05/27/18 – What Do We See in the Dark?


May 27, 2018
Trinity Sunday
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-27; John 2:23 – 3:1-17
Elder Alan Willadsen

I’m holding in my hand three coins, which together add up to twenty-five cents.  One of the coins is not a dime.  What are the other two?  Yes, a pair-a-dimes.  A paradigm is a typical example or pattern of something—a model.  Often a paradigm is seen as being stuck in a rut, not open to anything new.  Nineteenth-century French physiologist Claude Bernard said, “It is what we know already that often prevents us from learning.”  The story of Nicodemus in the third chapter of John is one in which his knowledge prevents him from learning.  It is a paradigm of life in a religious establishment—perhaps of the first-century Jerusalem temple, perhaps of the 21st century Christian church in the United States.

From this part of John’s Gospel, we read Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a leading Jew.  While many people take the Bible literally and believe every word to be the literal word of God, many people appreciate the figurative and metaphorical language and the imagery John uses, both in his Gospel and in the book of Revelation.  Names mean something in the Bible.  Maybe there really was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, but the name Nicodemus comes from two Greek words:  nikos, meaning conquest, triumph, or victory; and demos, meaning the public or the people.  The name Nicodemus means “victorious among the people.”

The people.  The religious people.  Nicodemus was accustomed to his own religious paradigm—his culture.  “Sociologist Edward T. Hall has called culture ‘the silent language’ that controls our lives in unsuspected ways. Because we are embedded in culture, we intuit the rules but rarely give them conscious thought. Hall warns, ‘Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants.’”[1]  When operating under our comfortable cultural paradigms, we can lose sight of what really matters.  What is the culture and what are the paradigms of this congregation?

This leader comes to Jesus at night, a time when much of our culture can be hidden.  Why does he come at night?  Is he afraid someone might see him meeting with Jesus?  Does he fear the reaction of his fellow Pharisees?  It seems like he’s acting on their behalf, as part of a community, since he says “we know you are from God . . .” when he speaks to Jesus. Is he trying to strike a secret deal between the temple leaders and this new kid on the block?  Is the meeting as much a surprise as the recent meetings between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un?

Jesus knew what was on Nicodemus’s mind.  We read it at the start of today’s lesson:  “Jesus himself did not entrust himself to them, because he knew them all, and knew that he had no need for anyone to tell him about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”

What does he want or expect from this meeting?  Nicodemus opens the dialogue simply with an observation.  He has no question for Jesus, just recognition of Jesus as a teacher from God.  Isn’t his opening statement a lot like the ones we make when addressing God:  “nobody else but you, sent by God, could do these things, Jesus.”  Beyond that, he doesn’t have much to say.  Aren’t we just like Nicodemus, recognizing and acknowledging who Jesus is, but not knowing what to say?  That’s why the Spirit intercedes on our behalf during prayer.

Jesus doesn’t respond to Nicodemus’s greeting but says it takes being born from above to see the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus sees God in Jesus.  Therefore, if Jesus represents the kingdom of God, then Nicodemus has already been born from above.  But . . . Nicodemus is so entrenched in the paradigm of religion as a “matter of doing, of keeping of the law, of being good,” he does not recognize what he sees!

Not only does he not recognize what he sees, Nicodemus can’t fathom what Jesus is talking about.  The learned leader is a literalist who cannot understand what a second birth means, thinking someone one must re-enter their mother’s womb to be born a second time.  Even religious leaders may not recognize God’s kingdom, particularly when the focus is on adherence to man’s standards.

Jesus continues speaking, trying to help Nicodemus understand what He means.  Jesus—God in human form—explains the importance of co-existence between the physical and spiritual aspects of faithful people.  In saying we are born of the flesh and from above, Jesus reminds us of the dual nature of our lives on earth.  We cannot focus solely on our physical body, lest we fail to acknowledge our creator.  Paul puts it a little more bluntly:  “if you live according to the flesh, you will die.”  Neither can we ignore our physical side, living a life of asceticism.  We have been created to serve the physical world God created and called good.  Paul says, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”  When we are born from above, we see how to serve.

Notice:  at no time does Nicodemus ask to be born from above, nor does he ask what it means.  He questions only the literal—how can this happen?  Jesus responds by describing the Spirit as like a current of air—a breath—a breeze.  That is, the Spirit breathes life into us, just as a lifeguard performs artificial resuscitation on a person who has been rescued from the pool.  We can no more control the wind—the pneuma—than we can control when we are born.  We did nothing (other than show up) when we were born the first time.  Similarly, birth from above happens in God’s time.

In this part of the discourse, Jesus seems to be referring to Ezekiel 36:25-27, where the prophet says, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”  It is at this point Jesus questions what Nicodemus really knows—really knows—when it comes to being a religious leader.

“Truly truly I tell you that we tell you what we know, and testify to what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony.”  Interesting text, isn’t it?  “I tell you that we tell you” is about as close as we get to an explicit statement of the Trinitarian nature of God.  This passage reminds me, too, of the apostle Thomas, who would not believe unless he could see the wounds.  What does it take for us to see—to truly see—the Kingdom of God here on earth?  Nicodemus, the great leader of the Jews, does not see God when He is standing in front of him!

What do we miss, right in front of us, because we focus on that which has been born of water?  Being born from above allows us to see the Kingdom of God from God’s perspective rather than our own.  Being born from above allows us to enter the Kingdom of God and serve God’s purposes rather than our own.

The end of this passage contains some of the most familiar verses in all of Scripture.  Even though verse 16 is heard (and seen at football games) more often than any other verse, it seems the challenge for us is in verse 17.  We are to serve God without condemning others, for God does not condemn us.  “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”[2]

Like Nicodemus we each approach Jesus from our darkness, fearful of what Jesus might see.  We approach this community the same way.  We have addictions, failures, broken dreams and broken promises.  As a community we must act with confidence we will not be condemned but will learn to show forth the love of Christ to each other and then to the rest of God’s kingdom.

We are to work to save the world, by bearing witness to God’s life among us.  We believe in eternal life, the life everlasting, which is a paradigm different from the world’s model.  Since we believe in eternal life, we should want it to be a life without error, violence, suffering and death, the world’s paradigms, and seek to help heal this world.  Only when we are born from above can we see how to help bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

God wants us to recognize why we are here.  Such recognition comes only when the Spirit breathes new life into us and we change our paradigm.

Amen and amen.


[1] Today in the Word.  May 25, 2018.

[2] Madeline L’Engle in her book Walking on Water:  Reflections on Faith and Art.


© Elder Alan Willadsen, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois