2nd Sunday Lent – Vicar Ferguson
2nd Sunday Lent 3.5.23 Ferguson
Our reading opens with a description of Nicodemus, a man of the Pharisees and ruler of the Jews. From this description we know that Nicodemus knows his stuff. One doesn’t get to reign over the Jewish people haphazardly, and Pharisees were quite knowledgeable when it came to the Law. So, Nicodemus comes to our Lord as a smart man intending to ask our Lord a smart question or two.
This smart question, or would be question is opened with a respectful salutation. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teach come from God, for no one can do these sign that you do unless God is with him.” That is to say, “Teacher we know that you are legit and are truly a servant of God. Your resume of miracles proves that you are sent by God who is with you.” Nicodemus greets our Lord with praise.
Our Lord does not reply in kind, rather he says something seemingly unrelated and a tad off-putting. “Yeah, yeah, Nicodemus. I get that all the time. But I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”. Our Lord brushes aside the adulation of this man says something that Nicodemus finds cryptic and worrying.
Nicodemus replies, “How can a man be born when he is old?” He is asking Jesus, “How can this be? I am already old, it is impossible to for me to be born again.” Our Lord corrects Nicodemus’ misunderstanding. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.” Our Lord clarifies what he meant. “I am not talking about a birth that we all know of, I am telling you about a new birth by water and the Spirit. This birth is something different than what you know about.”
The text of our Gospel is a good translation. It does correctly translate the Greek. The problem is that two Greek words used in this Gospel are much more meaningful in Greek than their English translation. The first word is again. The Greek means both again and above. Therefore, when our Lord tells Nicodemus that the must be born again, he also means to say that he must be born from again above. The second word is Spirit/ Wind. The Greek means both Spirit and wind. The wind blows were it wishes, also refers to the Spirit’s movement where he wishes.
Nicodemus asks a question, “How can these things be?” Jesus replies, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things.” Jesus is saying in essence, “So you’re among the intellectuals of your age and you do not understand what I am saying?” Jesus is asking Nicodemus if he really doesn’t understand these things. After all Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jews, a ardent student of the Law. The man could probably read Hebrew rather well, and he still did not understand Jesus.
Jesus continues, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” The problem seems to be that we see the Gospel, Water, Word and Wind and wine, and doubt that they could be anything significant. We desire the heavenly things but we often fail to grasp the earthly.
This is the crux of this reading. Nicodemus cannot understand any of the teaching of Jesus. Why? Perhaps his legalism prevents him from seeing the grace of God, perhaps, his ignorance of the incarnation prevents him from seeing the concrete simplicity of what Jesus is telling him. Either way Nicodemus does not accept the teaching of our Lord. We can see this in the almost comical misunderstanding of Nicodemus. “So I must be born again, how would that happen exactly?”
Looking at Nicodemus we see a man trying to control his salvation. When our Lord tells him that to see the Kingdom of God that he must be born again, Nicodemus’ response is “How would I do that?” The emphasis is on the word I. What can I do to be born again? This error on Nicodemus’ part is understandable when you consider that he is a Pharisee. We know that most Pharisees saw the Law as a ladder to heaven. That is a way for them to approach God on their own terms by their own righteousness. In the Pharisaical mindset we see nothing but what we are to do. Therefore when Jesus tells this Pharisee what must be done for him to see the Kingdom of God, it is an easy jump for Nicodemus to see this as something he must do to see the Kingdom of God.
But our Lord destroys that assumption here. It is not by keeping the law or doing certain things that one is saved. Rather it is by being. Being born anew by water and The wind/Spirit. The law has no power to save sinners. It only condemns their sin. It takes something else for salvation. The way our Lord provides to see the Kingdom of God is through real water where the Spirit works. Simple, straightforward, uncomplicated.
Jesus continues, “… 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.” Jesus here is using an episode in Israel’s history to show what he means. The people of Israel during their Wilderness Wandering complained against the Lord and the Lord sent fiery serpents among them. And many people died. To save the people from the punishment for their complaining the Lord had Moses set up a bronze serpent on a pole, that whoever would look at the serpent would live. In a similar way the Son of Man must be lifted up, that is to say crucified, so that those who would believe in him may have eternal life. And those who look upon Jesus crucified are healed of that sting of the fiery serpents of Sin, Death, and the Devil. When we look upon the elements of the Lord’s Supper we look upon the crucified body and blood of our Lord. That very body which hung on the cross is offered to you under the bread and the wine.
A good Pharisee would know what the Law required and attempt to keep it, that would be their ladder to heaven, but one which demands absolute perfection. There is no grace nor forgiveness to be found in the Law. It is pass or fail. Jesus approaches Nicodemus with something beyond the Law. Jesus comes with grace and forgiveness. How is this so? Jesus tells us. The Son of Man must be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. This is how the promises of God are accomplished and received. God’s gracious work was seen in the cross and received by faith.
This is the same thing that happened to Abraham, and was spoken of in the Epistle. St. Paul writes, (Romans 4:14ff) “For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and promise if void. For the law brings wrath… … That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all…”
As we heard in the sermon this past Wednesday, God called Abraham out of the darkness of unbelief into the light of grace by faith alone. To the world, Abraham doesn’t look exceptionally righteousness, passing off Sarah as his sister, nearly murdering his son. Abraham is known as the Patriarch of Faith because God made promises and Abraham believed, which God reckoned to him as righteousness.
The Law told Nicodemus what to do to be saved. Jesus tells him something else. Jesus tell him to let the Spirit blow life back into him anew. “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.”
God loved the world to death in Jesus. The tomb looks dark and cold. Who would follow Jesus there? It confounded Nicodemus. But looking at the end (John 19), I see that Nicodemus does find his way to that tomb, at last with Joseph, laying Jesus’ body there. And in the darkness of that tomb, he, with Abraham found eternal life. As will we all. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.