My sermon from yesterday, which was based on Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus in John 3.
Lent 2A—March 20, 2011
Every so often you see him on TV. The man with the prime seat, a number of rows up from the sideline, strategically placed so he can hold up his sign when one of the team’s goes for a field goal or the extra point. It’s there, dead center between the goal posts as you watch the ball float up toward its destination. A large placard with “John 3:16” on it. It’s really free advertisement for Jesus.
We heard that verse this morning. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We get some further descriptions about “the world” throughout John’s gospel: like how the world didn’t know the light because the people loved darkness more. And that the world hated God. And that Jesus was not of this world. And yet God really, really, really, really loved the God-hating world. Enough to send his Son. God loved so much that God sent Jesus, who was not of this world, to save the world.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning of this story. Where Nicodemus, this leader and Pharisee, seeks out Jesus. Covertly. In the darkness. Because people love darkness more than light. He comes to Jesus when he can hide, when people won’t notice, so in case he is seen, someone might ask if it was just a shadow, if it was someone how looked liked Nicodemus, but, nah, it couldn’t be him. Why would he be following this teacher? It must have been someone very like Nick, but not him. He’s a member of the ruling council. It wouldn’t be him.
“Rabbi,” he begins, “we know you are sent from God because of the signs you are doing.” The first of which, we’re told by John, was turning the water into wine at that wedding in Cana. And then a number of other signs that Jesus performed during the Passover, which led to many believing in him, presumably sparking this secret mission of Nicodemus to learn more.
Jesus almost seems to interrupt him. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Or born anew, the Greek is ambiguous with both meanings, but Nicodemus gets only the “again” part and so he asks how anyone can be born once more when they are old, thinking of the absurdity of the situation.
In other words, he doesn’t get it. He’s in the dark. He comes to Jesus, the light of the world, because he’s either seen some of Jesus’ signs or heard about them, and he knows that Jesus must be sent by God, but he can’t wrap his mind around who Jesus really is or what is his mission in the world. John writes in his prologue, that the light “was in the world and though the world was made by him, the world didn’t recognize him.”
Jesus tries to unwrap it more, explaining that being born of the Spirit is like the wind. You can hear it but you can’t see where it’s coming from or where it’s going. But you know it’s there. And it’s a mystery. In the Greek there is ambiguity again, since spirit and wind are the same word “nooma,” and so while Jesus tries to open it up, Nicodemus is stumped.
“How can these things be?” he asks.
He’s incredulous and in the shadows and can’t see, although he’s trying. He wants to see, to understand, but it’s all getting lost in translation.
I’m not sure who first recommended that I go in and visit with Steve, it may have been one of the nurses at the nursing station or maybe it was just by chance that I walked in to see him as I did rounds on the floor at the hospital I worked at one summer during seminary in Charlotte, NC. Whatever the reason, I went in to his room one afternoon, introduced myself, and asked him if he wanted to talk for a little bit. He was lying in his bed, watching a rerun of some sit-com with the volume turned down low. There was a hi-tech wheel chair in the room off to one side, and a few pictures of a baby girl on the shelf by the TV. He looked at me with a smile and invited me in.
I reached out my hand for his, and immediately I saw that Steve didn’t have the full range of use in his arms, although he grabbed my hand as well as he could. Steve was a couple of years older than me, and I had seen in his chart that he had been in the hospital for a couple of weeks already. Steve turned off the TV, and looked intently at me, and we started the beginning of what turned out to be a month-long conversation. I learned that Steve was paralyzed from the waist down due to a diving accident when he was a teenager—he and some buddies had been out drinking one summer night, and he didn’t pull up fast enough when he dove into a lake from a steep incline. He told me he didn’t get mad at anyone—how could he, he reasoned—since he was the one who had been drinking and he was the one who dove in. He talked about how supportive his friends and family were during that time in his life.
We didn’t spend all our time that day talking about his accident. He told me how much he liked baseball, and how he moved to Charlotte from the Mid-West. We talked about his family, and especially about his new daughter, whom, along with his wife, he missed very much. He told me about his job, and he asked me about my studies at seminary. After an hour of talking, I prayed for him and promised I would come to visit again.
During the month Steve was in the hospital waiting for an infection in his leg to heal, we saw each other often and had many conversations. In the course of those conversations, I learned that Steve attended a Roman Catholic church with his wife, and that what he wanted more than anything else was to be baptized there at that church so he could take communion. He hated telling the ushers he didn’t want to receive communion when they asked him if the priest should come down from the chancel to offer him the sacrament. He wanted to receive it, but he felt that he should be baptized first at that church, and so he waited. And then he became sick and ended up at the hospital, waiting some more.
Shortly after that conversation—and after we had been meeting regularly for a few weeks—he asked me if there was anything in particular that he needed to say when he prayed to God, if there were any specific words that he should say. I told him how praying was just talking to God like you would talk to anyone else, and that, while there was no specific formula to use, that some people like to read prayers already written to express what they were feeling. Steve thanked me, and told me he wish he had a book like that to help him pray. The next time I saw him, I brought a paperback collection of prayers that I had found in the hospital gift shop, hidden between the romance novels and the crossword puzzles. He flipped through it as best he could and told me that it was exactly what he was looking for.
Steve’s illness was going away, and he was transferred to a rehab center shortly after that time. I wished him well one sunny afternoon with high hopes for his full recovery. Unfortunately, however, after three weeks, the infection got worse and spread to his bone, and so he came back to the hospital for an amputation near the end of my time there. The last time I saw Steve—two days after his surgery—he was pretty restless. It seemed like he was really distracted and almost uncomfortable having me there. We still talked for a while, and I told him that I would be leaving my job as a chaplain soon. When I took his hand to pray that last time, Steve just wasn’t himself. He kept moving around, and it seemed as if he didn’t want me to be praying. Feeling discouraged, I finished my prayer and gave his hand a squeeze.
And then Steve started to pray. He prayed that God would continue to guide my life. He thanked God for the friendship I had provided to him over the summer. This man who didn’t know even how to pray a month before, was praying to God for me. He was showing me the way life could be.
I think I am as blind as the next person in seeing wholeness here in this life, but I was sure of it that day. I think the shimmering images and visions we get of a transformed life are gifts given to us by God to remind us of the way things could be. They remind us of our need for new life.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, what he says to all of us who lurk in the shadows, is that there is so much more to life. We have our expectations about the way things work, about the way life is to be lived, but there is so much more. Jesus invites us to have our lives transformed—to be born anew, born from above—so that we can experience life in a new way. So we can move out of the darkness into the light.
While that guy at the football stadium might seem like a nut job, in a sense who can blame him for forking over the cash for that seat and making that giant poster? He’s seen what many in this God-hating world never do. Transformation. And he wants that to get as much air-time as possible. Because God loves. And God wants us to experience that love and the gift of salvation. God wants us to see, and to step out of the darkness and into the light. Oh, may it be so for us. And may it be for this world of ours that is so deeply loved by the Holy One. Amen.