Born from Above

Published: Tuesday, 14 March 2017

NicodemusThis sermon was presented by Geoff Pound at the Ashburton Baptist Church on 12 March 2017.

Reading: John 3:1-17 New Revised Standard Version

My name is Nicodemus.

You Aussies, who love to shorten every name, might call me Nico.

I’m known as Nic to my wife or Nike to my friends.

Yes, it’s the same name as the brand for sports equipment.[1]

Nike or Nico means ‘victory’ in Greek.

Nicodemus means ‘victory of the people’. That was the name and the hope given to me by my parents.

For all of my life, I’ve been a winner.

I’ve been a member of the most prestigious religious class, the Pharisees.

I’ve been a prominent leader of my Jewish community.

I’ve been a leading scholar with so many doctorates and other degrees.

My colleagues joke that with so many letters after my name, I could start an alphabet soup company.

Don’t you hate it when reporters in the media shackle you with some flaw? Some weakness.

So Peter is often described as the one who denied Jesus.

Saul is remembered as the one who persecuted the Christians.

Thomas is always tagged as doubting Thomas.

As for me, John in his account says:

He came to Jesus by night…

He makes me out to be secretive, fearful, in the dark, a shadowy figure, always wanting to fly under the radar.

But I was a leader. I had a reputation to keep.

I didn’t want people knowing that I was checking Jesus out even quietly seeking.

I wasn’t ready to come out.

You’ve heard of Wikileaks. The last thing I wanted was Nikileaks.

As I stood there in the inky darkness, I addressed him with respect and conscious of those I was representing:

2….“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 

We’d heard of his teaching prowess.

We’d read of his amazing signs such as in Cana (John 2) when he turned water into wine.[2]

I recognized his divine calling and power but he wasn’t impressed.

In fact, unbeknown to me, he’d just been berating people who’d go searching after signs to make them believe or boost their faith.[3]

I copped it as well. It seemed to all go down-hill from there.

He cut me down to size. He didn’t mince his words.

He looked me fair and square in the eyes and he said:

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

If you’ve got an old translation you will hear Jesus saying to me, “Without being born again.”

The word[4] can mean born again or born from above and this teacher loved a play on words.

I took the literal meaning and so I asked:

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

I was thinking, especially of me as a senior citizen, how can I, be stuffed up again into my mother’s uterus (God bless her) to be born again?

He replies to me just as emphatically and emphasizes the need to be born from above:

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 

Thankfully this wasn’t about my old Mum but being born by God’s seed and life.

I thought I was well on in the faith but he was inferring that I hadn’t even passed Go.

I was still in the dark. According to him, I wasn’t even in the kingdom of God.

I needed to go back to kindergarten.

The great thing that I did understand was that, although I was an old person, he said that I could change. In fact, I must change.

My life could be transformed so much that he likened it to a birth experience.

But looking back he must have been talking about the water of baptism and the stirring, birthing of God’s spirit.

What fantastic news this is for people who are not born like me, with the rich parentage, the right social lineage or the pure religious pedigree.

On the contrary, he was suggesting that these things I thought were assets, count for nothing and they could be our greatest barrier, for God to become our mother and our father.

He was on a roll now and he sharpens up the distinction:

What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

I knew that I was born of flesh and of my mother’s flesh, but had I been born of the Spirit?

I must have looked bamboozled, like a possum caught in the headlights, because Jesus said to me:

Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’[5] 

I wasn’t quick enough to think it then but I’ve thought it since. You know that line “that a person should be very careful in the selection of their parents?”[6]

We didn’t have much choice in the timing and manner of our birth.

Whether we talk about being ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’, birthing is supremely God’s work, not ours.

Then he launches off again, this time saying more about the work of God’s spirit.

In, both the Hebrew and Greek languages, the word for ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ are the same.[7]

They even sound the same in Hebrew: ruach! Here’s another word play and he says:

The wind blows where it chooses, 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.” 

He was talking about the unpredictable, mysterious work of God.

The more I’ve thought about it I realize that we can’t confine spiritual birth into nice neat formula like being ‘born again’.

Being born is a wonderful thing but it suggests a one-off event but God’s spirit must keep blowing and birthing newness upon our lives and on our communities.

Sometimes God sweeps us off our feet like a hurricane.

At other times we sense God blowing upon us like a gale. Sometimes we sense God… and at other times we don’t.

Then God can come to us like a gentle zephyr, almost imperceptible.

All this is the unique and personal work of God’s Spirit blowing on our lives.

When he paused and I got another word in, I asked the ‘how’ question again:

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 

His answer stunned me as he spoke teacher to teacher:

10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

I wasn’t used to this treatment. I was a respected teacher. I had a following. I had a fan base.

My name was Nike but I was feeling more like a loser than a winner.

He wiped the floor with me. I was lost for words.

But sometimes we need to hear it straight and straight from the horse’s mouth.

He kept speaking, not just to me but to others like me:

11 “Very truly, I tell you [plural], we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you [plural] do not receive our testimony. 

12 If I have told you [plural] about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 

He’d lost me at this point but he was speaking about not receiving and not understanding because I was seeing things from a human perspective and not with the aid of God’s Spirit. Then when he talked about heavenly matters he segued into what I only realized later was a reference to his ascension:

13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 

In one line, he’s talking about his divine pre-existence, his incarnation and his ascension!

See how his mind works?

From anticipating his ascension, he grounds his teaching in Moses’ lifting up and draws a parallel with the Son of Man being lifted up (another word play):

14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

At least I was familiar with this story from the 21st chapter of the book of Numbers in the Torah.

The children of Israel were moaning about the food and in one of those classic Hebrew Bible moments God answers their complaints by sending poisonous serpents. It’s like treating a broken arm by smashing the patient’s toe with a hammer. Your arm may not feel better but you’re too busy screaming about your toe to complain about your arm.[8]

God told Moses to lift up a bronze serpent upon a pole[9] so if you were bitten, you would see the serpent and live.

In the same way, the Son of Man would be lifted up on a pole and looking at him would give life, eternal life. Right here. Right now.

My great claim to fame is that I was the first person to hear the most well-known verse in the Bible—‘John 3:16’. You’ve seen placards with ‘John 3:16’ at the World Cup football finals and the Olympics. John 3:16 has been called, ‘The Gospel in a nutshell’.[10] The Gospel in miniature.[11]

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Unfortunately, this verse has been turned into a formula. Read it and you’re saved.

It has led many to concentrate on the new birth and not the ongoing life as a believer.[12]

It often focuses people exclusively on the death of Christ.

Instead, Jesus is calling us into an ongoing, life-changing encounter with God’s incredible love, not just for you and me but the whole cosmos.

This verse is often taken to highlight the peril of ‘perishing’ but Jesus is quick to show how life-giving this is, when he said:

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I wonder how you respond to all of this.

As I finish, you might be thinking that I just faded out of this conversation and you’re right.

You might be wondering how I responded to this nighttime message from Jesus.

I feature again briefly in chapter 7 of John’s account[13] when, in discussions at the Sanhedrin, like Gamaliel,[14] I came to Jesus’ defense and urged them to hear him first without passing judgement.

Then later on, when we heard the news of the crucifixion of Jesus…let John tell the story in his 19th chapter:

38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night [there he goes again], also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

The labour before a spiritual birth can be slow and painful but, in my case it eventually happened:[15]

I paid my respects at the tomb in broad daylight.

It was a crazy thing to do with the witch hunt going on but, while first I came to Jesus by night, now I came out for all the world to see.

It was worth it.

No longer in the dark, I now understood who was the real ‘victory of the people’.

I showed my love not with words but with the fragrant spices and tender care at his burial.

When I heard a couple of days later, that some of his disciples had seen Jesus alive, I wept!...I cried like a new born baby.

Prayer

Loving God,

Your teaching is shallow enough for a toddler to paddle in yet deep enough to drown an elephant.[16]

Help us to dive down deeper into your truth, to plumb the mysteries of our faith and to be content with the thought that there is always so much more to explore and experience.

But when we don’t get it, when we’re stumped with questions, don’t let this deter us from defining those truths that are unmistakable and doing what you so clearly call us to do:

To open ourselves fully to your life changing Spirit,

To life fully as citizens of your Kingdom,

To bask in your unconditional love for all people,

To believe and keep on trusting

To enjoy now this new quality that you call ‘eternal life’.

Move us from seeing you only as a teacher to the One who is the Son of Man,

The one who descended to this earth being born of flesh,

The one who was lifted up on the cross,

The one who was raised from the dead and ascended to life

The one who is with us and in us through your life-birthing Spirit.

To you we give our praise, our love and our wide-open allegiance.

Amen.


[1] Check out the Nike brand.

[2] John 2: 1-12.

[3] See John 2: 18-25.

[4] The Greek word is anothen.

[5] The word ‘you’ is in the plural so Jesus is speaking not only to Nicodemus but to members of the religious establishment.

[6] This quote is attributed to Heinrich Heine. This is quoted by F W Boreham in My Pilgrimage (London” Epworth Publishing, 1940), 14.

[7] Ruach in the Hebrew. Pneuma in the Greek (from which we get pneumonia or pneumatic).

[8] This analogy comes from Carl Gregg, John 3:16-The Rest of the Story Patheos, March 8 2012.

[9] The word pole in the Moses story is translated semeion or sign, another play on words. Back in v2 Nicodemus had been praising the signs of Jesus, much to Christ’s disgust. Christ on the pole is the true sign that gives salvation.

[10] Frederick Dale Bruner frames up in his commentary on John’s Gospel, the famous John 3:16 verse this way, highlighting the great importance of these words:

God = The greatest subject ever

So (much) = The greatest extent ever

Loved = The greatest affection ever

The world = The greatest object ever

That He gave his one and only Son = The greatest gift ever

So that every single individual whoever = The greatest opportunity ever

Who is entrusting oneself to him = The greatest commitment ever

Would never be destroyed = The greatest rescue ever

But would even now have a deep, lasting Life = The greatest promise ever

[11] This quote is attributed to Martin Luther.

[12] Have eternal life is in the present tense not some future hope.

[13] John 7: 45-52.

[14] Acts 5: 33-39.

[15] Scholars are divided as to whether Nicodemus became a Christian. I am taking the view that he did. See my reasoning in what follows.

[16] This quote is attributed to the Baptist preacher, Charles H Spurgeon.