The setting for this morning’s gospel reading takes place in Jerusalem during the annual feast of Passover. The verses just before those we have already heard are these: “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
As Jesus attends the Passover in Jerusalem, He’s already become a bit of a celebrity because of the ‘signs’ He was doing. “Signs” is the word that John uses for “miracles.” The purpose of a ‘sign’ is to point to something beyond itself. The sign on the highway that says “Waterville” is not Waterville – it just points you to Waterville. That’s what the miracles that Jesus did were for. They were signs that pointed to Him and who He is.
And John reports that ‘many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” But before we get too excited about all these ‘believers in Jesus,’ John throws cold water on it all. Jesus is not that excited. “He knew all people” and what people are made of and how fickle they can be and how they can be hot one minute and cold the next and how they can misread the signs and how they can be misled to believe that the ‘sign’ is the end in itself.
And it doesn’t take much for them to go from friend to foe. One day they’re singing, “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” And the next day they’re shouting, “crucify Him, crucify Him.”
You’d be surprised (or maybe not) at the trivial reasons for which people go from fired up to lukewarm to outright turned off by the thing. You’d be surprised how many were Confirmed and swore before God that they would die before they left the church but then did just that. Or maybe you wouldn’t be surprised.
One things for sure though, Jesus isn’t surprised. Nor is He naive. “He himself knew what was in man.” Which if we’re paying attention is itself, a sign that points to WHO HE IS.
John singles out ONE of the ‘MANY who saw the signs that He was doing…” His name is Nicodemus. He’s a Pharisee and a member of the ruling counsel of the Jews – the Sanhedrin.
“This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’”
Jesus knew what was in THIS man and what was not in THIS man. Lots of people know how to play nice with Jesus and are even willing to go along with Him to a point. Jesus is a good example for how we should all live; He helps me to be a better person. And as long as it’s painless and convenient and adds a little ‘spirituality’ to my life, I think He’s fine, what can it hurt. But as soon as it gets ‘physical’ and inconvenient or dirty or hard or ‘painful,’ it’s ‘Crucify Him, crucify Him.’
“Jesus knew what was in man.” And what was NOT. And so He replies to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” You always want to listen to every word that Jesus speaks, BUT, when Jesus says, “Amen, Amen…” “Truly, truly…” then you really want to listen up and pay close attention because this is critical.
Nicodemus is standing right in front of Jesus. It’s just the two of them. There are no ‘crowds’ interfering… no cell phones ringing. And yet, despite the signs he has seen, Nicodemus cannot “see the Kingdom of God” standing right in front of him. He sees a Rabbi who does miracles and concludes He must be ‘from God.’ But that’s as far as it goes.
Some of his Pharisee friends will arrive at a much different conclusion. They’ll see the exact same signs and conclude that Jesus must be from “beelzabub” – the devil. But Nicodemus concludes that the “signs” mean “you must be from God.”
But to ‘SEE’ that this Jesus IS the Kingdom of God, that in Him, all the fullness of the deity dwells bodily, HE CANNOT SEE. He simply doesn’t have what it takes to ‘see’ like this. You can take in all that the eyes can ‘see’ and yet never make the connection between ‘seeing’ and believing.’
And if you can’t ‘see the Kingdom of God’ from the ‘signs’ that He does, how are you ever going to ‘see the Kingdom of God’ as He hangs upon a cross? And maybe that’s why John adds that little detail about it being ‘night’ – not simply to tell us what time of day this encounter took place, but to say, ‘it’s night when no one can see.’
Nicodemus shows just how much he can’t see with his response. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” And you can spend the rest of the day trying to get that picture out of your head.
And again Jesus replies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot ENTER the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
From “SEEING the Kingdom of God,” Jesus now greatly expands this encounter to “ENTERING the kingdom of God.” For Nicodemus, entering the Kingdom of God was all about his ancestry that linked him as a descendant of Abraham through whom the Divine blessing comes.
His confidence that he would ENTER the kingdom of God and enjoy all of the benefits therein was based on his birth to Jewish parents who were born to Jewish parents and so on all the way back to Abraham.
But it’s not one’s physical birth that is at issue here. There is a different kind of ‘birth’ that Jesus is pointing Nicodemus to here. Being “born again” or “born from above” happens, not by the union of a man and a woman, but by the union of “water and the Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit, working in and with the water creates a new person – not physically, but spiritually. The person born spiritually blind is born again with the ‘vision’ to ‘SEE’ the Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Through ‘water and the Spirit,” even a person who is not born of Jewish parents, even a person who doesn’t know who his parents are – ENTERS the Kingdom of God.
This NEW CREATION by the water and the Spirit takes us all the way back to the creation of the world in the beginning where the same Spirit hovered over the watery deep into which God spoke His creative Word – “let there be.” And it was so.
We should take that to be a ‘sign’ to us, because “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.” By the same Spirit hovering over the water of Holy Baptism, one human being at a time is born again and sees the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ and enters into that Kingdom.
As Nicodemus hears Jesus speak to Him, he is hearing the One who spoke His “let there be” in the beginning. His Word is the creative Word because it is the Spirit’s breath breathing out from Him. And right now, His Word and Spirit is falling upon a man named Nicodemus.
Incredulously, “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’”
And now for the third time, Jesus replies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we HAVE SEEN, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? ”
Jesus tells Nicodemus that His teaching and testifying to what He knows and has seen has been rejected by the religious leadership of Israel. And that by rejecting His testimony and the signs attached to them, they are not only rejecting Him but also the Holy Spirit. “You do not receive OUR testimony.”
And apart from the Holy Spirit, it is not possible to ‘SEE’ let alone ‘ENTER’ the Kingdom of God, no matter how much we may want it, even pray for it and seek it.
And so, the time for ‘SEEING’ and ‘ENTERING’ the Kingdom of God and bearing witness to Jesus Christ – WHO IS NOT ONLY “FROM GOD” BUT THE VERY SON OF GOD, will not come until the day of Pentecost when Jesus will send the Holy Spirit. Through the preaching of the apostle Peter, the Holy Spirit will breathe the very word of Jesus into the ears of those present. And they’ll cry out as murders who have been convicted of the worse crime in the history of the world. ‘what must we do to be saved?” And Peter will direct them to the water and the Spirit of Holy Baptism.
And we can only hope that Nicodemus was in that great crowd of men and women and children, from every nation and race and every age who were born again of water and the spirit, who ‘saw the kingdom of God’ in the person of Jesus Christ, and who ‘entered into that Kingdom.’
And isn’t that our prayer for all people?
But what about you and me who have been born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism? We come here today to see Jesus just as Nicodemus did, but not under the cover of darkness but in the light.
We come with eyes that SEE WHAT CAN BE SEEN in no other way than by the rebirth of water and Spirit, and with hearts that BELIEVE WHAT CAN BE BELIEVED in no other way than by the rebirth of water and the Spirit.
Standing before the bread and the wine on this altar, and SEEING the very body and blood of Jesus Christ,
- we SEE His death on the cross for the forgiveness of all of our sin;
- we SEE His resurrection from the dead for our eternal life;
- we SEE His ascension to the right hand of God, where He constantly intercedes for us.
And in the eating and the drinking, we ENTER into all of this – the very Kingdom of God itself.