Breathing the Air of New Life – February 28, 2010
Ezekiel 37:1-10, John 3:1-21
February 28, 2010
I tried using this title once before as a church slogan – a “motto” if you will. Something to put on a web site. I’m sorry to say It didn’t go over very well! As the old expression goes, “It went over, like a cement cloud!” I’m hoping it works better today! It came to mind because of what Jesus told Nicodemus, that there is new life, and that means life in the spirit. And that sort of worked together with our Old Testament reading about the wind that blew through the valley of the dry bones. In the scriptures, the words for air, wind, and breath and spirit, are often the same word. That’s what I’d like us to think about today.
Here in John’s Gospel we meet this man called Nicodemus. And Nicodemus is an interesting person. He’s a Pharisee. He’s a member of the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of the Jewish people. We talked last week about the fact that there was no “separation of church and state.” The religious leaders were the civil leaders. And even though they were under the thumb of Rome, we can still see the structure of their society in the scripture. There’s was a “theocracy.” That means, a society ruled by God through the religious leadership. And we get a sense of that theocracy in the way John describes Nicodemus, calling him “a ruler of the Jews.”
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Why do you think he did that? And why do you think John was so specific about that? Maybe you’ve heard some of the explanations. One of them says that Nicodemus came by night because he was afraid of being seen talking with Jesus. He was afraid of what his colleagues might say. Well, I’m not very big on that explanation. First of all, it presupposes the other thing we said last week, that we’re quick to see the religious leaders as being the “enemies of Jesus.” And as I said, that wasn’t the case. And it certainly wasn’t the case at first. This story takes place early in Jesus’ ministry, when the religious leaders were still trying to embrace Jesus, to find out what he was about. They were still inviting him to dinner, like we saw in our story for last week. So I don’t think this was a clandestine visit! Nicodemus didn’t come to “spy on” Jesus
There’s another explanation I’ve heard which seems more likely. It is that the “night time” was the customary time for people to get together and discuss philosophical and religious things. They would work during the day and gather at night for such discussions. And that’s certainly what’s happening here! This conversation between Jesus and this Pharisee is a discussion of a highly spiritual and philosophical nature!
I also think this was an honest conversation. Nicodemus was really very interested in hearing what Jesus had to say. That wasn’t always the case. Too often the religious leaders did tend to think very highly of themselves. Egos were a factor, and they often showed a certain amount of indignation about “who was teaching who!” But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Nicodemus. Throughout this conversation, he seems genuinely interested in understanding what Jesus was saying. There seem to be no hidden agendas here. He’s not collecting any ammunition to use against Jesus later. This was an honest and open discussion.
I think Jesus welcomed that! I think Jesus honored Nicodemus’ desire to learn, and to “dig into things” spiritually. And I think he had a real compassion for this man. He poured out his thoughts and his heart to him. And I’m glad John recorded this conversation! For in it, Jesus gave Nicodemus some of his best stuff! He said, “What I’m about to say is important! Someday you’re going to see these words on signs at football games! ‘For God so loved the world…’”
As we think of this, keep in mind that we’re going to meet Nicodemus again. It would be in chapter 19, after Jesus’ death. There, Pilate had just given the body of Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea, “who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews.” Then it says, “Nicodemus also, who had first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight.” Nicodemus was at least in sympathy with Jesus, if not a disciple himself. So this meeting was a very important event in his life. Even though it seemed to be “doctrinally oriented,” (a favorite subject for a Pharisee) it had a personal impact on his life!
Nicodemus asked Jesus the first and most obvious question – the one that was on everybody’s mind. “Who are you?” He asked it in the form of a statement. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do the things you do, unless God is with him.” Everyone wanted to know who Jesus was. Remember, they didn’t know. We as the readers do! But they were trying to figure it out. And I love Jesus’ response. There seems to be a disconnect here. Jesus doesn’t appear to be responding to Nicodemus’ statement. And I believe that’s intentional on John’s part. I believe he wanted us to see how Jesus turned this conversation from the very start. To Nicodemus, Jesus said – “Jesus answered him,” as John put it – “Truly, truly, I say to you…” That literally reads, “Amen, amen I say to you…” That was Jesus’ signature phrase that meant he was about to say something important. “Amen, amen, I say to you unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Now, remember, we already have an understanding of that expression “born again.” Nicodemus was hearing it for the first time. And it made no sense. At least not literally. He asked, “What do you mean?” “How can a man be born when he is old?” “It’s mechanically impossible, Jesus!” But of course we know that Jesus meant a spiritual rebirth. And he launches into his explanation. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit.” “Do you marvel that I said to you ‘you must be born anew’?” “The wind blows where it wills, 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.”
So what’s he saying here? Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus, that when a person is born of the Spirit, it is the spirit that holds sway in that person’s life. When we are being God’s people, we are choosing to look to the guidance and directions of his spirit. Do you remember the series I did on the “gifts of the Spirit?” I said they were “signs that we were walking in the Spirit of God.” That’s what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus. That fellowship with the Holy Spirit, that interaction, that “give and take” with the spirit of God, is what marks us as Spiritual people.
Sometimes people talk about being a ‘born again’ Christian. And I have to admit that I’ve always been just a bit uncomfortable with that term. Not because I disagree with the concept, but sometimes I wonder what the person means by it! Because sometimes people have used that term “born again” as an equivalent term for “salvation.” But Jesus doesn’t exactly say that here. He’s describing here a person whose life is oriented toward the spirit of God. Here he’s describing a person in fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Here, he’s describing a spiritual person, not just a saved person. And sometimes I wonder how many people who consider themselves “saved” are really all that “spiritual.” Maybe that sounds a bit radical. But I don’t think we should make the mistake of thinking that if we are saved, we are automatically “spiritual.” There are those who consider themselves saved, but all they’ve done is avoid the judgment they fear. They aren’t all that interested in God!
If I had to ask the question I would rather ask, “Are you born of the spirit?” I think that gets at what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus here. He says “Truly, truly I say to you…” (there’s that expression again!) “…we speak of what we know. And we bear witness of what we have seen but you have not received our testimony. If I had told you earthly things and you did not believe, how could you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” I know that sounds confusing, but I believe what Jesus was trying to do was to get Nicodemus to see his spiritual orientation. He was asking him, “Are you earthly or are you heavenly?” “Are you flesh or are you spiritual.” God wants us to be spiritual. God wants us to live in the fellowship of the holy spirit.
You see, when you read John 3:16 from that understanding, it becomes more real. Notice, Jesus didn’t say, “for God so love the world that he gave his son so that whoever believed in him might not perish, but have everlasting existence.” That’s how some people think about it. He said, “everlasting life!” That’s an important word to John, and it means more than just continuance! It means life in the spirit of God. John’s whole Gospel is about that – belief so that you might truly live! God wants us to live. God wants us to be fully alive! (As you’ve heard me say so many times now!)
Tony Campolo once described a time in one of his sociology courses when he stopped and pointed to one of his students and asked, “You! How long have you lived?” the young man, slightly shocked, answered, “I’m twenty-two.” “No, no, no. You’ve told me how long your heart has been pumping blood. My question is, how long have you lived!” Then Dr. Campolo went on to describe an experience where he was confronted with the magnificence of life, where his connection with the grandeur of the world was palpable, and where the feelings of the vitality of life was at a peak. And the student responded “well, when you put it that way, I’ve probably only lived a few minutes… Most of my life has been the meaningless passage of time, between all to few moments of ‘genuine aliveness’.”
I wonder how many people that describes. I wonder how many people have taken this life that God has given us and turned it into a “meaningless passage of time.” I wonder how many people have taken what Paul described as “So great a salvation” and turned it into just “an avoidance of condemnation.” I wonder how many have been given “eternal life” and turned it into eternal existence.
We’re talking this Lenten season about the “Historical Jesus.” And I believe that’s what the historical Jesus does. He steps away from the conventions, from the explanations, from the doctrines, and he says, “For God so loved the world… that he gave everlasting life.” That life cannot be separated from God’s amazing love or the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, or we will turn that life in into mere existence!
So I’ll close with Dr Campolo’s question. I won’t point to anybody! But I will ask. How long have you lived?
Eternal God, we love you because you first loved us. We are amazed at your gift of life, and we thank you for sending your son to show us that life. Help us to grow in our understanding of him, as we seek to walk in the fellowship of your spirit. May we know your joy abundance and peace, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.