United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

"Nicodemus’ Question" - John 3:9

Rev. Dr. Daniel L. Migliore
March 8, 2020


Jesus is causing a stir and Nicodemus wants to meet him.  He has heard a lot about the new teacher and maybe has seen him perform a miracle or two.  So one night he visits Jesus.  He goes at night because he doesn’t want neighbors and fellow Pharisees to spread a false rumor about his becoming a disciple of Jesus.   Nicodemus wants to find out more about this disturbing teacher of the kingdom of God. 

The Gospel of John tells us two other stories about Nicodemus.  He appears later in the Gospel (chap. 7) when some of the chief priests and Pharisees urge the temple police to arrest Jesus.  Nicodemus speaks on behalf of the embattled Jesus, arguing that the Jewish law does not judge people without giving them a hearing.  This unexpected defense of Jesus causes Nicodemus’ fellow Pharisees to ask him menacingly: “So are you also a follower of this Galilean Jesus?”   In this second story, Nicodemus appears to have moved from the initial curiosity that motivated his visit to Jesus by night to now taking the public risk of defending Jesus against unfair charges. 

And then there’s a third story about Nicodemus in John’s Gospel (chap. 19).  It takes place after the crucifixion.  Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea in asking Pilate to allow them to take away the body of Jesus for burial.  Nicodemus brings with him one hundred pounds of burial spices to use when they wrap Jesus’ body before laying him in a tomb.  One hundred pounds is a lot of burial spices, it’s worth a lot of money, and it represents a lot of love.   If we put together these three stories of Nicodemus found in John’s Gospel, we may safely conclude that he has undergone a journey of faith: he has moved from being merely curious about Jesus, to being a public defender of him against unjust charges, to being not only a mourner of the crucified rabbi, but also one of his followers.         

While Nicodemus’ journey of faith as described in the Gospel of John in these three vignettes has much to teach us, I want us to focus this morning on the first story of Nicodemus: his visit to Jesus by night, and especially on the questions he raises in his conversation with Jesus. 

Nicodemus doesn’t begin the conversation with a question.  Instead, he offers Jesus a compliment.  “Rabbi,” he says, “we know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do the things you do apart from the presence of God.”  We have no reason to doubt that this compliment is sincere.  Nicodemus is curious; he is a serious seeker.  But Nicodemus’ curiosity is restrained by caution.  He takes no risks.  He visits Jesus by night to avoid risking almost certain reprisals from his fellow religious leaders.    

Jesus wastes no time responding to Nicodemus’ compliment with small talk.  His reply to the curious religious leader is quick and to the point:  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”  Hearing this, poor Nicodemus is confused.  He sheepishly asks: “How can anyone be born again after having grown old?”  And then perhaps with tongue in cheek, he asks further: “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb, and be born?” 

In his confusion, Nicodemus thinks Jesus is referring to a second physical birth while Jesus is speaking of a different kind of rebirth, a transformation and redirection of one’s whole life by the grace of God.   Jesus adds: “To enter the kingdom of God you must be born anew of water and the Spirit.”  It’s unlikely this clarification helps Nicodemus much.  He has no idea what Jesus means by being born anew by water and the Spirit, although readers of John’s Gospel know, because later in the Gospel it will be explained that it is Jesus himself who gives the water of eternal life and who sends the Spirit of new birth.    

In this story of his night visit, we find Nicodemus simply baffled by Jesus’ talk of the necessity of a new birth.  So in exasperation he exclaims: “How can this be?”   And Jesus replies: “Are you a teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?”  It’s Nicodemus’ question “How can this be?” and Jesus’s reply: “Are you a teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?” that I want us to ponder together this morning:  Why doesn’t Nicodemus understand what Jesus is saying to him?  And why does his question and Jesus’ reply matter so much to us today? 

“How can this be?”  Why does Nicodemus, a religious leader of his people, ask this question?  There is no reason to think it’s because he is a bad person, or someone uninterested in matters of faith.  As a respected Pharisee, he is someone deeply devoted to the law of God and to the precious religious traditions of his people.  Well trained and appropriately recognized as a religious leader, he is mostly likely an older person, someone with many years of life experience.  Indeed, perhaps he has had more than his share of the harsh realities of life, lived too many years, had too many disappointments, to think that talk of a new birth makes much sense.

And what’s more, as a person devoted to the sacred texts of his people, Nicodemus is doubtless familiar with the words we heard from Ecclesiastes this morning.  Perhaps he thinks his own experience confirms the words of Ecclesiastes who speaks for so many people, then and now, whose hope has been worn out by the experiences of life.  “What has been is what will be,” writes Ecclesiastes, “and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”  Maybe that was the conviction Nicodemus brought with him when he came to see Jesus by night.  And when he heard Jesus speak of a new birth, well, who’s kidding whom?  How can this be? 

I don’t think we should be too hard on Nicodemus for asking his question.  Aren’t we also sometimes inclined to think, like Nicodemus and like the writer of Ecclesiastes, that basically things don’t change all that much.  Like them, we have probably had many dreams about the future, for ourselves, for our nation, for our world.  And what has happened to those dreams?  Surely some of them have been partially realized, maybe even some wonderful things have happened.  But do they deserve the fancy name of a new birth, a really new beginning of life, a dawning of the kingdom of God?   New birth?  How can this be?  Don’t you have to get used to the fact that there is nothing new, really new, under the sun? 

And so, for Nicodemus and maybe for us too, our hopes for a transformation of our life, for seeing the beginning of a new world, gradually wither and die. What can a new birth mean in a world where each day is pretty much the same as the day before, where some people feast while others starve, where the economy rises and falls, where administrations come and go, where if something unexpected happens, it’s usually for the worse like a coronavirus, and where life inevitably ends in death?  New birth?  This talk of Jesus about new birth and the coming kingdom of God is so maddingly against the grain, so unheard of, that it scrambles our mind and turns everything upside down.  New birth?  How can this be?  Nicodemus’ question is our question, too. 

Yet according to the message and ministry of Jesus, the answer to Nicodemus’ and to our question is: Yes, new birth, radical new beginnings in the lives of people, can and do happen.  Remember Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers but who rose to become just the person God needed to rescue his people from disaster?  Remember Mary Magdalene, who is described as a person “from whom seven demons had gone out,” but who is one of the small band of witnesses of Jesus’ death and one of the first to carry the message of Jesus’ resurrection to the other disciples?  Remember the apostle Paul who was transformed from being a persecutor of the followers of Jesus to becoming the greatest missionary of the gospel in the history of the church? 

Dramatic changes, new births in human lives occur not only in biblical times but in our own day as well.  How many alcoholics, how many drug addicts, have had a veritable rebirth after being mired in a death-threatening addiction?  “Are you a teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” Jesus asks Nicodemus and us.   New birth, as Jesus spoke of it, is not a religious platitude.  By the power of the Spirit of God, it can really happen.   Jesus’ summons to a new birth means that if we trust in God we are never to give up hope. By the always surprising grace of God we are enabled to resist the cynicism that tells us simply to shrug our shoulders and say, what’s the use, nothing ever really changes.   New beginnings in human life do happen.  Ask your pastor if a new beginning, a new birth in each one of our fragile embodied human lives is possible.  She has a story to tell you.         

But there’s something more to ponder in Nicodemus’ night visit and Jesus’ talk of new birth.  New beginnings can happen not only in our personal life.  They can also happen in the life of nations.  Take another look at Nicodemus’ question: “How can this be?”  Maybe something more is involved in this question than saying there is nothing new under the sun for us as individuals.   Maybe Nicodemus is also thinking about the state of his nation.  Maybe he is asking himself, “Do we as a people, as a nation, really need, or even want, a new birth?  Aren’t we God’s chosen people?  Haven’t we been given the law of God?  Hasn’t God promised to Abraham our father that we will always be the apple of God’s eye?”    

And Nicodemus might also be thinking: “Even supposing we as a people needed a new birth, how would it be possible?  Our people have suffered so many years in bondage, first in Egypt, then in Babylon.  And now we are now under the thumb of the Roman empire.  How many times, through many tears and many deaths, have we looked for a new age, a new beginning, and what have those hopes come to?  I am old.  My people are old.  They have endured much and are too weary to hope.  New birth?  Ecclesiastes is right: there is nothing new under the sun for us and our nation.”         

If thoughts like there were going through Nicodemus’ mind when he heard Jesus talk about new birth, are they so different from thoughts that you and I, and our fellow citizens, might have about the state of our country and the need and the possibility of its having a new birth?  To be sure, we once thought that America was the new apple of God’s eye.  But many are now disenchanted with rosy thoughts like that.  We now know all too well that evils like racism, hatred of foreigners, and a gaping chasm between rich and poor are embedded in our national life.  A new birth, a new beginning?  That would mean deep changes in all the institutions of our society, in our business life, in our politics, in our schools.  And is not our society so deeply divided that hope has become for many a rare commodity?  New birth?  How can that be?     

We have to ask ourselves: What are the conditions and marks of a new birth?  Of a person?  Of a nation?  On God’s side, the answer is clear: the gift of God’s transforming Spirit.  But on our side, for us ordinary human beings with all our failings, what are the conditions and marks of a new birth?  It wouldn’t be too difficult to name some of them.  Surely a spirit of humility.  Surely a readiness to recognize the depth of our need for new life.  Surely repentance for our callousness to the needs of others.  Surely a willingness to make amends for long ignored webs of injustice.   

It’s not just preachers and theologians who are able to recognize this.  By the grace of God, one of America’s greatest Presidents happened to be a person of deep faith.  I’m thinking, of course, of Abraham Lincoln.  He was a Bible reader, and I’m sure he had read about Jesus’ talk about a new birth.  So it isn’t an accident that when Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address at the battleground of Gettyburg in the middle of a horrendous civil war, Lincoln asked his fellow citizens to resolve with him to work--and I think Lincoln would gladly have added the words--to pray, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”  Maybe Lincoln would also have let us add, a new birth of justice, a new birth of compassion, a new birth of kindness, a new birth of friendship, a new birth of mutual care among all people, of different genders, different skin colors, different religious traditions.  Without a spirit of humility, without a will to commit ourselves to the common good, can a nation be reborn?                  

I said the rebirth of our nation would involve deep changes in all institutions of our society, in our business life, our politics, our justice system, our schools.  But now I want to add: a rebirth is needed in our religious institutions too, in our churches and synagogues and mosques.  If our churches are to be believable witnesses to the wider society in which we live, witnesses of the necessity and possibility of a new birth, must not the churches themselves show the concrete marks of a new birth?   And what might such marks be?  I will mention only one: it’s called the readiness to forgive.      

For Christians the act of forgiveness is first and foremost always God’s act.  But God’s gift of forgiveness and God’s work of reconciliation in the life and death of Jesus calls for our response.  God’s forgiveness must be accompanied on our side by our willingness to forgive one another. “Forgive us our debts,” we pray, “as we forgive our debtors.”   

In June, 2015, at “Mother Emanuel,” an African American Church in Charleston, South Carolina, something happened that shook, or at least should have shaken, all citizens in this country and certainly all Christians.  You know the story.  A small group of “Mother Emanuel” members were having a Bible study and praying when they were unexpectedly joined by a young white man.  He was warmly welcomed, and he spoke with the group for a brief time.  Then he took out his high powered rifle and shot dead the members of the prayer group and their pastor. 

Listen carefully: the shedding of innocent blood was not the new thing in this event. Innocent blood has been shed in our country for centuries because of fear and hatred of racial, ethnic, and other minority groups.  That’s not new under the sun.  The new thing is what happened later.  To the utter bewilderment of reporters and tv news anchors, an A.M.E. pastor spoke of . . .  forgiveness.  And the reporters asked again and again the question: How can you possibly speak of forgiveness in response to this monstrous event? 

What the reporters seemingly did not know and could not comprehend was that that the Mother Emanuel survivors of the bloody, reprehensible event were far from talking about abandoning the need of justice and opting for cheap grace.  Forgiveness is never cheap.  In the Lenten season leading up to Holy Week and Good Friday, we remember that grace may be free but it is never cheap.  The love and forgiveness of God cost God dearly.  Yes, it is true that forgiveness can sometimes be offered prematurely.   It’s not easy, at least for us sinful humans, to navigate the choppy waters between the call for justice and the call for mercy.  But the folk at Mother Emanuel Church are not naïve.  They know full well the brutality and ugliness at work in our life together that many of their fellow citizens can hardly begin to imagine.  But precisely as a Christian community, they have chosen to live as followers of Jesus, rooted in the message of the cross that Jesus bore for us and for all people.  That is why in this moment of horror, they could speak of forgiveness. 

I must confess: when I discovered that the lectionary text for this Sunday was John 3 and the story of Nicodemus’ night visit, I said to myself, This must be a mistake; this is the season of Lent.  What in the world does Jesus’ talk of the necessity of a new birth have to do with Lent, and with the Lenten season in the year of our Lord 2020?   But gradually it dawned on me, that yes indeed this is a text for Lent, and maybe especially for Lent this year. Because you and I are always in need of a new birth, a new beginning, and God knows and we all know, our country, our churches, and our world are surely in need of a new birth.    

We may look at what happened in that Charleston Church, and cry in outrage, How can this be?  How can this be in our country?  Just as we may look at the cross on which Jesus hangs and in outrage cry, How can this be?  How could human beings torture and execute even the Son of God?  And with our questions we miss what should really stagger our minds: the mind-boggling word of forgiveness from the members of the Charleston Church, echoing the word of forgiveness from the Christ who hangs on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”  This thing called new birth, the new birth of a person, the new birth of a nation, the new birth of a church begins with God’s most radical act, the act of forgiveness, and then, in dependence on God’s gift of forgiveness, we are called to offer forgiveness to our neighbors and our enemies,  to be reconciled among ourselves by the power and beauty of this gift of God’s forgiveness of us all.  Be assured, the readiness to forgive is part of the narrow doorway to a new world called the kingdom of God.        

“How can this be?”  Nicodemus asks.  Jesus answer to him should continue to haunt us:  Are you a teacher of Israel, and you do not understand these things?”  Do you, and you, and I-- all would-be followers of Jesus—really understand these things?  Do we understand that we are all always in need of a new birth, as individual persons, as families, as communities, as a nation, as a congregation, as a world of interlocking nations—all always in need of a new birth?  Not just new words, but new resolves.  Not just new thoughts but new actions.  Not just new feelings but new lives.  Not just any thing that goes under the name of love, but  the very particular, irreplaceable love of God embodied in Jesus Christ, a love that can forgive, a love that cares for and serves the least among us, a love that yearns for reconciliation among all people, a love that when it really takes hold of us, when it permeates our personal and our communal life, transforms all we imagine, all that we are and all that we do. 

That would really be a new birth, wouldn’t it?  How earth shaking it is to believe—in the words of Jesus at the end of his conversation with Nicodemus in that night visit—that God so loved the world that God sent Jesus the Son of God to embody that love in human form, not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved, might be healed, might be renewed, might be transformed, through living in and by the love of God in Jesus.     

That’s the message Jesus leaves Nicodemus with, the man who came to him by night.  And that’s the message of Jesus to us today amid all the broken lives and all the national and international crises of our time.  That God so loves the world and wants us, all of us, to drink deeply of that love, to live into and out of that love, to share it humbly with others, to trust in it and base our hope in it, to discover at last that there is something new under the sun, that the gracious God, the God of justice, kindness, forgiveness, and peace, is at work in our world making all things new.  Amen.