An After-Easter Series
John 3:1-17; 1 Peter 1:17-25
I think Nicodemus and I would have been great friends. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, an inquisitive man who wanted to do the right thing. As a Pharisee, he would have been well-versed in the law and he would have been dedicated to the ins and outs of his faith. I imagine Nicodemus sitting at a desk, or on the floor, reading whatever he could get his hands on and discussing profound questions with his fellow-Pharisee friends. Nicodemus wanted to understand things. I can relate to that. As a college student, I often walked past a building on campus with St. Anselm’s motto chiseled into a seal on its side: “Faith seeking understanding.” Even though Nicodemus lived centuries before Anselm, he probably embodied this motto. He was a man of faith, and he wanted that faith to lead him towards understanding.
The story of Nicodemus and Jesus happens early in the Gospel of John. Before this, John the baptist points his followers to Jesus. Jesus calls his first disciples, and he turns water into wine at a wedding. After performing only one miraculous sign, the next story the Gospel writer includes about Jesus is of Jesus flipping over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. This bold move garnered a lot of attention. John writes, “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (John 2:23). Among those who took notice of Jesus was Nicodemus, and probably many of Nicodemus’s friends.
Nicodemus decides to visit Jesus after dark, and scholars have all kinds of thoughts as to why he went at night. Perhaps he was worried the other Pharisees would see what he was doing. Or, maybe he thought other people might notice. He was supposed to be a religious expert. What would people think if they knew he was visiting this up-and-coming rabbi? Would it encourage them to believe in Jesus too? Sometimes I wonder if Nicodemus was having a hard time sleeping. Maybe he was awake late at night with questions he couldn’t answer. He tossed and turned, and eventually decided to get out of bed and see if Jesus was awake so that they could have a conversation.
We don’t know for sure why he ventured out at night to see Jesus, but we know that Jesus welcomed him and his questions. Nicodemus begins with a glimmer of belief. He says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2). He recognizes that Jesus comes from God, and Jesus gives an encouraging, but confusing response, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (verse 3). Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You wouldn’t be able to see that I have come from God if you weren’t on the right track,” but Nicodemus gets caught up in the image of new birth, and he gets confused.
I love the way singer-songwriter Nichole Nordeman tells this story in her song “To Know You.” Here are just two of the stanzas:
It’s well past midnight
And I’m awake with questions that won’t
Wait for daylight
Separating fact from my imaginary fiction
On this shelf of my conviction
I need to find a place
Where You and I come face to face…
Could not understand how You could
Truly free us
He struggled with the image
Of a grown man born again
We might have been good friends
Cuz sometimes I still question, too
How easily we come to You
Nicodemus wants Jesus to give him a straight answer to the question, “Are you bringing in the kingdom of God?” But instead, Jesus responds with the concept of being born again, born anew, or born from above–all possible translations of the Greek. Nicodemus was a logical person, and Jesus’s words did not make logical sense. Nicodemus recognizes Jesus as a teacher from God, but then he gets stuck in his logical mind. He just can’t understand how new birth could possibly work.
For this season between Easter and Pentecost, we are embarking on a sermon series we are calling “Mysteries of the Faith.” We have chosen to focus on the mysteries of our faith because mystery is tough. We can’t rationalize it. We can’t master it. We can’t dig deep enough to understand it all the way. And yet, there’s something beautiful and life-changing about embracing mystery and allowing it to transform us. Throughout this series, we will explore readings from 1 Peter and from other places in the Bible as we seek to draw closer to God. Many of the stories the church remembers during this Easter season are stories of Jesus’s appearances after the resurrection, and many of these stories defy our logical minds. How can Jesus die and rise again? How could the disciples fish all day, catch nothing, and then at Jesus’s word catch 153 fish and nearly sink their boat with the weight of their catch? How could it be that Jesus would entrust the beginning of the church to flawed human beings, and then pass it on to us? It just doesn’t make logical sense.
To kick off this series, we are cozying up to Jesus’s words about being born anew. We are standing next to Nicodemus, not to criticize him, but to say, “Jesus, I don’t understand either.” We will admit that while we might love the idea of “faith seeking understanding,” we just don’t understand sometimes, and that’s ok.
We could probably do a whole sermon series on the topic of being born again or born anew, but for the purposes of this series on mystery, I want to highlight what being born anew is and what it is not, and I want to invite you to draw closer to this mystery that puzzled Nicodemus and continues to puzzle so many of us thousands of years later.
First, let’s look at what being born anew is not. It’s not a single moment. It’s not logical. It’s not something we can demonstrate by saying, “Now look, class, at this person being born a second time.” It doesn’t make sense–if you take it literally like Nicodemus did. And, I don’t blame him. Somewhere between the ages of six and seven children begin to develop the ability to think logically. Before that, in their pre-logical minds, they see no problems with dreaming of growing up and being able to fly. I remember both of my kids going through phases where they wanted to be two, three, or four opposite careers when they grew up–all at the same time–and they didn’t worry about how impossible it might be to do all the years of schooling required, or how these jobs might pay the bills.
But after a certain age, kids become aware of limits. They realize not everything is possible, and they are more able to reason and rationalize. There are positives to this, but I am concerned we overlook the positives of pre-logical thinking. In fact, as I was researching brain development, I came across article after article about how to help a child’s logical mind develop. Out of curiosity, I decided to look into the benefits of pre-logical thinking and how to tap back into those in adulthood. I couldn’t find anything. Not a single article. Jesus tells us that to receive the kingdom, we need to become like little children, but the world we live in spends a lot of time telling kids to stop being children because adulthood is where it’s at.
When Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born anew, Nicodemus enters logical-thinking mode, and he gets stuck. He lacks the imagination to consider being born anew as anything other than an absurd and impossible thought. As we consider what it means to be born anew, I first want us to remember that it is not logical. It’s not a single moment in time. It is mysterious. It is irrational. And, it requires us to use our imaginations.
Being born anew isn’t logical, but it is real. Shortly before the passage we read from 1 Peter this morning, he writes this, “By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4). This new birth ushers us into a world where hope is possible because of the resurrection, and unlike the glimmers of hope we might find from time to time, this is a hope that is not perishable.
A few months ago, I discovered the author Frederik Backman when I decided to read the book A Man Called Ove, the book on which the American movie A Man Called Otto is based. I read that book, which led me to another of Backman’s, and another, and another, and now I’m reading his book called Britt-Marie Was Here. Britt-Marie likes things a certain way. She has recently navigated a large transition in her life, which has led to one change after another. She has found herself a mess of a job in a nearly-shuttered small town, and she is unpacking the few belongings she brought with her. Among those belongings are balcony boxes where she grew flowers year after year, but there are no flowers in the planters just yet.
Backman describes it this way, “The balcony boxes may look as if they only contain soil, but underneath there are flowers waiting for spring. The winter requires whoever is doing the watering to have a bit of faith, in order to believe that what looks empty has every potential. Britt-Marie no longer knows whether she has faith or just hope. Maybe neither.” Faith allows the person watering the seemingly empty balcony box to continue watering, even when nothing is visible yet, even if it seems illogical to stand there sprinkling water over dirt. After all Britt-Marie has been through in her life, she isn’t sure she has the faith to keep doing that work.
Maybe you feel like that today, too? Perhaps you’re walking through a season of change, and you aren’t sure what life will look like on the other side. Maybe you are new to faith or the church, and you aren’t sure what it means to be born anew, to have a fresh start, to experience new life growing from the dusty, neglected places of our hearts.
I absolutely love the way 1 Peter 1:13 puts it: “Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.” The phrase “prepare your minds for action” is literally “gird the loins of your mind” in the Greek. Out of curiosity, I decided to look up how a person would gird their loins, and it made so much sense to me. In Jesus’ day, the typical garb was a tunic. Tunics were great because they covered you from sun and blowing sand, and they also allowed air circulation to keep the body cool. But, if you’ve ever worn a tunic or a dress, you know they aren’t the easiest to get around in if you have to move quickly. In these moments, you would have to gird your loins–grab the material from the back of your tunic, pull it forward, back through your legs, and around to the front again. Then you would either knot it around your legs like a pair of shorts, or tuck it into a belt called a girdle around your waist. Then, you’d be ready for action.
Peter says we need to do this to our minds. We need to be ready for action, and we do this by setting our hope on the grace Jesus will give to us. The saddest part about Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus is that God was planning to do the work of new birth in Nicodemus. All that was needed was for Nicodemus to show up, to make himself available, to open himself up to grace and imagination. Instead, Nicodemus got stuck trying to figure it all out. He wanted to understand. Remember that motto of St. Anselm–”faith seeking understanding?” We aren’t supposed to figure it all out to arrive at some kind of understanding. Instead, by drawing near to God, by opening our imaginations, and loosening our grip on needing to control the process, we will find ourselves embraced by God’s mystery, and we will fall into understanding–not that we will have figured it all out, but we will have learned who to fix our gaze upon.