John 3:1-171 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and 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." 3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 4 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?" 5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above.' 8 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." 9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 "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. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just 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, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 "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.
Well, here we are with what is undoubtedly the most famous verse in the Christian canon. Good old John 3:16. Martin Luther called it the Gospel in miniature and it has been as much apart of American sports as raucous fans and over-priced concessions. When I was a young boy, the permanent fixture of a John 3:16 sign behind the goal posts of Mile High Stadium confused me to no end. I asked my father if Jesus had been a Broncos fan. He tried to communicate to me what this verse had sort of become and why it was unavoidably a part of any large gathering of humans. Yes, this famed verse, John 3:16, is as Luther suggested, a sort of short hand for the entire story of Jesus: it is a precise and neat encapsulation of what we believe as Christians. It is utterly familiar to us, and like all things familiar, runs the risk of losing its meaning through sheer repetition. For while it may be the most familiar verse to all of us, I dare anyone to recite Leviticus 3:16, don’t worry, I don’t have that one memorized either, there is a danger in this familiarity. For this verse, this famed verse, is so much more than a slogan or a chant or a way to sequester ourselves from those who do not agree with us on the meaning of Jesus Christ. No, this verse is God’s rhapsody for the whole cosmos, it is a foreshadowing of the great drama in which God reclaims and recaptures a sinful humanity. Yes, so much more than a slogan.
To see how this is true, we need to back up to the beginning of the story and get into this wonderful and perplexing dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. We are working out of John’s Gospel, and there are a few important chronological features of John that are vitally important. Whereas in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus goes down to Jerusalem and cleanses the Temple during Holy Week, right before his trial and crucifixion, this event happens much earlier in John. In fact, it is the last action that Jesus takes before the scene that we happen upon here. Jesus has just cleared the Temple and performed many signs that have created belief in the masses. So enter Nicodemus, from stage left, a man well trained in traditional religion, one who, in some sense, is in favor the Temple practices that Jesus just violently condemned. Nicodemus, under the cover of night, has come to see Jesus, with the curiosity of one who has witnessed something incredible and bizarre. Now, we can easily make Nicodemus into some sort of conniving villain, a sort of stand-in for all those who opposed or oppose Christ, but to do so would mean to disregard what the text actually says about him. Nicodemus is not so much manipulative or underhanded as he is confused, perplexed, and in this way, he is a stand-in for you and me. He comes to Jesus, expresses admiration and respect for him as one who has come from God, given all these miraculous and healing things Jesus has been up to. Yes, Nicodemus, with echoes from last week’s readings, is perhaps asking for a little bit more evidence that will unlock the mystery of this man Jesus.
Unfortunately, if Nicodemus was coming to Jesus to have his confusion answered and his anxiety eased, he has come to the wrong place. For what next ensues is what we might politely call a disjointed conversation. There seems to be no common conversational ground on which the two may stand. Nicodemus sort of politely hints at his intentions and Jesus, totally unprompted, tells Nicodemus that the world must be born from above if it is to see the Kingdom of God. Understandably confused, but still trying, Nicodemus asks, with the literalism of one who is, like, totally in over his head, how a person could possibly crawl back into the womb a second time. The biological implications of this statement are more than Nicodemus can handle. Jesus, next, rather than assisting Nicodemus, instead ups the ante with an equally confusing metaphor, this time referencing the wind. If all this is not enough, Jesus is astonished that Nicodemus, as a religious authority charged with teaching Israel, cannot understand these things. So much for Nicodemus getting some precise answers that will help him make sense of this Jesus. Instead, Nicodemus, then, sort of recedes in the background more perplexed than when the conversation started and probably a bit embarrassed for Jesus’ less than constructive criticism vis-à-vis his ability as a teacher.
So, how does any of this help us recapture the wonderful, life-altering vision of God’s love that is captured in John 3:16? Well, you see, the conversational funhouse that Nicodemus has found himself in culminates in that famed verse and following. John 3:16 is the way that Jesus will finally, in some sense, give Nicodemus the goods in a way that he can understand. For Nicodemus and for us, we are being charged with this most difficult task: trusting the wind. Yes, as deeply as Nicodemus wants to understand Jesus, he does not yet realize that he must let go of his preconceived notions of who God is and where God is to be found and simply trust in Christ’s goodness and love. To trust the wind is to trust that which you cannot control, that which blows where it will without asking for our input. Is there anything more difficult than trusting a God who likens himself to the wind? How does one even begin to do a thing such as this? Enter John 3:16 and its incredibly portrayal of God’s other-worldly love. How do you trust a God who is mysterious beyond comprehension? Well, you see that God has drawn you to the cross: the place where God’s glory is fully revealed and when you gaze up at your savior, and in that instant when the Holy Spirit births in you the faith that receive this crucified Christ as the glory of God, yes, it is that moment that the wind becomes not a threat by the power by which you came to believe. “Yes, dear Nicodemus, you want to know what it means to be born from above? To be born by the spirit that is predictable and manageable as the wind? Well you, sir, you will be born from above only when I am lifted up on the cross” says Jesus. “It will be in that event, in my being raised up on roughly-fashioned wooden planks, sallow with perspiration and blood, it is then that you will be born from above.” This, dearly beloved, this is our kinship with Nicodemus. We come to this place, struggling to make sense of pretty much everything in our lives: earthquakes and tsunamis lay waste to an entire region. Budget cuts and a still sluggish economy work a deep fear and anxiety in us. We ask where God could possibly be in the midst of all this. And it is precisely in the moment we admit this fear, when we sit with Nicodemus in this befuddlement and confusion, when we ask how can these things possibly be, it is then that the cross, that John 3:16 begins to be more than a slogan or an identity marker. It is then that these most incredible words: “For God loved the world in this way . . .” it is then that they become what they are intended: the sweetest sound of relief to our anxiety-choked souls. For right when we are about to give it all up, this Christ proclaims to us that God’s love for the whole cosmos is such that God will go to the cross and draw us to himself as he is lifted up. This, dear people of God, this is your birth from above. You are named, you are remembered, you are loved by a God who preaches peace and forgiveness even to those who would betray and execute him. Like Nicodemus, we will never completely understand this God, but this much is certain: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In Jesus’ name, amen.