The Second Sunday in Lent
March 19-20, 2011
Text: John 3:1-17
Dear Friends in Christ,
John’s Gospel is thought to not be chronological in its presentation. That is the events didn’t necessarily happen in the order that John presents them. Rather, it is like a series of vignettes about the life of Christ. This account appears early in the gospel, but yet it sounds like it is happening later in Christ’s ministry. Why? Well because Nicodemus speaks of Jesus performing signs or miracles. Yet, the only one recorded for us to this point is Jesus turning water into wine, which John states clearly was Jesus’ first miracle. But Jesus is a famous person at the time he meets with Nicodemus. So this conversation might have taken place much later in Christ’s ministry, perhaps even near the end. If so, why does John place it here at the beginning? Because Jesus, in the conversation, clearly lays out the message of the Gospel. He gives us the content.
When did John write this? Traditionally, we have said quite late, in the 90's A.D. shortly before his death or as some think his assumption in to heaven. There is a tradition that John did not die but was bodily assumed into heaven, much like Elijah. But this tradition cannot be said to be reliable, though it cannot be entirely excluded either. Back to the time of John’s writing. There are some scholars who think that John wrote very early - perhaps as early as the late 30's. But this is based upon what is called internal evidence which is very subjective. And yet, how does an old man, sixty years after the fact remember conversations, word for word? It seems very far fetched. First, John may have published his gospel in the 90's but wrote notes much earlier. Second, in that day people did not write things down. Paper and ink was expensive. They trained their memories. We know that people with such trained memories can sometimes remember with almost tape recorder accuracy many years later. Thirdly, and most importantly, Christ told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would bring all things into remembrance. So God the Holy Spirit is providing John with such perfect recall. Can God really do that? God the Holy Spirit could take the most advanced Alzheimer’s patient and make him remember conversations from his whole life. As miracles go, I don’t even rank it in the first order.
Who was Nicodemus. He was a Jewish rabbi and a member of the Sanhedrin - that is the ruling Jewish religious council. The name Nicodemus is a Greek name. That does not necessarily mean that he was a Greek convert. Many Jews of this period had Greek names. Even among Jesus’ disciples we see the name Philip, which would be a Greek name. In some circles adopting Greek names and customs would be considered a mark of culture. This would suggest a Jew that was a bit more flexible than some. The school of the Rabbi Hillel was the more flexible version of Judahism. The school of the Rabbi Shamie was the more rigid. A great story of the period has a Greek man coming to the Rabbi Shamie and stating that he would become a Jew if the Rabbi would recite the entire Jewish law for him while standing on one foot. The Rabbi Shamie took a stick and chased the man out. The man then went to the Rabbi Hillel with the same proposition. Hillel stood on one foot and said: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all you soul, all your heart, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus secretly, by night. He does not want anyone to know of this conversation. He is an important leader among the Jews after all. But Nicodemus comes in faith. He acknowledges that Jesus must at least be a prophet of God, at a minimum. The evidence had convinced him of this much. He wants to hear exactly what Jesus is teaching.
Christ begins by pointing baptism to and with baptism the need to be born again. Now this was not a foreign concept. It was used when Greeks converted to Judaism. They were said to be born again as a Jew. But Christ says that all human beings must be born again - they must be born of water and the Spirit. Unless a man is born of God, he cannot be part of God’s kingdom. This implies the idea of original sin. To say something is flesh is to say it is corrupt and sinful. Greek has another word for body that would simply mean something is physical. Nor should we take this as “spiritual” in some vague sense, rather we are born of the Holy Spirit.
When we are born again, that is when we are baptized, we get a new set of parents. God becomes our father. We are begotten of the Holy Spirit. The Church is our mother. As the great church father Cyprian said, “No one can call God Father, unless the Church is his mother.”
Now, where does Christ go next? He speaks of His crucifixion. He uses a type from the Old Testament: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” He is speaking here of His crucifixion. He would be lifted up and all who look to Him will be healed and restored from sin and death. Thus all who believe in Him would have eternal life.
It is curious that our text does not include a few more verses. For Christ than adds some very important things. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18) Notice here a couple things. Here Christ clearly is claiming to be God. He is attaching salvation to Him alone. And those who reject Him, will face damnation. Further, Christ speaks of His name. That’s a very important concept that Christ is bringing forward into the New Testament. People thought a god was where the idol was located. But Yahweh said that He is present wherever His name is present. You call upon the true God by His Holy Name. That name is now Jesus Christ. He is Yahweh, come to earth. Wherever the name Jesus Christ is placed, there Jesus Christ is. And not only is He present, He is present in grace. He is present to hear our prayers and respond to our needs. Now where is the name Jesus Christ present? Well, in your baptism it was placed, right here, upon your forehead. The baptized carry the name of Jesus Christ with them wherever they go.
Here John gives us a summary of the Gospel message. Jesus Christ came to die for our sins. In Baptism, we are made children of God. We are His offspring, as well as His Church’s offspring. As children of God we carry the name of Jesus upon us. We have life. We can live in the light because our sins are forgiven. We can live before God because we carry the name of His Son upon us. It is not about us at all. We are like infants who are born. They do nothing, their mother pushes them out into the world. So too are the children of God. We don’t make ourselves be born. We are begotten of the Holy Spirit and born of the Church. We are born forgiven because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.