Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. – Genesis 12:1-4
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “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. “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” – John 3:1-17
He drove past the house as slowly as he could without drawing attention to himself, paying close attention to where the door was, but not just that, also taking in the other buildings around the house – where their doors were, and especially their windows, where people might glance out and see him. At the next corner he turned, then turned again, doubling back toward the house and finally parking his car two blocks away. If anyone saw his car where it was parked, and recognized it as his, there would be plausible deniability – they’d assume that he was in one of the nearby restaurants enjoying dinner. He got out of the car and started to walk toward the house, nervously paying attention to the cars and people on the sidewalk, watching for anyone he might recognize, or more importantly, who might recognize him in the glow of the streetlights. As he got closer to the house, he adjusted his pace, a little slower, a little faster, trying to time his arrival so there wouldn’t be anyone walking or driving by when he got there. As it happened, he timed it right, but still, as he reached the house, he kept his pace until it almost looked like he was going to pass it by, and at the last second, and looking over his shoulder, he quickly darted inside the door. He had to be careful. He had a reputation to keep. A lot of people knew who he was – a well-known religious mucky muck, and it wouldn’t look good at all, it wouldn’t go well for him, if people saw him in a place like this, talking to a person like this.
Still, there was just something inside him that drew him here. He’d seen Jesus around town in recent days, and he’d heard about him for a good while longer. Almost in spite of himself and his religious position and education, Jesus’ words stirred something deep inside him; so much that he took this personal risk to meet him and talk with him personally on this particular night.
He sat there with Jesus in the back room of the house, far from the noise from the street, as the cool of the evening gradually settled in. He was caught in that uncomfortable place where he wasn’t sure which of the two of them was going to have the upper hand, if he were the teacher or the student in their discussion. It didn’t take long for him to realize which was the case, as Jesus told him that no one can see, no one can comprehend the kingdom of God unless they’ve been born from above. Nicodemus’ brain went into overdrive at this point, so he started asking questions: what does that even mean? We’ve all come into this world the same way; how can a person be born in some new, different way? And just what do you base that claim on, anyway? Where in the scriptures do you find that?
In imagining this scene in his own way, Frederick Buechner wrote that at this point, a strong breeze blew down the chimney, fanning all the embers in the fireplace into a hot, bright red, and they burst into flame again. Being born from above was just like that, Jesus said. It wasn’t anything you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something done by God, and for God, and where, and when, and why, and to whomever God wants. And just as the wind doesn’t stop at the city limits, or the synagogue door; God’s Spirit trespasses across all artificially set human boundaries and limits.
Nicodemus battled sensory and intellectual overload at this idea; it was more than he could process all at once. But bit by bit, he started to tease out the implications of what Jesus had said. And the more he thought about it, the more he recognized how radical, how heretical – how dangerous – Jesus’ words were to the established order of things; certainly the religious order but also the political order. He kept asking questions: So… the kingdom of God is for any and all people that the wind, God’s Spirit, blows on? Yep. But… the Spirit doesn’t blow on everyone, surely. Surely there are some limits to this, right? Well, I don’t know; what do you think? The Spirit is like the wind; are there people out there who have never felt the wind on their face? Personally, I don’t think so, but if there are, I can’t imagine there are very many of them. So… God is stirring up the lives, birthing them from above, all over the place? All over the place. Even the Samaritans; even the Romans? Even them. Even people from other religions, or from nor religion, people who have never heard of the God of the Israelites, or the Law and the Prophets, or frankly, who have never heard of *you*? What am I supposed to make of what you’re saying?
Jesus smiled and got up from where they were sitting, and put a compassionate hand on Nicodemus’ shoulder as he walked over and put another log on the dying fire, because they’d been talking or some time now, and the coolness of the night was settling in more deeply. And as Nicodemus sat there trying to sort out the implications of their conversation, Jesus added fuel to both the fire in the fireplace and the one in Nicodemus’ mind, as he told him that he’d come into the world so that everyone who believes in him, in what he was saying, would be part of that kingdom of God – that that it was God’s intention that Jesus’ message, his mission, his purpose, wasn’t to condemn, wasn’t to keep people out of that kingdom, but instead, to bring the whole world – the cosmos, the whole chaotic, good-bad-and-in-between, sometimes God-denying, sometimes even God-hating world – everyone – into that kingdom of God. Nicodemus wondered to himself, if that’s God’s intention, is there anything or anyone who could thwart God’s plan?
He started to ask more questions. But… but… what does that mean? You’re talking in mysteries. How can anyone save the whole world? How would you save the whole world? How do you do that, specifically?
As his mind was racing, though, Nicodemus noticed the time on his watch. It was much later than he’d thought, and he knew he had to go. He’d told his wife that he was going to a committee meeting at the synagogue, and if he got home too late, she’d know he must have been somewhere else. So with all those unanswered questions – or maybe they really had been answered – still bouncing around in his head, he quickly said his goodbyes, peeked out the side of the curtain in the front window, and when the coast was clear he quickly slipped back out in to the night, and down the street, and into history by virtue of his story becoming part of John’s gospel.
“For God so loved the world as to give the Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 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.”
During this season of Lent, while we take time to refocus on just what exactly God’s good news for the world really is, on just what it is that we believe, we can listen to these familiar words again, and maybe wrestle with them as much as Nicodemus did. Hearing them as if we’d only now heard them for the first time, without all the historical and cultural baggage that’s gotten attached to them over time like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. From the earliest days of the faith, people have debated exactly what Jesus was saying in this conversation. And everyone from the early church father Origen, to St. Augustine, to John Calvin, to the great 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth, to Southern Baptist Albert Mohler, to John Shelby Spong, have all offered up their opinions of what Jesus meant – how Jesus reconciles human beings and God; and determining who’s supposedly in, and who’s out, of that eternal club. In other words, is the kingdom of God for a select number of people, or in some mysterious way, just as the wind eventually brushes across everyone’s face, will everyone eventually become part of God’s kingdom? Has that been God’s plan all along?
For my own part, I believe somewhere along the lines of Karl Barth. When someone asked him if he were a universalist – if he believed that everyone would ultimately be part of the kingdom of God, and no one would end up in hell, Barth famously answered that he couldn’t categorically say that everyone was going to be saved and be part of God’s eternal kingdom, but that if hell existed, he suspected it was very sparsely populated. And to be honest, the older I get, the more I see, and the more I think about whether God’s will could ever be thwarted; the more I think about the nature of God’s grace and mercy and love, I’ve started to wonder if hell is actually less populated than even Barth thought.
Jesus’ words stuck with Nicodemus. The scriptures tell us that after Jesus had died and was pried off the cross – at a time when it would have been the most potentially dangerous to identify as a follower or even friend of Jesus, Nicodemus came out of the closet, as it were, with his trust and faith and love for Jesus. Along with Joseph of Arimathea, the scriptures say, he laid Jesus in his tomb, affording him all the dignity that he was denied in his death. In the end, what conclusions did Nicodemus reach regarding Jesus’ words that night? We don’t know. But hearing these words again today, and given all that people have written and said since then, and adding considering current events as an underlay to the question, what conclusions about Jesus’ words do you reach? Who’s in, who’s out? I anyone out? Is Hitler in heaven? Is Ghandi in hell? And what effect do your beliefs have on how you live your life? On how you view the world? On how you view the full spectrum of humanity, whether it’s someone you encounter in this congregation, or this city, or on the other side of the planet? What do Jesus’ words mean to you?
Thanks be to God.