Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 5, 2023
John 3:1-17 Commentary
The fact that perhaps the most well-known bible verse, John 3.16, is part of this philosophical and ontological mind-bending conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus never ceases to fascinate me.
Nicodemus is a leader of his faith community and he comes to speak with Jesus in the quiet and solitude of the night. I’m not sure that we ever get to know what has brought Nicodemus to Jesus—his opening line in verse 2 sounds a bit more like a polite and honouring greeting to someone you know is important than his motivation for his visit. But, Nicodemus’s complimentary greeting also clearly indicates that Nicodemus recognizes that something is different about and in Jesus. So when Jesus tells him it takes being born from above (verse 3) in order to be able to see the things of the kingdom of God, is Jesus encouraging Nicodemus that Nicodemus is well on his way, or, is Jesus offering him a picture of what is still necessary?
Nicodemus’s attempts to understand the how of Jesus’s comments about being born again show our human tendency to try to get at what it is that we are supposed to be doing. Nicodemus’s understanding of birth is finitely human and what he is trying imagine is impossible. Nicodemus is thinking of repeating what has been his experience of birth; the one that comes from a source exactly like ourselves, our mother’s womb.
But Jesus says to him, that that birth is already done and its impact is playing out. In verses 6-8 each use of the verb “born” is in the prefect tense: being born of the flesh has happened and it has lasting consequences. Likewise, if someone has been born of the Spirit, it too has lasting consequences. And unlike our humanly births, our Spirit births can be much more difficult to trace. We see evidence of it, like the hearing wind on the trees, but the Spirit moves and works as the Spirit chooses, and we are unable to fully comprehend the Spirit’s movements.
At the close of verse 8, Jesus says that not knowing about the Spirit’s movements is also as “it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” I think, more than he is saying that we do not know who has been born from above, that Jesus is saying that none of us who have experienced a Spirit birth knows how it works—Nicodemus’s very question. Jesus’s answer is a noun with no verb: the Spirit. Period. We cannot fully comprehend the how, but we can know the why. That’s what the rest of the text this week is about.
In verse 11 Jesus uses the first-person plural—is he talking for the Godhead, or for his “body” the church, those who have been re-born of the Spirit? “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony…” As our communities become more and more cynical of other people’s spiritual experiences, judging what we believe to be real based on our own ideas without even listening to the testimony of those who experienced it, what becomes of our “belief”? In a time where we cannot even agree on what is real or what actually happened (fake news!), what becomes of how we understand truth, and what impact does that have on what and how we believe?
But when it comes to God’s why, Jesus makes it crystal clear: “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. 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.”
God’s purpose is love. The Spirit works as the Spirit chooses because of love. The Son of Man, Jesus Christ, the mediator of heaven and earth, does so as love. And yet, none of it is a forced love. Jesus’s famous words are constructed as a purpose statement—God’s intent is clear, but we may or may not accept or believe it (indicated by the use of subjunctive verbs).
Nicodemus wondered how it was humanly possible to be born from above, and Jesus tells him it is not. But, believing becomes humanly possible when you’ve been born from above. We receive it, but it involves us. I wonder if this is why John 3.1-17 is a Lenten text (in other years of the lectionary, it is a text for Trinity Sunday). As we consider all that God has done for us, and what Jesus invites us to by taking up our crosses to follow him on his ascending way to the presence of God, we face the purposes of God and God’s love head on, and we must choose to be obedient to them by faith and belief, as the Spirit enables us to do. We must lean into the wind of the Spirit as the Spirit blows, even if we do not understand it, cannot explain or justify it, or are wont to accept it for ourselves or others.
Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here
In verse 13, Jesus, referring to himself, reverses the typical order of the way we think and speak theologically about him. He says that “No one has ascended [prefect active indicative] into heaven except the one who descended [aorist attributive participle] from heaven, the Son of Man.” Usually, we talk about Jesus Christ’s descension from heaven to earth through the Incarnation, then his Ascension to heaven after his Death and Resurrection. But here, Jesus says that he is the one “going up” to heaven with eternal consequences, and one of the consequences made him the one who came down from heaven: he links the two, but the main verb is his ascending, not his descending. Throughout the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit has helped believers understand that to “go up” into heaven, following the path of Christ (and even of Moses at Mt. Sinai) has meant going deeper into the loving presence of the Triune God, and that this is a work that the Holy Spirit must enable us to do. These are all things we hear Jesus and Nicodemus speak about in our text.
I didn’t watch the Super Bowl this year—I was too busy getting married that afternoon! 😊 But I did hear quite a bit in the Christian social media sphere about the commercials that aired about Jesus through the “He Gets Us” campaign. Though the price tag for premiering these commercials during the Super Bowl is just one of the things that people have taken umbrage about (others are upset that there isn’t a clear Romans Road call to repentance in the ads), the commercials’ messages are clearly biblical. Even the tag line gets at something fundamental: God gets us. Even though we don’t fully understand God or God’s love. Part of Jesus Christ “getting us” is the fact that he loves us. All of us—as the commercials point out in the second half of their tagline. God loves the world (all of us) with the purpose that we might believe in him and have eternal life. God’s love has the purpose of redemption and salvation, not condemnation and separation.
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