John 3: 1-17
I was particularly
impressed by the Super Bowl this year. I mean, the commercials
were not only witty, entertaining, and fun, but the game was actually
fun for a change. I enjoyed that.
If you pay any
attention to pro football, if you follow these things, you may have
noticed that at almost every football game there is somebody with a sign
in the end-zone that says what? "John 3:16".
So I was watching the
Super Bowl to see if in fact there would be one, and sure enough, I
think I caught it for just a millisecond, a guy with a big red sign
'John 3:16'. The networks try to avoid that, heaven forbid we
might get a religious message out of a football game.
I've always wondered,
whoever this is, maybe more than 1 person, I can just imagine the
conversation at home: "Well, Martha, I know it's going to cost
over $1,000 to go to the Super Bowl, but it's the Lord's work, somebody
has to do it" J.
I wonder if I could write it off as a business expense
Why John 3:16?
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". You
know that verse well, I'm sure.
Why not something
like Matthew 19:21? You know that one, right? "If you wish
to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the
poor". Would that not be an appropriate message at the Super Bowl?
Or maybe Matthew 5:39, from the Sermon on the Mount: "If anyone
strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also". That would
make an interesting football game!
Well, John 3:16 of
course is, along with the 23rd Psalm, one of the most beloved passages
of scriptures. Martin Luther called it the gospel in miniature.
It contains the essence, the DNA if you will, of the good news.
And yet John 3:16 is
not just a single verse of great spiritual insight, a pearl of wisdom in
a sea of scriptural meanderings. It is the conclusion to a larger
story. It wraps up a mini-drama in the gospel of John. And I
have a hunch that most of the folk who cite it as their favorite verse,
or hold up those signs at football games, don't have a clue what that
larger story is. I could be wrong.
That's a shame,
because knowing that story and the full context of the verse adds so
much to the meaning of this beloved passage, and makes it even more
powerful and rich.
So, I invite you to
hear now, as Paul Harvey used to say 'The rest of the story'. And,
I invite you to follow along with me in your pew Bibles, or if you
brought your own, to open it up to the third chapter of John. And
as I read this text, pay particular attention to the quotation marks:
Now there was a Pharisee
named Nicodemus, a
leader of the Jews. 2He
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.’ 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
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
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
Now, take note of verse 15. At
the end of that verse, you will see a little footnote -- do you see it
there? Little tiny letter at the end of that paragraph/verse.
And if you look at the bottom of your page you'll find the corresponding
letter. It should say something to the effect of "Some
interpreters hold that the quotation concludes with verse 16". And
that is because the Greek has no quotation marks. So the moment
the translator makes a decision on where to start and end a quotation --
where to put those marks in the English text -- that translator becomes
an interpreter of the text. Can't put those quotes in without
making some decisions about interpretation.
While the editors of the New Revised
Standard Version have decided that verses 16 and following are part of
the quotation of Jesus (see the quotation marks that go all the way to
the end of that section), most New-Testament scholars will tell you that
this wonderful summary of the gospel in fact is John the theologian not
the John the biographer of Jesus speaking.
That is, John 3:16 and following is the
gospel writer's own reflection and insight on the meaning of this story
he has just told us.
Now when we separate this jewel of good
news from that larger story, we may maintain the essence of its meaning,
but we lose the power of the drama that is contained within the story
that John has just relayed to us.
So I want to focus this morning on that
story, and the drama it contains.
John tells us that Nicodemus came to
Jesus by night. Presumably, he did not want to be seen by day.
He is, after all, part of that religious establishment which is not too
keen on this peasant maverick from Galilee. Religious authorities
like Nicodemus are those who give answers, not those who seek
answers. Especially not from someone who comes from such a
wayward, backward town as Nazareth.
So Nicodemus is afraid to be seen with
Jesus, he's afraid to be caught associating with someone who can be bad
for his career. He's afraid to confess by day what he admits by
night -- that here is a teacher who comes from God. He's afraid
that he might be mistaken for one of Jesus' followers. You know
Martin Niemöller knew it.
Arrested by Hitler for his opposition to the Nazification of the German
church, Niemöller candidly confessed after the war:
Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I
didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I
didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak
up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that
time there was no one left to speak up."
So Nicodemus comes under the cover of
darkness only to have his inner thoughts exposed by Jesus.
Answering what is on his mind before he can even ask it. Jesus
tells him: "No one can see the kingdom of God without being born
Now, I'm not Jesus. But I'll bet
you anything that there are some people out here thinking 'Now, wait a
second, I know that verse, that is not what it says. It says "No
one can see the kingdom of God without being born again"'.
So what's going on here? Is this
one of those Communistic translations, that has changed the words of
Well, in fact, if you take a look once
again at the footnotes of your text. . . . .did you close your Bibles?
You should know better than to close your Bibles while I'm preaching!
If you look at the footnote on verse 3, at the end of that verse, where
it says 'born from above'. At the little footnote at the bottom it
says "Or, born anew". It's sort of like 'again', a little
different connotation, but has that same sense. The Greek is a
little bit ambiguous, so once again when you translate the text you have
to interpret it. And the New Revised Standard Version folk have
decided to use 'born from above' instead of 'born anew'.
"Born again", of course, comes from the
King James version, and has spawned an entire movement within
Christianity. You're familiar with the term 'born again
Christian'. I've always thought that is redundant -- if you're a
Christian, you're born again. It's not as if there's some
Christians who are and some who are not. Though sometimes I'm not
sure, by those who use the language, of what they intend.
Unfortunately, 'born again' is not a
very good translation of the Greek phrase. And that's precisely
why we need new translations as our knowledge of ancient languages
increases, as well as our own language evolves. We have to update
the text to make it present for our time.
In any event, the emphasis of Jesus
here is not on being born a second time, as is obvious in the exchange
with Nicodemus that follows. But rather it's on being born in a
new way. To be born from above. To be born of water
(baptism) and born of spirit.
Now you might think that one way of
viewing this text is as John's version of the divine birth. After
all, there is no birth narrative in the gospel of John, right?
There's no Bethlehem star, there's no manger scene, there's no angels &
shepherds, there's no Magi bearing gifts from the East. Instead,
we just have Jesus explaining to the confused Nicodemus how we can be
born from above. Born anew.
For in John's story of the good news,
divine birth is not what happens to Jesus. In John's gospel, if
you remember in the prologue to John, Christ is there in the beginning,
in the Word, that is in the beginning and is part of creation, part of
all times, and it becomes flesh.
So for John it's not about the divine
birth of Jesus, instead, divine birth for John is what happens when the
spirit comes into us.
The question that Nicodemus then asks
of Jesus reminds me of another leader who comes to Jesus with some
questions. I think you'll recall the story, that young ruler who
asks Jesus 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?'. And Jesus
replies: "Go and meet the commandments of Moses". And he
says "I've done all that, is there anything else?". And Jesus says
'Yes, there is one little small thing -- just go and sell all your
possessions, give the money to the poor, and come and follow me'.
Well, in this exchange between
Nicodemus and Jesus, the question is not "What must I do to inherit
eternal life?", but "What must I do to see the kingdom of God?".
It's a different question.
The central focus of the preaching of
Jesus in all 4 gospels is about the kingdom of God. That time when
God's rule will dwell on earth as in heaven. And Jesus comes to
inaugurate this new realm. "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, to
proclaim the good news", you will remember he proclaims in Luke 4.
To plant this idea among his followers like a mustard seed that will
spread across the face of the earth.
The kingdom of God is here, in our
midst, among us, if we can but see it.
Nicodemus wants to see it. He
wants to be part of this new landscape but he doesn't quite get it.
Like that King James mistranslation, he thinks Jesus is talking about
being born again instead of being born anew. He's focused on
physical limitations instead of spiritual possibilities. He's
thinking literally, Jesus is speaking metaphorically. A wonderful
illustration of the errors we create when we interpret scripture
literally. Indeed, I think Nicodemus should be the patron saint of
literalism. His misunderstanding is rather humorous. How can
one enter into a mother's womb and be born again? It's a silly
But is his question really that far
off? How can we be born in a new way? After all we have done
in this world, can we be born in a new way? After all the mistakes
and wrongs we have committed, can we be born from above? After all
the knowledge we have gained, can we start over again? How can we
become pure, innocent, guilt-free, like some newborn babies?
It's a good question.
Recall the story of Isaiah when he is
suddenly in that overwhelming presence of the goodness and greatness of
God. What does he say? "Woe is me, I am a man of unclean
lips". And so too we also are all too aware of our own
imperfections and failures. How then can we expect to be born
anew? To become anything other than that which we are? To
receive that unconditional love of God like a mother for her newborn
So underneath that simple
misunderstanding of Nicodemus is a very hard question that many people
struggle with. Who can be born in the spirit? Who is good
enough, worthy of such divine birth?
It's the question of the lonely person
who asks "Who will be my friend?".
It's the question of the addict who
asks "Can anyone love me, or trust me?".
It's the question of the suicidal
teenager who asks "Is there any meaning in life?".
It's the question of the adulterer:
"Can you forgive me?".
It's the question of the curious
friend: "Why are you a Christian?".
It's the question of every person who
has had any doubts on whether they are good enough to be loved by God.
Jesus doesn't avoid the question, he
doesn't laugh at it, he doesn't scoff at it. He uses it as an
opportunity to reveal a truth to Nicodemus that goes beyond physical
realities and human imperfection. And we, privileged to overhear
this very private conversation, we too have an opportunity to learn, to
discover the deeper truth beyond our questions and our doubts.
"You cannot be born again", says Jesus,
"but you can be born in a new way".
To be spirit-born is to receive and
feel God's mercy and love, to have a new heart, a new spirit planted
within us, as Jeremiah says. To be spirit-born is to be made clean
and whole in the presence of God. To be spirit-born is to be
empowered with God's spirit to do the work of God. To be
spirit-born is to not worry whether or not we are good enough, it's to
know that we too are a child of God, created in God's image. We
are born into that goodness.
To be spirit-born is to participate in
the salvation, the redemption, of the world. Not from it, not out
of it. God sent his Son to save the world, not condemn it.
So, like Nicodemus, we ask: "How
is that possible in this world?". And Jesus responds that 'The
wind of God blows where it will. We cannot box God in. We
cannot limit God's grace. We do not control God's spirit.
She blows where she will'.
So do not marvel if you see that spirit
of God moving in the world. Do not marvel if you see that spirit
of God moving outside of the church. Do not marvel if you see the
spirit of God moving within the church.
Do not marvel if you feel that spirit
of God moving within you.
For this is the good news. That
God so loved the world, that he sent his Son, that we might be