​“Talking to Nicodemus”

​His head was spinning.

It was like Jesus was speaking a foreign language.

He had come to ask the teacher from Galilee some questions.

He had come to wrestle over some theological points.

He had come to get some clarity.

But Jesus was talking in metaphors:

born again

born of water and spirit

the Spirit, like the wind, blowing wherever it will

Nicodemus was baffled … and beginning to regret that he had sought Jesus out at all.

The disciples examine the fresh wounds on Jesus's body after the resurrection

​John 3:11-21

March 14, 2021

Dr. Todd R. Wright


​​His head was spinning.

It was like Jesus was speaking a foreign language.

He had come to ask the teacher from Galilee some questions.

He had come to wrestle over some theological points.

He had come to get some clarity.

But Jesus was talking in metaphors:

born again

born of water and spirit

the Spirit, like the wind, blowing wherever it will

Nicodemus was baffled … and beginning to regret that he had sought Jesus out at all.

 

I empathize with Nicodemus. Sometimes I am just as confused.


For instance, I am not a digital native. I typed my first college papers on a typewriter with cutting edge technology – it had built-in roll of what was essentially white-out, erasing mistakes with the touch of a button! (Oooh! Aaah!)


So the explanations of much of what we have had to embrace in that last year – zoom calls, Facebook posting, OneDrive file transfers – have been baffling! People start off slow, using familiar words, but as they get into a groove and I fall behind, they start using jargon and pick up speed! Before you can say, password, I am lost!


I’m trying … just as Nicodemus was.


The person explaining (often Amy or Leslie) is patient … just as Jesus was.


But the language gap is still a problem.

 

When Jesus says, “You must be born ‘anothen,’” (that’s the Greek word), it can be translated born again or born from above.


Nicodemus chooses the first one; Jesus means the second one.


There is understandable confusion.


Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian preacher and writer, imagines Nicodemus asking, “How did one get born again when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning?”[1]


Of course, it is not just the language. It is a difference in perspective too.


“Nicodemus knew himself to be a child of the covenant, part of God’s chosen people, through birth from a Jewish mother.”[2] He was proud of that. Why would he need to be born again, born different, he wondered? He was already properly born, wasn’t he?


We have the advantage here. We know what Nicodemus doesn’t – a radical new birth is not a new thought in John’s gospel. He has already declared in his prologue the purpose of the incarnation: “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God!”[3]


But Nicodemus has not read the prologue. He is stumbling around in the dark; grasping at straws; trying to harness the wind – pick one! None of these metaphors lead to understanding.

 

If John wanted to show Jesus playing this scene for laughs, it would end right there.


Nicodemus, the highly educated, well read, authority on scripture would be left looking silly and John’s community could go home feeling superior!


But that is not what Jesus does.


Elsewhere the Apostle Paul writes, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews ... to the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”[4]


That is what Jesus does here. (Maybe that’s where Paul got the idea!)


Jesus shows what one pastor calls, “a willingness to use the language of his conversation partner to translate the gospel into something that partner will understand.”[5]


Nicodemus is a scholar of the scriptures. Great! Jesus will explain what he is saying by pointing to some scriptures:


It might have sounded like this: “Remember, Nicodemus, when poisonous serpents were killing Israelites in the wilderness, and Moses prayed to God that it might stop? God had Moses hoist a bronze serpent on a pole into the air so that whoever was in danger might look upon it and live. So, too, God has anointed a time where the one who ascends into the air, the one who has seen the heavenly things, the one who was born from above, will find himself hoisted upon a pole, and all those who see, who understand these words, will look upon him and live — all because God would rather save this world than condemn it.”[6]


Or like this: Remember when God and Abraham where getting to know each other and God gave him and son by Sarah even though they were so old it was a miracle? Remember how God tested Abraham, how the one chosen by God took his son, Isaac, his only son, to a mountain and was ready to kill him to show his extravagant fidelity and devotion? So too, God shows deep, devoted, love for the world in this way: God has sent his only son, me, so that everyone will see God’s extravagant fidelity and devotion, be drawn to the light, and have eternal life!

 

Jesus tailors his language so that Nicodemus might understand.


Nicodemus is a thoughtful man, a cautious man, a public figure with a reputation. He won’t leap before he looks. He will need time to think about Jesus’ examples, but he is no longer baffled. He is used to weighing various interpretations of scripture. He is happy to use these stories as a guide to faith and life … and understanding.


So he walks back out into the night.


He doesn’t have any more questions for Jesus, only puzzles he will have to work out himself.


John gives us a sense of his developing answers.[7]


A few chapters later, the chief priests and Pharisees sent the Temple police to arrest Jesus. When they came back empty handed, some of the other Pharisees were angry, but Nicodemus asked “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” His colleagues mock him, wondering whether he is from Galilee too.


It was not a bold defense of Jesus, but he is beginning to act independently, even if it risks his reputation.


And then, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea who had claimed the body from Pilate. Together they wrapped the body with the spices Nicodemus had brought, and placed him in a tomb.


“It was a crazy thing to do, what with the witch-hunt that was going on, but he decided that it was more than worth it.”[8] After all, when a scholar reaches a conclusion, they’re hard to budge.

 

So, I’m wondering whether we can hear this famous passage with new ears.


I’m wondering how this story could move us to use language in such a way – to go slow, to show patience, to persist and adapt, for their sake – that others might hear on their terms.


I’m wondering when the next Nicodemus will encounter God’s love talking to us. Amen


[1] from Peculiar Treasures, page 122
[2] from Encounters with Jesus by Frances Taylor Gench, page 21
[3] see John 1:12-13
[4] see 1 Corinthians 9:20 and 22
[5] from “How to talk to Nicodemus” by Casey Thompson for the Christian Century, 3/12/12
[6] from Casey Thompson’s reflections on the text for the Christian Century, 3/6/12
[7] see John 7:32, 45-52 and 19:38-42
[8] from Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures, page 123
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