In the last 25 years or so a new word has become very prominent in the American church scene. The word is “seeker.” We are a nation of spiritual seekers. People everywhere are looking for that spiritual lift, that tie to something deeper that will provide some meaning in this crazy world.
Many churches have responded by trying to become “seeker sensitive.” They restructure their worship and programs to attract seekers. The idea is that by offering the right blend of music, a lighter touch of spiritual uplift rather than the heavy weight of doctrine, and a more entertaining pace, they can attract these seekers into make deeper commitments.
During Lent this year in several long and fascinating vignettes from the gospel of John, Jesus stands face to face with various kinds of seekers.
Today it’s Nicodemus (let’s call him Nick). He’s a religious leader among the Sanhedrin, but he is also a seeker. He wants to find out about Jesus. Granted, he’s not your typical seeker. He’s a learned man, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Council of elders that was at the center of Jewish religious and political life. He may also have been a brave man, since Jesus was not exactly a popular figure among the Pharisees. Maybe that’s who he came at night.
He comes to Jesus because he’s seeking something. He’s heard about Jesus and he’s at least curious. Perhaps he’s driven by a much deeper hunger which even he would not be able to explain.
Nick is very nice and polite. He approaches Jesus with deference. “Rabbi”, he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do the signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” He’s impressed with what Jesus has done. He figures this Jesus is worth looking into.
And what does Jesus say? “Well, thank you very much, I appreciate those words from a man of your stature. Now let me help you by explaining a few things….”
No, Jesus does not go into what we would call a seeker sensitive mode. He doesn’t go out of his way to explain everything clearly, avoiding jargon, and sanding down the rough edges.
Jesus seems to move in just the opposite direction. He becomes elusive and he speaks in deliberately deep and mysterious language. Instead of throwing him soft, easy pitch, Jesus winds up and throws a sinking fastball.
The very first thing Jesus says is this: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”” (3:3) What? You have to feel a little sorry for poor old Nick.
Jesus approach to seekers is not to offer simple, easy answers, because there aren’t any. Jesus invites them to plunge deeper and deeper into the deep mystery that surrounds the being and the ways of God. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”” (3:3)
What is Jesus saying? These words sound so familiar to us, as though Jesus is spouting some timeworn revival slogan. Aren’t there millions of “born again” Christians running around today? We all think we know perfectly well what it means. You accept Jesus Christ into your heart and you are “born again.”
But it’s a remark that must have left Nick absolutely bewildered. He was, after all, a good Pharisee at the pinnacle of Jewish faith and tradition. As far as he was concerned, all he needed was a little help from God, a little spiritual advice, and everything would fall into place. How could it be that he would not see the Kingdom of God unless he was born again?
It’s important to recognize that the Greek word Jesus uses can be translated in two ways. It can mean either “born again” or “born from above.” In fact, I think, Jesus intends both meanings, a sort of rebirth that can only come from above. It’s beyond our own action.
But more than that, Jesus is saying to Nick, “This is not about you. This is not about your ideas, your highly developed doctrines, and your spirituality. Nick, you’ve got to start all over again.” This is not what Nick expected to hear, or wanted to hear.
Start all over again? Nick says, “How can a man enter again into his mother’s womb?” I don’t think that Nick was so obtuse as to think Jesus was speaking literally. I tend to think he recognized that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. And I think he recognized what the metaphor meant.
How can I, a life-long Jew, a Pharisee, a learned man, “enter into my mother’s womb?” I’m a product of all my yesterdays. I’m a Jewish leader. I know about these things (that’s what he said when he first came). How can I start all over?
But Jesus just draws him deeper into the mystery of faith. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (3:5,6)
That should ring some familiar bells for Nick. It’s not that Pharisees knew nothing of the significance of water. They were always splashing water around in ceremonial washings, a sign of inner cleansing. On top of that, John the Baptist has been proclaiming his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Now Jesus couples that baptism with the Holy Spirit. As John the Baptism had said, “After me comes the one who will baptize with water and the Spirit.
Water and Spirit. That means the physical baptism with water, like we witnessed last week, must be coupled with the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Water baptism, by itself, is not enough. Only the Spirit gives life.
Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.” Flesh means our human life with all its sinful limitations. Jesus is saying that there’s no natural evolution from flesh to Spirit, no direct road from humanity to God. There’s no way, no bridge, no secret knowledge, no hidden answer. There’s no evolution toward God without a revolution of the heart—to be born again from above.
So many spiritual seekers today think that if they can find the right guru, learn the proper discipline, read the next book, discover some mysterious religion from the east, engage in some exciting worship, then they will discover the true path to God. Jesus says “No”. There’s no way from here to there, no highway to heaven paved with human spirituality. “That which is born of flesh is flesh.”
And if that were not enough to discourage Nick, Jesus makes it even more radical. You need the Spirit all right, he says, but the Spirit is not in your control. It’s like wind, utterly free. You did not choose to born the first time, and you do not control the spiritual rebirth you need. It’s out of your hands. It’s a radically gracious act that comes out of the freedom of God’s love.
This is all very disturbing to Nick. All he can do is stutter “How can this be?’ Then Jesus, at his insensitive best, grabs the rug right out from under him. “Are you a teacher in Israel and you do not understand these things?”
This should disturb us too. We all like to be in control. We like to think that we, like Nicodemus, know something and can do something about out condition. But it’s when we are at the end of our rope, at the edge of our knowledge, in the mess of our sins, in the muddle of our helplessness, that we finally fall into the loving arms of God.
It’s not about our knowledge, our experiences, our spiritual efforts. The labor room for new birth is the place of utter human helplessness and need. And that’s exactly where Jesus was trying to bring this learned and sophisticated seeker from the Sanhedrin.
If Jesus had stopped here, Nick and all of us would have been left disappointed with the impossibility of the new birth and salvation. But Jesus didn’t stop there. Now he plunges into the deepest waters of faith.
He says something that seems very strange and impenetrable, but which is really the key to the whole thing. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” (13,14)
What’s all this ascended and descended stuff? The whole point of this chapter and of the whole gospel of John is that Jesus descended, he is the Son of God sent to us from heaven by God. It’s Jesus descent from heaven that makes his, and our ascent possible.
But here’s the kicker: Jesus’ ascension in this gospel is quite different from what we imagine. It begins at the most improbable place. That’s why he refers to that old story about the snake in the wilderness. We read the story this morning, and Nick certainly must have known it.
Israel has rebelled in the wilderness…again. So God sends a plague of poisonous snakes and many people get bitten, fall sick, and die. Moses intercedes before the face of God, and it’s then that God tells Moses to do a very strange thing. Moses is told to cast one of these poisonous snakes in bronze and hoist it on a high pole for all to see. And everyone who looks at the snake will be healed.
Strangely, the malady becomes the cure; the snake, the means of God’s judgement, becomes the means of God’s salvation. Weird.
Jesus now uncovers the deep meaning hidden in this strange incident in the wilderness. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, so that whoever believes on him will have eternal life.”
To grasp what Jesus is saying you have to understand the peculiar way in which the cross is talked about in the gospel of John. Jesus always talks about being “lifted up” on the cross. He isn’t just talking about the physical fact of the cross lifted above the ground. It’s a word that the Bible normally used for exaltation. For example, when Peter preaches about Christ’s ascension, he is “exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33). It’s the same word.
For John, Jesus ascent, his exaltation, his glory, begins right there, with this bone crunching, skin-ripping torture of being lifted up on the cross. In chapter 12:32, talking about the cross, he says, “And I, when I am lifted up (exalted) will draw all people to myself.” Being nailed to a bloody cross is the first ten feet of Jesus’ glorious ascension into heaven. The instrument of torture radiates a glory which will draw the world to himself.
When this condemned, naked man is nailed to the cross of Calvary for the entire world to see, he is the stark symbol of all our failure and sin. He is the poisonous snake that represents our just punishment from God.
But this is the Son of God. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he’s the bronze snake that brings healing and salvation. In this obscenity of a cross, we find life. In this unspeakable, bloody death, we are born again.
What does it mean to be born again from above? It’s to realize deep in my heart that I am helpless and sinful to the core of my being. I am rightly under God’s eternal judgment, and there is nothing I can ever do to make it right. Right there, at this terrible place of torture and punishment, we see ourselves, every man, woman, and child, every lost, sinning, rebellious one of us. The poisonous snake has bitten us all.
But it’s not just us we see. It’s God’s Son there in our place. If God’s own Son has taken our place, then God truly loves us, and there is hope, there is salvation, there is a way out. It’s the beginning of Christ’s ascension, and ours. From the cross, he takes us with him, reconciled to the Father.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.”
I am here to tell every one of you today. God has written his love letter to you in blood. He has reconciled your sinful rebellious heart to himself by lifting his Son on our cross of sin and shame. And all God asks is that you trust in this act of love for your salvation.
One fateful Sunday morning when I was around 13 or 14 I sat in Alpine Ave. Church measuring out my peppermints in anticipation of a long, boring sermon, oblivious to what was going on around me. But then a strange moment came. I suddenly became conscious of the preacher’s words. I heard the preacher talk about the Jesus on the cross, and I listened. I don’t remember the exact words, but I know they pierced my heart.
At that moment I saw Jesus on the cross, suffering, dying, for me, for me. For the first time, I knew deep in my heart that on that cross God had expressed his undying love for me personally. For the first time, I believed. Having been born into Christ’s body in the water of baptism as a baby, I was now born from above by the Spirit promised in my baptism.
Afterwards, we sang that beloved old hymn that still always moves me. My throat tight with emotion, I sang it for the first time as my personal testimony.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control:
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and has shed his own blood for my soul.
My sin- of the bliss of that glorious thought—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.
Over the years I have returned to that cross over and over; it is the center of my life, the rock of my salvation. I know again and again, “it is well, it is well, with my soul.”
What about Nick? We hear nothing of him until the end of John’s gospel. There we learn that Nicodemus finally took his stand beneath that cross of Jesus. He among those who lovingly took Jesus’ body down from the cross. It says” Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”
It was the sign of his faith and the token of his gratitude. It was the first gasp of a grown man newborn into God’s Kingdom. In that mangled body taken down from the cross, the seeker finally found what he was looking for, or better, he was found by the one looking for him.
John 3: 1-17
March 12, 2017
©Leonard J. Vander Zee
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