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in the Wind"
It's been said that we reveal who we truly are by the things we do when no one is looking, by the things we do in private, in secret. For example, the person who diets in public and then makes a pig of himself when he gets home alone.
And Jesus has told us that God will reward us for the praying, the fasting, and the generosity we show, if we do these things in secret.
I suspect that the reason that our true selves come out in secret is that we aren't concerned with pleasing or displeasing anyone else. We can truly BE OURSELVES. There is no crowd to follow, no crowd to worry about offending.
And I think it's necessary to understand all this in order to truly understand Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, who came to Jesus by night. Now, if he had approached Jesus in the daylight hours, with others watching, with other PHARISEES watching, he would have had to behave himself.
He would have had to toe the party line. He would have needed to be like others EXPECTED him to be. And that would have been inhibiting. So instead, he comes by night, and that makes all the difference in what will transpire.
Indeed, it might even explain why some of his questions may seem a little strange for a learned man.
"He 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."
Now, I don't know where this "we" stuff comes from. I think Nicodemus is speaking for himself. But in his saying, "we know" we can almost hear him asking, "are we correct?" "Is this true?" "Have you come from God?"
Because as far as Nicodemus can tell, nobody can DO what Jesus has done "apart from the presence of God." And I think that Jesus hears the questions that Nicodemus implies in his statements.
And he tells Nicodemus what it means to "come from God" and to be in "the presence of God."
"Jesus answered him, ôVery truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
Now, if you're following along in the Revised Standard Version or the King James Version, you're going to be reading "born anew" or "born again." But what it all boils down to is a DIFFERENT kind of birth, a SPIRITUAL birth. The first birth, or the old birth, or the birth from below is our BIOLOGICAL EARTHLY birth. And Jesus is telling Nicodemus that there is something else.
There is ANOTHER birth required if we are to see the kingdom of God, if we are to be in the presence of God.
Well, this just confuses Nicodemus.
"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?"
And you know, when I read that verse, I am tempted to laugh. But I don't. Because I think that Nicodemus is at least asking an HONEST QUESTION about what Jesus means about "being born."
And Jesus answers him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit."
Now, Jesus doesn't mention water again in this passage, but he has a whole lot more to say about spirit. In fact, I think we could lump together all of our translations of "born again," "born anew," "born from above," and we would come out with "born of the spirit."
Because it doesn't matter WHEN or WHERE this birth takes place; it only matters that this special birth DOES take place. And I am reminded of two pastors I once overheard wondering out loud what scriptural justification there was for baptism by sprinkling or pouring. I don't think that God much CARES whether we sprinkle, or pour, or immerse, so long as the baptism takes place.
But Jesus offers further clarification for Nicodemus: "What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit."
And he's still trying to clear up Nicodemus' confusion about entering a second time into the mother's womb. And he's telling him, THAT kind of rebirth doesn't accomplish ANYTHING for you. All that would get you would be a second birth of the flesh.
Flesh begets flesh; but only Spirit begets spirit.
But Nicodemus must still be confused, or maybe surprised at what Jesus has said, because Jesus tells him,
"Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above."
So what must Nicodemus be thinking, or feeling, about all this? Maybe he hasn't quite got a handle on all this "spirit" business. But then, do we? Can anything be more elusive than the idea of what "spirit" is?
Even pastors can get so caught up in the mechanics of ministry, the methods, the procedures, the facts and the figures, that we from time to time need to remind ourselves--and one another--that the Spirit IS at work in our lives, and we need to put our faith and trust in that Spirit.
And Jesus goes on to tell poor, confused Nicodemus,
"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."
Now, I don't know if this clears things up or muddies them, but in the Greek and Hebrew the words for "wind" and "spirit" are the same. So we might also read, "the SPIRIT blows where it chooses."
And I hear Jesus telling Nicodemus, and us, that IF we are born of the Spirit, we may not know where it comes from, or where it's going, but we KNOW it's there, even though it moves as it chooses. The Spirit is a presence in our lives, the presence of God.
Ah, but poor Nicodemus.
"Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"
He really can't fathom this Spirit stuff. But then, neither can lots of folks today who have nothing to do with Christianity. Except, they're not asking the question; instead, they simply claim, "these things CANNOT be."
They simply refuse to believe, and they can't understand how ANYONE would be silly enough to believe that there is such a thing as a spiritual life. For these folks, life is a closed system. There is no such thing as the presence of God in their lives. There is no such thing as the mystery of the spirit. They are imprisoned in their physical senses.
Well, Jesus seems to have run out of patience with Nicodemus.
"Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?"
And this response may not be aimed so much at Nicodemus as at ALL the Pharisees: the teachers of Israel.
And notice that he's not specifically questioning whether Nicodemus BELIEVES what he's told him; rather, he's questioning why Nicodemus does not at least UNDERSTAND them.
Poor Nicodemus. He's made this special trip under cover of darkness to talk to Jesus, and now he's catching criticism from him.
"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."
And here he IS attacking all the Pharisees. And can't you just hear him saying, "you guys haven't been paying attention!" And he's right! The Pharisees have been so obsessed with what they don't LIKE about Jesus, that they have turned a deaf ear to what he has to say. Sometimes I think that some modern-day Christians get their minds made up about Jesus and what he had to say, and then CLOSE their minds to learning anything new about him.
And Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus,
"If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about HEAVENLY things?"
And it is almost as if Jesus KNEW that Nicodemus wouldn't understand him, almost as if he KNEW that the message about the spirit would not get through.
Now, Jesus doesn't elaborate on what the "earthly things" are and what the "heavenly things" are. But I have a sense that he's telling us, if you don't believe the simple stuff, you're going to have a hard time believing the stuff that gets complicated.
If we don't believe what's staring us in the face, we're going to be hard pressed to believe in what we have to put some thought into.
And then Jesus begins to tell Nicodemus about the "heavenly things."
"No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man."
And of course, he's talking about himself. But he's also responding to Nicodemus first statement: "we know that you are a teacher who has come from God."
Now on this verse I happen to like the King James Version: "And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which IS in heaven."
And I think I like it because it fixes Jesus as being eternally spiritually in the presence of God.
And then Jesus marvelously draws on the story of the Exodus to prophesy his own death.
"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."
You may recall the story of the bronze serpent from the twenty-first chapter of Numbers. "The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us."
So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live."
So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live."
And just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent to save the lives of the Israelites in the wilderness in spite of their sin, so Jesus was lifted up, on the cross in the crucifixion, to make possible ETERNAL life to the whole world.
Now, although this story of Nicodemus runs on for another six verses, some scholars argue that it really ends HERE. And regardless of where we THINK it ends, I think that it's unfortunate that we don't know what happened to Nicodemus at this point.
We run across him later, but he and Jesus don't say goodbye here. And that should leave us wondering: Was Nicodemus satisfied with his visit? Did he feel that he LEARNED anything from it? What kind of SENSE did Jesus message make to him?
Well, all we can do is guess. But I would like to close by pointing out that I think that Nicodemus is a good example for US. He had the COURAGE to seek out Jesus on his own, secretly; a courage we continually need when we seek God in prayer. And he had the courage to open himself up by asking questions that we might, in hindsight, think a bit silly.
We need that courage, too; the courage of the stranger in the night, to open ourselves up to God, to ask the hard questions, and to be prepared for the Spirit as it blows where it chooses.
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