Isaiah 56:1-8, John 3:1-17
January 27, 2013
This passage from John contains some of the most familiar words in the Bible. “For God so loved the world.” Do you agree? John 3:16 may be the one passage for which even non-Bible people actually know the chapter and verse! How many times have we seen people get on camera at sports events, holding a poster that simply says “John 3:16?” And I wonder how many people who see that actually know what that verse says! But I also wonder how many know the story. Because it’s a very interesting story for our world.
The thing that I realized this week, is that this story took place very early in Jesus ministry. So far, we’ve talked about his birth and his baptism. Now we’re at the beginnings of his ministry. And I have to tell you that this is one of those times when I realized that my perspective might be getting in the way! You know how I always try to get you to think what it was like back then. I always tell you that knowing the rest of the story gives us better perspective than the people in the story. Well, I had to think about that myself this week!
Again, this was early in the ministry of Jesus, and everybody was asking, “Who is this man?” Think about it. A lot of strange things were being said about Jesus, and a lot of strange things had started to happen. Many of the people heard the voice of God at his baptism. They noticed that he had started choosing disciples like a rabbi would. They heard about the miracle at the wedding in Cana. Some may have even known about the visit of the Magi a few decades earlier. But in reality, nobody was really sure who this man was.
So this one Pharisee, Nicodemus, went to find out. I’m sure at this point the Pharisees were beginning to be concerned! And you can’t blame them. Again, we tend to vilify them because of what happened at the end. But they were the keepers of the faith. They were the ones entrusted to watch over the ancient traditions and timeless beliefs. And the growing buzz about this new rabbi from Nazareth had to be something that was very concerning to them.
Now, what we don’t know is whether Nicodemus was sent by the Pharisees, or if he went to Jesus on his own. The fact that he went to Jesus at night could mean either of those things. It could be that he went at night because he wanted this to be a secret meeting. Or it could also be that he went at night because night was the time people would gather and talk about deep things – like religion and philosophy. In either case, he could well have gone to Jesus with the Pharisees’ approval. Or not. We really don’t know.
Whatever the case, he went to Jesus and deep matters were discussed. And as this unfolds, Nicodemus seems a bit clueless, doesn’t he? He is a learned man. There’s no doubt about that. But we get the impression that he’s not grasping what Jesus was saying. And of course these are things we’ve known all our lives! But remember, that’s the newness of this. The people then didn’t know what to think. They were trying to figure out “Who is this man?”
Well, as he often does, John gives us more of the conversation. He gives us a more complete picture. And he shows us more of the feelings and emotions that were happening in the story. And that’s great, because what we have here is some important insight into how a person, who had never heard the gospel message, might react. And there’s great value in that I think!
The central focus in this passage is Jesus statement that one must be “born anew.” Nicodemus asks, “What do you mean by that?” “How can a person that’s old be born again?” “Are you saying he has to go back into the womb?” That sounds like he wasn’t getting it, doesn’t it? But again, imagine what that was like hearing that for the first time! Do we have things in our faith that might be confusing for others?
Maybe you remember Chuck Coleson’s book “Born Again.” He was the Watergate conspirator who gave his life to the Lord and started a prison ministry. And I’m not sure if it was then, or before then, but that term “born again” became part of the scene. People started calling themselves “Born Again Christians.” And even though all of us Christians would say we had been born again through Jesus, still that had a certain meaning in some circles, didn’t it? And it sparked quite a discussion in the Christian world. And of course, it was confusing for others!
What I.d like you to think about today is how that can happen. Sometimes we Christians can get caught up in our own jargon. We can find ourselves using our own “special vocabulary.” I want you to see that we have our own set of terms and concepts that make perfect sense to us, but may be hard to relate to others. Here Jesus is trying to explain a new term to Nicodemus, and we see how hard it was for him to understand. We can see the puzzlement in his reaction.
The challenge in our world today, is to explain what God means to us, to people who may not appreciate or even understand our terminology the way we do. Because the fact is, that in the post-modern world, many of the assumptions we grew up with are no longer universal. And sometimes well find that our words and our Christian based terminology will actually be confusing, or even get in the way of talking about our faith with someone else.
Think about it. How do we convince someone of the existence of God or the deity of Jesus Christ, using passages from the Bible as our point of reference, when the people to whom we may be speaking don’t hold the Bible as being authentic or authoritative? Think about that. That’s a huge challenge! It used to be that most people in the world took the Bible as truth – even non-believers. We can’t make those assumption any more. And if we do, people may not listen to us. Or they may say “Well that’s truth for you, but it’s not for me.” That’s a hard thing to deal with! But we can’t just write those people off!! We need to try to find ways to talk to them that make sense!
I’ll never forget a conference I went to in college. It was downtown at the Marriot. And at one point I was walking through the hallway and came upon one of the girls in our group talking to a couple of guys who were not. And she looked frustrated. And she asked me to help explain to those guys what it meant to “receive Christ as savior”. And surprisingly, that was tough to do. It sounds like a simple thing, but I remember having a very hard time putting it into words that made sense to them.
Friends we all have that challenge today. We live in a world with many different religious perspectives. How do we hold on to the tenants of our beliefs and still share our heart with people who may not be starting from the same point of reference? How do we talk to people about what we believe and why we believe it, in ways that will be meaningful to them? That’s the challenge. And that is tough!
The Apostle Paul was a master of that. If you look at the way he addressed different groups of people in the book of Acts, you’ll find that he spoke to different people in different ways. To a Jewish audience, he quoted the Torah. (He was a Pharisee. He was very good at that.) But, to a Greek audience he did very little of that. He knew those kinds of references would be meaningless to them, and might even get in the way! He spoke to the Greeks out of their experience. He used references that were relevant to their lives and understanding.
Friends, that’s what we’ve got to do. And I believe this is a crucial concern for our Post-modern age. There are a great may spiritual things happening in our world these days. And we as God’s people have a fruitful harvest before us. But we have to consider some new ways of thinking and talking as we address our world.
It’s funny. It doesn’t say what happened to Nicodemus that day. But John tells us that after Jesus death, he was one of the guys who went to Pilate and asked for his body The other was Joseph of Arimathea. Both were members of the Jewish council, and both were followers of Jesus. And they, of all people, were the ones who ended up preparing his body for burial.
Something happened to Nicodemus that night. It might not have happened at that moment. It might have simmered in his mind for a long time. But whatever it was, it was enough to change his life. And remember, his Jewish tradition permeated everything he did! It would have been tough for him to think in new ways and to see this Jesus for who he was! Many of his colleagues could not! But in the end, Nicodemus was willing to! What about us?
I think that’s the starting point for dealing with our world. We need to present Jesus in a favorable light. Which is not easy these days! We need to show his compassion and care and self sacrifice. People need to see those things in us! We need to remember that if we are seen in a negative light, Jesus is seen in a negative light. As someone once said, At any moment, you may be the only Jesus some people will ever see.
So, “Who is this man?” I believe the world is still asking that question. And the answer is not so clear cut as we may think. Sometimes it transcends the words and the language we are used to, and we are comfortable with. Sometimes it comes in new ways and new terms. Sometimes it comes simply by the way we live our lives, and the way we love others like God so loved the world. Think about this story and be thinking about the people in your world. Will they see Christ in you?
Eternal God, its hard to challenge the people of this world. There are so many conflicting opinions and viewpoints. Help us to stand with Jesus as we seek to love the world that you so loved. Teach us to be the light of the world as Jesus called us. For this we pray in his name, Amen.