“Growing Old – Being Reborn”
by Rev. James Chuck
preached February 20, 2005
at the First Baptist Church of Oakland
534 22nd Street, Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 832-4326; www.ofbc.net
Text: John 3:1-17
From today’s text, we actually know quite a bit about Nicodemus. First, we learn that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were very devout Jews who believed that the Mosaic Law should be scrupulously kept. They were concerned that many of the Jews were forsaking the faith of their fathers and adopting Greek ways and customs.
The Pharisees attracted the very best people of the day, Nicodemus among them. You will remember that the apostle Paul --- passionate and gifted person that he was --- was a Pharisee before his conversion on the Damascus Road. Later, men of inferior character entered the ranks of the Pharisees, concentrating on the minutia of the Law rather than the weightier matters. It was against this latter group that Jesus reserved his harshest criticism. But we may be assured that Nicodemus was not among those of whom Jesus was critical.
Secondly, we are told that he is a “leader of the Jews.” This meant that he was member of the Sanhedrin, a group of seventy men who managed the affairs of the Jewish people, not only in Jerusalem but also throughout all of Judea. It was before this group that Jesus would later be brought to trial, as were Peter, John, and the other apostles. Nicodemus was politically connected.
Thirdly, we learn from this text that Nicodemus was old. Today we live in a time when we associate old age with diminished physical and metal powers. In ancient times, people who were old were revered for their knowledge and wisdom. Nicodemus had this kind of respect among the people.
Finally, Nicodemus is described as a “teacher of Israel.” People looked to him for guidance in how to live their lives in a way that pleases God.
Nicodemus meeting with Jesus is a study in contrasts. Nicodemus is old; Jesus is young, perhaps 30 years old. Nicodemus has social standing; Jesus had none. Nicodemus is politically connected; Jesus is not. Nicodemus is an expert on the Mosaic Law, and scrupulous in the keeping of that Law. Jesus knows the Mosaic Law and abides by that Law, but does not feel that he is bound by the letter of the Law; but rather goes beyond the letter of the Law to its intent.
Nicodemus is respectful. He calls Jesus “rabbi.” He is impressed with what he has seen and heard about the deeds of Jesus. He acknowledges that no one can do the things that Jesus had done “apart from the presence of God.” In sees in Jesus something that he does not fully understand; and a power and a presence that perhaps he himself did not possess. He is eager to learn more from this young rabbi.
Jesus does not respond to Nicodemus directly, but shifts the conversation to a different plane. Jesus talks about the importance of being “born again,” or “being born from above.” The ambiguity of the Greek verb allows for either translation. Nicodemus misunderstands; he thinks that Jesus is talking about a second biological birth. “Can one enter a second time in the mother’s womb and be born?”
Now Jesus has to explain that there is biological life; and at the same time there is spiritual life. Most of you in the congregation today have been baptized with water. We commonly say that water baptism is the outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. While you are being baptized with water, we are also praying that you may be baptized by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the most important thing in baptism is not what we are doing outwardly with the water, but whether or not God’s power and presence through the Spirit is transforming your life into the likeness of Christ.
Similarly, there are many outward things we do when we come to worship, things that you can see and experience. We have this really wonderful organ music. We have the choir. We sing from a rich hymn tradition. We have public prayers. Scripture is read. A sermon is preached. An offering is taken. A benediction is pronounced. These are all the outward things that are connected to a service of worship. But the most important thing that happens at a worship service is not anything you can see. The most important thing that happens during the service is what God’s Spirit is doing in your life while all of this was going on.
Wouldn’t it be sad if we have been coming to church for ten, twenty, or more years and nothing ever happened to us? So when you are going home today from church, aside from talking about whether the choir did well or whether the sermon was any good, you might consider talking about what God was doing in your life when all this was going on.
Of course, there are many things that apart from God we need to do. The Pharisees were not wrong about the necessity and importance keeping the Mosaic Law. And we are not wrong when we plan best we can for the mission of the church here at First Baptist. But we would be terribly amiss if we neglect the fact in the spiritual realm God is always the main actor.
Jesus elaborates on this by tell Nicodemus that the working of the Spirit is like the wind. We can feel the presence of the wind; at the same time, it is not something we can control.
I have in the trunk of my car about two hundred dollars worth of kites. Kite technology has advanced a lot since my boyhood days, and the kites you buy today are very well designed and made and can be very costly. When I lived in San Francisco, every now and then I will go down to Marina Greens and fly my kites. One thing I have discovered about kite flying is that it is very helpful if the wind is blowing. When the wind is blowing, kite flying is easy. Some minimal skill is still required to launch the kite properly so that it can catch the wind. Sometimes you have a situation where on the ground level the wind is not very strong or intermittent, but if you can get the wind to get a little higher, there is a steady wind higher up that is steady and strong.
Sometimes the wind is marginal, but I still want to fly my kite. Without much wind, I generate my own wind by running like crazy with the kite rising above me. This is a very exhausting way to fly a kite. If the kite fails to catch wind higher up, it will come wobbling down as soon as I stop running.
As a pastor of a church over a period of four decades, I have found that church work is very much like that. When the wind is blowing, the sermons come easily, the people respond, the church is united, and the work moves forward. Sometimes the wind is not blowing; yet we feel the need to hold high the cross of Jesus. To remain faithful to Jesus, we try to generate our own wind by our own efforts. It can be very exhausting and often joyless. We know the difference!
That is why we say that you can plan a revival, but you can’t make the revival happen. You can invite a speaker, rent a hall, arrange for music, send out publicity. When we do that, all we are doing is creating an environment in and through which we hope the Spirit can work in the lives of people. The work of conversion and regeneration is the work of God’s Spirit; it is not something that you and I can do. I myself have never converted anybody, although you and I can be the instruments through which the Spirit works. But conversion itself is always the work of God’s Spirit.
We surely should pray and hope for the presence of the Spirit; but we cannot command the Spirit to come. Like the wind, the Spirit of God is gloriously and wonderfully free from human control. That is why at the beginning of every service of worship, we have a short prayer call the “invocation” where we invoke, that is to say, earnestly request, that God’s Spirit descend upon those gathered; for without the presence of God in worship, we would be mumbling to ourselves!
So this whole conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus becomes a vehicle through which the writer of the Gospel of John highlights the centrality of what God does, not what we do. It’s all about God. It’s not about us.
When we come to John 3:16-17, the author of the Gospel breaks into the narrative to make a series of astounding claim for God:
God gives of himself through his Son.
God invites our trust.
God shares himself in a relationship that begins now that even death does not end.
God is for us and not against us.
These affirmations about who God is, and what God does remain the truths by which the Christian community lives.
We do hear about Nicodemus two more times in the Gospel of John. In the first instance, when the chief priests and the Pharisees were trying to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus, very much in the minority, was a voice of moderation, reminding those in power that the law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing (John 7:51).
The second instance in which Nicodemus reappears is following the crucifixion of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus, asked Pilate for permission to take the body of Jesus for burial. Nicodemus came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about a hundred pounds for anointing the body of Jesus. Clearly for Nicodemus, this was an act out of love and devotion. In the end, he was not able to get Jesus out of his heart and mind. And we are not likely to be able to either.
Even though Nicodemus was old, I like to think that he was born from above; that he experienced the power and presence of God. May it be so for us as well.