This passage from the Gospel of John is probably one of the most familiar passages in the bible. Who hasn’t seen posters at football games with John 3:16? What happens with things so familiar is that we accept what they are and forget to ask what does that really mean, my favorite question.
This is one of my favorite stories about why. The family was gathered for Easter dinner. The youngest newly married daughter was preparing her first family dinner. As she was about to put the large ham in the oven to begin baking, her mother stopped her and said "You have to cut three inches off the ham before you bake it." Puzzled, the daughter asked her mother why? "Because that's the way my mother taught me to do it," said the mother. Still puzzled, the daughter went to find her grandmother. "Nana," she asked, "Mom says you have to cut 3 inches off of the ham before putting it in the oven to bake. Why?" "Well, that's how my mother taught me to do it, and it's the way I've always done it," replied the grandmother. Well, the daughter's husband had heard all of this and he wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery. He went into the living room where the family was gathered around great grandmother. "Nona," he asked, "Grandma says you taught her to cut 3 inches off of the ham before putting it in the over. I'm puzzled. Why is that necessary?" "Well, dear, when I was a new bride, just starting out, I baked my first ham for Easter dinner. The ham was 18 inches long. The largest roasting pan I had was 15 inches long, so I had to cut three inches off of the ham to make it fit the pan." And so it goes, from generation to generation, until someone asks "Why?"
So Nicodemus asks the question for us, “Why,” more specifically, Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” Nicodemus was a man of the Pharisee sect; he was a prominent leader of the Jews. And yet, late in the cover of night, he went to Jesus to find out the truth. How can these things be, he asked. How can you be the Son of Man Jesus? How can you turn water into wine? How can you say we must be born again, we are born only once. How can these things be?
You and I live in a world of reason and science. We live in a world where we spend much time and energy on finding the explanation, testing the hypothesis, repeating the experiment to see if we can get the same results many many times. This is a fine world; it’s a world of question and answer, a world of fact and proof. But side by side with the world of reason and science is the world of narrative, the world of story. Who you are today has everything to do with how you were formed, and who formed you. It has everything to do with the people in your life, and it has everything to do with how you learned to respond to the challenges that were set before you. This is where truth lives. The world of science and reason and the world of narrative are not mutually exclusive worlds, they address different questions though.
Nicodemus asked the question how does this happen, he wants a proof and evidence, and Jesus answered with the truth of relationship, Jesus answered with the truth of the story. Jesus referred Nicodemus, the learned Jew, to the story he would know so well, the story that is part of the very fiber of his being, the story of Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Jesus essentially says to Nicodemus, remember who and whose you are, you are a child of God, you are constituted by the truth of wandering in the wilderness, just like Moses, just like the people that followed Moses. And what happened to them? They were slaves brought out of Egypt into the Promised Land. They were in bondage and they were freed. Jesus says to Nicodemus you can be free too, free from the bondage that holds you to death. You can have new life and freedom that comes with the truth of God who came into this world, God who loved the world so much that God gave God’s Son, the one and only Son, so that no one needs to be destroyed, by believing in him, anyone can have whole and lasting life. God came into the world to put the world right again. God who came into this world so that something absolutely new could happen.
Nicodemus had to come out of the cover of darkness and into the light to ask his question. Nicodemus was astounded to learn that what is offered is not the same ol same ol. What is offered is not the reason and explanation of the law, but the new creation, the new life, that comes in the person of Jesus Christ. The answer Nicodemus gets is about the new life that is offered through Jesus, it is about love, and love is not reasonable. This story shows that the new life, the new creation that is available through Jesus Christ is nothing like anything anyone ever knew or experienced previously.
The story used to illustrate this amazing love that God has for God’s beloved is the story of birth. Nicodemus asks is it like entering a second time into the mother’s womb, and Jesus’ answer is that it is not, it is being born of the spirit. This story expands the possibility of how and when new birth and the power of the spirit work, rather than limiting the power of the spirit to one way or one time. You do not now where the spirit comes from or where the spirit goes, but the spirit is always about birth, the spirit is always about new creation, the spirit is always about the new life that God affects in our world.
There is no same ol same ol. There is no business as usual. God is about something absolutely new in our world. And that something new is not reasonable and explainable. That something new is about the love that God is and has for us, the beloved. We are marked and chosen, we are the delight of God’s life. We have just come out of a time of wilderness wandering, we have just celebrated the inauguration of the new creation, we in fact are living in God’s kingdom. But we continue to act as if we live in the darkness. The question before us is how do we come out of the cover of darkness and live fully and completely in the light of God’s amazing and abundant love for us? Somehow we need to be open to the possibility of the spirit, the possibility of trinity, the possibility that it is in this relationship of father son and Holy Spirit that we are made one, we are whole, we are healed.
This life we have chosen, or which has been chosen for us, is so very counter-cultural. We are seduced by the comforts and conveniences of this world, with its HDTV, espresso machines, wifi, iphones, googling, facebooking, and texting. We are seduced by the ease of our lives, we have warm houses with stoves and refrigerators and toilets. There’s nothing wrong with all this, but I do think it seduces us into forgetting who and whose we are. We must remember, gathering together, hearing the stories, eating the bread, drinking the wine, helps us remember, helps us to stay in the light, to keep our eyes and ears open to God’s amazing love for us, for each and every one of us, and therefore to our response to God’s amazing love for us. Not only is God’s love available to you, it is available to everyone. Not only does God come into this world for you, God comes into this world for all of us together. Our response to God’s amazing and abundant love is to share it, not to posses it or to hoard it.
Wake up, feel the wind on your face, hear the wind blowing across the prairie, it carries the Spirit on it. Stay awake; see the reality of God with us, of Jesus Christ in the other, of new life abounding and abundant. This is where the transformation happens. This is where we become who we are called to be. This relationship forms and shapes us into the persons that God calls us to be, persons of vast love and charity, persons for whom God’s new creation and love hold hope and joy and freedom.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God: Come let us adore him. Amen.
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