Saturday, March 19, 2011

A, Lent 2 - John 3:1-17 "Nicodemus Nonsense"

Holding a little baby after it’s been baptised, one is possibly holding the most mature Christian. This child carries Christ in all his perfection without the need to: perform the right or wrong way; think good or bad thoughts; or, hinder how they feel at any one moment.

No this little one’s works are sucking, poohing, peeing, and crying. Its understanding is infantile, and this child shows any emotion at any time or place. Yes! Little children are totally reliant on God for the grace they receive, and for the works God does in and through them.

The focus here is not on what the child does but on who the child is! A newly baptised person is “freed from doing” to be accepted by God. And now God is free to do what he needs to do to make this child holy. There is nothing the baby can do to hold back hearing the word of God and receiving the Holy Spirit. Completely at the mercy of all around them, they receive mercy from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now the child is a child of God, and its being is one of faith that leads to love for God for the eternal life he gives.

There is now no need to become worried about works. Abiding, remaining, upholding, and standing in baptismal faith requires no active work to make a decision towards God, he is already there working. The Holy Spirit is giving faith, a conscience that yearns to be forever free from sin, seeking repentance, forgiveness, looking to forgive. This faith is holy and it hungers in hope to be brought to completion in Christ; fed through the grace he gives at the cross — at our baptism — at a believer’s resurrection each Sunday, and on the last day.

The only decision to be made is to walk away from this “being or existence or reality of belief or faith.” Rejecting the faith is not a rejection of belief! And so what’s pursued in the absence of God-given faith is a self-sought knowledge of good and evil which gives a faith built on individualism and works.

Previously one was expected to work the law of God to have a relationship with him. Keeping the law dealt with a person’s impurity. But now the decision to seek for the self leads back into impurity and separation from God.

So back in old covenant days one’s focus was on “doing”! Now the focus for us is on “being” — Christ’s being is now our “ new being”. Our existence is Christ’s existence, both lived on earth as he walked from the Jordan to the Cross and in us today from the font to the funeral — the greatest cross we must all bear — our earthly death.

This is why Christ was sent into the world. He came to stop your earthly death, being an eternal death — an eternal never-ending process of perishing with undying pain and suffering. …God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17 ESV)

The fact is, we all face death, regardless of age, as a result of the old being within. The old Adam still seeks to make a decision to go off in search of its own knowledge of good and evil.

Therefore, within the believer there’s a battle of beings. At the same time in the same person there’s the being who works good and evil in opposition to God; the power is centred on work — doing it or not having to do it. And then there’s the new being given in baptism that seeks first the kingdom of God, knowing by the grace of God, he will unleash the faithfulness of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, to produce the fruits of faith from within.

As a baptised infant grows, so too their knowledge of good and evil matures! The old Adam is caught out by the maturity of grace and faith suddenly implanted within. And so the maturity of the newly baptised child is a world away from many people’s concept of being mature.

One of these so called mature people was Nicodemus a leader of the Jews and a Pharisee. He came to try to figure out what this Jesus character was all about. Listen to his doing language. [Nicodemus] 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.” (John 3:2 ESV) This is an honest statement from one whose life was committed to doing what the law required.

But a note on Pharisees first. They get a bad rap today. To us the name Pharisee is a derogatory term. There are not many of us who’d appreciate being called a Pharisee. But there are not many of us whose commitment can compare to that of a Pharisee either. In fact, our condemnation of the Pharisees, wrongly grows from the same “do or don’t do mentality” Jesus criticises the Pharisees for, rather than their loss of being before the Father — their life together with God.

Pharisees were, what today, we would call good blokes. They were not priest but laity whom sought to be good, or righteous, by following the letter of the Law. But they had forgotten what the function of the law was all about; that it was to regain a relationship with God, who was otherwise untouchable. This wasn’t because he’s a cruel and nasty God, rather if sin was not dealt with, experience of his holiness would be a curse and not a blessing. The Pharisees were doing what the law required but not so much to re-enter God’s holiness for a relationship with him but to use his power and glory to justify their knowledge of good and evil.

It’s not clear if Nicodemus came to condemn Jesus or just to see what he was about. We’re not even sure of his Pharisaic practice at this time, but we know later on he spoke up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin and helped in giving him an honourable burial. Nevertheless, what Jesus tells Nicodemus in this first meeting confuses him.

Earlier Jesus told the Jews at the temple, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:18 ESV) Jesus was speaking of himself but the Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it in three days?” (John 2: 20 ESV) They were speaking of Herod’s temple, but one wonders if they were unconsciously speaking about themselves after using God to build themselves into temples during their lifetime.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus wanting to know how he can do this sign along with others he was doing at the Passover Feast, and Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3 ESV)

Nicodemus must have thought this to be completely nonsense. He knew he couldn’t do the work of being born again. He knew he didn’t do anything to be born of flesh the first time! And so he asks a question a small child even knows what the answer is. Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 ESV)

If Nicodemus thought Jesus was a simpleton up to this point, Jesus’ response challenges the very foundation of Nicodemus’ practice “doing” what was required of the law. Jesus says, “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.” (John 3:5–8 ESV)

These words of Jesus begin the change in Nicodemus. Knowing he cannot do any of this Nicodemus becomes hungry to receive from Jesus, rather than placing his trust in what he could do. He didn’t ask, “How can I do this?” Instead he said, “How can these things be?”

Humanity tends to credit itself with its ability to understand and fix things. Recent events are challenging our technical knowhow, our environmental knowhow, and even more our inner knowhow. It is not God who is the simpleton but it is us. As we grow the old Adam is always deceiving us. Our sinful nature seeks to down play faith in God in favour of faith in ourselves. However, the only true way we begin to know ourselves is when we believe God knows us better than we know ourselves and believe he knows who we were originally meant to be.

Flesh gives birth to flesh — how little we really understand about the mystery of human birth, or the life of the human body? And the Holy Spirit gives birth to spirit! If we have trouble knowing, understanding, and believing us and our world, how can we truly know of heavenly things?

Jesus goes on teaching Nicodemus by talking about heavenly things that only he can do, saying, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (John 3:13 ESV) But with this exalted ability comes the service and putting aside of all heavenly doing in favour of being the suffering servant sacrificed for our sin of seeking good and evil.

The Son of God became the Son of Man; he became the servant of the Father. He put aside all doing, and like a little baby who needs to be brought to baptism, Jesus faithfully allowed himself to be carried to the cross and lifted up. So with this faithfulness implanted in us at baptism we might be lifted up to eternal life.

Maturity is not our intellect, but our willingness to be carried by Christ, in all that we are and in all that he seeks to do in and through us. The maturity of faith we have as baptised babies can get deeply tested and confused as we grow into adults. God works in our lives to reverse the immature need to seek knowledge of good and evil for ourselves. He does this by slowing our abilities, and intellect, and cares; returning many of us to helpless childlike ways in our elderly years. Then we might learn to live once again like mature Christians fully believing our help is in the name of the Lord!

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 ESV) Activate the faith in all baptised people so they do not perish but have eternal life in you Lord Jesus, Amen.