Being born of the Spirit (Lent 2, Year A, 16 March 2014)

John 3.1–17


Today, I’m telling the story of Nicodemus from the point of view of someone who may just have been there: his servant. Let’s call him ‘Jethro’…

Hello! Yes, I’m Jethro, and once I was Nicodemus’ servant. You’ve heard of Nicodemus, right? I was with him when he first went to see that rabble-rousing rabbi from Galilee, that Jesus of Nazareth.

You’ve read about that just today? Well fancy that! I bet I wasn’t mentioned? Of course I wasn’t, I told you I’m just a servant. But I was there. We servants are always around in the shadows, waiting to be called, listening for a snap of the fingers, just pretending we’re not there and not hearing everything. One evening, with no warning, my master told me we were off to see Jesus. You don’t think a wealthy man like Nicodemus would walk through the streets and alleyways of Jerusalem alone at night, do you? I was there in case thieves tried something. I was ready for them. I was a young man then, and well able to look after myself. That was my job. We didn’t chat on the way there, I was too busy keeping my eyes peeled for trouble. Anyway, Nicodemus didn’t chat with me at that time. As I said, I was the servant in this relationship.

That night, Nicodemus went in to the place Jesus was staying and I followed him. There were some candles lit inside, so Nicodemus could see where to go. I stayed near the door.

I wondered why Nicodemus wanted to see Jesus. I mean, he was a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin! He had a reputation and a position to protect! And Jesus wasn’t exactly flavour of the month when it came to most of the Sanhedrin.

There were others on the Council who would like to see Nicodemus brought down. Seeing Jesus could have been enough to bring suspicion upon him. That’s why he went at night and in secret.

I didn’t know why he wanted to see Jesus. It wasn’t my place to know.

Jesus smiled at me when I came in. At me! I thought, He has no class at all! Imagine smiling at a servant! Jesus went right down in my estimation.

Of course, I heard what was said. 

Nicodemus began by flattering Jesus. Good move, Master, I thought. He said,

Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.

Now, Jesus should have thanked Nicodemus for that. He knew how important Nicodemus was, he knew that through Nicodemus he could network the Sanhedrin, he could get things done, gain influence, achieve something. So what did he do instead? He said,

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

What? Where did that come from? Jesus didn’t have the courtesy to reply to Nicodemus, but just started banging on about seeing the kingdom of God here and now! And what’s more, he was implying that Nicodemus of all people couldn’t see the kingdom because he hadn’t been ‘born from above’!

Nicodemus obviously didn’t see this coming, and Jesus had control of the conversation from that point onwards. Nicodemus stammered,

How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?

Good questions, I thought, make this Galilean explain himself. But Jesus just went on, ignoring Nicodemus’ questions:

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

Born from above? Born of water and Spirit? An earthly birth and a heavenly birth? Wasn’t one birth enough? This wasn’t making any sense at all to me, and I could see my Master was making pretty heavy weather of it too.

He was so exasperated, he asked:

How can these things be?

How indeed! It’s sheer nonsense. And then Jesus had the cheek to say

Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

I was incensed! Talking to an important and influential man like Nicodemus like that! It was all I could do to stand still and restrain myself from boxing his ears.

Jesus was actually challenging Nicodemus to make a break with the past and follow him. He should have followed Nicodemus!

We went shortly after that. I thought that was that. But in the months that followed, Nicodemus started to speak to me more often. It was like he was thinking aloud, you know?

He would talk about what Jesus said about being born of the Spirit. You could see it had made an impression on him. He seemed to want to begin again, to have the Spirit as his mother in a new birth, just as Jesus had said.

Perhaps I should explain. You may not understand that Jesus was picturing the Spirit as a Mother. When Jesus said you must be born of the Spirit, that is a motherly image of the Spirit. Like the figure of Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs—remember, God’s Wisdom is pictured as a wise woman.

Anyway, back to Nicodemus. It was business as usual for him. On the outside. But I could see the struggle within him. It really did seem like a a struggle to breathe good air again, or even a struggle to be born. He was no longer prepared to live with the compromises he had to make to be on the Sanhedrin, lobbying for this, giving ground on that.

He was dissatisfied. He talked about what Jesus had said about the wind of the Spirit:

The 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.

Nicodemus felt something, he supposed it was the Spirit, stirring up new possibilities within him. He got quite preoccupied with it all.

I remember one time, Nicodemus said that Jesus had somehow known he was ready to be born again. That he was ready to step out into the light.

Then the day came when Nicodemus stood up to the Sanhedrin. I didn’t think he’d ever stand up to them, but he did.

You can read about it in that Gospel-book of John in chapter 7. The Sanhedrin wanted Jesus arrested, but the police didn’t dare. And then Nicodemus stood up and said to them:

Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?

They accused him of being on Jesus’ side for speaking up. It wasn’t a healthy time to be associated with Jesus, he was a dead man walking even then. It was only a matter of time.

Funny, Nicodemus’ mood seemed lighter after speaking out at the Council. Like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Like he knew where he was going once again, and who he was going with. Like he was being born of the Spirit.

So it wasn’t such a surprise that after Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus and another secret follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, went to Pilate. They asked to take Jesus’ body down from the cross and bury it in Joseph’s family tomb before the Sabbath fell. I did the heavy lifting that day.

But that moment, I knew for sure: Nicodemus was no longer a secret Jesus-follower. He really had finally been born anew, he’d been born of the Spirit. He was breathing fresh air even in Jesus’ grave.

Nicodemus is long dead now, but I think of him often.

You may realise that I still have my doubts about Jesus, even though he changed my master’s life. But while I’m telling you the story today, I’ve started to realise that it means a great deal to me. I’m starting to feel the truth of Jesus’ words. Perhaps even I can be born of the Spirit.

What about you? If this old skeptic can start to believe there’s something in all this, maybe you can too. Maybe it really is true:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone (even Jethro!) who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.


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