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"How can... We be Born Again?"

It’s a story full of questions that don’t get answered to Nicodemus’ satisfaction, but something happened that night. We don’t hear much about him after he offered his sack to Jesus and Jesus offered back his own treasures and a simple love note, but Nicodemus doesn’t disappear.

“Jesus meets with Nicodemus” from the series, The Chosen
“Jesus meets with Nicodemus” from the series, The Chosen

John 3:1-17

March 5, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright I read an essay this past week by Anna Carter Florence, professor of Preaching at Columbia Seminary. It wasn’t about Nicodemus, but it might have been, because she said, “Scripture frequently leaves things out. The gaps can be puzzling, and just as interesting as the story. They’re worth asking about, and children will, but adults don’t always take the time.”[2] Well, during Lent, we are going to take the time to ask questions. This story is full of questions and maybe the key to unlocking them is to tell you a complementary story: Robert Fulghum, who captured public attention with his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, tells of a lunch sack he keeps in the closet:[3] The top is sealed with duct tape, staples, and several paper clips. But there is a ragged rip in one side through which the contents can be seen. This sack really belongs to his daughter, Molly. Soon after she came of school age, she became an enthusiastic participant in packing lunches for herself, her brothers, and Fulghum. Each bag got a share of sandwiches, apples, milk money, and sometimes a note or a treat. One morning Molly handed her father two bags – one regular lunch sack and the one with duct tape, staples, and paper clips. “Why two bags?” her father asked. “The other one is something else,” was the kid’s matter of fact reply. “What’s in it?” the grownup asked curiously. “Just some stuff – take it with you.” Fulghum says he crammed both sacks in his briefcase, kissed Molly, and rushed off to work. While wolfing down his lunch, he tore open the other bag and shook out the contents: two hair ribbons, three small stones, a plastic dinosaur, a pencil stub, a tiny seashell, two animal crackers, a marble, a used lipstick, a small doll, two chocolate kisses, and thirteen pennies. Charming! Rising to hustle off, he swept his desk clean into the wastebasket – leftover lunch, Molly’s junk, and all. Beyond providing a smile, it had no worth to him. Those of you who are parents are shaking your heads. Sure enough, Fulghum continues: That evening Molly came to stand beside me while I was reading the paper. “Where’s my bag?” “What bag?” “You know, the one I gave you this morning!” “I left it at the office, why?” “I forgot to put a note in it.” She handed over the note. “Besides, I want it back.” “Why?” “Those are my things in the sack, Daddy, the ones I really like. I thought you might like to play with them, but now I want them back. You didn’t lose the bag, did you, Daddy?” Tears threatened. “Oh, no, I just forgot to bring it home” (I lied). “I’ll bring it home tomorrow. OK?” As she hugged my neck with relief, I unfolded the note that had not gotten into the sack” “I love you, Daddy!” Suddenly it all made sense. Molly had given me her treasures. All that a 7-year-old held dear. Love in a paper sack. And I had missed it. Not only missed it, but had thrown it away because there wasn’t anything in there I needed. Fulghum tells of a hurried trip back to the office, of rescuing the sack and its contents before the janitor did his chores. The next evening he returned it to Molly, but after dinner he asked her to tell him about the items in the sack. Each item had a story, a link to a memory, a dream or a disappointment. In response to each he managed to say, “I see,” wisely. To his surprise, Molly gave him the bag again several days later. Same ratty bag, same stuff inside. He felt forgiven. And trusted. And loved. And a little more comfortable wearing the title of Father. Over the next several months he was entrusted with the bag from time to time. It was never clear why. In time Molly turned her attention to other things – found other treasures, lost interest in the game, grew up. Fulghum was left holding the bag. Leftover from a time when a child said, “Here – this is the best I’ve got – take it – it’s yours.”


Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, came to Jesus by night. He had a sack with him. He had spent a lifetime filling it with the best education, the right friends, power and position, a love for the Law and the prophets, a devotion to God. He was proud of and satisfied with its contents … until one day when he heard Jesus speak. Then his sack seemed a little light – as if it were missing something. His friends with similar sacks would have laughed at the idea, but he wanted something more, something only Jesus could give him. Gingerly he made his way through the dark to the place where Jesus was staying and placed the sack in Jesus’ hands. Out spilled learning and respect, wonder and confusion. The bag changed hands several times throughout the conversation. When what Jesus said seemed too threatening, Nicodemus would snatch it out of his hands, and then, as he worked up his courage, as he walked the tightrope of trust, he would offer it back again.


Jesus accepted Nicodemus’ sack. There was much to value in there. This Pharisee had a love for God, and a curiosity about spiritual things, and a willingness to take the first step and approach Jesus, even if it was by night. Jesus had treasures to share too, treasures that had to be explained, and a love note of his own to add. As they sat there in the circle of mellow lamp light, Jesus took out each treasure, turned them over in his hands and spoke in a whisper. He spoke of the kingdom of God … and how you have to be born again to see it. He spoke of God’s initiative. He spoke of the freedom of the Spirit. Nicodemus would have liked to nod his head wisely and say, “I see,” but he didn’t. When you are comfortable and set in your ways, it is hard to hear talk of starting over. When you are one of the movers and shakers, it is hard to hear that we are no more responsible for our rebirth than we are for our first birth. When your eyes are fixed on the visible kingdom, it is hard to perceive the Spirit blowing in the night – just as it had when the world was forming, when everything was fresh and new, when the Spirit hovered over the water of creation, rippling the surface. The treasures were the best Jesus had to offer, but that night Nicodemus didn’t grasp their values and couldn’t make sense of Jesus’ explanations. Maybe the note ended up being the key. It said, “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.”


It’s a story full of questions that don’t get answered to Nicodemus’ satisfaction, but something happened that night. We don’t hear much about him after he offered his sack to Jesus and Jesus offered back his own treasures and a simple love note, but Nicodemus doesn’t disappear. We encounter him again on another dark night. Cloaked in the darkness that followed a long day of crucifixions, Nicodemus brought another sack – this one filled with a mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. It was an expression of love; of trust; of acceptance. As if he was saying, “Here – this is the best I’ve got – take it – it’s yours.” Each of us has a sack of things we hold dear. Will you share them with God? Jesus has treasures to share with us. Will you open your sack to these holy gifts? The Holy Spirit whispers love notes in our ears. Will that make all the difference? Amen.

[1] “Jesus meets with Nicodemus” from the series, The Chosen [2] From “S is for Salt” an essay for A is for Alabaster which will be published in 2023 [3] Adapted from Heart to Heart Stories for Dads, compiled by Joe Wheeler
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