Text: John 3:1-17
Sometimes the Bible is funny. Like today, in the story in the Gospel of John, where Jesus and Nicodemus engage in a sort of abbreviated first-century Greek version of “Who’s on First,” the famous Abbott and Costello routine.
It’s an odd little scene to begin with - Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews, a Pharisee, meaning that he is dedicated to studying the Scriptures in conversation with others and tries to interpret and apply the Scriptures to how he lives his life. But he comes to Jesus at night, which in the world of John is a clue that he knows he is doing something wrong. Night is when you do things you wouldn’t do in the light; night is when Judas goes out from the table after the last supper and betrays Jesus.
Nicodemus greets Jesus by saying that he, Nicodemus, and his folks know that Jesus is sent from God. Now perhaps Jesus becomes a little amused at this assertion, for being “sent from God” is the same thing that was said about John the Baptizer at the beginning of this Gospel. “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” All of the Gospels go to some length to differentiate the Baptizer from Jesus, and it’s no different here.
Jesus is not just sent from God. As we heard in the first verse of this Gospel, Jesus has been from the beginning a resident of the kingdom of heaven and is on earth for a little while before he will return to God. And so he responds to Nicodemus by saying something about himself, but he does so by using a word that has more than one meaning.
You know, like mouse. There’s a mouse that has a tail and scurries through the meadow, and there’s a mouse that’s connected to your computer. You would be surprised to hear someone talking about a great new mouse she uses for her work if you are only thinking about a mouse that is in your kitchen cabinets which causes you to stand on a chair when you see it.
Or rock, which is a thing you like to do in a chair on the porch but is also a thing you find outside on the ground.
We don’t get this in our English translation of the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, but in Greek, one of the words that has two meanings is anothen. It means either “again” or “from above.”
When Jesus starts talking about himself as one who has been born anothen, he is talking about being born from above, being descended from heaven, which is his unique identity. Nicodemus, however, hears Jesus say anothen and immediately thinks about being born again. Hence his incredulous question about entering a second time into one’s mother’s womb after one is grown, which he knows is impossible.
And Jesus doesn’t exactly labor to set Nicodemus straight. He seems to be having a little gentle fun with Nicodemus, who comes in saying that he knows all about Jesus already. He knows he is a teacher who performs signs and is sent from God, which was true of many people in that time and place.
But clearly, he doesn’t know all about Jesus. By the end of the Gospel, Nicodemus will return to the story as the man who comes with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body with spices and lay it in the tomb. By the end of the story, Nicodemus will understand who Jesus is. But today, he hasn’t gotten it yet.
And so Jesus talks about himself to Nicodemus. Now, John’s Jesus tends to speak in fairly long discourses instead of pithy one-liners, and so while Jesus is waxing eloquent about the mysteries of the kingdom of God, and the way the Spirit moves through and around us, and how we don’t see the Spirit but we see the fruits of the Spirit - poor Nicodemus is still sitting there thinking about the mechanics of childbirth.
What Jesus wants to get to in this discussion is about his part in God’s plan of salvation. He’s aiming at a verse we all know: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
In other words, the gift of God for the people of God.
In other words, the gift of God for the people of God.
But many of us are less familiar with the verse that comes next: “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.” The world was made through Jesus, as it says in John and we affirm in the Creed, and the world is also saved through Jesus.
Like Nicodemus, we think that we know all about Jesus because of John 3:16 - we know the verse so well that we don’t even have to say the actual words, we can just use the shorthand “John 3:16” and everyone knows what that means.
But do we know what that means? "Believe in him” is kind of vague, not spelled out - what does that mean, to “believe in him?” to believe he existed? like unicorns or Santa Claus? or is it about something else? Sometimes we end up thinking the verse says “so that everyone who believes what I believe may not perish but have eternal life.” This is one of those verses that is used as a way to say “I am saved and you are not.” That I am going to heaven and you lot who don’t “believe” the things I believe are going to be punished. But is that what Jesus is really all about?
As I said, in John things are not pithy. It takes a while to get the whole story. And so we don’t understand the meaning of this verse 16 if we don’t hear the next verse as well. A verse which says, Jesus did not come to condemn the world. For John, “the world” has a particular meaning - "the world" is all the people who are actually hostile to God and Jesus. Remember at the very beginning, from the wonderful prologue of John - “In the beginning was the Word ... and the world did not know him.” The world did not accept him. And yet Jesus says he came to save the world.
So look how this changes what we thought we knew about the purpose of Jesus. Jesus came to save even those who are hostile to him, not to condemn them. They may condemn themselves, he will go on to say, but he did not come to condemn them. This is the same Jesus who did not condemn the woman caught in adultery later in the story. We might wish to remember that if Jesus doesn’t condemn someone, then perhaps we ought not to condemn them, either.
We think we know what Jesus is all about, but then like Nicodemus we find there’s more to it than what we thought.
As we look around at what’s happening in the world in these last few days, we might recognize other examples of words having different meanings. Let’s consider the phrase “acts of God.”
Some contracts use the phrase “acts of God” as a way to identify things that are outside of human control - floods, earthquakes, lightning strikes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis - usually in an effort to limit liability for damage caused by these events.
And a few Christians have been known to assert that things such as earthquakes, floods, tsunamis are indeed acts of God, violent and destructive acts that are deliberately meted out against humans as punishment for behavior that makes God mad. To those Christians, these so-called acts of God are God’s way of getting rid of people who oppose God and Jesus. Getting rid of parts of “the world,” as John uses the term.
But possibly those Christians haven’t read further, they haven’t considered John 3:17. “For Jesus came not to condemn but to save the world,” even those who may be at odds with God. Those Christians have misunderstood both John’s definition of “the world” as well as the term “acts of God.” Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods - geologic destruction - are not acts of God. They are acts of Earth.
As one of my clergy colleagues says, “Earth happens.” And when Earth happens, we misunderstand if we think this is God’s work. When Earth happens, God is not meting out revenge but abiding with those who are perishing, present with those who are grieving, comforting those who are bereft, living up to God’s promise that God is with us in our fears, in the fire, in the water, in the pain. That’s where God is when Earth happens.
But I do want to say that there are some “acts of God.” All four of the Gospels were written to try to say something about those acts of God, which we often call mysteries, things we are not able to understand rationally. The movements of tectonic plates that result in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and the principles of atmospheric pressure that give rise to hurricanes - those things we can come to understand with our intellect, our sense of reason.
But the mysteries are things that we apprehend spiritually and we have to live with them for a while so as to grow into our understanding of them.
Like Nicodemus, we may misunderstand at first. We may need a while to think about and watch for how God works in the world, as Nicodemus did before he finally came to understand who Jesus was after Jesus’ death. Lent is a good time for us to think about who Jesus was and what that has to do with us in our own lives here and now.
As I said, there are acts of God. The whole incarnational cycle - the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus - that’s an act of God. A gift from God. When I have trouble thinking about the resurrection with my rational self, I remember to think of it instead as an act of God. During Lent, my prayer life is often centered around simply opening myself to such mysteries.
God acted in history! God sent his only Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it.
This is the Good News! This is what we are called to believe.