Seeing God Right Next to Us
Second Sunday in Lent, Year A, RCL, John 3:1-17
Have you ever heard John 3:16 before? Maybe you have seen it on a sign that someone holds up during a football game. Most of us who have not memorized the Bible still know or at least recognize this verse. And to be honest, this verse doesn’t fill me with good feelings.
There is nothing wrong with the sentence. Theologically it holds up. “For 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.” In many ways, it sums up the Gospel well. But, for me, I wonder if it is because, when I see it or hear it, I perceive that it is coming from someone who is filled with judgment. They hold up the sign or say it to us looking for agreement. If we agree, we are with them. If we disagree, we are against them; as if this one verse is a litmus test for the Christian faithful.
I find the next verse, John 3:17, equally compelling. And I wonder why we don’t see people holding it up on signs. Or telling us “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This verse seems to be filled with just as much hope but without the guilt. I don’t know. It seems like two people could shout these verses back and forth, like in one of those old Budweiser commercials… “Tastes Great!” “Less Filling!” They are like two sides of the same coin. Yet, I do see the irony. In one verse Christ speaks against condemnation while others hold up the previous verse seemingly to condemn.
If we hold up the first without the second, then there is no room for the non-believer to receive God’s grace; no room for those who question their faith to receive God’s grace. Our faith becomes black and white; you are with us or against us. You are in or you are out. And exclusion is very different from what we see in the man portrayed at the beginning of this passage.
Nicodemus is fascinating because we can’t quite figure him out. We don’t understand Nicodemus any more than Nicodemus seems to understand Jesus. Three times Nicodemus shows up in John's Gospel account. We know that he is a member of the ruling council. He sits at the table with the Sanhedrin, discussing whether Jesus should get an investigation and trial or not. And because of his position in the community, we don’t need to wonder why he must go at night to visit Jesus who, by the way, just upset the moneychanger’s tables in the previous scene. Nicodemus visits Jesus with a great amount of personal risk.
I wonder, when was the last time we have taken a personal risk to be with Jesus or to talk about our faith?
For John, Nicodemus’s late-night appearance also depicts his state of unbelief. Nicodemus, at this point, is in darkness. And for us, especially in lent, darkness may be a familiar feeling as we sink into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our faith.
Nicodemus opens his conversation with a respectful acknowledgment of who Jesus is. A Rabbi – one whom he might be able to learn from. He also recognizes that Jesus comes from God. But this is a mistaken belief that is only half true. John wants Nicodemus to see that Jesus isn’t only from God or that God is present with Jesus, but that Jesus is the very presence of God.
This is what makes Nicodemus so relatable. How often do we recognize Christ in our lives, yet not recognize that Christ is the very presence of God in our midst? God is not somewhere far off, on top of a mountain, in a cloud, or sitting on a throne in heaven. No, God is with us in Christ, here and now.
With Nicodemus’s half awareness of who Jesus is, Jesus continues the conversation with being born again, or born anew, or born from above. Some scholars find it interesting that there are clearly three meanings for what Jesus says, yet Nicodemus chooses the most illogical one; born again. By this limited translation, Nicodemus is stuck trying to figure out how to reenter his mother’s womb. Personally, I prefer the translation born anew. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew. Born as a new creation; a child of God. The use of this interpretation makes the rest of Jesus’ responses seem a little less strange and obtuse. This spiritual rebirth doesn’t come from the flesh but from water and Spirit; through our Baptism.
At this point, Nicodemus is stuck on what physically cannot be and he is not open to more imaginative possibilities. He is stuck on what he knows and not willing to move into the world of what he has seen; the miraculous nature of Christ - of God in his midst.
It can be hard for us to let go of rational explanations and be in a place where we are comfortable with the unexplainable. When someone tells us of an experience that doesn’t fit our knowledge of physics or science, we often want to disregard the experience as untrue or as an exaggeration. While the explanation of an event may yet to be discovered, I would contest that we should be open to God’s hand at work in our lives; in both the explainable and unexplainable. No matter how much we learn and discover, there will always be mysteries to uncover and an order to the universe that is unable to be fully explained.
I would hope that we would not let our lack of imagination stop us from discovering the depths of science and that it would also not prevent us from seeing God right next to us in the world, telling us that there is a plan for our lives, there is purpose and meaning beyond our understanding. And that we are a real part of God’s creation and are loved because of it.