March 8, 2020. Genesis 12:1-4, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 John 3:1-17.
The Night Disciple.
My favorite Gospel is the Gospel according to John. I love how John uses metaphors, images, word-pairs and many other techniques to share the fact that Jesus, the Word became flesh to bring healing, reconciliation and new life to people. I love John’s theology. His theology is rich, profound and sometimes even playful. He of course is the one, who says that Jesus is the Light of the world, and that the Divine Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. He talks about Jesus as the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep. He says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The arguably best known verse in the whole Bible appears in his Gospel: “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.”
John’s Gospel functions on two levels: there is the obvious, on-the-surface-message. But then there is the deeper, richer, theological meaning below the surface. This deeper, richer, below-the-surface-meaning is what really matters. So, one has to be careful not to focus on the obvious, on-the-surface-meaning. One has to dig deeper to get to the real, deep theological meaning of the text.
For example, John is the only Gospel that tells us about the Wedding at Cana. And you all know what happened there: Jesus turned water into wine – not ordinary wine but great wine! The surface meaning is clear: Wedding celebration-they run out of wine-there is a lot of water in six stone water jars for Jewish rites of purification-Jesus turns water into wine- very good wine- and this is called not a miracle but a sign!
When you go below the surface you find an even richer and deeper meaning. The wedding itself has a deeper meaning, the time of celebration is here. The Jewish rites of purification now is Jesus purifies. Wine now is the new blessings in Christ. The fact that the wine is so good has a deeper and special meaning. The wedding becomes a symbol of the new era that unfolds, an era that begins when Christ becomes flesh. This is a time of celebration and joy; the good wine means that this new era, this time of celebration is the full, divine gift in Christ. It is the best God has to offer us! Even the reference to the six stone jars that hold twenty or thirty gallons has a deeper meaning: the lavish quantity says that Christ is introducing a time of spiritual richness and abundance. Do yourself a favor and read the Gospel of John and see if you can these deeper meaning. John – my favorite Gospel.
My favorite New Testament character is Nicodemus. “Why? What is so special about Nicodemus?” you may ask. And that would be a very good question. There are other great people in the New Testament. Peter was the Rock and his words that Jesus was the Christ, is the very foundation of the Church. John was likeable and was known as the disciple whom Jesus loved, Thomas was an honest man who wanted to see before he believed, and Paul’s work and theological insights after he converted were absolutely unique. Why Nicodemus then? He was not even a disciple. He was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin and a doctor of the law. Furthermore, he came to Jesus by night because he was timid. Or perhaps the reference to the darkness is John’s way of using darkness as a symbol to indicate that Nicodemus comes from darkness to the light, which is Jesus.
On the other hand, we know that the night was recommended for the study of the Torah and rabbis were often discussing theology well into the night. Be that as it may, he approached Jesus at night. Nicodemus was a careful thinker, a rational man who did not let his emotions get the best of him. He was thoughtful and he had a good sense of what was right. When the Chief Priests and Pharisees wanted the temple police to arrest Jesus in Chapter 7 Nicodemus said this: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” And when Jesus died, it was Nicodemus who brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about a hundred pounds to embalm the body of Christ. So, we see that this man Nicodemus has gradually grown as a person of faith: from a man who came to Jesus at night to ultimately a man who was willing to spend an enormous amount on spices to show his respect. I like Nicodemus!
And today we have my favorite Gospel talking about my
favorite person, Nicodemus the night disciple. And Jesus and Nicodemus are
involved in a fascinating conversation. But as you know by now, we should not
be distracted by what is on the surface but we should see what John’s
theological or deeper purpose is.
What is John’s purpose with this paragraph? What does it mean?
Nicodemus went to Jesus because he was impressed with the signs or the miracles Jesus was doing. Nicodemus concluded that these signs were proof that God was with Jesus. Jesus immediately understood that Nicodemus really was interested in the answer to a question that all Jews were asking: “What must I do to share in the kingdom of God?” Jesus answer was that “you have to be reborn from above”. Nicodemus did what many still do: He took Jesus words on face value and missed the theological point! And he responded: “It is not possible for some to enter his mother womb to be reborn!” He thought Jesus was thinking of a literal second birth while Jesus was actually talking about the work of the Spirit that would make a person new. Jesus was referring to the work of the Spirit that would transform regular people into Kingdom of God’s people! It is the Spirit of God that changes people into Kingdom people. And this is called rebirth!
I have an idea that fewer and fewer people are asking: What must I do to share the kingdom of God? Let’s be honest: the kingdom of God is not part of many people’s vocabulary any more. Magazines and reality TV shows want our young people to ask is: “What can I do to have fun? What can I do to popular, or what can I do to be slim, beautiful and wealthy?” The questions have to do with here and now and they have to with what I can get out life! And we have to admit that we all are affected by this worldview. It is about me! And perhaps also about how can the world be changed or transformed to bring me more comfort, pleasure and joy!
I have thought a lot about what the words of Jesus mean when he said that we should be reborn. And I invite you to think with me. You see the other gospels when they refer to the extraordinary things that Jesus did, use the word miracle. John uses the word sign. A miracle takes place when the world is changed. In the other Gospels, Jesus shows his divine power by altering or changing the laws of physics, he changed the world. He walks on water; he feeds 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish.
In John however a miracle is called a sign and the sign points to the fact that Jesus is the One sent by God to bring God’s Kingdom. And instead of changing the world, the Spirit of God transforms people. How? By rebirth to be citizens of the kingdom of God so that they in turn could show the world what God’s reign is like!
If this is true then I think that it is not farfetched to deduct that God transform us from people with an earthly view of the world into people with a heavenly view of the world! People who are reborn see the world the way God sees the world. They have kingdom eyes! And this in itself is a great miracle! Pause a moment to think about this: God shaped and transformed us so radically that it can be compared to childbirth! God transforms us into people who have the ability to see God’s presence in this world. God transforms us into people who we share in God’s Kingdom. God transforms us into people who by way of speaking have the ability to look at the world though God’s eyes! And what we then see is rather different from what others see!
What a privilege to have received this almost divine ability to see the world through God’s eyes and not through human eyes! When we look at people who are weak and poor, who are alone, who are in prison, who are marginalized, who are made fun of, who don’t make it, we don’t see losers or underdogs or failures, but we see people who are worthy of God’s love! When we look at those who have everything in terms of earthly goods, wealth, fame, power, we are not intimidated or envious but we pray that they too may experience God’s love and presence. Above all we pray that all their earthly possessions and power may not distract them from heavenly blessings! We pray for them because we know that it is very easy to forget that we are all poor and needy before God. We pray that others are also reborn, turned into kingdom people.
But looking at the world through God’s eyes is also a huge responsibility and at times it can even be a burden. When we see how much time and effort are spent to gain in things that don’t have eternal value, we will be saddened. We will always feel the temptation to be part of this world because we are after all in this world. But then we are reminded that we are not of this world. We are citizens of God’s kingdom.
The United States has a very precious document called the constitution. We all value this document and we the people make sure that the constitution is protected and respected. We are willing to sacrifice for the constitution.
The Kingdom of God too has a constitution. We find this in Matthew 5-7. It starts with the Beatitudes. It includes words like: “No one can serve two masters, do not worry, do not judge, ask and it will be given, enter through the narrow gate and in everything do unto others as you would have them do to you!”
It is disturbing that citizens of God’s kingdom, Christians, often play down or ignore the Kingdom of God’s constitution even as they are willing to lay down their life for the US Constitution!
Which brings me to the last point: As people who look at this world through God’s eyes, as people who have been reborn and with that received citizenship of God’s Kingdom, we are acutely aware of the fact that we often fail! But one of the many reasons I love John’s Gospel is because of the assurance of John 3:16: “For God so love the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. A NT scholar said this about John 3:16: “In a sentence which has become memorable for all time, the kerygmatic discourse sums up the whole Christian message of redemption. The plan of salvation which is realized in the way of the Son of Man through the cross into glory stems ultimately only from God’s incomprehensible love for the world. The only purpose of sending the Son of God into this world was to save it”.
Nicodemus did not understand everything even though he
was a teacher of Israel. We do not understand everything either. But what he
understood and what we understand is that through God’s incomprehensible love
for us, the Spirit of God has transformed us, has given us rebirth and we are
now citizens of God’s kingdom! And as citizens we look at the world and its
people in a different way! And we act in accordance to the Kingdom’s