I am Nicodemus. (and perhaps so, too, are you)
I find Jesus intriguing, despite the ambivalence of my friends.
Truth be told, I secretly admire him, yet dare not do so in public. That would be far too risky for a person in my position.
So I come to him by night, in secret. You know, just Jesus and me.
I buddy up to him, say nice stuff so he knows I like him and am on his side. A little flattery usually goes a long way in making a new acquaintance.
But Jesus isn’t so big on small talk. He quickly cuts to the chase and says: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
The Kingdom of God, he says? Well, the kingdom is precisely what every faithful person here longs for. Like the good old days when King David fortified this city and Solomon, his son, built the temple. That was a time when it was easy to be God’s chosen people.
Yes, I know all about the kingdom. I went to Hebrew school, studied, and made the law my life. When people have a question about the kingdom I am the one to whom people look for answers.
But now he’s telling me that I cannot see the kingdom of God? Not without first being born from above?
And so I respond with a sarcastic jab: (yeah, right) “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Some might say that I’m slow to grasp the meaning of Jesus, that I’m some thick literalist who doesn’t know a metaphor when I see one.
But I get it. I get that naivety allows for a certain innocence of faith. Do we not, from time to time, look upon little children with a tinge of envy – longing for a return to a more simple time. I remember what it was like to be young and idealistic once. But these eyes of mine have seen so much that they cannot unsee. They have witnessed oppression and corruption; suffering and defeat. They have grown old, and a bit dim. Though I’m sad to admit it, perhaps they’ve even grown a little cynical.
Born anew. A do-over. If only…
But as he goes on I realize, he’s really quite serious. He keeps saying “very truly this, and very truly that,” with authentic conviction.
He’s speaking of Ruach, which in our tongue means “spirit, wind, or breath.” I should know, I’ve taught many a Hebrew lesson on it. The ruach of God is the breeze that blew over the chaos in the beginning of creation. The ruach of God is what spoke all that is into existence. Ruach is the breath that brought Adam to life, called to our forefather Abraham, and gave the torah – the life giving law – to our people. Ruach is what emboldened the prophets to speak truth to power. In short, it is God living, breathing, and active in the world.
So, yeah, I get it. I get that God can do incredible things. Impossible things. Miraculous things. I’m just not sure I’ve ever really seen it for myself.
Most of my life has been pretty boring. I’ve studied the holy scriptures, but I’ve never seen a burning bush, nor parted the Red Sea. I have devoted myself to prayer, but I’ve never seen signs and wonders, nor witnessed the faithful fury of a prophet. My life is mediocre and moderate compared to these great saints.
It’s not that I don’t get the itch, or long for a deeper experience of God. I do. In those moments when I’m stripped of my self-important credentials and laid bare before God I yearn for him. It’s just that I’ve settled for becoming a bit of a…a “religious professional.” I am part of the spiritual elite who’s expected to have all the answers and see it all clearly.
So why is it that I am so drawn to Jesus? While he may not exactly match my résumé, he certainly is not unlearned. Sure, he may have some rough edges and lack professional polish, but the way he interprets and enlivens the torah is captivating. What is it about this ragamuffin preacher that won’t leave me alone? Whatever it is I have tried to ignore it, but it keeps bubbling up inside me.
“God so loved the world,” he says. God so loved. The world. The whole world, and yet specifically me and you.
This much has been clear at least as far back as the call of our forefather Abraham. He hadn’t necessarily done anything of note, wasn’t necessarily holier or better than any other person God might have chosen. But God blessed Abraham, and us his descendants…blessed us, so that we, in turn, might be a blessing to all the families of the earth. So, yes, God so loved the whole world.
I suppose it is that irresistible love of God that so draws me to this man.
He makes an obscure allusion: that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. It was bad business those snakes. They were a pestilence and poisoned many of our people during their desert wanderings. It wasn’t until God commanded Moses to take the snake and lift it high that any salve was found for God’s people. I wonder what Jesus might mean by this odd comparison.
And people certainly are drawn to Jesus, by the hundreds and thousands. How curious that so many have found similar healing and wholeness in his presence.
If I have learned anything from my years of study, it is this: that books and scrolls (as wonderful as they are) cannot teach you everything. Information shan’t be confused with wisdom, and wisdom seldom comes quickly or easily.
So maybe being born from above is not about having the right answer or knowing the secret password. Maybe it’s not about being a religious professional, or spiritual elite. Perhaps this new birth, this new way of knowing, really is necessary to notice the kingdom of God.
I am Nicodemus, and I am new at this. (and perhaps so, too, are you?)
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry