(Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5 and 13-17; John 3:1-17)
Opening Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be now, and always, acceptable in your sight, Jesus Christ, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Our short Genesis reading speaks of a great trust in God. It describes faith.
Of course it is deceptively simple. Abraham is asked to ‘Go’ from his homeland in the knowledge that YHWH will lead, bless, and richly reward. Intriguingly, his obedience will bring this reward not only to himself and his family, but to ‘all the families of the earth.’ It is quite a claim – one that simply begs for clarification.
But the author of Genesis does not lead us into an explanation of this mysterious blessing of the cosmos. Instead we follow the response of Abraham: ‘So Abraham went, as the LORD had told him.’ It is trust.
By the time Paul writes to the church at Rome Abraham’s response has become both legendary and exemplary. Paul reminds his readers that ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’
Abraham’s trust certainly manifest in action and obedience. But Paul highlights the great man’s trust – he celebrates the seed, even before the plant that it grows. Indeed, for Paul, the fulfilling of God’s great promise ‘depends on faith’ and rests ‘on grace’.
And this is not just a quirky, historical observation. Paul urged trust in God as the critical element for relationship with God.
After considering the first encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus throughout the week, I must admit that my admiration for this Pharisee is deeper than ever. He comes with a seed, a fragile, recently sprouted inkling that God is at work in this untrained Galilean peasant.
Like many before me, I suspect this man has reason to come to Jesus under the cover of darkness. He seeks a private conversation with no prying eyes and ears. Nicodemus is a religious leader of note – a Pharisee. People, especially when it comes to matters of God, expect religious leaders to be in the know. Perhaps his secrecy reflects the loneliness of leadership. Perhaps it has something to do with his pride.
But it is, at the very least, a pride or loneliness he is willing to fight. Even though it may have been difficult, his seed of suspicion, of trust, has caused him to move and seek.
Nicodemus is simply not content to avoid his heart’s questions. It would seem that he has carefully observed Jesus and come to his own conclusion about this controversial miracle worker: ‘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.’
Nicodemus believes Jesus is from God. Although almost all his peers seem closed to this possibility, Nicodemus is open – and willing to act.
I suspect Jesus immediately recognises Nicodemus as both intelligent and genuine. But rather than simply agreeing with this profound observation regarding his mission, Jesus responds with the provocative: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
But this is not a rebuke. On the contrary, it is a genuine compliment: Nicodemus’ observation of Jesus and his mission are far more than simply careful and accurate. They are the work of heaven and they have planted faith.
Something of heaven has been ‘born’ in him.
I suspect this is news to Nicodemus. It may be the very reason he chose to sneak out to Jesus – but he seems mystified as to what Jesus means. Jesus’ ‘born from above’ statement, as it is designed to do, throws this law-teacher off balance.
This is so much so that, if Nicodemus’ came with his own agenda it is now history. He is so drawn to Jesus’ statement that for the remainder of the conversation this teacher and leader does nothing but listen and ask: ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ And later, ‘How can these things be?’
Here Nicodemus – of all people – is found humble enough to play the role of disciple. He is a listener, a learner, a student. And God has, God is, opening his eyes. This Pharisee is, miraculously, ‘being born from above’.
He is asking, before anything else: ‘What is God is doing in me?’
And so Jesus finds himself speaking of the blowing wind, evident by sound, but whose source is impossible to pin down. It is earth talk pointing to heaven. I wonder if Jesus’ plea: ‘If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?’ reflects something of his frustration, a striving to find a comparison between earth and heaven.
And so in the end, with strong echoes of Paul’s agenda, Jesus simply asks Nicodemus’ to build, indeed to listen, from his place of trust. Jesus affirms Nicodemus’ first insight: the Son of Man has both ‘ascended into’ and ‘descended from’ heaven.
And then Jesus trusts Nicodemus with heaven’s secret. Speaking the language of the law Nicodemus is schooled in, Jesus points to his coming passion: ‘Just ‘as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ It is a pointer, a mere suggestion, of the cross that is to come.
All this may seem like a humble introduction to Jesus for this teacher of the law. He will have to go and do some processing of this encounter. There is a lot to consider.
But although our account does not record Nicodemus’ conclusions as such, this teacher later re-emerges beside Joseph providing his rich concoction of spices to give Jesus something of a dignified burial. He was, by then, willing to be seen, on Jesus’ side.
His seed of trust has become action once again.
Our translation puts the last words of our Gospel reading in the mouth of Jesus. This could be true, but it also may be that they amount to commentary by our author. Either way, I like the thought that Nicodemus, this man in whom God has mysteriously begun to move, at least understood their message. They offer direction to his, to our, pursuit of what heaven is birthing.
Hear them again:
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.’
And there it is again: trust, faith, and now belief. They are small beginnings, yes. But they invite the very celebration of God and birth in us something new.
We do well to remember as we move toward Easter, that the invitation from Abrahan, Jesus, and Paul may manifest in acts of great courage, but always remains a call to simply trust in God.