Day 3: John 3:1-36 “Knowledge and Life Reborn… Again and Again”
In darkness the Pharisee Nicodemus approached Jesus while he was in Jerusalem. Jesus had just stirred a nasty conflict between himself and the Jewish religious authorities over his actions in the Temple courts. (Making a whip and driving out the officially sanctioned money changers and vendors was an easy ticket to trouble.) So it’s understandable that someone like Nicodemus, in order to protect himself and perhaps Jesus, would approach him in the cover of darkness.
But John bathes his writing in images that have both physical/temporal and spiritual dimensions. Nicodemus was still “in the dark” apparently seeking something from Jesus. I think he wanted some more understanding of who this Jesus of Nazareth is. The question for him and for any other seeker, myself included, is whether or not he would receive what he finds.
Nicodemus, however, doesn’t start his inquiry with a question. He leads off with a statement beginning with, “Rabbi, we know [fill in the blank]…” It’s an interesting way to begin an inquiry, but I think I see something of myself in Nicodemus’ approach, too.
Nicodemus is a seeker, but not a fully vulnerable one. There’s a certain security, a shield, maybe, when seekers guard themselves from within their established knowledge and from within their set parameters of what is true, reasonable, and real. I have a hard time faulting Nicodemus for that. That’s what we do to keep ourselves stable and grounded. We build any future knowledge upon the foundations of what we have already experienced to be true.
But the question is, how firm and impenetrable is that foundation of accumulated knowledge and wisdom? I guess that all depends on the substance and source of any new knowledge… and how open, humble, and unafraid we are. In Nicodemus’ case, he had just acknowledged what he (and apparently others as implied in his use of “we”) already claimed to know- that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God. With that admission, how vulnerable should he have been?
Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
I can see in the rest of the dialogue that Nicodemus has a hard time grappling with what Jesus gives him here. “How can someone be born when they’re already old?” “Come now, someone can’t enter their mother’s womb again to be born!” “How can this be?”
I know how badly afraid I can be when someone says something so profound that I know has the potential to shake apart my convictions of what I really do know. It’s the fear of suddenly realizing that I am smaller and that God and the world is larger and more complex than I realized. It’s also the fear of realizing that perhaps what I do know is not nearly as complete or as accurate as I had presumed.
What Jesus says, however, is still rattling, even with as many times as I have read, studied, and taught this passage: in order to truly see God’s Kingdom, i.e. God’s reign, presence, people, and redeeming work in our world, one must be born anew and from above. A bit later in the conversation, Jesus says what this means in practice– to be born of water and the Spirit. This new birth encompasses both a temporal, human dimension (water) and an “other than, from above” God-given, Holy Spirit dimension. It’s clear from surrounding context that “water” is the practice of baptism for repentance practiced by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. “Spirit” is God’s activity of giving new life to people.
There’s been so much evangelical theological doctrine attached to being “born again” as the moment of conversion and salvation. Being “born again” often means in our theology the transition from being a lost sinner to being a newly redeemed child of God through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. I wholeheartedly affirm this, too.
But I think Jesus’ teaching here can possibly have that Nicodemus affect on me now, even as a “born again” disciple of Jesus. How? Well, wind is not static and it doesn’t leave things in their place. Jesus compares the Spirit to the wind. (Incidently, both the Hebrew ruach and the Greek pneuma are used for Spirit, wind, and breath.) Could it be that being born of the Spirit is a continual process of new birth?
My spiritual dryness and shallowness of late certainly points to my need to be continually born of the Spirit. Surely the Spirit needs to shake things up, blow things around, and take me to where I need to go. It’s time to be born into new attitudes, priorities, passions, and behaviors. That’s happening now, in fact. And it will happen even more when I can move from the darkness of my established and apparently insufficient status and into the light of Jesus.
And who is this Jesus? He is the one who has been sent, not to condemn me but to save me. Light exposes darkness, yes, but not to condemn those in the darkness, but rather to light their way. I can choose to either remain in the safe, shadowy ambiguity of my own darkness, or choose to put aside my own dark attitudes and behaviors to be in the light.
For me, plain and simple, it’s putting aside resentments, worries, coveting what I don’t have while forgetting to be grateful for what I do have, my stubborn insistence to be right and to fearfully defend myself. One thing all this darkness has in common– fear and anger. Let that go to become a grateful, one-day-at-a-time disciple is much of the light I seek!
Holy Spirit, have your way with me. Break down my fortresses of self-preservation and self-promotion. Jesus, I look to you as the one lifted up for me, that in you, I will live now and into the ages. Father, your incredible love and mercy overwhelms me. You are not the false god of angry condemnation as you are often depicted. I love you, God, that you do not condemn me, even in all my efforts to condemn myself and to project that onto you. In the end, the truth is shown in the giving of your Son for me and for the whole world. That is enough and more than enough, too.