Even the Smart Ones Sometimes Get it Wrong, John 3:1-17

A sermon delivered on March 5, 2023, by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Our New Testament reading on this second Sunday of Lent and our journey to the Cross and Easter is a wonderful text to hear, not because most all people are familiar with it, but because it is a primer for Christianity 101 all of us need reminding of from time to time.

There are three primary characters in our Story this morning. First, there is Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, the equivalent of a Jewish Ph.D. in religious studies who spent his life studying the Torah and teaching his findings to his fellow Jews. Second, we have Jesus. And third, you and I are in the Story as well. You and I are sucked into the conversation in verse 11 and following when the Story’s author, John, has Jesus direct his conversation directly to you and me. You see, beginning in verse 11, John switches to using the second person plural, y’all, and has Jesus speaking directly to us. Listen carefully to what Jesus is saying to us. The Holy Spirit give each of us ears to hear this well-known scripture anew! Listen to the Word of the Lord from John 3:1-17.

John 3:1-17

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to 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.”

3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

4Nicodemus 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?”

5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  8The 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.”

9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus 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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe; how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that 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.”[1]

Lesson One in Christianity 101: Jesus can ill-afford hidden followers and disciples. John immediately gets two facts right out there for us: Nicodemus is a prominent religious scholar and official and Nicodemus was afraid to publicly show his faith in Jesus. We’re told he came by night to meet Jesus. He came when the streets were clear. He came when he wouldn’t be noticed. He came when everyone else was winding their day down preparing for bed. He came in secret making sure his reputation would not get sullied. Nicodemus came to Jesus when it was convenient for him to do so.

Bless Nicodemus’ heart – and I really do mean that in the Southern sense of the phrase. I really want to cheer him on but his late-night slinking around trying to get to know Jesus doesn’t come across too well. Fortunately, Nicodemus’ behavior in the Story moves more into the daylight the subsequent two times he appears later in John’s gospel.

The unfortunate reality is the church today is full of followers like Nicodemus; sadly it always has been. Early Church Reformer, John Calvin back in the sixteenth century referred to those ‘Nicodemites’, those Christians who sympathized with the burgeoning reformation of the Church but were reluctant to be publicly identified with those reforms in the open.[2]  Closet Christians. You could not recognize them as Christians unless they put on a sandwich board sign that indicated they were.  The Church today can ill-afford to have nighttime, hiding-in-the-shadows followers of Jesus Christ. It forces you and me to ask ourselves, “Is my faith out in the open daylight where others can see what I believe in my daily living or not? Can people even tell I am a follower of Jesus? Am I a nighttime follower of Jesus like Nicodemus? Am I a Nicodemite?

Christianity 101 Lesson Two:  The work of our salvation is God’s initiative, not ours (vs. 3). Salvation, just like the communion supper we will have in a few minutes, is a gift given to us. Verse 3 is too often translated as ‘born again’ when the same word also means to be born anew or born from above. The latter two definitions better fit the context of the table talk they’re having. In The Message, Eugene Petersen translates verse 3 as, “Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see that I am pointing to God’s Kingdom.” 

Western Christianity has beaten it into us that if you and I simply mentally consent to acknowledge good doctrine and make up our minds Jesus is God’s Son, then we get or earn eternal life. In other words, my eternal destiny rests upon my saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to believe in Jesus. Beloved, that’s a lot of power that frankly none of us has. There is no grace if we think about our salvation that way. If our salvation and eternal destiny were all up to our individual decisions, then why did Jesus come in the first place? Why did he have to die and rise again if it’s all up to you and me saying ‘I believe’ or not?

Jesus tells this religious scholar that it’s not following the little nit-noids of the Jewish Law that earn you love from God; God’s love is already extended! All you have to do, Nicodemus, is be an open vessel for God to pour his Spirit in you! Think of it like this: you and I are the shy, timid boys and girls ringing the gym’s wall at a mid-high dance; Jesus takes the initiative to come up to us and asks us to get out onto the dance floor! This leads me to the next lesson our text teaches.

Christianity 101 Lesson Three:  The Kingdom of God is both a present reality and a future expectation. Jesus speaks of salvation in the present tense. We tend to associate eternal life with that which happens to us when we die; we forget that eternal life is both a present and future reality. In John’s gospel, the word faith is a verb and not a noun. As a noun, faith means it is something I have or possess. As a verb, it means pledging fidelity and loyalty to someone that requires present-tense action, effort, and demonstration of that fidelity.

I did a wedding last night and when the couple stood in on this chancel and pledged their loyalty and fidelity to each other, it signified that they were from that moment forward living a new life. It meant they detached from their family of origin and began a new family of their own. It signified they were no longer going to date other people but pour everything into this new marriage relationship. Their lives were now bound together and when something happens to one, it affects both of them. This is what faith means; it means living devotedly to another showing reciprocating love for the other. Spiritually, it means that Nicodemus, you are going to take all that religious stuff you have stuck in your head, put it down, and hold my hand as we take an adventure together!

Another way our text teaches us that salvation is a present reality is the word for salvation itself. For too long the Church has said salvation is equated with not going to hell; it’s time we reclaim the larger meaning. The word Jesus uses for salvation can mean being rescued from adversity but it also means for a person to be healed, restored, and made whole and complete once more. When we understand salvation this way, we hear Jesus’ words, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be restored to its original pre-Fallen state, that the world might be healed and made whole again.” This is what the reference to Moses lifting up the bronze serpent means in our Story.

In Numbers 21, we read how snakes were giving the wandering Hebrews fits; the poisonous vipers kept biting and killing too many people and they complained loudly to Moses and God. Well, God told Moses to make a bronze staff in the shape of a viper and if any of the Hebrews were bitten by poisonous snakes they just had to look at the snake-shaped bronze staff Moses held and they would be immediately healed. For Nicodemus, for you and me, healing, wholeness, and restoration all occur in the present moment, beloved. When we pledge fidelity to Jesus and walk in a way that demonstrates our fealty to him, our healing and restoration immediately begin.

This morning we come to the Lord’s Table. It’s a tangible reminder of the three basic Christianity 101 lessons we learned this morning. It demands that we publicly partake of this meal thereby making a communal profession that Jesus has died for us. It reminds us that the gift of our healing, wholeness, and restoration is a gift given to us as Jesus gave his body and blood for us. Finally, we take the nutrients from this food and live out our fidelity to Jesus in the world bringing healing, restoration, and wholeness to our families, our neighbors, our business colleagues, the faceless, nameless broken ones we pass by on the streets and yes – even for this home of ours we call Earth. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

© 2023 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.
All rights reserved.

[1] NRSV. HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated by Harold W. Attridge, Society of Biblical Literature https://a.co/j4JJ2Pt.

[2] George Stroup, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Bartlett, https://a.co/4MkMhfr.

About patrick h wrisley

A Mainline Presbyterian Orthodox Evangelical Socially Minded Prophetic Contemplative Preacher sharing the Winsome Story of Christ as I try to muddle through as a father, friend, head of staff, colleague, and disciple.
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