Nicodemus's Non-Decision: Reflections on John 3:1-16

Lectionary Reflections
March 20, 2011
John 3:1-16
Second Sunday in Lent

John's Gospel is the opposite of the game "Show and Tell." It's "Tell and Show." In the Prologue (Jn. 1:1-14), John tells us who Jesus is, the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh. Like the Prologue to a Greek tragedy, this information sets the audience up to know things the characters in the story do not. After this initial "Tell," the rest of the Gospel is the "Show." It shows us what happens when the Wisdom and Word of God Incarnate encounters various individuals, each of whom reminds us of an aspect of our own lives. These people include the royal official, the crowds, the disciples, the woman caught in adultery, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the man born blind, the High Priest and Pilate, the man by the pool in John 5, the woman at the well in John 4, and Nicodemus, "a leader of the Jews," in John 3. All of these encounters prove that, in John's Gospel, it is a risky thing to be engaged in conversation by Jesus. It leads to a challenge and a chance for transformation. Not everyone Jesus meets embraces that opportunity. Nicodemus, for example, is man for whom not to decide is to decide.

What is Nicodemus doing up at this hour? Maybe he was studying the Torah. Rabbis often stayed up late studying scripture. Or maybe his Ambien had worn off.

There is nothing wrong with Ambien; sometimes people go through life stages where they need help falling and staying asleep. I think Nicodemus was in such a stage in his life because he couldn't decide what to do with Jesus. It was making his mind race when he lay down to sleep. Doctors prescribe sleep medications for people whose minds race at night, whose thoughts are like those fireworks that keep shooting off new displays from the center of the old ones. Maybe Nicodemus' thoughts went like this: "I heard he turned water into wine (Jn. 2:1). They're saying he is the Messiah, the Son sent from God. I wonder if they're right, because how can he make wine out of water if he is not sent from God? But if he is sent from God, why has he not studied with our rabbis? If he is sent from God, why is he critical of our practices? What does that say about us?"

A few years ago, I was invited to Anthony, Kansas to preach a series of sermons. I drove there from my home in Allen, Texas, a town about thirty miles north of Dallas. I left Allen at 3:15 in the afternoon and got to Anthony at 9:30 at night. I started out when it was light on wide, straight roads. I ended up in the dark on narrow, bendy roads. My car's bright beams weren't bright enough for these roads. If it hadn't been for the yellow signs with black arrows on them where the road curved, I'd have driven off the road into a field of darkness at least once or twice.

I discovered something on that drive: It's easier to find your way in the light. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night along his fevered mind's winding roads. In John's Gospel, night is a symbol for the life that results when one rejects Jesus, refuses to receive him and believe in him. John's gospel conveys to us that believing in Jesus means more than just reciting an affirmation of faith.

Here is Nicodemus late at night, knock knock knockin' on Jesus' door.

Jesus opens his door and is backlit by the oil lamps in his room. Nicodemus comes into the light out of the darkness, temporarily. As I imagine the scene, Jesus looks at him expectantly. Nicodemus falls into the trap we often do when we meet someone famous: we start babbling about how great we think they are. "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent from God. For no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."

Jesus, not an easy mark for flattery, cuts right to the chase. "I know why you are here. You want to get into the kingdom of God, don't you? Well, here is the deal: No one can see (participate in, experience) the kingdom of God without being born from above." (Anothen in the Greek can be rendered "born from above" or "born again.") Many of us are more used to the translation "born again." That was how Nicodemus heard it and he interpreted it in a literal sense. "Born again? How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" (3:4)

He is not the only one who prefers to understand "born again" (anothen) in a literal way. A lot of people today prefer it too.

I was in the waiting area at our local Discount Tire store last week waiting for my new tires to be put on my car. I picked up a women's magazine and was intently reading an article called, "How to supercharge your metabolism." I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. I like my personal space while I'm waiting for my tires. Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: "How to be born again" and I heard a man's voice ask, "Wouldn't you like to read something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?"

3/14/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.