Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "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." 3Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 4Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 5Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." 9Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 10Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?11Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.16For 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.17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (NRSV)
Visiting Amish country two weeks ago, I was reminded of some tourists taking an Amish buggy ride. One of them asks their Amish driver: “what do you think is the biggest difference between you and me?”
Without a second of hesitation, he asks her, “Do you own a television?”
“Yes,” she says.
“Could you live without television?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says.
“So are you going to go home and get rid of your television?”
The woman and her fellow tourists sat in stunned silence for a moment, until the buggy driver said, “that is the biggest difference between you and me.”
I can’t help but think of that story as it’s now time for Elizabeth and me to renegotiate our cable service. Every year, we ask, “could we live without it?” We, too, answer “yes”—but we don’t let it go. We just keep paying the cable company more and more. Instead of making one decision that could change our lives for the better, we make the easy decision—and nothing changes (except the cable bill)…
Nicodemus faced the same kind of decision point in today’s Gospel. Here was a man who reached the top of the Jewish economy. He was a Pharisee—widely-recognized as the authority on religious truth. What’s more was that he was a member of the Sanhedrin—the highest legal, legislative, and judicial body of the Jews. He had it made, and he knew it—until Jesus came along…
Jesus, the man whom John the Baptist proclaims as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus, the man who turned water into wine… Jesus, the man who drove the moneychangers out of the Temple, during Passover… Jesus, the man Nicodemus knows to be
“a teacher who has come from God.”
But Jesus has nothing for Nicodemus in the way of congratulations for all he’s achieved. Instead, Jesus drops a bombshell: “no one will see the kingdom if God unless they are born from above.”
Understandably, Nicodemus questions this. After all—how can anyone be born a second time?
But this isn’t a bodily birth. This is spiritual birth—a birth of faith into the eternal reign of God—that comes only by the Holy Spirit.
This is the most devastating good news Nicodemus will ever hear. Life in the Kingdom of God is a gift freely given to everyone, including him. But this great gift—which costs Jesus his life—will cost Nicodemus too. The truth is that his position and all his achievements within the religious economy aren’t worth bupkes. Everything he’s ever learned, taught, believed, and practiced, is wrong.
Nicodemus the Pharisee must die—so the Nicodemus that God created him to be can be born from above. Jesus has brought him to decision point: will he walk away from Jesus and return to life as he’s always known it? Or, will he be reborn through Jesus into a completely new life?
Jesus brings us all face-to-face with the decision points such as these—where we’re choosing between the easy, familiar, and predictable life we’ve always known, versus a life of complete dependence on God’s grace.
Truth be told, we’d all rather live the kind of life where we can choose what’s good for us—and what’s not. We choose our priorities—and we choose how to accommodate God in our lifestyle. Control is the idol we covet more than anything else—to have total control over our lives, our relationships, our careers, our destiny… You name it…
But we only fool ourselves—and here’s the proof: how often do you say “I’m busy?” I’m amazed how many times I’ve said those words in the past week. I’m willing to bet, that for most of us, this is the number one reason we leave Jesus’ gift of new life on the table…
But the truth us, the life we live is not the life God desires. We are not in control of our lives, our circumstances, or our destiny. We can’t control God.
But new birth happens when we embrace this one spiritual truth: apart from God, we’re nothing. We’re sinners worthy of hell. We’re mortal. All is lost.
This is a very vulnerable place to be—but this is where grace begins.
I’m absolutely positive that our exhaustion, our frustration, our anxiety—is our hunger for new life. Today, Jesus is here—that you may receive it. He’s here to wash you anew in the waters of your baptism, to cleanse you of sin and all that draws us away from him.
And there are two powerful ways you’ll see this new life. First: look at your pocket book, your schedule book; the things you need to have and do to be happy and feel in control? If you walk out of here today thinking that nothing in your life needs to be changed, all fine and good—but new birth will stay far off. But when you let go, you’re letting God be in control—letting God work in you that which you could never do yourself.
Rebirth also comes in those moments of taking on. Because God’s in control—we are free to take on the commitment to discipleship—that is serving, sharing, and growing. Sometimes the things that are most difficult to do are the things through which Christ will transform us in the most spectacular ways.
Believe me when I say that Jesus will be meeting you even today, challenging you to serve, to love, and let go—and be reborn. Don’t let the status quo be the status quo. Be washed, reborn—and receive a life that’s beyond anything you’ve ever known.