John 3:1-17, Isaiah 6:1-8 and Ps 29
Today we are going to do something you are not supposed to do: Eavesdropping
– listen in on a private conversation between two people, Nikodemus and Jesus.
Nikodemus even tried really hard to make this a very private conversation –
coming to Jesus at night time. At least we often think that is why he came at
night. Perhaps it was just the culture among disciples of rabbis to seek out the
master at night. Maybe Nikodemus is actually treating Jesus with respect – as a
rabbi – by coming at night. For sure, Nikodemus does appear to be a very
respectful, honest and even open person, addressing Jesus the way he does and
quite different from other pharisaic leaders we read about in the Gospels
Listening in on two people’s private conversation is, however, not very respectful.
But what can we do? John wrote it and it is the gospel story assigned for this
Sunday, Trinity Sunday, where we begin on a new journey in our church calendar.
I think we have to assume that Nikodemus himself actually is the one to leak the
conversation and share the story with John later on. We know that the
conversation that started that night led to Nikodemus later becoming a follower of
Jesus – and therefore also a friend of John.
Before we get further into our eavesdropping let us pause and notice where are
in the church calendar. As mentioned, today is called “Trinity-Sunday”. The three
big church holidays are now all behind us. No big feasts to look forward to. From
now on it is all about putting into practice what we have learned so far. We´´e
now been told the whole story about Jesus: His coming into our world – the
Christmas story; His death and suffering on the cross, culminating with the
resurrection, the Easter story and we have just celebrated his ascension and with
that the completion of what he came to do. He has returned to his father and sent
us the Holy Spirit which we celebrated a week ago with Pentecost Sunday. We
have been told what we are to believe in. Now the focus is on how to live in that
story so that what we know with our heads and believe in our hearts can take
shape in our lives with each other and in society – as the people of God. The
God we have come to know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity.
What does this life look like? A key word for Christmas could be light. A keyword
for Easter could be life – even from the dead. Perhaps a key word for this next
season starting from today could be love – or faith, hope and love. Faith and
hope in Jesus leads to love in action.
Is it not amazing that as we set out on that journey – the journey of faith, hope
and love, that we start with the words from John 3:16 – about God’s love – for us
and the world that is ours – and still remains God´s. Not our love for God but his
love for us. John 3:16 has almost become a cliché. We know it so well – or at
least we can say John 3:16 as if everybody then knows what we mean. Are we in
danger of being num to them? Can we hear them afresh: “For God so loved the
world that he gave his only son”.
A God who loves! Do we realize how unique this is for the Christian faith? Not a
God who is holy, righteous, all powerful, compassionate. But a God who loves –
Yes, even more, a God who IS Love. I have often met people coming to faith in
Jesus from other religions who would say that this is what was so different and
surprising to them. God, as a father who loves his children. And it is a love that
acts – by giving – giving what is most dear to him. God did not just send Jesus –
he gave him, gave him up. A giving that opens the door – for whoever- believes.
Opens the door and gives life – everlasting. It should blow us away! When we
talk about God so loved the world – it is not like when we say, I just looove the
people of HK, or I just looove the Danish people. You can put your own name
there where it says “world.” I can put mine. God so love me, you. God’s love is
measured by what it is giving. We cannot string the beginning and the end of this
verse together and omit the middle part and just say: God loved the world so that
all could have eternal life. God had to give – give up – and what God gives we
get through faith – “whoever believes”. Perhaps it is easier to understand how we
are to respond to God’s giving if we use the word “trust”. Trust in God.
We can know these words so well that we forget the context in which Jesus said
them. It was as he was talking to Nikodemus trying to explain to him what the
kingdom of God is all about – or what “life with Jesus” is – as we have labeled this
season in our church calendar.
So Nikodemus comes to Jesus very respectful, very open, not judgmental at all. I
think many of us have to redefine our understanding of the Pharisees when we
meet him here. He does not fit the stereotype. So, let us not be too quick to put
people into boxes. I sometimes think that Jesus could have answered
Nikodemus a little more friendly. Could he not have given him credit for his good
behaviour, his high morals, his honesty. But it is like Jesus is telling Nikodemus:
All that is good, but with regard to your questions – or what it is you are looking
for, it will not get you there. You will not be able to grasp the Kingdom of God with
more information, more miracles, more good deeds. You have to be born again.
Says Jesu and he does so three times. Had it been about moral deeds –
Nikodemus could already check that box. Nor is it about great miracles that he
had seen or heard Jesus perform. It is a whole new beginning. To explain what
he means Jesus then refers to a story familiar to Nikodemus – the story about
when God’s people were poisoned by snakes in the desert and Moses was told
to make a snake out of bronze, hold it up high and have the people look at it. By
doing so they would live. In the same way, says Jesus to his polite and open
guest, the Son of Man must be lifted up and in looking to him you can find life.
God has to do something for you – not you for him. And God still has a remedy
for broken and dying people in a broken world. We are not to look to a snake
raised on a stick, but to the Son of Man, Jesus, God’s only son, raised up on the
cross. For so – so much and in this way – God loved – and continues to love – the
Words and phrases can be used so much that we no longer can hear them. As
we said this can be the case with John 3:16.
Other words can be taken captive by certain groups so that others no longer feel
they can identify themselves with this label. I think many feel that the label
“evangelical” has become such a word. It has been stolen – at least from me –
and politicized. It no longer stands for “trust in the Bible, a desire for unity or
mission and a conviction that the gospel should be shared with all people.”
I think the same can be true for the phrase “born again” that some people will use
to describe themselves, saying: “I am not just a Christian – I am a born again
Christian”. The phrase was made famous when it was used by the former US
president Jimmy Carter back in the last century and also used as the title of his
biography. When Billy Graham then wrote a book about “How to be born again”
the phrase was almost made identical with the evangelical movement – and to a
certain extent trivialized. But whether we like the phrase or we think it sounds as
if the person is saying “I am a better, more serious Christian than others” – the
text today begs us to consider what Jesus means when he – three times – uses
the phrase “born again”.
Perhaps we should rather talk about being “born from above”. It is not a physical
re-birth, it has nothing to do with a program for moral upgrade. Nikodemus did
not need a moral upgrade. What he needed was something from “above”. It is
something that God does. It starts with God! It starts with “For God so loved the
None of us have ever done anything to be born. Birth is something that happens
to us. We cannot initiate it, or add to it. When it comes to our own birth we are
totally on the receiving end. Birth happens to us. And the same is true when we
talk about being born again – or born from above. It is like the wind – you feel it,
you know it is there but you can’t see where it comes from or where it is going.
However, it does not make us totally passive. We can respond! Respond to
God’s love for us. Jesus talks about being born of water and spirit – Repentance
and believing in Jesus – looking to Jesus – like the Israelites were told to look at
the snake in the desert. Looking to Jesus here means looking to Jesus – at the
cross. For so – in that way – God loved the world.
And the world is you and me. God loved you, loved me – not just the big
impersonal world. But you, me. How can we hear this afresh – or again. It is like
the phrase “born again”- or evangelical.- Just because the word has been stolen
from us does not mean it is no longer relevant for us to ponder what it means to
be born again and what it means to believe in the gospel the eu-engalicon.
And in a similar way, just because we have heard Joh 3:16 often does not mean
that we now can put it behind us and move on. As we start this season in our
church calendar with a focus on living out the gospel we need to be reminded of
this fundamental basis for living out the Jesus story. The story that we know now
because we have celebrated Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. This is a story we
can live in and we can do so, because God so loved us that he raised up not a
snake in the desert but Jesus on the cross as the remedy not for snake-bites but
for the bite of sin and death in our lives.
Our response to the new birth – the born again – or rather born from above – for it
is God’s doing and we are on the receiving end – is – if we take the answer
Nikodemus got from Jesus that night – to look to Jesus. There we see how God
loved us. Can that make us stand in awe like Isaiah did in the temple? He
realized that God is holy, holy,holy, – notice the three holys – and his own
situation? And can we then respond as he did. He realized that he was in the
presence of God, but also in need of God to make him clean, heal him from the
snake bites in his life. When God did that, gave him a new birth, a new identity,
his response was: Here I am – send me!
May we see that we are loved people – people that are loved by God. And may
God’s love for us make us people who love. Love the world, our family, our
neighbor, the stranger. Love with the love with which we ourselves have been
loved – the love that gives – everything, so that whoever – no exceptions –
believes in Him – or with a less “religious” word: Trust in him – will not perish but
have eternal life. That is why Jesus came – not to condemn but to give life.
Let’s not withhold that love of God from anyone. May we like Isaiah be
overwhelmed overjoyed, again by this love so we too respond: “use me, send
me” May we start this season in our calendar – as church, as God’s people
soaked in the love of God, by setting our feet firmly on this as the foundation on
which we stand and from where we move as we are sent. May we then go out
and into the world. And remember, the big world is made up of my family, my
friends, my colleagues, my neighborhood. This Is where we as loved people are
to love and to give – that people will not perish but live.