By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friend Church
May 30, 2021
John 3:1–17 (ESV)
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And 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. 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
We read this portion of scripture often in a year because it is one of the most important passages in scripture. This passage gives us a glimpse into the complete human condition.
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. I have spoken about Nicodemus often. I like the man. He is like so many people we know. He is a leader, well respected. Looking at the man Nicodemus we would not be able to see any fault in him. If he were to be running a campaign to be elected in our contemporary culture, we would most likely support him. I say this because everything we know about the man and his actions is that he was a good person.
He is a good man and I say this passage gives us a glimpse into the human condition. We all see ourselves as good people. If you were to go out around the community and interview the population, most if not all people would say that they are a good person. This man, Nicodemus, came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
This statement is interesting. How many of us have looked at the people around us and thought that we could see goodness in them? We look at their lives and their lifestyles and we believe that they are being led by the hand of God. We do this, we do this without even thinking. Children look at role models in sports, when they go out at recess they act as if they are that individual, why because they seem to embody everything they desire to be. But this does not stop at childhood, even adults can be trapped in the cult of personality. Even as adults we can read into the actions of others that may speak to our condition. We can be drawn into supporting individuals and causes. Every two years we see this happening in our nation. Every two years people begin campaigns hoping to gain support so that they can have a job. They speak, they make promises, they say all the right words and we are drawn into the belief that they are a good person. We might even believe that they are a person that is appointed by God because they have said the right words concerning our personal belief systems.
Like Nicodemus we might approach those individuals and affirm their status and say to them you have been chosen by God, for no one can say what you say without God being with them. I, myself, have been drawn into these sorts of activities. I, myself, have place hope in a person. I have hoped that one person would change the courses of history. I have had such a strong desire to be on the right side of history in my own mind that I have overlooked the negative aspects of policies because I want them to be good.
Do you see this in the statement of Nicodemus? Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, is looking at Jesus and he is projecting his desires into and onto him. You are a teacher come from God, and I hope you will make our dreams come true. Nicodemus said these words as a ruler of the Jews, he announced his desire to believe and support Jesus. He expressed support and even expresses the support of all those that see him as a leader in Jesus, but there is a condition that is unspoken. He wants Jesus to say the right words. We are not told what those words are. We are not told what Nicodemus sees as being the definition of good.
Jesus answers Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” With this answer we are given a glimpse into the unexpressed desire of Nicodemus. He has a desire for the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus is taken aback by Jesus’s statement, and rightfully so because Jesus answered a question that was not asked, at least not verbally. Will you usher in the kingdom?
We each have a strong desire to see our visions of utopia. We want the world around us to operate in a manner that we think is desirable. We want the kingdom of God in our image. But Jesus’s answer turns that around on us. When Jesus said unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God, What does it mean to be born again?
We have all heard this our entire lives, because this is the motto of the Evangelical movement. If we call ourselves Evangelicals we have made some sort of response to this statement. We have some idea as to what this means in our minds. It is a decision of some sort, a turning of will and direction of life. This is not far from the truth. The concept of being born is easy enough to consider. It is the idea of begetting, bearing, or conception, but it can also represent the relation between teacher and disciple or master and servant. The idea within the birth analogy is to become. Often we consider this as being a concept that originated in Jesus, but was already and expression common to Rabbinical teaching in regard to the conversion of those to Jewish faith. The idea is that the individual is being reformed, remade, or born into true humanity. According to these rabbinical teachings a true man is one that is faithful to God according to the Rabbinical teachings. Before a man is converted or possesses the proper teachings, they are not living spiritual beings, but mere creatures without the breath of life.
If this idea of the birth of a true man was common to Jewish teaching in reference to the conversion of those born apart from the linage of Israel, why does Nicodemus struggle with the imagery? It could be that as a leader within the nation of Israel, he had not considered the process of conversion for himself personally. He is, according to his understanding, already alive and has been since birth. He is a child of Israel.
Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that he like those outside of his nation are equal. All of humankind exists without the breath of life, all of humankind is but a creature. We assume Nicodemus struggles with the idea of being born again. What he is struggling with is equality within the Kingdom. How can he a Jewish man be converted, how can he who has always been a member of God’s people be joined into what was his birth right?
We all like to think of ourselves as good. In our own minds we are good. Our actions and the decisions we make are based on ideals we hold as being right and true. In our minds, we live as if we are true humanity and all that oppose our ideas are outside the realm of the living. When we hold this idea in our head, every action we undertake is a mission from God. We must convert those unlike us to submit to our way of life. We are good they are not.
This way of life has justified many tragic episodes in history. This is an attitude both inside and outside religious thought. It is the way of the flesh and of mankind the creature. The idea of goodness of our path is the kingdoms of men. When Jesus is approached by Nicodemus that evening, Jesus opens his eyes to the reality of his own prejudices. This is not what Nicodemus expected when he approached the camp of the disciples.
“[U]nless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” I want us to think of this deeply. Jesus speaks not of a division between the flesh and the spirit but of creation and divine. Those that truly live are joined with the divine Spirit. And Jesus is challenging Nicodemus’s understanding of how this communion occurs.
“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
How does a person enter into communion with God? The wind blows where it wishes. By saying this Jesus is saying that God cannot be controlled. We cannot honestly say how or who will enter the kingdom because we cannot control the wind. But there is something interesting about the wind., it can peak curiosity.
How many of us have walked outside and smelled the aroma of barbecue on the air? How many times have we watch a child chase bubbles or dandelion dust? How many autumns have we enjoyed hearing the rustling of the leaves? The wind carries curiosity, it inspires imagination and adventure. The wind carried the explorers across the oceans. And cause mankind to dream of flying. The wind inspires. But we cannot control the wind. We can only join it.
Nicodemus came to Jesus with the hopes that this man from God would join their cause, instead Jesus challenges him. He challenges his way of thinking and understanding of God. What made Abraham righteous? What blessed the kingdom of David?
Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness, is what the writer of Hebrews tells us. He believed. He trusted. He listened to the spirit rustling the leaves and he followed. Abraham lived in the cradle of civilization during his era of history. As far as the kingdoms of men were concerned they had all the world could offer, yet when the voice of God came to Abraham he left it all for something different. Abraham followed the wind.
When David was a mere child taking food to his brothers stationed in battle he heard the voice of the giant, and he saw the men of his nation trembling in fear. David did not fear and he face the taunting voice of the adversary. A boy facing a giant. David put his faith in God.
It did not make sense in the minds of men for these actions to occur. Just as it did not make sense in the mind of Nicodemus that Jesus would challenge the teachings of the Pharisees. The wind blows, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. What do you do at that point?
The interesting thing is we know the direction of the wind. We do know where the wind comes from. We may not know the thermal dynamic theories that cause wind to occur. But I do not think this is what Jesus is saying. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound. It is an invitation. Early Friends would have called this a day of visitation. A moment where we must make some sort of decision, do we explore or do we walk away? If we turn our face into the wind and explore where it has been we will see the great history of all those saints of old who embraced a life with God. Their lives added fragrant aromas to the air that whips past, and as we explore those lives we can find comfort and peace. If we were to turn the direction there is something different.
In the spring the maple trees release seeds that are an amazing design. They have a fin that will cause the seed to spin and fly along the currents of the air while gravity pulls it down to the earth. How many of us a child played with these seeds? Gathered up as many as we could and thrown them in the air just to watch the twirl back down? This is where the wind is going. This is the call of Abraham to go to the land promised. It is the call to trust God with our future. We can draw comfort from the past but we cannot stay there, we must eventually follow the wind forward. And God is inviting us to join Him in that adventure.
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound. The invitation has been made, we can explore history to see where it has been, we can embrace the adventure of the future, or we can take a third path. We can just let the wind blow. This is the challenge Jesus is giving to Nicodemus, and all of us that are religious.
God is calling us to embrace that wind and move with it. Those that are born again are those that accept that invitation to walk with God. Those that stand still have allow the breath of God that gives life to pass away from them and they remain in the kingdoms of men and lose the opportunity of God’s glory. Everyone is given this opportunity and must make a choice on their own. Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” and we ask this with him as well. Nicodemus is listening to this teacher, a teacher he said is from God tell him that Israel is not embracing the life and lifestyle they teach and because of this they will be excluded from the kingdom. They are worried about laws and rules, they are focused on their rights and their identity. They have their minds so involved with the kingdoms of men that they no longer even notice that the wind is blowing. They are distracted and no longer focused on what is most important. “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” is Jesus’s response to Nicodemus.
I want those words to resonate with us today. Jesus is asking us if our words and actions meet. Are we following God or are we good in the eyes of men? Are we distracted or are we embracing the wind? Are we born again?
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