“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” — John 3:19
If both children and cable TV have been in your house during the past 20 years, you’re probably familiar with a channel called “Nickelodeon.” The daytime lineup features children’s programming, silly game shows, and cartoons. Nickelodeon’s evening lineup, called “Nick at Nite,” targets older children with reruns of shows such as “Full House” and “Friends.”
Today’s text takes us to the original “Nick at Nite,” a story that has been rerun so many times that we are in danger of reading it without hearing it. Sometimes, with particularly familiar texts, it’s helpful to look at the story from a different angle. To that end, let’s imagine how the story of Nicodemus’ late night visit to Jesus might have gone during our own day and time. Any scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are paraphrased.
Questions and answers(vv. 1-8)
Nick was one of those religious sorts who lived in a starched white shirt and who carried a Bible everywhere he went. He was a 98th degree Pharisee who served as Worshipful Master in the Jerusalem chapter of the Loyal Order of the Solomonic Temple. That’s the only way he knew how to be – but he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay that way.
Maybe it was the tight collar that was getting to him. Maybe he had found a question he couldn’t answer. Maybe it was just Jesus. We don’t know. Something moved him to sneak away from his brothers down at the lodge and to go in search of the young teacher who had all Jerusalem in a buzz.
It took a while to find Jesus, but Nick finally spotted him on the outskirts of town. Jesus was sitting alone on the tailgate of an old Toyota pickup that he had parked on a hill so he could watch soccer practice in the park below. Once practice was over, Jesus had stayed there to watch the stars come out. He was dressed in jeans with a nondescript sweatshirt and an old pair of black high-top Converse All-Stars. His long dark hair was tucked behind his ears, but the breeze still toyed with a few strands that were determined to hang over his face.
Nick parked his Cadillac on the opposite side of the hill and walked back, wearing an overcoat with the collar turned up, careful of his reputation. He was a leader, after all, but like others in his group, he had been amazed by the signs and wonders that Jesus was doing – changing water into wine, healing cripples and the blind, overturning the merchants’ kiosks at the temple.
Nick approached Jesus quietly and began with a question thinly disguised as flattery. “Teacher,” he said, “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” (v. 2). Jesus had probably heard that from lots of people who were impressed by his works but unwilling to hear his words.
So, Jesus decided to cut to the chase and see if Nick could look past the miracles and deal with the truth. With eyes that could wilt even the starch in Nick’s collar, Jesus said “Listen: it’s true that I have come from God, but nobody will so much as see God’s kingdom unless they are born from above” (v. 3).
Now, Nick was listening very carefully, and he heard what Jesus said, but he was confused because Jesus used a word that can mean either “from above” or “again.” Nick understood him to say “born again,” and that didn’t fit with his experience or with the sex education classes he’d taken in high school. Jesus’ spiritual meaning flew right over his head, so he asked: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can a person go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” (v. 4).
Jesus sighed, got up from the tailgate, and said: “Listen, and I will spell it out for you. This is the truth: no one can enter God’s kingdom without being born of water and Spirit. What happens when a child is born? The mother’s water breaks, and the baby follows. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit, so don’t be so surprised when I say ‘You must be born from above’” (vv. 5-7).
Nick nodded his head and seemed just on the verge of understanding when Jesus added, “I’ve got just one more thing to say about that: the wind blows where it will” (v. 8). And that took all the wind out of Nick’s sails. One minute they were talking about being born of the flesh and born of the Spirit, then out of the blue, Jesus brings up the wind. What has that got to do with it?
Then, perhaps, Nick realized that Jesus was again playing with words that can have double meanings. So, we can imagine Nick asking, “Wait: are you talking about ‘wind’ in a physical sense, or ‘spirit’ in the theological sense?”
And Jesus said, “Yes: you don’t control the wind, and you don’t control the Spirit. But you can’t be born from above without it” (v. 8).
Now it was Nick’s turn to jump up from the truck. “How can these things be?” he asked. If he had thought about it, Nick would have known that the prophets had spoken of the Spirit as a harbinger of new life. He may even have remembered how Spirit and water were sometimes mentioned together in prophecy, but apparently he did not make the connections.
In frustration, Jesus said “Jeez – you’re a teacher of Israel, and you still don’t understand these things?” (v. 10).
Answers and questions(vv. 11-17)
Nicodemus doesn’t say another word in this story, but Jesus does. We can imagine him pacing back and forth as he spoke. “Nick, if you can’t believe what I tell you about earthly things, how can you expect to believe what I tell you about heaven?” (vv. 11-12).
Jesus then reminded his new friend of the story from Numbers 21 in which the wandering Israelites, after a period of rebellion and complaining, were afflicted with a plague of poisonous snakes. Many people felt the fiery bite of the serpents, and many of them died. Moses prayed for God to remove the snakes, but God did not, providing a way of healing instead. God instructed Moses to fashion a serpent out of bronze and lift it up on a pole, promising that those who came and looked upon it would live.
“So God’s own Son will be hung up for everyone to see,” Jesus said, “and those who go beyond seeing and believe in him will have new life, life in God’s kingdom, everlasting life” (vv. 13-15).
Nick’s face must have had confusion written all over it as Jesus went on. “Believe this: 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. I did not come to this world to condemn the world, but to save it” (vv. 16-17).
Jesus came to save. Nick was still puzzled because eternal salvation hadn’t been on his radar. He had come to Jesus as a teacher, wanting to learn how to know God as Jesus did. Nick wanted Jesus to show him the way. He never expected Jesus to be the way.
How Can I Be Saved?
Everyone wants salvation. We don’t want to waste our one and only life. But we have widely different ideas about what it means to make the most of life. Many of us are like Nick, finding it difficult to see beyond the physical.
Some of us put our faith in physical fitness, devoting endless hours to sculpting a better body or running a faster half-marathon. The gospel of fitness is good for our bodies indeed, but any gospel that applies to our physical lives alone is not good enough.
Others follow the easier and more appealing gospel of materialism. Our culture would lead us to believe that focusing on wealth and things and pleasure is what life should be about. But this physical life is not our only life. There is something that goes beyond.
It is hard for us, in our enlightened world, to comprehend the Spirit’s work. Though we may not understand it, we know that our lives are not complete without it. We cannot control God’s Spirit any more than we can direct the wind, but we can open the windows of our hearts to receive it.
“No one comes into the kingdom unless they are born from above,” Jesus said. Those who come into the kingdom are born of the Spirit, and “the wind (Spirit) blows where it will.” We had no part in engineering our conception or bringing about our birth. There is a sense in which we don’t do a thing to be born from above except to turn loose of all those things we do in search of physical or emotional or financial salvation, turn our hearts toward Jesus to allow the wind of the Spirit to lift us on gentle arms and carry us to the kingdom.
In this Lenten season, in this windy March, let us remember that every time we feel the wind against our faces, there is a God who loved us enough to send the beloved Son into the world so that whosoever believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life.
Our physical life has its roots in the dust, and it returns to the dust, but there is also a spiritual element at the heart of our being. The image of God lives in us, and when the wind of the Spirit blows, that part of us resonates like wind chimes in a gentle breeze, calling us to believe, calling us to live, and not perish. BT
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