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¬John 3:1-17 (CEB)

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’
God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
A word of God for the people of God…Thanks be to God.

March 11-12, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent
John 3:1-17
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On this Second Sunday of Lent, we continue with our Lenten theme of “Parables of Hope.” Through these weeks of Lent, we are hearing stories of Jesus from the Gospel of John. Last week, we heard the story of the wine running out at a wedding in Cana and Jesus turning water into wine. Through that story, we were reminded that God’s grace and hope never runs out.

In our Gospel story today, we will meet a man named Nicodemus. Then, near the end of the passage, we will hear what is perhaps one of the most beloved or well-known and publically displayed scriptures in the Bible…John 3:16…”God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.”
But we are going to be cautious about moving too quickly to that wonderful assurance, and take in what is before and after the verse. We are going to intentionally linger a bit with the story of Nicodemus, which comes before John 3:16 and then we’ll also keep reading through John 3:17 to get a fuller sense of God’s hope for the world God loves.

(John 3:1-17)

Our Scripture passage today allows us to listen in on a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which means he was part of an important religious and political group of his time. Pharisees were Jewish leaders and authorities of the Jewish community and Synagogues that studied and interpreted the law. And they loved regulations…regulations that not even they could keep. They saddled themselves and others with religious rules and rhetoric.
When it came to Jesus, the Pharisees opposed him because he would not accept the teachings of the law as binding. Yet, Nicodemus had a desire for God and felt compelled to go see Jesus; and he goes under the cover of darkness.

Over the centuries, there have been many thoughts about why Nicodemus came at night to see Jesus. Some believe he came at night out of fear of his fellow Pharisees seeing him with Jesus. Others believe the dark of night might be a metaphor for his uncertainty.
But it could also be that he came at night to avoid the crowds…wanting some individual, uninterrupted time with Jesus so he could ask his questions of faith. If he did not have strong faith, Nicodemus certainly had faithful curiosity.

As Nicodemus meets with Jesus, he was right on the cusp of understanding, but he could not get past the literal…literally thinking he needed to reenter his mother’s womb to be born anew.

Yet, Jesus did not judge or condemn Nicodemus, but invited him to go from his head to his heart in his faith journey by being born anew by water and the Spirit.

It’s that “born again” question. And sometimes people use the question, “Are you born again?” in a way that divides people one from another and expects that everyone has come to faith in the same way; with a dramatic experience.

Yet, Jesus reminds Nicodemus and us that God’s Spirit enables this sense of renewal or being born anew in a variety of ways. The passage affirms that “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes.”

It is less about believing in the same way or needing to experience God in the same way and more about having our hearts and lives shaped into the likeness of Christ. It’s more about having a relationship with God through Christ than it is about our various ways of believing.
Jesus helps Nicodemus and us, understand that rebirth or being born anew is about starting over and is God’s gift to us that brings about new life again and again. Sometimes that experience of renewal is sudden and dramatic and other times it is a gradual journey of faith.

I like how author David Brooks puts it in his book “The Road to Character.” He says, “Jesus is the teacher who meets us at a C- and loves us toward an A.”

That’s what seemed to happen for Nicodemus…He came to Jesus at a C- grade level and Jesus loved him toward an A.

The good news is that God never gives up on us and we have a God that cannot wait to give us the opportunity again and again and again for renewal…for new life…for new birth.

See, what Nicodemus didn’t understand was that Jesus was saying to him, you’ve got to get started all over again. You’ve got to put yourself in God’s hands…and Nicodemus didn’t get it because he took what Jesus was saying literally. “What do you mean be born anew? I can’t crawl back into my mother’s womb, can I?” Nicodemus says.

More times than not, what happens when we take the stories literally, is we miss the point.

A man who was overweight went to see the doctor and the doctor said, “I have a plan…Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to eat as you normally would for two days and skip the third day. Do that for three weeks. When you come back, I guarantee that you will have lost at least 10 pounds.”

Three weeks later the man comes back. He did not lose 10 pounds…he lost 30 pounds! The doctor could not believe it…he was amazed. The doctor said, “Did you follow my directions?” The man said, “Perfectly, but I got to tell you that third day nearly killed me.” The doctor said, “It did? Was it from the hunger?”

“Oh, no, no,” the man said. “It was from all that skipping you made me do!”

Sometimes if we take things literally, we miss the point. And that’s what happened to Nicodemus. He got hung up on the literal and missed the point…which is exactly what we so often do.

We want to somehow change ourselves so we can be the people we think God wants us to be and Jesus says, you’ve got to let God change you.

And that’s what Lent is really all about…opening ourselves to God and allowing ourselves to be changed by God’s Spirit.

Near the end of the conversation we hear between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus offers us the depth and purpose of God’s love for us.
The first part we all know…we’ve all seen the person holding up the sign at the football game that reads, John 3:16.

The verse is a meaningful summary of the Gospel. We all know the words, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.”

And yet as powerful as this verse is on its own, to understand the purpose Jesus was trying to get across, we can’t stop there—we really need to keep reading through verse 17…”God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
I’ve never seen anyone holding up a sign that says John 3:17…but do you hear what verse 17 is saying? God loves the world…loves the world so much that God gave the gift of Jesus the Christ, not to condemn or judge, but to save. It was out of love that God gave.
Think about that…if we take this seriously, what it means is that there are no outsiders. There are no people in this world beyond the reach of God’s love.

But so often, and we all do this…so often we think it’s our job to determine who’s in and who’s out…who’s loved and who’s not loved by God. But, if we take John 3:16 and 17 seriously…if we believe God’s love is for the entire world, it changes things…it changes how we live.

It changes our economics, in changes our politics, it changes the way we see those who are different from us, and it changes the way we live in the world because it changes how we respond to God’s love.

A commercial came out recently encouraging us to experience the gift of sitting down at a table and eating together. I see it as yet another way of opening ourselves to God and allowing ourselves to be changed by God’s Spirit…See what you think…

(Video, “Eat Together”)

God so loved the world, that God gave…God so loves the whole world and everyone in it that God sent Jesus so all might know the inclusive, accepting, unconditional, saving love of God.

We do not decide who receives this love and who does not…God IS love…and God so loved the world that God gave and keeps giving through the gift of God’s own Spirit and through us…through those of us who have opened ourselves to receive this great love and been touched by this amazing grace.

And when we keep reading in the Gospel, the power of God continues and we are told that indeed, “God did not send Jesus into the world to judge the world, but that the world…the whole world…might be saved through him.”

May we hold to that powerful promise in these days of Lent.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.