Second Sunday of Lent
February 24, 2002
The Gospel: John 3:1-17
Sermon: "Is the Riddle for Nicodemus or for Us?"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 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?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 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." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? "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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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. "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."
Is the Riddle for Nicodemus or for Us?
Second Sunday of Lent - February 24, 2002Do you like riddles? A riddle is defined as a mystifying, misleading, or puzzling, question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed. The word also means something or someone difficult to understand. Riddles can be a source of entertainment. Many games have been devised using riddles. Children's shows on television have been devised using riddles like Blue's Clues.
Yet, riddles can also have a serious side. In his book, The Hobbit, Tolkien includes riddles as part of a game with serious consequences. In the book, the main character, Bilbo Baggins is lost in a dark cave. There are many tunnels and he does not know which way will lead him back to daylight. He runs into a curious creature by the name of Gollum. Gollum is a very pathetic creature. Years ago he had found a magic ring. This ring had evil powers. It could make the wearer invisible. However, every time the person put on the ring, the ring gained control over the person's soul. They became addicted to the ring. They had to have it with them all the time, even if they were not wearing it. Gollum had worn the ring often. He was under the ring's control and he was evil. Bilbo stumbles into Gollum in the dark. They enter into a contest of riddles. If Bilbo wins, the Gollum leads him out of the dark into the light. If Gollum wins, Bilbo is invited to dinner where he is the main course. This game is serious. Here are a couple of the riddles. Let's see how we would do.
A box without hinges, key or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.
This thing all things devours, birds, beasts, trees, flowers, gnaws iron, bites steel, grinds hard stones to meal, slays kings, ruins town, and beats high mountain down.
I wouldn't have wanted to be in Bilbo's shoes. How about you? And yet, today's Gospel puts us in a similar situation. The Gospel reading is full of symbols and terms that are a riddle to Nicodemus and to the reader. We have to know what the symbols and terms mean in order to understand what is happening between Nicodemus and Jesus. The symbols and terms that have double meaning are night, born again, and the reference to Moses lifting the snake on the pole in the wilderness. All of these symbols and terms are related to the meaning of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus.
When we begin the story Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews. As a leader, we might surmise he came to Jesus in the darkness so no one would see him. However, night does not mean darkness in John. Night is a metaphor, a symbol, representing separation from the presence of God. Those who prefer darkness to light are separating themselves from the presence of God. Nicodemus is drawn to the light, but the way he lives his life has him in darkness. He stands before the light of the world and yet he does not see it.
Nicodemus begins the conversation. He begins by identifying Jesus as a teacher and as someone with whom God is with. He knows these things about Jesus due to Jesus' miracles. He still does not see who Jesus really is.
Jesus' response to Nicodemus is in the form of a teaching. Jesus tells him, no can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. Born again is only one way to translate the word from the original Greek. The word in Greek is anothen. Anothen means born again and from above. When Nicodemus hears the word he immediately translates it into its simplest form. Nicodemus believes Jesus is talking about a physical rebirth. He even comments that it is impossible for someone to be physically born again. Jesus does not imply a simple physical rebirth. Jesus means a rebirth of body and spirit which comes from above. Jesus is trying to broaden Nicodemus' understanding of God.
As a leader of the Jewish people Nicodemus is a teacher. He is supposed to teach people about the incredible love of God. Yet, Nicodemus is bound in the Law and in preconceived notions of the Messiah. Where the Law binds him, the love of God is freeing. Where the preconceived notions of the Messiah call for a King, priest, and warrior, he can not recognize the Son of God, the light of the world, standing before him. To recognize Jesus for who He is, to begin to see the light of God in Christ, a rebirth has to occur. Nicodemus must be willing to be baptized in water, a physical act, and the spirit, a spiritual act, in order to be born again. These acts are only accomplished through the love of God from above.
In the Gospel reading the words "from above" are also part of the riddle to Nicodemus. They are related to the lifting of the serpent on the staff in the wilderness. While the Israelites were in the wilderness they began to grumble against God. Poisonous snakes came among them and bit them. With people dying, the Israelites repented of their grumbling and asked for help. Moses was told to make a bronze figure of a serpent, fix it to a pole, and hold it up. Anyone who was bitten would see the serpent and live. The serpent was a sign of God's love and salvation. Life came from above.
Jesus tells Nicodemus what will happen to the Son of Man, the Messiah. In a similar manner to the serpent, Jesus will also be lifted up. He will be lifted on a cross. Anyone who sees Jesus on that cross and believes will have not just life, but eternal life. The symbolism of the serpent was a precursor to the symbolism of the cross.
Here we are. We know now that darkness means separation from God. We know that anothen means born again of water and spirit. We know that Jesus dies on the cross so that those who believe may have eternal life. Here we are in the season of Lent. Lent is a time of introspection and preparation. The color is dark purple. We are being asked to take some time and review our life with God. What aspects of our lives are unhealthy for us? How do these aspects of our lives hold us in darkness, separating us from the love of God? What would it mean to be born again? Obviously we are not going to rebaptize anyone. Born again might mean coming to grips with those aspects of our lives that turn us away from God. We might bring them out into the light offering them to God. Like the Israelites in the desert, we have the opportunity to repent of our griping, our false pride, our hidden sins and look to God for our salvation.
Then on Easter morn, when we see the cross and the empty tomb, we can truly celebrate. We celebrate the saving love of God in our lives. We celebrate the light of God in the world. We celebrate the gift of eternal life offered in Christ, the Son of Man.