“The Mystery of Victory!”
John 3:1-17, May 27th, 2018
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Hear now these words from the gospel of John, chapter three, verses one thru seventeen.”
1 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.”
“Having heard the story of the Pharisee named Nicodemus, let us ask God to open our minds and hearts to its true meaning.”
“The Mystery of Victory!”
Nicodemus had the opportunity to ask Jesus a question and to dialogue with him. What a fascinating thing! Pastor’s often ask: “What do you make of Nicodemus’ question?” /Janet Hunt/ One theologian poses a question: “What questions might have popped into your mind should you have been engaged in that conversation with Jesus that night?” /Janet Hunt/ I sure would like to have had a face to face conversation with Jesus myself. Trust me, I sure wouldn’t have asked the question that this Pharisee asked either! What about you? Can you think of anything you might want to ask the Son of God? I can think of a lot of why questions, can’t you? I would begin with asking: “When are you coming back, we need you?!” “Why do bad things happen to good people!” “Why did you… do this or not do that?” The list of questions is endless. Of course, we know that the actual question that our writer puts in the mouth of Nicodemus was asked so that Jesus could put forth this analogy about being born of the Spirit. Somewhere in this conversation it feels like we are being reminded how Jesus wants us to focus more on spiritual things than on earthly realities.
Let us therefore, talk about Nicodemus for a moment. What do we know about him? He was of the religious order of the Jewish Pharisee’s. He was a leader. So why did he come to Jesus at night? Was he afraid of being seen speaking to Jesus? Was he trying to get a private conversation, so he could learn more about who Jesus truly was? If he was a believe he seems to have it all wrong. William Loader a theologian I look to now and then, seems to think “…Nicodemus is a believer in Jesus who believes the wrong way and so does not see what Jesus is about.” Nicodemus 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.” Clearly, he thought Jesus was from God, yet, he did not grasp that Jesus was way more than that! Most of the people who came out to hear him and followed him… they misunderstood exactly who Jesus was as well! Was he the Messiah, the Son of God? And if he was then why didn’t he summons an army to free them from the oppression of the Romans? Many of us modern Christians, many of us are still unclear about how Jesus shall save us. Many of us still misunderstand what salvation is all about!
As I have reflected on this point I have begun to wonder if perhaps, Nicodemus is like the Disciple Doubting Thomas. I have often wondered why they told us the story of old Doubting Thomas, other than to give us permission to have our doubts and know that we are welcomed and beloved by God, even if we seek more proof, more clarity about who Jesus truly was. And now we are talking about this religious leader named Nicodemus who also seems unable to grasp the fullness of Jesus’ identity. Are his questions giving us permission to ask for more clarity about how we are to understand him and his teachings? Are we to understand that this was written down for us for more that one reason? Surely, the first reason is so we can hear Jesus talk to us about being born anew in the Spirit, but is there not a subtext here about those of us like Nicodemus whom have not fully grasped all of what Jesus is about? Surely, this text has left the door open, giving us permission to have our questions our doubts and seek answers without condemnation. As we now try to come to understand what being reborn in the Spirt truly means, let us pray the Spirit shall help us to also grasp the deeper meaning regarding what us modern Christians need to understand about Jesus as we grapple with the questions of the Twenty-First Century.
In verse eight Jesus explains: “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.” /John 3:8/ How many times has the weather man explained where the rains come from, yet when it rains, and the wind is howling… it is hard to grasp that this a wind caused by a disturbance in the atmosphere off the coast of Africa or some place in the tropics! Nor does it seem to help to know this marvel of nature, especially, when the swale in front of your house overflows and spills into the street! Or the back yard is beginning to build up a pond of water threatening your home! Poor old Nicodemus, he was just trying to come to understand Jesus from the simplicity of what he did know and understand. He knew Jesus was doing good things and the things he was doing must be coming from God! There are a lot of us folks, whom come to church or profess to be Christians, who approach our understanding from the edges. We may even say all the right things when we are in group conversations about our Christian beliefs, yet, we still don’t fully understand or grasp all that the teachings of the gospels are saying to us. Honestly, I suspect, there are more than one or two of us who still would like more information or at least have a few questions we still need answered.
In our scripture, Jesus seeks to move the conversation to helping Nicodemus and we the readers of this text to understand how important the Spirit of God truly us! Last week, we talked about Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. I strived to unmask some of the mysteries of the Spirit and where it comes from. I also, endeavored to help us understand, the Spirit is here for all of God’s children; and you and me, we are all God’s children. I know that some sects, within Christianity, believe there are only so many spaces available in heaven, but I do not believe that, nor does the United Church of Christ believe that! However, I believe that the vast majority of Christianity believes there are an unlimited number of spaces for us in heaven. Just as the Holy Spirit of God is available to an unlimited number of people. To truly receive the Holy Spirit and be born anew in the Spirit, we must open ourselves first to wanting God’s Spirit in our lives. If we can learn to accept that God, through Christ is all about God’s love, then we are on the right pathway to understanding Jesus better. As the pathway opens to us, we can begin to feel the presence of God in our lives, more and more. It is OK if we start on the fringe, like Nicodemus did. The important element is our willingness to get started on the journey of faith and keep moving forward, step by step.
There are so many ways to come to know God. As Christians in the United Church of Christ, we say we know God through Jesus. Pentecostalism, a branch of Christianity, emphasizes knowing God through the winds of the Spirit. They speak of the movement of the Spirit as often as we speak of the saving grace of Christ. The Roman Catholic Church speaks a lot about the mother of Jesus, Mary. They spend a lot of time emphasizing the virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus. They teach the cross of Jesus and believers carry a crucifix, the cross with the figure of the crucified Jesus hanging from that cross! I and most of us non-Catholics, us protestants, see the cross as empty, signifying the risen Christ! The point here is each branch of Christianity focuses on different aspects of the story of the three personalities of God seen in the imagery of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. None are wrong, all are right. What we must cling to is there is only one God, just different ways to come to understand the complexities of this awesome, loving God!
Toward the end of our lesson Jesus starts speaking about his role as the Son of God. He starts by clarifying that the Spirit comes from heaven. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” /John 3:13/ Let’s step back and clarify our understanding about the God of many faces. The Father, our Creator, The Son, Jesus our Savior, and the Holy Spirit, our Sustainer. An interesting aspect of this morning’s lesson is Jesus’ use of plural language. In verse eleven, Jesus speaks to the Pharisee saying: “we speak of what we have seen and we testify to what we know; and yet you do accept our testimony.” Yes, he was scolding this religious leader for not knowing the scriptures and their true meaning; but did you hear his use of ‘we’ and ‘our’. This implies Jesus was speaking on behalf of his Father in heaven and the Holy Spirit, and possible he was including the prophets like Elijah as well! This line of reasoning supports his reference to the Son of man being from heaven. Wow is this Jesus telling those that were hearing him that indeed he was and is the Son of man, and is also One with God in heaven, the Son of God!
Jesus’ proclamation, as to who he is, is followed by these closing verses. 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.” /John 3:14-17/ Verse 16, says it all; the victory is in Jesus. If you are at a sports event and you see someone holding up a sign saying John 3:16, then flashing a V they are saying through Christ there is victory! Are you ready to put your life into the hands of Jesus? Are you ready to do this in all areas of your life? Even if you say yes, I want to be sure you understand that not all of us are ready to do this in all venues of our lives. Some of us still think we can win a golf match on our own. Some of us still think we can plan a vacation to Montana, without leaving room for God to blow through are human made plans, as the winds of the Spirit move us into a different realm. What is the will of God we ask? Some days, even I don’t understand the ways of God. Our lesson is telling us, nevertheless, that to truly know God, we need to be one with the very Spirit of God! Through the winds of the Spirit we shall be one with the ‘mystery of Victory’ through Christ!