Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017
In any story, there is an antagonist. This is the person or the force that is against the main character, the protagonist. Whenever we watch a movie, my kids ask, “OK, who’s the bad guy?” They need to know, who am I for, and who I am against?
Sometimes, it is not that simple. When dealing with history, every side casts themselves as the “good guys.” From November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, 52 American citizens and diplomats were held hostage in Iran. We Americans would have called the Iranians the antagonists, “the bad guys” in that story. But at that time, Iranian families were led to believe America is the ‘Great Satan.’ In their telling of the same story, we, America, would be the “bad guys.” It is not always simple.
Also, in some stories, bad guys turn out to be good guys. In the Star Wars movies, Anakin Skywalker is the Jedi prodigy, the one who will bring balance to The Force. But then, Anakin becomes Darth Vader, one of the iconic villains of all-time. He kills everyone, include his teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi. But then, we learn Darth Vader is the father of the new hero, Luke Skywalker. And in the end, Anakin/Darth, saves Luke by killing evil Emperor Palpatine. Bad guy or good guy?
This same confusion over protagonist and antagonist is seen throughout the Bible and especially in Jesus’ life. In many stories, those antagonistic to Jesus are religious leaders, the sect known as the Pharisees. Yet, we must remember, they weren’t really the bad guys. In the New Testament, the true antagonists are our three enemies – sin, death, and Satan, with death being the greatest of our enemies.
What we see in John 3 is one of these supposed antagonists, the Pharisee Nicodemus, coming to Jesus. In the conversation between the two, Nicodemus doesn’t come off looking very good. He’s baffled by what Jesus says, and Jesus seems exasperated that a “legal expert” and a “teacher of Israel” is so confused. However, this morning, I encourage us to notice something. Nicodemus came to Jesus. He calls Jesus ‘Rabbi.’ ‘We know you come from God,’ Nicodemus says. He did not try to trap Jesus with tricky questions. He came because he wanted to be closer to God. Nicodemus took the initiative to seek Jesus out because he wanted to be with God and he was sure Jesus could show him the way. And throughout John’s gospel, Nicodemus will pop back into the story as one on Jesus’ side.
Speaking of initiative, we see God’s motives in one of the most quoted verses of scripture following the Jesus-Nicodemus conversation. John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Our hope for rescue from our great enemy, death, is in what God has done. God took the initiative, sent Jesus for us, and God did it because God loves us.
So in John chapter 3 we have two instances of initiative. The Pharisee Nicodemus came to Jesus because he wanted to be with God. God sent Jesus to rescue all of us from death, because God loves us and wants us with Him in eternal life.
This is all great, but when we look back at the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, we see a bit of a problem. Jesus encourages Nicodemus’ action of coming, but then gives him a word that neither Nicodemus nor you nor I could possibly follow. “You must be born from above,” Jesus tells Nicodemus (3:7). We cannot see the Kingdom of God without being born from above (3:3). At some point toward the end of the 20th century the phrase ‘born-again’ came to describe a movement in American Christianity. Certain believers were called ‘born-agains.’ And other Christians thought they were kind of weird. But, according to the words of Jesus here, the only way to see the Kingdom and be with God in the Kingdom is to be born again.
The problem is we cannot obey the command to be born again. If a woman has been pregnant for 5 months and she cannot wait any longer, can she just stare at her belly and firmly order the baby inside “Be born?” Of course not! Even if the baby could understand and wanted to obey, she would not be able. It doesn’t work that way.
Similarly, when Jesus says to Nicodemus and to us, “You must be born again,” well, we can’t. We can’t control that. Even if we think understand the concept in a way poor Nicodemus did not, we still cannot force the outcome. We cannot cause ourselves to be born again.
We’re left to wonder if Jesus lured Nicodemus and us into a trap. Being born again means being born of the Spirit. Jesus says this in verse 6. We cannot see the kingdom unless we are born in this way – verse 3. But then in verse 8 he says, 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.” In other words, to be with God in the Kingdom, we need to be born in the Spirit, and we can control that about as easily as we can control the wind.
Remember, in the Bible, wind, breath, and spirit, are all related concepts. In Genesis chapter 2 it says God formed the first human from the dirt. The man was made, but only after God breathed the breath of life into him, God’s spirit, does Genesis say he became a living being (2:7). In John 20:22, the resurrected Jesus appears to the terrified and amazed disciples, and it says he breathes on them and they are filled with the Holy Spirit.
OK, so we need to be born again to be with God in the Kingdom and live eternally. We want that because death is our last and greatest enemy. But, we have no control over that. To be born again, we are completely dependent on God’s action and the Holy Spirit is uncontrollable and unpredictable. No amount of initiative on our part will get us born again. Where does that leave us?
Remember that verse that everyone remembers – verse 16. God loves the world. We want to be saved from sin and death. God wants to save us. This story ends in victory when we participate in cooperative initiative. God’s part is to save us from sin and God did that in the incarnation.
Incarnation is a very theological term, and maybe a churchy term. Normally, I try to use other words – words that make sense outside of church. But this one is so important, we all need to understand. Jesus is the incarnation: God in human flesh. God the Son, the cosmic Christ, is the second person of the trinity, the divine logos. I just unloaded a suitcase full of theological terms, I know. But this is what we need to see. Jesus is fully God and fully man, and in him, in his death on the cross, sin is covered and we are saved from death. Our sins are nailed to his cross.
It is in Jesus that God does God’s part. He dies for sin and because of sin. He forgives us. He rises from death defeating all our enemies in the process: sin, death, and Satan. Jesus is God’s initiative.
There is more. The phrase I used was cooperative initiative. God has the hard part: the abandonment; the betrayal; and, the taking on himself the death that sin brings. But we have a part in this too. In verse 12, 15, 16, and 18, Jesus mentions believe. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” In John’s Gospel, belief means follow. To say we believe in Jesus is to say He is absolute Lord over our lives, master of every area of life. We live every moment under His leadership. Christianity and church are not just small part of our lives. When we say we believe, we are saying our lives are not our own. We belong to Jesus.
Many of Nicodemus’ colleagues among the Pharisees were ready to challenge Jesus and to oppose him. For Nicodemus to call Jesus ‘Rabbi,’ and to believe in him, would be costly. He’d be at odds with his peers and he’d become an outcast in the circles where he had spent his entire life. We see it in John chapter 7. There, people are calling Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, and a group of chief priests and Pharisees call for his arrest on charges of blasphemy – a capital crime. Nicodemus challenges this action and declares them to be in the wrong for trying to detain Jesus. And his friends among the Pharisees turn on him immediately.
That can happen when we do our part. In our own lives, when we believe Jesus is Lord, the forces around us that want to be in charge feel threatened. Then we have to choose to whom will we listen? On whose behalf will we speak up? Nicodemus chose Jesus even when it cost him. The late Walter Wink of Auburn Theological Seminary wrote a chapter in a volume on the writings John. In his explanation of belief, he captures what it means when we say, “I believe in Jesus.” He writes, “To believe is not just to weigh, consider, think about, ponder, reflect on, or entertain the idea of following Jesus. It is to throw one’s whole life on the side of Jesus.”[i]
In this idea of cooperative initiative, God has to act first. Jesus says in verse 13, “No one has ascended into Heaven except the one who has descended from Heaven.” This point was made a moment ago. We can’t force this. We can’t make ourselves be born again. But God has acted. Jesus did come.
Thus in verse 15 he says, “Whoever believes in Him has eternal life.” We are dependent, yet we must also act. Our action is fully invested, life-committed belief. There is no half-way. We are either all-in with Jesus or we are not with God at all. And if we choose to not believe, God honors that choice. Verse 19 says, “This is judgment, that the light came into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light.” God will confront us in our sin. God will not force us to believe. If we meet Jesus and choose to reject him, God lets us have that option.
Then we face a godless eternity. Our sins lead to death. This is true for all people. When we die in sin instead of dying in Christ, we face our old enemy, death, without God’s help. Instead of eternal life, before us is the prospect of eternal death. It is not a restful sleep. It is not the end of existence. It is the process of dying experienced forever.
As grim as that sounds, there is hope – the greatest of hopes. In the Gospel of John, before we learn that the second person of the trinity is a man named Jesus, we are told, in chapter, that it is the ‘Logos.’ This Greek term is usually described as “the word.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Logos is actually a deeper concept. From Logos we get the idea of logic.
The Baptist theologian James McClendon thinks of Logos as the idea of story. Each one of us lives a story. The Logos is the story of a “Divine One who loves and lives to save, who suffers and dies but overcomes; … this is the eternal character of God.”[ii] It is inherent in who God is that God wants to save us from sin and death, that God can save us from sin and death, and that God has acted to save us from sin and death. That’s the Jesus story.
The hero is Jesus Christ – crucified and resurrected. The enemy is death. Death’s tool is sin and death’s ally is Satan. The plot is our rescue and death’s defeat, both are achieved by God acting on our behalf in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
God has acted and in the Holy Spirit continues to act.
We have heard the story. Do we continue to hear? Are we attentive, watching, ready to respond in faith when the Spirit moves in our lives? I believe God appeals to people throughout their lives. The Spirit speaks in worship, the Spirit speaks through scripture, the Spirit speaks in the world, in nature, in other people. My own belief is that we each have numerous opportunities to respond and continue living in God’s grace.
In the spirit of cooperative initiative, will we, today, do what Nicodemus did? God has acted. Will we step to God, throwing our entire lives on the side of Jesus? Each one of us is invited to step into belief and to step into God’s Love and into life with God.
[i] W. Wink (2001). “’The Son of the Man’ in the Gospel of John,” chapter 10 in Jesus in the Johannine Tradition, Robert Fortna, Tom Thatcher, editors, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p.123.
[ii] J. McClendon (1994). Systematic Theology: Doctrine, Abingdon Press (Nashville), p.289.