever want to ask Jesus what to do with your life? How to live forever with God? If you’re like me, you certainly have!
In our gospel story today we meet Nicodemus, a prominent religious leader, a member of the Pharisees—the group that will ultimately seek Jesus’ death. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in secret, at night. (I heard one preacher titled his sermon on this text, “Nick at Night.”) Nicodemus wants to know more about this strange rabbi, who seems determined to overturn the comfortable status quo. Nicodemus is intrigued by Jesus’ revolutionary teaching. He’s curious. Confused. Thirsty for answers.
But the answers Jesus gives him—and so often the answers we seem to get from God—only evoke within Nicodemus more curiosity, greater bafflement, and a deeper yearning for more.
Jesus responds to him—and here’s how Eugene Peterson captures it in The Message Bible:
“Nicodemus, You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind hovering over the water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit. So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”
Now, if we wrestle with Jesus’ words, we just may discover that his invitation to be “born from above” is the key to the spiritual life, the starting point on the pathway to a life of loving relationship with him forever.
My third grandchild, Mia June, was born last September, and new birth is always a huge joy. Of course she’s absolutely beautiful. But when you gaze at her little face and count her tiny fingers and toes, you realize how vulnerable a baby is. Everything is new, unblemished, open to life. Jesus says, we need to experience new birth spiritually, to start anew with God—as though fresh from the womb.
As though we were part of the original creation of God forming the world through the Spirit and the Word. New, fresh, clean, open to life, and, yes, vulnerable. You can’t have a more profound starting point than that.
And how do we come to this point? Throughout our lives, no matter how briefly or how long we’ve lived, God has been working, the Spirit has been moving and forming the real you—the you within, the you God created you to be.
That Spirit dwells within you today—even now. Rustling through the leaves and branches and limbs of your soul like the wind blowing above Jesus and Nicodemus. Moving you. Filling you. Bringing new surprises and unexpected challenges into your life day by day. Friends, this season of Lent is a wonderful time to become more aware of that, more open to the wind of the Spirit!
To be in a loving relationship with Jesus means recognizing and living within this Spirit-moving reality. It means being willing to start fresh with him, reborn by the Spirit. Willing to trust God to care for and nurture you as you grow in the faith toward maturity. Willing to be moved along by the Spirit in whatever direction the holy wind blows. Willing to live in the tension of the unknown and the confusing. Willing to grow in curiosity and trust, and thirst for more. More of Jesus. More of the Spirit. More life. More love.
Oh, it’s a lifelong task, a seemingly eternal struggle. But you must begin at the beginning. You must be born from above.
But Jesus takes it further with Nicodemus, so let’s go further too:
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing second-hand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?” (John 3:10-12 Message)
So Nicodemus comes to Jesus with a searching heart, truly wanting to understand who Jesus is. But he cannot get his mind around the revolutionary spiritual concepts the Rabbi is sharing with him. He can’t let go of his presuppositions and prejudices, his traditions, his well-worn, routine beliefs about how relationship with God was supposed to work.
He couldn’t rise above his questions, his confusions, his doubts, to see the clear light of truth. Oh, friends, does that sound a little familiar? A little uncomfortably true? It does to me. There can be a lot of Nicodemus in all of us.
The world teaches us to watch out for ourselves, to guard our emotions, to question authority, to doubt good news. As a result, our minds and hearts have slowly, over time, crusted over with stubborn self-protection, like barnacles on the hull of a fishing boat. So when Jesus reveals to us something that we struggle to understand, we have trouble accepting it and living within it.
Thank God, as Leonard Cohen puts it, “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in.” If we are open and willing, if we are conscious of our desperate need for Jesus, then the Spirit of God can crack open those crusty barnacles on our heart.
Then the light of Jesus’ love, the pure light of truth, can get in through those broken places, can soften and warm our hearts, and make us more vulnerable so we can see the “things that are plain as the hand before your face” and live the “things you can’t see, the things of God.”
During this season of Lent, I invite you to hear Jesus. Listen carefully for his voice. Trust his love for you. Put aside your fears and doubts in the power of the Spirit, just for a moment or two. Let the Spirit crack open your heart a bit, and the light of Jesus love and truth will pour in.
But Jesus goes further still with Nicodemus, in a great crescendo of love. He says:
“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” (John 3:16-17 Message)
Did you catch that phrase, “A whole and lasting life”? Isn’t that what most of us hunger for—a life that is rich and meaningful and full of love given and received? A life we’ve never quite seemed to figure out how to make happen? Sure, we’ve searched for it in many empty ways: Relationships. Responsibilities. Success. Power. Possessions. Perhaps the next attempt will take us where we want to go. Or perhaps not.
The true and only way to experience a whole and lasting life, to be “right again,” is shockingly simple… just three words. Believe. In. Jesus. Too simple? Well, yes and no.
If it were so easy, more people would do it. More of us would trust in God’s love enough to accept it. But too often we fail to believe in Jesus even when we come face to face with him.
We see an opportunity to serve that will cost us time or money, and turn away when we realize how that might impact our own interests. We can reach out and receive grace and hope, or decide we’re more comfortable living in the pain we’ve grown accustomed to than working to release that pain.
Or we sense a call to something that seems way beyond our capabilities, could really make a difference not only in our life, but in many others’, yet we can’t trust God enough to accept it.
We bump up against those opportunities to believe in Jesus every day. Time and again, Jesus invites us to trust in him, and he says that when we do, we live. Forever. When we don’t, well, we are already under a death sentence.
Jesus is the way to a full and whole and lasting life, the only true source of authentic and eternal life. We will either run toward Jesus, into the light, or we will run away into the darkness.
But, as St. Francis of Assisi put it, “Darkness is an unlit wick; it just needs your touch, Beloved, to become a sacred flame.”
This Lent, let’s run toward God, run toward the God who loves you and the whole world. Let our beloved Lord touch your heart, and watch your life light up.
Let us pray:
Loving God, we pray that you would open our eyes, our minds, our hearts, our very lives to the wind of your Spirit, that you would make us anew, rekindle our faith, and empower us to love and follow Jesus as a bright sacred flame. Amen.
Living Loved: Knowing Jesus as the Lover of Your Soul, three meditations on John 3, by Peter Wallace (Church Publishing).