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Baptizing Nicodemus and Amy

March 13, 2014

John 3:1-17serpent on a pole

 

Nicodemus… is a religious leader, but compared to Jesus he is a bit of a flat-earther. He’s a seeker. He’s curious. He seems to be among the people referred to in the previous chapter of John’s gospel, who ‘believe in his name because of the signs he did’ but about whom we are told, Jesus himself was quite skeptical. So chapter 3 introduces us to him, as one of these doubtful-believers-slash-hangers-on. He came in the dark of night to talk theology with Jesus.

 

Jesus launches straight into the topic that all theologians of his time were interested in – ‘the kingship of God’. You won’t see the ‘kingship of God’… you won’t see the mysterious power that is God’s power, unless you are born from above. To those like Nicodemus who were impressed by ‘outward appearances’ – the signs that Jesus did – Jesus points them in the direction of something invisible… or visible only under certain conditions.

For the mysterious ‘power’ of God to be visible to you, ‘you must be born from above’.

You need another birth…. As Jesus puts it the word ‘above’ is ambiguous. It could also mean ‘again’. Some translations put it that way. You must be born again. That’s how Nicodemus takes it. As I said before he’s a bit of a flat-earther. He sees the world in a one-dimensional manner, on a timeline, so all he can think about is going back into his mother’s womb and starting again.

 

So Jesus says it again but slightly differently. You can’t enter the kingdom of God unless you are born of water and the Spirit. Notice the changes. He has moved from talk of merely seeing the power of God, to entering into the domain of that power. For Jesus seeing God at work and participating in the work of God go together. This ‘birth from above’ is also an entry into a way of life.

 

What it isn’t, according to Jesus is a kind of natural development, or evolution. It’s not as if with a bit of time those who are born from the physical womb eventually with some kind of maturity and learning and discipline and are reborn spiritually.

6What is born of the flesh is flesh, [says Jesus] and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.”

The point is that those who are born spiritually are not in control. The Spirit of God is free… like the wind. There is no technique to be mastered which will make us spiritual people. Faith is not a technique for self-improvement. There are no rules to be followed which build a ladder from earth to heaven.

 

And here we touch on the paradox of prayer. Because the Spirit of God is free, the only technique that has anything to do with this birth from above, with life in the Spirit, is the technique whereby we lose control of our life, lose our mastery and have our deepest desire caught up in God’s desire. We call this prayer – the practice of losing control in the presence of God. Prayer has less to do with ‘intending’ and more to do with ‘attending’ to God.

 

Nicodemus’s last words are ‘How can these things be?’ Nicodemus the sceptic! As open-minded as he might appear to be – his flat-earth account of what is possible leaves no room for the Spirit of God. He comes close. But his philosophy, and maybe his fears, have determined in advance what is possible.

 

Again Jesus appears to be changing the topic slightly, but not really. He moves from talking about the ‘kingship of God’ to ‘heaven’. But in actual fact the language of ‘heaven’ is common language for the very spiritual realities we have just been talking about. Heaven is where God rules, not just somewhere else, but on earth. Where the Spirit blows there is heaven’s coming.

 

Even though we talk metaphorically about ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ to and from heaven, and Jesus does that here, the language of the New Testament is much more complex than that. So let’s not get hooked up on “vertical” metaphors.

 

Jesus describes himself as an ambassador who has come ‘down’ (descended, as it were) from the invisible realm of divine power (the power of love) into a realm where are very different power is at work. And in bearing witness to the ‘kingship of God’ (to the divine power) he tells them he will be lifted up ‘like Moses lifted up the serpent on the pole’ for the healing of the people.

 

It’s a fascinating reference! The story in the Old Testament tells of a plague of serpents killing the people. But the interesting thing about the story, that gets you thinking… is that to heal them of the poisonous (or fiery) serpents God tells them to put an image of a serpent on a pole and to look at it – the image represents the reality of what is killing them and in looking to the serpent on the pole the people are healed.

 

The people know the power of God’s healing at the point when they see the truth about their own problem. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”.

 

Jesus death shows them what is killing them. They are being killed by their own violence. But they keep telling themselves lies to deceive themselves about its justification. The only thing that will save them is to see God himself crucified by their violence.

 

Jesus may not literally come down from a heaven that is located somewhere up in the sky. But what he does do is “descend” into our hell. Jesus life is a journey into the hell of violence and selfishness and struggle. Knowing the power of divine love (the invisible power that God’s Spirit draws human beings into), being born, as it were, from above, by God’s Spirit, he takes that power to its final destination, into enemy territory. He takes it to a roman crucifixion. In taking it all the way into the heart of human violence he is then lifted up, so we can see our own self-deception for what it truly is.

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

This is the Christian gospel… that God’s power to love has gone all the way into our power to kill and has set us free from this power… a power that become not just a power we wield but a power that controls us.

Jesus died for us!

 

Today we baptized Amy with water as a sign of the Spirit. The same Spirit that took Jesus into the heart of the worlds mess and self-deception and violence, will take Amy all sorts of places too. Amy is being born from above. Amy will come again and again to the cross of Jesus to see her own self-deception (like a serpent on a pole). Amy will not only see the power of God at work (see the kingdom of God), she will enter into that power (enter the kingdom of God) and become herself a living witness with others to the power of God’s love in a violent world.

 

Thanks be to God

 

 

 

 

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