31 March 2014

Sermon – “A Blind Man” (John 9:1-11)

I have to admit that I have more than once been the victim of misconceptions. Perhaps you have been also. Most of them aren’t especially dangerous, but I’m grateful anyway to have them corrected. Here are a few that have been put right for me over the years:

•  There is no evidence that Vikings wore horns on their helmets. That goes back to the costumes in an 1876 production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

•  Medieval Europeans did not believe the earth was flat. In fact, from the time of the ancient Greek philosophers onwards, belief in a spherical earth remained almost universal among European intellectuals.

•  George Washington did not have wooden teeth.

•  Benjamin Franklin did not propose that the wild turkey be used as the symbol for the United States instead of the bald eagle.

•  Napoleon Bonaparte was not short. Quite the opposite: he was slightly taller than the average Frenchman of his time.

•  The Twinkie does not have an infinite shelf life; its listed shelf life is approximately forty-five days.

For the most part, misconceptions such as these are quite harmless (unless you happened to be George Washington’s dentist). There are more serious misconceptions out there, however, and we come across one of them in our Gospel reading for this morning.

Jesus and his disciples were walking through the crowded, dusty streets of Jerusalem, when they came across a blind man crouched down by a wall, holding out his begging bowl. I suspect that the disciples were inclined to ignore the man. Perhaps they were not even conscious of him, as such people were commonplace, especially in Jerusalem. It was Jesus who noticed him, and that prompted the disciples to ask a question. “Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Who sinned?

Jesus’ followers were living under the impression that disease and physical impairment were somehow tied to an individual’s sin. That notion was not something that they had come up with on their own. It was not uncommon in their day and was even promulgated by some of the rabbis of the time. Today such a perspective seems intolerably cruel to us—as though a disability were not enough to suffer from, much less the guilt that it might be the result of some sin that I might have committed even before my birth.

Yet I dare say that there are probably just as many misunderstandings and hang-ups about sin today. Sad to say, the word “sin” has often been used by religious people as a stick to beat others down, to exclude them, even to dehumanize them. Yet, deep within all of us (if we are prepared to admit it) there is a nagging sense that things are not as they should be. As someone said to me years ago, “I don’t know about you, John, but if there is a video of my life, I don’t ever want to see it.” How important it is that we shed ourselves of dangerous misconceptions in something that is so pervasive, so central to our lives—that we come to a true biblical understanding of what sin really is.

I have been tremendously helped in that respect by a book by contemporary American theologian Neal Plantinga, and I am going to ask your forgiveness for reading to you a rather long quotation from it. He begins by quoting biographer Harry Wills, who wrote,

We are hostages to each other in a deadly interrelatedness. There is no “clean slate” of nature unscribbled on by all one’s forebears… At one time a woman of unsavory enough experience was delicately but cruelly referred to as ‘having a past’. The doctrine of original sin states that humankind, in exactly that sense, ‘has a past’.

Then Plantinga continues,

But, of course, our past also includes saints, civilizations, generous laws for gleaners, hospices, relief agencies, virtuoso peacemakers, and rural traditions of pitching in at a neighbor’s barn raising… It includes exultant worship, fifty-year wedding anniversaries, and, on some May mornings, a sense of life’s sweetness and of God’s goodness so sharp that we want to cry out from the sheer promise of it. Evil rolls across the ages, but so does good. Good has its own momentum. Corruption never wholly succeeds. (Even blasphemers acknowledge God.) Creation is stronger than sin and grace stronger still. Creation and grace are anvils that have worn out a lot of our hammers.

To speak of sin … apart from the realities of creation and grace, is to forget the resolve of God. God wants shalom and will pay any price to get it back. Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way. Moreover, to speak of sin by itself is to misunderstand its nature: sin is only a parasite, a vandal, a spoiler. Sinful life is a partly depressing, partly ludicrous caricature of genuine human life. To concentrate on our rebellion, defection, and folly … is to forget that the center of the Christian religion is not our sin but our Savior. To speak of sin without grace is to minimize the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, and the hope of shalom.

But to speak of grace without sin is surely no better. To do this is to trivialize the cross of Jesus Christ, to skate past all the struggling by good people down the ages to forgive, accept, and rehabilitate sinners, including themselves, and therefore to cheapen the grace of God that always comes to us with blood on it. What had we thought the ripping and writhing on Golgotha were all about? To speak of grace without looking squarely at these realities, without painfully honest acknowledgment of our own sin and its effects, is to shrink grace to a mere embellishment of the music of creation… In short, for the Christian church … to ignore, euphemize, or otherwise mute the lethal reality of sin is to cut the nerve of the gospel. For the sober truth is that without full disclosure on sin, the gospel of grace becomes impertinent, unnecessary, and finally uninteresting.[1]

… that God’s works might be revealed in him

How important it is that we not ignore sin or trivialize it, and at the same time not be obsessed by it. The disciples’ were mistaken in connecting the man’s blindness with any sin. Jesus, on the other hand, was able to look upon both the man and his disability in an entirely different manner. Read literally from the Greek, his words in verse 3 were, “Neither this man sinned nor his parents, but that the works of God might be revealed in him.”

What did Jesus mean by this? I don’t believe that Jesus said what he did merely in anticipation of the miracle that he was about to perform. I believe that he was seeking to share a much deeper truth with his disciples. That was that this man, even in his blindness, crouched by the wall and covered in the dust from people’s sandals, either ignored or pitied by passers-by, was made in the image and likeness of God. Jesus was able to see in him a nobility that was invisible to the disciples—and that was a characteristic of his ministry. As we saw last week, he spoke with respect to a Samaritan woman. He welcomed children into his presence when his disciples regarded them as nothing but a nuisance. He honored the selfless act of a prostitute. He reached out and touched a leper who may not have felt the warmth of human contact for years. He invited himself into the home of a corrupt and hated tax collector.

The man who sat by the side of the road and begged was blind. Yet Jesus’ disciples suffered from another form of blindness in their inability to perceive the image of God in him. One of the challenges to me in this passage is to develop our senses so that we can see people as Jesus did, as men and women and children who bear the image of God and in whom God’s beauty dwells. Again and again I have found myself being rebuked in this area—by blind people who were able to see in ways that I could never imagine, developmentally disabled people who were able to respond to the love of God in ways that were beautifully uncomplicated yet more profound than anything I can express, physically handicapped people who showed a strength of character and determination that staggers me.

All through his ministry the apostle Paul suffered from a disability. He called it his “thorn in the flesh” and I can only imagine that it was the cause of much pain and sorrow for him. “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this …,” he wrote to his friends in Corinth, “but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me… For whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

Blindness and sight

We would have missed the point of this passage if we left it without observing one more lesson, however. It has to do with blindness and sight. We have seen already the physical blindness of the man who sat by the road. And I have alluded to the blindness of the disciples who were unable to see God’s image in him. Yet as the passage continues we are exposed to a deeper and more pernicious blindness: the blindness of those who cannot see and yet willfully insist that they do.

It is such a monstrous irony that the very people who should have been praising God for the miracle that had been done in the blind man’s life were the ones who spoke with scorn and condemnation. What was it that motivated them to treat the newly healed man with such contempt? Were they jealous that they could not perform such acts of healing—or perhaps that they were not the beneficiaries of them? I believe that ultimately it was an insistence on their own rightness. This is the root of the condemnation that the risen, glorified Christ levels against the church in Laodicea in the book of Revelation:

You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.

The man born blind had spent all his life depending on others. He depended on his parents to house and feed him. He depended on friends to lead him to and from his begging place on the street. He depended on passers-by to toss their spare change into his bowl. He was painfully aware of his incompleteness, of his need for healing; and when Jesus offered him the opportunity to be made whole, he leapt at the chance.

All of which brings us back to where we began. If we are to receive the healing that Jesus offers, it will not come by ignoring our sins or hiding them, or pretending that they don’t exist or don’t matter. It will come as we acknowledge them, as we willingly receive the forgiveness, cleansing and restoration that Jesus holds out to you and to me from the cross.

[1]     Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 198,199

27 March 2014

Bible Study: A Blind Man (John 9:1-41)

Getting started

Try to imagine what life would be like for you if you were unable to see.

Exploring God’s word

1    Read John 9:1-12, assigning parts for the disciples, Jesus, the neighbors and the blind man. What question does seeing the blind man prompt among the disciples? Why would they think this way? What is the problem with this kind of reasoning?
2    What does Jesus have to say about the man’s disability? How do you interpret his statement? What does he mean by “day” and “night”? What claim does he make for himself?
3    What does Jesus do for the man? What part do you consider faith may have played in his healing? How does he demonstrate his faith?
4    Continue with verses 13 to 34. Why did the Pharisees have a problem with the man’s healing? To what conclusion about Jesus did this lead some of them? To what conclusion do they try to force the man who had been blind in verse 25? What can we learn from his response?
5    Turn to verses 35 to 41. Take a moment to trace the development of the blind man’s awareness of Jesus. How does Jesus interpret this whole incident in verse 39? How would you define spiritual blindness? What makes it so dangerous?

For further thought and action

Do you think it is possible for Christians to be spiritually blind? How does this happen? What is the remedy?

24 March 2014

Sermon – “A Samaritan Woman” (John 4:5-14)

Our Gospel reading this morning takes us to a well near the town of Sychar in Samaria. Sychar is modern-day Nablus in the Palestinian territories, about forty miles north of Jerusalem by road. To this day it remains the principal home of the few hundred remaining Samaritans in the world. And Jacob’s well is still there, one of the best-attested archeological sites in Israel.

Today it may be found in the crypt (for you cradle Episcopalians that’s an undercroft) of a Greek Orthodox monastery. The water table that feeds the well runs more than sixty feet below the valley floor, with the result that it offers much better water than the harder water from the springs on the neighboring slopes of Mt Gerizim. With the accumulation of town debris and older sites going back nearly four thousand years, the current site is an additional sixty feet or so higher. The woman of Samaria wasn’t straying from the truth when she said, “The well is deep.” She would have had to let her bucket down anything from a hundred to a hundred fifty feet to reach water. Think of it: that’s the height of a ten- to fifteen-story building. However, the connection with Jacob, and its quality of water would have made it worth the effort.

New Testament Sychar is also Old Testament Shechem. In terms of historical importance for Israel, Shechem was probably second only to Jerusalem. It was at Shechem that the Lord first gave Abraham the promise, as he journeyed from Haran, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7). It was at Shechem that the people of Israel renewed their covenant to the Lord under Joshua, proclaiming, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey” (Joshua 24:24). It was at Shechem that Solomon’s son Rehoboam was crowned as king and made the fateful declaration that split the nation in two: “My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:1-19). “A more interesting neighborhood it is difficult to imagine,” wrote Bishop J.C. Ryle a century and a half ago. “Whichever way the eye of a weary traveler looked, he would see something to remind him of Israel’s history.”[1]

Ryle’s contemporary, biblical scholar and preacher Alfred Edersheim, wrote of the area,

There is not a district in the Land of Promise which presents a scene more fair or rich than the plain of Samaria. As we stand on the summit of the ridge, the eye travels over the wide sweep, extending more than seven miles northward, till it rests on the twin heights of Gerizim and Ebal, which enclose the valley of Shechem. Following the straight olive-shaded road from the south, we stand by that Well of Jacob to which so many sacred memories attach.[2]

I fear that Edersheim’s description may be somewhat romanticized. Certainly in Jesus’ time Shechem, or what was left of it, could hardly have been an attractive sight. More than a century previously, a Jewish army under the leadership of John Hyrcanus had destroyed the city and its temple atop Mt Gerizim, never to be rebuilt. And so I imagine Sychar as a few destitute villagers living among derelict heaps of ruins.

Besides that, from May to October in that part of the world there is virtually no rain or even any cloud cover, with temperatures climbing much of the time well into the 90s. If Jesus’ journey from Judea to Galilee took place during those months, it is not difficult to understand how he would have arrived at the well parched and exhausted.

Jesus and his weakness

Thus our gospel story begins with a picture of Jesus’ humanity. It is in fact the first glimpse of Jesus’ humanity that we have in the Gospel of John. Remember that John introduces Jesus as the eternal Word, who was with God, who was God, through whom all things came into being. In John’s gospel there are no stories of Mary’s pregnancy or of the humble birth in Bethlehem. Before the first chapter has ended, we hear Jesus being proclaimed as the Son of God, the King of Israel, and Jesus himself declaring, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). And in the following chapter Jesus turns water into wine and John remarks, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).

As we open chapter 4, it is a very different picture of Jesus that we get. Sweat penetrating through his robes and beading on his forehead, panting for breath, Jesus virtually collapses by the well, while his disciples carry on into the village to look for food. Many people today have problems believing in the deity of Jesus. They like to think of him as a great teacher, perhaps the greatest the world has ever known. They picture him as a good and virtuous man. But God? No. That’s taking it too far.

As orthodox Christians we take the opposite stand. We love to quote C.S. Lewis, who wrote,

You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.[3]

However, our defense of Jesus’ deity can come at the risk of not really believing in his humanity. I am grateful for the teaching of Bishop John Howe at our Quiet Day a couple of weeks ago, who reminded us that Jesus’ miracles were the result not of his being the divine Son of God, but of his being anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Yes, Jesus is the Son of God. That is an article that I affirm with all my heart. But he was also a human being like you and me. He developed as a tiny fetus within his mother’s womb and was born with all the pain and mess that that entails. He developed physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. He got hungry and thirsty. He was tired, indeed exhausted to the point where a storm at sea couldn’t wake him. He became angry. There were things he didn’t know. He felt pain of body and anguish of soul—and even the absence of God.

Indeed it is in his humanity as much as in his deity that Jesus is able to minister to us. He is the high priest who is able to stand alongside us in our weakness, because he has been tested in every way just as we are. And it was in his humanity that Jesus was able to minister to a woman who at that moment came with her bucket to draw water.

Jesus and the woman

What ensues is a remarkable conversation, made all the more remarkable because it never should have taken place on two counts. First she was a Samaritan. The centuries-old hostility between Jews and Samaritans would have been evident in the parched rubble of Shechem not much more than a stone’s throw away. That long-standing enmity is evident in a passage from the book of Sirach in the Apocrypha:

Two nations my soul detests
and the third is not even a people:
Those who live in Seir, and the Philistines,
and the foolish people that live in Shechem.[4]

The second reason was that she was a woman. Yet in spite of what could easily have been two insurmountable barriers, Jesus not only speaks with her but treats her as every bit his equal. It seems to me that the verbal sparring in which they engage is a sign of respect on Jesus’ part: she is one who can well stand up to a challenge. We see the same dynamic in the exchange between Jesus and a Canaanite woman who came to him on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter. When Jesus at first demurred, she came back with the retort, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” To which Jesus replied, “Woman, great is your faith” (Matthew 15:22-28).

The fact is that Jesus chose to consort with some of the most unlikely people. That was the substance of the criticism that people repeatedly leveled against him—that he was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners”. And that is exactly what he was. That was his intention. When they came back with their food, the disciples were shocked to see Jesus seriously engaging with this woman—to the point where they were at a loss for words. Perhaps they had already heard something about her sordid life while they were in the village. Yet had they only taken a moment to look at themselves, they might have realized what an unlikely group they themselves were. Jesus was not out to form a club. He came to draw men and women into the reign of God and to make that reign a reality in our world. The barriers that we erect of race and gender, of education and socioeconomic status, of politics and nationality, mean nothing to him. The apostle Paul summed it up when he wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Jesus and the well

It seems to me that by the end of the conversation the Samaritan woman had begun to understand all of that. Already she had begun to drink from those unending streams of living water. Already she felt a freshness welling up within her that had never been part of her life before. In the words of Horatius Bonar’s hymn,

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
‘Behold, I freely give
the living water; thirsty one,
stoop down and drink, and live’:
I came to Jesus, and I drank
of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
and now I live in him.

The proof was in the fact that all she could think of doing was to rush away and tell the other people in the village what she had experienced—to the point where she left her precious bucket behind at the side of the well. “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Messiah?”

You see—that’s the thing about the living water. If you’ve really had a taste of it, it’s something you can’t keep to yourself. As much as we might like to, as much as we might be tempted to, we cannot wall it in. The streams of living water will always well up and burst their bounds—and the one who gives them is not only the one who came to the woman at the well, asking, “Give me a drink.” He is also the one who cried out for you and for me and for all humankind, “I thirst…” (John 19:28).

[1]     Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: John, Vol. 1, 196
[2]     The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883)
[3]     Mere Christianity, 52,53
[4]     Sirach 50:25,26

20 March 2014

Bible Study: A Samaritan Woman (John 4:1-42)


Getting started

      Where is the place that you would least want to go for a vacation? Why?

Exploring God’s word

1    Once again, appoint members of the group to read the passage as a dialog. Locate Judea, Galilee, Samaria and Sychar on a map. Because of the hostility between Jews and Samaritans, it was customary to take a detour around Samaria when traveling between Judea and Galilee. Why do you think Jesus “had” to go through Samaria (verse 4)? What evidence of Jesus’ humanness does John give us in verse 6?

2    Why is the Samaritan woman surprised by Jesus’ request? How does Jesus reply to her? How does the woman understand his words about “living water”? Even after Jesus clarifies what he is talking about in verses 13 and 14, what continues to be her frame of reference?

3    What new dynamic does Jesus introduce into the conversation in verse 16? Why do you think he chose to do this? How does the woman seek to redirect the conversation in verse 19? How does Jesus respond to her objection? What claim does Jesus make for himself in verse 26?

4    Looking at verse 27, what lay behind the disciples’ surprise? Why do you suppose they didn’t express this to Jesus? Why didn’t Jesus bother to eat the food the disciples had bought? What was it that sustained him?

5    How did the woman react to her conversation with Jesus? How did the people in the village respond to her testimony? What made her witness so effective? In the end, what was it that brought the villagers to faith?

For further thought and action

How can we use the “accidental” encounters that God places in our life to share the living water?

17 March 2014

Sermon – “Nicodemus” (John 3:1-8)

Have you ever been sitting in a restaurant when you find yourself beginning to pick up strains of the conversation at the next table? Perhaps it is just one word that catches your attention initially. Sometimes it gets to the point where that conversation ends up occupying more of your attention than the one at your own table and, trying not to be too obvious, you find yourself being drawn in and listening increasingly intently to it.

Throughout this season of Lent the Gospel readings give us the opportunity of listening in on six conversations with Jesus. We heard the first of them last week in the dialog between Jesus and the tempter—not the kind of conversation you are likely to hear in a restaurant, although you never know! This morning it is the famous interchange between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3.

John describes Nicodemus as a Pharisee. Sad to say, the Pharisees are in many ways the victims of bad press. By and large they were not the sourpusses, the spiritual killjoys, that they have sometimes been depicted to be. Simply put, and more than anything else, the Pharisees were people who sincerely desired to lead lives that were pleasing to God, that were consistent with his laws laid down in the Old Testament. They were moral, upright people. They were regular attenders in the synagogues. They were tithers. They would help little old ladies across the street (as long as it wasn’t a sabbath). In every respect they were model citizens—just the kind of people you would want to have as neighbors.

John further informs us that Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee, but that he was a religious leader, literally “a ruler of the Jews”. This suggests that he was actually a member of the Sanhedrin, a body that comprised within itself the highest legal, judicial and legislative authority among the Jews. He was one of a number of prominent and influential people who came to Jesus in the gospels, among them a centurion, a royal official, Lazarus of Bethany, the anonymous rich young ruler, Jairus the synagogue ruler, and Simon the Pharisee.

He came by night

John tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Now night and darkness are significant words in John’s gospel. In the opening chapter John has told us of Jesus, the eternal Word, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). Jesus proclaims of himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12). It was while it was still dark on the first Easter morning that Mary Magdalene, believing Jesus to be dead, went to his tomb (20:1). And perhaps most significantly of all, after Judas leaves the Passover supper in the upper room, John laconically remarks, “And it was night” (13:30).

So it was significant for John that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. And we need to ask ourselves, why? It may easily have been because the crowds that so regularly followed Jesus had dispersed. Things would definitely have been quieter and there would have been opportunity for a more in-depth conversation. It has been my experience that some of the most significant conversations in my life have taken place at night.

Yet I rather think there was a different reason that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night—and it was that he did not wish to be seen. To me this corresponds with Nicodemus as we meet him at two other points in John’s gospel. The first incident is in chapter 7. It is the Feast of Booths, or Succoth. Knowing that there are plots to do away with him, Jesus has gone to Jerusalem secretly, not even telling his brothers. Midway through the festival, however, he begins to teach in the Temple. Inevitably there is controversy over him but the Temple police hold back from arresting him. When the Pharisees criticize the police for their inaction, it is Nicodemus who stands up and asks, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” And that, for the moment at least, seems to be the end of the matter.

The final time we meet with Nicodemus is towards the end of the gospel. Jesus has died on the cross and Joseph of Arimathea has petitioned Pontius Pilate for his body. Then John tells us, “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” I think it is significant that John chooses to identify Nicodemus as the one who came to Jesus by night, under cover of darkness. It seems to me that, while Nicodemus had sympathy for Jesus, he was one that always stood in the shadows. He was never quite willing to come out into the light.

I suppose there is a parallel with Peter at this point, in his threefold denial of Jesus as he warmed himself in the courtyard of the high priest. Yet Peter we hear from again. He is reconciled and restored. He is filled with the Holy Spirit. He later answers the high priest and the Sanhedrin, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Nicodemus himself may well have been there at the time when Peter spoke. Yet we never hear from him again. He simply slips into the shadows whence he came.

The tragedy is that down through the centuries to our present day there have been many Nicodemuses, men and women who respect Jesus, who admire him. Yet whether it is for fear or some other reason, they find themselves unable to step out into the light and identify with him. So it is that as the chapter unfolds that John comments (and I believe with a deep sense of sorrow), “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…”

Born from above

So it is that under the shadows and with no one around Nicodemus begins by expressing his admiration for Jesus. “Rabbi…,” and even to use the term rabbi to a man who had no formal training and was his junior in every way was to show enormous respect. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do unless God were with him.” To which Jesus gives the puzzling reply, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus’ words are literally, “Amen, amen, I say to you…” They carry a solemnity and an earnestness to them that the English cannot convey.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” What was it that prompted these enigmatic words? The answer is to be found in the way that John introduces Nicodemus to us in the first verse. Literally it goes like this: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus…” This is an odd way to describe someone in English, so most of our English translations have simplified it to something like what we see in our pew Bibles: “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus…” But it is an odd turn of phrase in Greek also; and John has chosen to use it specifically because of what he has just finished saying in the previous paragraph, which if you read it literally, goes, “Jesus did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.” Then he continues, “There was a man…”

What I can only conclude is that Jesus knew exactly what was going on in Nicodemus’ heart—and he chose to speak not to his words but directly to his heart. Remember that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. His whole life was dedicated to obedience to the Law. What Jesus was saying was, “Nicodemus, you have spent your entire life doing things for God. And tragically you have missed the point. It’s not about what you can do for God. It’s about what God wants to do in you.”

To see how focused Nicodemus was on doing things, you have only to look at his response: “Can one enter a second time into one’s mother’s womb and be born?” For him it was all about what he could do: his efforts, his hard work, his endeavors. And so Jesus drives the point home again. “Listen, Nicodemus, while I tell you another time: no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” As Tim Keller has put it, “I contributed nothing to my birth: I contribute nothing to my being born again.”[1]

The Spirit blows

Jesus makes the same point again when he shifts from the mystery of birth to the mystery of the wind. “You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going.” In both Hebrew and Greek the same word can be used to mean “wind” or “spirit”. No one can control the wind. Here in Minnesota we are reminded of that at 1 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month. We cannot control the wind, but we can harness it. And we are reminded of that as we cross the prairie and see rows of enormous wind turbines. In 2012 wind turbines in this country generated 140 million megawatt-hours of electrical power.

What Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to was to allow the Holy Spirit to blow through his life—to allow the Spirit to do in him what, even with the strictest obedience, even with the most valiant of efforts, he could never achieve for himself. Later in the New Testament we meet with another Pharisee who did take to heart what Jesus taught. He wrote,

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus occupies a very special place in my own life as well. I first overheard it many years ago when I was a senior in high school. I had become involved in church and was trying to live a Christian life, but I always sensed that there was something missing. I had begun reading the New Testament and was several months into it when I arrived at this passage. When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, it was as though he were speaking to me: “In very truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” It was on reading those words that I knelt and asked Jesus Christ to come into my life—and he became a reality for me in a way that he had never been before.

Nicodemus never came out of the shadows. But thank God that you and I have the opportunity to let him do his work in us. “Truly, truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

[1]     Encounters with Jesus, 34

12 March 2014

Bible Study: Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)


Getting started

How do most people in our society regard Jesus today?
How would they describe him?

Exploring God’s word

1    Try having two members of the group read the passage as a dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus. What was Nicodemus’ position in the community? Do you think there was a reason why he came to Jesus at night? How does Nicodemus address Jesus? What might his use of the pronoun “we” suggest?

2    How does Jesus respond to Nicodemus? What do you think Jesus was getting at in answering the way he did? Why does Nicodemus fail to get the point?

3    How does Jesus clarify what it means to be born again? What do you think it means to be “born of water and the Spirit”? How does Jesus’ metaphor of the wind help to make sense of this?

4    Why do you suppose Nicodemus is still mystified in verse 9? What accusation does Jesus level against Nicodemus (and his fellow Pharisees) in verses 11 and 12? What does he claim for himself in verse 13?

5    For the background to verses 14 and 15, see Numbers 21:4-9. How does Jesus use this story from the Old Testament to reveal something about himself? What would you identify as the central theme of the verses that follow? Why do people react to light and darkness as they do?

For further thought and action

If you had been in Nicodemus’ shoes, what would have been going through your mind and heart at the end of this conversation? How can we communicate effectively with people who have genuine problems with Christian faith?

05 March 2014

Bible Study: Satan (Matthew 4:1-11)

Here is an inductive Bible study to help you or a group think about this coming Sunday’s Gospel reading.

Getting started

      The devil is often humorously characterized as a horned figure in red long underwear. What is your understanding of Satan?

Exploring God’s word

1    When does this incident occur in relation to Jesus’ life and ministry? Why do you think it should occur at this particular time?

2    In what way did Satan seek to lead Jesus astray with the first temptation? How does Satan tempt you in similar ways? How does Jesus address this temptation?
3    In what ways was the second temptation both similar to and different from the first? What particular ruse does Satan employ to trick Jesus? How can we stand our ground against seemingly pious arguments for doing wrong?
4    To what within Jesus does Satan appeal with his third approach? How does this reveal the true goal underlying all of his temptations? What do you think Satan’s desire is for you?
5    What happens after Jesus rebuffs Satan for the third time? How has God ministered to you at vulnerable points in your life?

For further thought and action

What can we learn from this passage about the nature of temptation and how to withstand it?