March 20, 2011

… a teacher who has come from God

Passage: Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-21, John 3:1-2

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘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.’

“Why are we drawn to one person and not another? ... Researchers have identified (an interesting) factor that heightens one’s personal appeal.  It seems we enjoy socializing with people who have found meaning in their lives. ‘Meaning is a powerful and independent predictor of interpersonal appeal,’ reports a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. ‘People seek interpersonal connections with those who have found meaning in life.’

Nicodemus was a religious VIP with a list of credentials as long as your arm. He had advanced theological degrees, honorary doctorates, half-a-column in the Jerusalem edition of Who's Who. If you were a Jew living anywhere near Jerusalem in those days, you knew who Nicodemus was—you would recognize his face when passing him on the sidewalk. Of course, fame cuts two ways: nice as it was to be recognized everywhere he went, this fame was not so nice when Nicodemus went some place where he wanted to be anonymous.

So, what would a sophisticated fellow like him hope to gain from a thirty-year old peasant with sawdust in his hair, who came from a one-horse town, and whose contacts with religious leaders were consistently negative?

1.  I suggest to you that most of us know what he was looking for—there is evidence all around us that people today are seeking the same thing as Nicodemus even though we name it under different titles.  A recent issue of Maclean’s magazine featured an article titled “Oprah’s so-called experts”; it chronicled a spate of new books by a number of the talk-shows “authorities” confessing that they weren’t quite as advertised or couldn’t fix their own lives using their own advice.  Still, people tune into programmes just like these seeking something for their lives—something they sense they are missing.

Think about the many television programmes that tap into this human desire offering some sort of fresh or refreshed start.  Whether riding your wardrobe of what not to wear or refreshing your image with a makeover or renovating your home or swapping spouses; in some respect each taps into that felt need for a new start or that something has got to change or a need for revision.

I read an article about research done at the University of Michigan that suggested that the act of washing hands can actually help people cleanse themselves of concerns about past decisions, at least temporarily.  It stated further that washing hands helps people look at choices they’ve made more objectively, as if removing the weight of the past decision.  I can’t say that I know anyone who would say—about their life—that knowing what they know now they would make all the same choices over again; people want an opportunity for things to be different.

In some respects this is what the turmoil in many Arab countries is about, at least politically.  People want a change in the very fabric of how they are governed; they want new or improved opportunities for their lives.  Of course, there is a wide array of belief about what it is that will deliver what is being sought.

I cited to you before a quip by Lily Tomlin: “I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now that I should have been more specific”. Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emmerson said that life is a search for power.  There is no little evidence that all around us are people who long precisely for what Jesus holds out; it is this longing that brings a sophisticated man like Nicodemus to seek out Jesus.  Will Nicodemus be able to hear what Jesus has to say to him?

2.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus wanting to talk about Jesus’ credentials—you are a teacher who has come from God.  Sensing that Nicodemus is, at bottom, dissatisfied with his life Jesus immediately launches to talk of something else; Nicodemus wants something new because what he has currently isn’t working for him. Nicodemus is a man who, from all outward appearances and human measures, ought to be happy with his life; but he isn’t.  So Jesus says to him: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (born again).”

We will come back to Nicodemus in a moment.  I invite you to reflect with me about how we hear the words “born again”.  I think it important to challenge some of our current notions so that we can hear what Jesus says.  I posed the question will Nicodemus be able to hear what Jesus says to him; the same question applies to us as well because of how this word of Jesus’—born again—has come to be used by Christians as a term loved by some and despised by others.

For those who love the term, the words “born again” are a badge of identification worn unashamedly.  It is considered a description of instantaneous conversion arising from a crisis; many think this is the only way to become a Christian.  Others use the term derisively to describe what they consider fanaticism; minimizing the element of crisis these people maximize the need for nurture.  They insist that people become Christians through a steady process of nurture; often insisting that their approach is the only sensible one.  One group suggests that if we don’t use the words “born again” we lack spiritual authenticity.  The other group suggests that if we do use the words we lack intellectual substance.

Friends, there are as many ways of encountering Jesus Christ as there are ways of falling in love.  To be sure, some people are overwhelmed so as to be swept off their feet: “love at first sight” we call it.  Despite the popularity of the notion of “love at first sight; the fact of it isn’t common at all.  Far more people find their relationship with someone they will eventually admit they love developing steadily, bit by bit, in a positive direction.

Whatever the expression “born again” might mean, as Jesus used it with Nicodemus it doesn’t mean that there is only one way of entering into and abiding in the company of Jesus Christ.  How you come to Jesus Christ isn’t important; the authenticity and integrity of a believer’s standing in Christ is not determined by the route you came to such faith.

3. When Jesus tells Nicodemus, "You’ve got to be born again, born anew, born from above", the English word "again" or "anew" or “from above” translates the Greek word, ANOTHEN. ANOTHEN has three meanings: (1) again in the sense of "one more time" (Nicodemus says he can’t re-enter his mother’s uterus and be born one more time), (2) or it can mean "again, anew" in the sense of "from above, from God", (3) or it can mean "with a completely different nature." Nicodemus fastens on the first meaning only; Jesus has in mind only the latter two. Our Lord insisted that anyone could, and everyone should, be reconstituted at God's hand so as to be possessed of a new nature.

“You life really can be different, you can actually have a new start, a brand new kingdom is really possible”, insists Jesus.  Do we believe him?

4.  Let us return to consider Nicodemus’ approach to Jesus. “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.”  “A teacher who has come from God”; Nicodemus is right about Jesus in that what he says is correct.  But this is an assessment of Jesus by Nicodemus; it is a category for how he thinks of Jesus.  Jesus, for Nicodemus, is a teacher—albeit a teacher attested to by the signs he performed—but no more than a teacher.  Nicodemus makes the assumption that he is in a position able to assess Jesus’ teaching; assessing what to accept or reject.  Nicodemus comes hoping to make sense of Jesus’ teaching to see if it can help him.

Many today stand with Nicodemus with respect to Jesus.  He is a wise teacher who had much good to say about living life.  Even though it is accurate to regard Jesus a wise teacher it is, nonetheless, a limiting picture; it assumes a posture of being able to assess him wise by our standards.   This is precisely why Nicodemus is incredulous at Jesus discussion of being born again—his only way of assessing Jesus statement is to think “again” to mean “one more time”—I can’t enter my mother’s womb a second time.  Let’s face it; many who limit Jesus to a role as teacher do so precisely because some of what he taught is beyond what we consider  intellectual credibile.

In the context of this story the Apostle John gives us one of the more profound and succinct summaries of the gospel. “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.”  Notice that John said “everyone that believes in him”.  He did not say “everyone who finds his teaching acceptable” or “everyone who considers Jesus wise”.  This is not to say that faith excludes the intellect—faith assumes the engagement of our entire God given faculty; yet faith is not subject to or a product of the function of those faculties.

We read today of Abram; he wasn’t looking for a new place to settle—in a God-initiated encounter God invites Abram to go to a land God would show him.  When I invited people to join Valerie and I on a tour of that promised land God brought Abram to—our recent trip to Israel—I had pictures and information to show people about where we would be going and what we would be doing.  Abram has none of this and yet he went; Paul rightly notes of Abram: “he believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

5.  Jesus declares to Nicodemus that there is a spiritual life we do not possess naturally; that is we do not possess it by virtue of our being born into the world.  Birth, everyday birth, is plainly a change of context.  When a human being is born the context of that person’s life changes from amniotic fluid to air; from confinement to freedom; from darkness to light; from silence to exclamation.

The kind of birth, “new birth,” that Jesus speaks of in his conversation with Nicodemus is also a change of context: from spiritual inertia to spiritual vigour; from culpable ignorance of God to child-like wonder at God; from a human existence that prides itself on being self-sufficient to an existence that humbly thanks God for his condescension and grace.

“You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t understand this?” Jesus asks in genuine amazement.  Nicodemus as a teacher of Israel should have known this. After all, the presence and weight and force of the living God is the context in which Israel’s life unfolds.  God has made himself known to Israel in a way that he hasn’t elsewhere, with the result that Israel’s knowledge of God differentiates it from the surrounding nations.

After Jesus says this to Nicodemus there is a shift in whom Jesus addresses.  When Jesus says “very truly, I tell you” he changes to the second person plural—he is now addressing others around him—indeed he is addressing us.  It is here that he invites us that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life”.  Just as it was possible for Nicodemus—a learned Israelite—to  have missed the point that this spiritual life we seek is a life we must receive from God so too people can be well acquainted with church and the scriptures and yet have missed this crucial point Jesus makes with Nicodemus and now us.

6.  In John’s gospel Nicodemus is a man who hovers on the margins of Jesus’ followers; he is, in a manner of speaking, on the shadows of John’s story.  We are not told how he responded to Jesus’ teaching this night he came to talk with Jesus.  Early in Jesus ministry John tells us that the religious authorities sent temple police to arrest Jesus; these police were so amazed at his teaching they did not arrest him.  It was at the subsequent grilling of these officers by the religious authorities that Nicodemus spoke up in defense of Jesus.

The next time we see Nicodemus it is at Jesus’ burial—he brought the spices (at no small expense) that were used together with the linen cloth to warp Jesus’ body.  Nicodemus is neither the first in the church nor the last to follow Jesus from afar.

The good news of the gospel is that people can change; better, people can be changed. God will grant them a new heart. God can do something with sin beyond forgiving it. The person he forgives he also remakes. Either this is true or the gospel isn’t good news. It is true. Hope is therefore more than wishful thinking. Deliverance can be asked for and acknowledged. The relative change of the remission of sin is always accompanied by the real change of regeneration. Believers have a genuine future.

7.  Last Thursday was St. Patrick’s day; it is curious to me that our culture treats this as a day to revel in the over-consumption of beer.  Nothing could be further from the spirit of the work of St Patrick.  In coming to Ireland with the gospel he returned to the very people who have treated him abysmally as a slave.  He set communities of believers—outposts that included a place of worship, education and hospital care.  The gospel came to the Irish as a faith that transforms lives—you can begin anew.  In virtually a single generation most of Ireland was converted to Christianity.

Our world’s treatment of St. Patrick is not much different that its treatment of the gospel.  The wonderful news is that though the God-given remedy for the emptiness we feel about our existence is treated with disdain God pursues us still with relentless love.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; ... Jesus answered him: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.