There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.
19 “This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20 All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21 Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”
A Jewish leader named Nicodemus slips out after dark and manages to find Jesus. Nicodemus waits for night to fall before he goes looking for this young, new Rabbi, which
means teacher, but he does seek Jesus. In John’s Gospel, that means something. . . It’s hard not to think though, that this esteemed religious leader doesn’t want people to know who he’s going to talk to. Maybe Nic is worried that people will worry, question him as to whether his faith is what it should be.
At any rate, when he gets to Jesus, Nicodemus begins with confidence, “Rabbi we know that you’re a teacher who has come from God.” That’s a bold statement. We know who you are. Nicodemus uses the plural “we,” he’s a leader probably speaking on behalf his community. We know.
It’s important that we remember how Nicodemus begins, by claiming what he knows. . .
We know who you are because we have seen the signs that you do, so you must be from God.
That’s going to cause problems for Nic later because ultimately, Jesus is not going to entrust himself or his ministry to people who rely on signs for faith but for now we’ll keep moving.
What Jesus says is this, I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.
This is where Nicodemus really starts to struggle. I can see him there, pausing, scrunching his eyebrows, tilting his head in confusion. Now, how’s that gonna happen? How is it possible for an adult, literally, having grown old, to be born again? Having become an old man, it’s impossible to go back in your mother’s womb and be born a second time.
Jesus goes on to explains things. Tries to. He’s not speaking on the surface, not speaking literally. Jesus is speaking on a deeper level. A person has to be born of water and Spirit. In order to see God’s kingdom, in order to recognize what God is up to in the world and to be able to participate in it, in order to realize and perceive the new thing God is doing, a person has to be born anew or again.
Now, a group of preachers helped me think about ol’ Nicodemus in a new way. They made this point. Nic’s confusion and struggle is not so much with the physical impossibility of what Jesus seems to be suggesting. . . Nicodemus’s struggle is the fact that he has reached a place of maturity and establishment and knowledge in his life. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a Jewish leader. He probably enjoys a comfortable life where he is honored and respected and feels quite comfortable in what he’s accomplished. And especially in Jesus’ time, elders were held in high esteem.
Part of what Nicodemus is really asking Jesus is, why in the world would I desire newness when I’ve been working my whole life to create this station for myself?
Why would a person of knowledge and maturity want to go back and be young again?
Why would I want to start over? Why would I want to rediscover?
I’ve spent my whole life getting here!
In fact, Nicodemus is saying, I’ve reached a place where I’ve finally figured it out and you’re asking me to think again.
. . .
I was in an all-day martial arts seminar yesterday. It was so much fun. We got instruction from all these different high-ranking martial artists in karate, jui-juitsu, judo, different things.
I was in my last workshop of the day and the teacher was working with us on power, specifically the source of our power. Let’s take punches, for example. I didn’t know this before I started martial arts, but a good, effective punch originates from the hip.
So we were doing these drills to work on increasing our power and explosiveness even when the fight might be close.
We’re practicing leaning in to punches and getting sort of wrapped by our attacker and that’s when the instructor said something that I had heard before and that I knew to be true. . . but it hit me in a new way yesterday. (It’s something our teacher tells us all the time where I train every week.)
He said this,
“Relax. You’ll lose your power if you can’t relax.”
Because here’s the thing- when we tense up. Especially under stress or attack or whatever, if our muscles stay tensed up, they have to be released and then reengaged for us to counter. And guess what? That’s two movements.
But if we can stay relaxed, even under duress, then we are more likely to be able to respond effectively.
And with power when that is necessary.
The situation we were practicing for was physical attack.
But I think there is spiritual meaning here.
Nicodemus was all tensed up.
He had to sneak and meet Jesus during the night. He began by proclaiming to Jesus all that he knew. Yet, in all that knowledge, Nicodemus was unable to grasp what God was trying to say to him.
Nicodemus was all tensed up.
He didn’t know how to relax in the midst of uncertainty and challenge and change.
I assure, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom, Jesus says.
All that Nicodemus can muster is skepticism.
How is it possible? He doesn’t say an awful lot in this exchange, but two times Nic asks,
How are these things possible?
He was all tensed up.
Nicodemus is a man of faith. A man of knowledge. A man of deep religious roots. A man that an entire community looks up to. A man who feels confident in his spiritual status.
Yet when he is presented with a new invitation, an invitation to reimagine, rethink, rediscover, look again at what he thought he had seen before, to see it with new eyes, in a new light, -Nicodemus is all tensed up.
It’s as if all that he has ever known is under attack and instead of being able to receive the new energy and harness it, instead of relaxing in the midst of it,
Nicodemus is all tensed up.
All he can muster is misunderstanding, How are these things possible?
I think it’s worth mentioning that this being born anew or being born again business is something that happens over and over again. I don’t think it’s a one-time deal.
A theologian named Serene Jones in her book Call it Grace describes our need to “open eyes, ears, hands, minds, and hearts to receive the truth of God’s real, persistent presence, God’s grace.”
This is what conversion is. We begin to see everything everywhere differently. All things everywhere are infused with God’s love. God’s grace suddenly saturates all of our existence. She says, “This process of awakening to what is already true, but you haven’t previously seen it, is called conversion-a word that literally means, ‘to see anew.’”
Conversion can be thought of as redefining and rediscovering meaning.
You thought you knew what love was- and then you became a parent.
Or a grandparent. And you were born anew.
You thought you knew how strong you were- until you hit a bottom that was lower than you ever imagined you could hit and it was only after you had clawed your way back that you knew what strength was.
You were born anew.
Maybe you thought you knew grief- until you lost someone that it was truly impossible to imagine life without.
Maybe it was grace.
You thought you knew what it was, the unconditional nature of it, what it meant to be loved even when you did not deserve it- until you got yourself into something that you really could not get out of on your own. And someone just loved you back and then and only then did you really know what grace meant.
You were born again.
Conversion- to see anew. To relearn. Rediscover.
A preacher named Meda Stamper writes this, “When we become too sure of what we know about Jesus, when we believe that we have grasped him at last, that is when we can perhaps expect to be undone like Nicodemus.”
Maybe being born anew is a lot like being undone. In a necessary way.
Having what we thought we knew redefined, reimagined, remade.
And maybe just maybe, it becomes all the more possible for this to happen when we resist the urge to tense up,
and simply relax.