Hard to believe
John 3: 1-21.
Probably one of the most famous sentences of the Bible is in this passage John 3: 16, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.’
It is so famous that you can go to sports events and someone will have John 3:16 on his or her shirt.
I have a theory on why it became famous.
I think it is like your holidaying in a town you don’t know. You decide late on at night to leave the hotel to go for a wee wander, but then you take one extra turn too many and now you are completely lost. You are looking this way and that way and nothing makes sense, until…until you by chance see a landmark…maybe that silly statue you noticed earlier in the day. And you remember that statue, and you think that you can find your way back to the hotel from that statue…so you go straight to it because it is at least familiar. And once there you gradually see another thing you recognise and then another. You finally find your way home but only because of that landmark.
I think people read this passage and they haven’t got the foggiest what is going on.
It seems all over the place.
One way to read this is to presume that Nicodemus is as thick as two short planks.
Jesus says, ‘You must be born again.’
And Nicodemus says, ‘How can I get into my mothers womb and be reborn?’
And Jesus says, ‘Don’t be silly. I didn’t mean literally be born again. I mean be born of the Spirit. If you, a leader of the rabbi’s, can’t see this, what chance do the rest have?’
And some people have read it this way.
The only trouble is that we do know Nicodemus is one of the leading thinkers of the time. He knew that Jesus wasn’t being literal. Nicodemus is the one who himself says, ‘A man certainly can’t enter his mothers womb and be born again.’
It is as if these two people are having a discussion going on at two levels. And we are hearing what they say and not understanding what they mean.
‘Can a grown man be born again? He certainly cannot enter his mothers womb and be born a second time!’
Of course not, so what is he getting at?
And because we don’t understand what is going on we feel mentally lost, we haven’t got a clue.
Until we see something we recognize, something we understand…
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.’
We understand that, that makes sense.
That gives us comfort.
So we latch onto that, and promptly forget about the rest of it.
Which is a shame, because I think that if we stayed with this passage it could give us even more comfort. I think this passage can show us where we truly are, and where we can find hope.
So what do we know?
There is a Jewish leader called Nicodemus.
He is a Pharisee. We know the Pharisees didn’t get on with Jesus, they are always arguing.
But Jesus is talking to this guy, he is not ripping him apart, he is not slagging him off, he is not condemning him.
Jesus is talking to him.
Nicodemus is meant to be one of the enemy, but Jesus is talking to him.
It is night, so the discussion isn’t out in the open. This is a secret meeting. So who wants it to be secret?
Well Nicodemus does. It is Nicodemus who comes to Jesus. And he would only come to Jesus, the enemy, if he was really struggling with something.
So what is the problem?
The problem is Jesus himself.
All the Pharisees know that Jesus is trouble. They all know he is dangerous.
As far as they are concerned he could be the devil incarnate.
BUT…and here is the huge BUT…people are being healed, others are changing their lives, others are being helped. That is not the work of the devil, that is the work of God.
How can Jesus be against God but doing God’s work?
That’s what is going on in Nicodemus heart. ‘I’m supposed to be against this guy, but he is doing things that I respect.’
‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent by God. No one could perform the miracles you are doing unless God were with him.’
UNLESS GOD WERE WITH HIM…
But the Pharisees aren’t performing miracles, they aren’t healing people, they aren’t helping people. Nicodemus knows that, he is a Pharisee himself, he knows the affect they have on others. And don’t get me wrong here. The Pharisees saw their role in life as to be mega-godly. They believed that if they set the example, then others would follow. They would see how God was with them in their discipline and how they conducted their lives, and peoples lives would change…only they weren’t changed, they had become more and more isolated from other people.
So instead of being a light to others, so they could change for the better…the Pharisees had become separated off, scared of being contaminated from others.
When Nicodemus says to Jesus…’unless God were with you’…he is really asking, ‘is God with me?’
And Jesus replies, ’I am telling you the truth. No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.’ Unless he is reborn. Unless he starts again.
And then Nicodemus comes out with such a heart of anguish and pain.
‘How can a grown man be born again. He certainly cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time.’
How can we start again?
We carry all this baggage.
All the mistakes, all the worries, all the responsibility.
I had a friend in university who was always getting into relationship trouble.
And I mean always getting into relationship trouble.
Her solution was to start again somewhere fresh.
So she left home and moved to Aberdeen, and started again, afresh.
But after a while she would get into another mess, so she would move to America.
I would get letters from America saying how wonderful things were, and after about a year the letters would change, and soon she would be off to South Africa, and then maybe Australia, then somewhere in Europe.
She couldn’t understand how this always happened to her.
She couldn’t see what the real problem was, the real problem was that wherever she went, she took herself with her.
It was the way she lived her life that was causing the problems.
She never left the problems behind, because she took the person who was causing the problems with her…herself.
We know this, because that is what we do.
That’s why Nicodemus is so important to us.
Because Nicodemus is us.
His conversation to Jesus is our conversation to Jesus.
‘Jesus. We can see that God is with you. But I’m not too sure if God is with me.’
And Jesus says, ‘If you change your ways then you will see God.’
And we say, ‘I can’t change my ways. You know how many times I have tried to change my ways? I try harder for a while, but then I go back to the old habits that bring me down. I go back to being…me. The only way it would work is if I could go back through time and start from scratch at the very beginning. Change who I am, what I do, how I do it. But we both know that can’t happen.’
That’s my conversation anyway.
And I don’t know how many times I have had it.
I’ll be doing fine for a while, then something stupid happens and I just want to give up. What’s the point?
What’s the point of trying so hard when it doesn’t get me anywhere?
What’s the point of all the effort when I end up being as flawed as I always have been?
What’s the point of struggling on?
I’m just tired and fed up and I don’t have anything left to fight with.
If you feel like that, or ever felt like that, then I have some words of hope.
The first message of hope is that Jesus won’t turn you away.
No matter your doubts, no matter your frustrations, Jesus won’t turn you away.
Here’s is Nicodemus, supposedly an enemy of Jesus, someone part of a group that was fighting Jesus, trying to undermine Jesus…and he comes to Jesus and Jesus doesn’t turn him away.
Jesus listens to Nicodemus.
Jesus talks to Nicodemus.
I think sometimes part of the problem we have getting close to Jesus is that we don’t think Jesus would want to be close to us.
We are scared that we aren’t good enough, scared that he will turn us away, ignore us, maybe even condemn us.
Jesus didn’t do that to Nicodemus, and he won’t do it to us.
The second is that we need to acknowledge that faith is often hard. So we shouldn’t be surprised, or downhearted, when it is hard.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, they spent their whole life, dedicated to trying to be closer to God…and it wasn’t working for Nicodemus, so why would we think we could find it easy.
No one finds it easy.
Others may look as if they find it easy, but underneath they are as frightened and struggling as you are.
If you ever doubt about that, ask any of the worship team.
You look at the worship team and you think to yourself, ‘Look at them up there. Reading the Bible, saying their prayers. They are so spiritual. I wish I could be as confident in my faith as they are.’
Trust me, they are in the same boat as you are spiritually.
We are all on that boat of insecurity.
So don’t worry about it, you’re not lagging behind anyone.
When it comes to faith we are all struggling.
And lastly. I think Jesus gives Nicodemus, and us, an insight.
Maybe the most important insight we could ever have.
‘The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from, or where it is going.’
And that’s the thing. We do not hear the wind.
How many of you have noticed the noise of the wind since you came in today?
Or noticed it much as you journeyed here today?
We are surrounded by the wind, and on the whole we ignore it, unless something spectacular is happening…a storm or a hurricane.
But now that I have mentioned it, you could all feel it as you go home, no matter how gentle it is.
Maybe that’s the way of God.
We try so hard to get closer to God, when God is already there.
And although we may only notice him occasionally, like when we are going through the storms of life, the truth is God is always there.
And if we were willing to slow down, willing to look and feel, we would see that. Even when things seem very quiet, God is there.
God hasn’t deserted you.
God hasn’t abandoned you.
God isn’t ignoring you.
He is here surrounding you. He is everywhere you go.
And if we can just begin to feel that then nice words like…
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.’…
stop becoming nice words, and start becoming a foundation that we can build our faith, our life around.
And if that happens, then everything changes.