John 3: 1 – 17_Make Room for Mystery_March 8, 2020

 In our gospel passage for today, from John’s gospel, a man named Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night.  Nicodemus is a leader of the Pharisees, a religious group within Judaism.  He comes with questions, very specific questions.  He’s looking for explanations.  The word has gotten around about Jesus and his miraculous deeds.  After Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in the village of Cana, news traveled fast.  Questions arose in the marketplace, in the synagogue, around the dinner table: who is this man?  Who is this wonder-worker?  Is he some kind of magician?


But Nicodemus seems convinced that Jesus has come from God, that Jesus is the real deal. “Rabbi,” he says, using the term of respect that is used for a teacher, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”  But Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees want to know more.  They want to know just who Jesus is and what he’s up to.

But Jesus doesn’t answer Nicodemus directly.  First, he says, “You must be born anew.”  Now Nicodemus is more puzzled than before.  How, he asks, can an adult be born anew?  “Can he enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Nicodemus wants a specific answer.  He wants Jesus to speak about things he can see and hear and get a handle on.  He’s trying to figure this out.  How can a full-grown person be born anew?


I think each of us has a little Nicodemus in us.  We like explanations.  We want to figure things out.  Like Nicodemus, we might say, “Just tell me how this happens, step by step.”  We like things to make sense, in a logical way.

It’s not surprising that we want to figure things out logically.  We live in a world that constantly asks for explanations, a world that constantly seeks logical reasons for the things that happen.  In many ways that drive to figure things out is a good thing.  It has led to great discoveries.  Our knowledge of anatomy, astronomy, geology and other fields has given us a better understanding of ourselves and our world. We’ve developed medicines to heal, machines to produce, technologies to harness the power of water and wind.  All these things have improved our lives tremendously.

But our world, with its push to find logical reasons for things, doesn’t leave much room for mystery.  We tend to equate mystery with ignorance.  If we can’t figure out how something works, we think we must not be very smart.  We get impatient when things can’t be explained logically.  We might come, like Nicodemus, looking for an explanation.  Nicodemus is trying to get his mind around something that seems impossible.  He says, what do you mean, born anew?  How does that happen exactly?

Nicodemus belonged to a part of Judaism, the Pharisees, who were suspicious of Jesus.  You might have noticed that he came to Jesus at night.  He didn’t start a conversation with Jesus in broad daylight, out in the marketplace or some other public place with people milling around.  He came to Jesus at night, when it was unlikely that he would be seen.  He may have come under cover of darkness because he didn’t want his community to know that he was seeking out this rabbi.

Jesus was getting a bit of a reputation as a radical.  Nicodemus was taking a risk in coming to see him at all.  The Pharisees had a big investment in preserving the status quo, the way things were.  Jesus had shaken up the status quo by doing things like eating with prostitutes and tax collectors.  He spent time with people whom the religious establishment considered outcasts.  Nicodemus and his fellow clergy were rattled by this upstart preacher from Nazareth.

On this night Nicodemus may be coming in a professional capacity, to check Jesus out, but as the conversation goes on we can see that his questions are more than professional inquiries.  His questions come from somewhere deep inside, some part of him that is longing for the life-giving presence of God.  And Jesus recognizes that.  That’s why his response to Nicodemus doesn’t address the mechanics of things.  He knows Nicodemus is seeking.


Jesus’ statement, “You must be born anew,” is an invitation to new life in God’s Spirit.  In some circles today, Jesus’ statement, “You must be born anew,” is understood as a kind of requirement, a kind of test we have to pass to be accepted as true Christians.  Especially when the word “anew” is translated as “again,” Jesus’ statement is understood as a special achievement that is needed to qualify us as believers.

We Americans are very fond of achievements.  We love competitions that honor the one who can run the fastest or lift the heaviest weight.  We can have a lot of fun with those competitions and they can bring out our talents and encourage us to do our best.

But when it comes to sensing the work of God’s Spirit, we miss the mark when we set it up as some kind of achievement.  We miss what Jesus is talking about here, when we use his statement, “you must be born anew,” as some kind of test.  For Jesus, being born anew is not a requirement.  Being born anew, being open to the work of the Spirit, is not something we have to achieve.  When all is said and done, it’s a mystery; a work of the Spirit.

Nicodemus may have come to Jesus that night because he had been tossing and turning in bed, anxious and worried.  He may have been restless, trying to make sense of what he was hearing about Jesus.  When he comes that night, Jesus is open to his questions.  Jesus listens. He invites Nicodemus to go deeper, to be open to the work of God’s Spirit in his life.  As Nicodemus heads back to his home, he doesn’t have things all figured out.  He doesn’t have all the answers, but he does have a new way of looking at his questions.

Jesus says God’s Spirit “blows wherever it wishes.  You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.  It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  The work of the Spirit can’t be figured out or fit the definitions we use to make sense of things.  When you’re born anew of the Spirit, you don’t always fit the expectations of this world.

The story is told of a preacher who was outspoken and provocative.  His name was Will Campbell.  Some years ago Campbell was attending the trial of a Ku Klux Klansman who was accused of murdering a black man.  A reporter who was covering the trial noticed that, when the court recessed, Campbell could be seen talking with both the alleged murderer and the family of the man who had been murdered.  He seemed to be on good terms with the accused and the grieving family.  He spent a great deal of time talking with both parties.

The reporter was skeptical, sounding a little like Nicodemus.  He asked, “How is this possible?  How is it possible for you to be on positive terms with both: the man who is accused of a hateful, racist murder, and the family of the victim?”

Campbell responded vaguely about every person being a human being, deserving of compassion, but this did not satisfy the reporter.  He insisted, “This is not logical.  You can’t care for both the klansman and the victim. [What makes] you think you can?”

Campbell shot back a blistering reply.  I can’t quote him word for word, because he used some language that we don’t use in church.  He exploded at the reporter, “Because I’m a blankety-blank Christian!”


For Campbell, following the example of Christ means reaching out to all who are in need of God’s love.  It might mean offering God’s love in ways that can’t be figured out, that don’t make sense in our usual way of looking at things.

Nicodemus came to Jesus because something in him had been stirred up.  He wanted to know more about Jesus.  He wanted to know more about the Spirit that empowers Jesus to show such amazing, life-changing love for all people.  Nicodemus did not join Peter, James, John and the others who followed Jesus around Galilee.  But the conversation that night awakened something in him that made him want to stay with the teacher from Nazareth.

Later in the gospel, we see Nicodemus speaking out, standing up for Jesus when he comes under fire from the Pharisees.  And still later, after Jesus’ crucifixion, we find Nicodemus again, bringing spices to prepare his body for burial.  Nicodemus stayed close to Jesus.  He had felt the movement of the Spirit that first night.  He began to see that to be born anew, born of the Spirit, is to be blessed with new understanding. It may be a mystery.  It may not make logical sense, but those who are born of the Spirit are inspired to acts of love that may seem impossible.

The Christian Educator Parker Palmer recalls talking with a friend who had worked for many years at the Catholic Worker a ministry to the poor in New York City.  He writes about his friend:

“[Every day] she tries to respond to the waves of human misery that are as ceaseless [in that community] as the surf [is at the beach]  …I asked her how she could keep doing a work that never showed any results, a work in which the problems keep getting worse instead of better.  I will never forget her enigmatic answer:  She said, ‘The thing you don’t understand, Parker, is that just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it’” (Palmer, The Active Life: a Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring, 1990, p. 76).

Jesus said, “You must be born anew.”  He invites us to experience new life in the Spirit.  New life in the Spirit can’t be explained.  It can’t be figured out.  It can’t be defined by logic.  New life in the Spirit can’t be comprehended in our usual way of comprehending things.

But you and I can sense when new life is the Spirit is happening.  We can sense the touch of the Spirit in the dedication of the outreach worker who works with the poor in New York City.  We can sense the warmth of the Spirit in the touch of the man who sits with a friend, waiting for the results of medical tests.  He knows it isn’t a time for small talk, but simply a time to be there.

The movement of the Spirit is, when all is said and done, a mystery.  It can’t be measured or explained.  If you’re the sort of person who finds mystery frustrating and would appreciate some specifics, here are three things you can do that will help open you to the movement of the Spirit.  First, listen.  Listen all around you for moments of gentleness and kindness and peace.  Second, pray.  In prayer, let God know what you need, and also listen for what God might be looking for from you.  Finally, practice being open to the possibility that there is more to life that what we can see with our eyes and measure with our hands.  Be open to the Spirit at work in the world, billowing into our lives with the breeze of fresh insights, helping us to do what might seem impossible.





Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Lent 2