Introduction and Call to Worship
God calls us to find new life in him – and to look for his presence in the lives of others. So, we come to worship with hearts open to being transformed into the people that God is calling us to be; people who receive Christ and live out our faith daily.
First Reading Genesis 12:1-4a
God tells Abram to set out on a journey where he will receive blessings and bless others including the stranger along the way.
Second Reading Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Paul argues that Abraham was justified before God not based on his deeds but rather his faith and God’s promise.
Gospel John 3:1-17
Nicodemus visits Jesus, who responds with words about Nicodemus’ need to be born from above, of water and the Spirit. Jesus also declares that God’s ultimate aim is not to condemn but to bring life.
“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.” (John 3:16)
This Lent we are examining five different ways of ‘Receiving Christ’. We have thought about prayer and temptation as we looked at our call to be God’s children. This coming week we will reflect upon how we receive Christ in our encounter with the stranger and those in need. Over the centuries countless Christians have found Christ in their day to day lives and activities and encountered the Lord in the presence of those they meet along the way. Indeed, our worship in church is validated by our day to day actions as Christians in our daily lives, when the presence of Christ can work through us, in action, as well as be encountered by us in others.
I wonder then who Nicodemus thought he would encounter when he first met Jesus? He is full of praise, indeed flattery for the Lord. But Jesus responds with the mystifying demand to be born “from above” (v.3) and that we should be “of water and Spirit” (v.5). Nicodemus responds, as many of us would, with the obvious questions: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” and “How can these things be?” As we try to lead a Christian life we are often met by things we don’t or can’t understand and can find ourselves asking the very same question of the Lord: “How can this be?”
Now John in his Gospel gives us a clue, because he says that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night which in scripture is often a metaphor for spiritual blindness or personal darkness. So ‘night’ in this passage may suggest something of Nicodemus’ own spiritual darkness, though his esteem for Jesus suggests a degree of enlightenment. But for Jesus a degree of enlightenment is not enough, so our Lord continues, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus uses the word ‘see’ – yes, we can only ‘see’ in the light, and Jesus is the Light of the World.
Our understanding of ‘birth’ is also the central idea here: birth before which life does not exist (apart from the brief period in the womb), and through which life comes into being. Jesus speaks firmly and he calls Nicodemus to start again. Yes, this potential follower has good intentions, but is he committed to truly receiving Christ and allowing the very presence of the Lord to reach out, through him, into the lives of others? Is he born from above and willing to live out his faith daily?
But Nicodemus takes Jesus too literally, thinking of a grown man entering again the womb, so Jesus adds, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (v.5). Scholars have debated the significance of “water” in this verse, but probably it refers to baptism. We may look back in time to the people of Israel, when they crossed the Red Sea as they escaped from Egypt. This is understood as a sort of baptism in which not an individual but a whole nation was brought to birth: Israelite slaves who left Egypt become the people of God. Also, we can look forward to the New Church, where baptism refers to Jesus’ death and resurrection. As St Paul describes it in Romans 6:4, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead…so we too might walk in newness of life.” Baptism is a sacramental sign of what God is doing in our very lives, transforming us from the very inside, calling us to be his pilgrim people who live out our faith. This is, in Christian believers, the birth by God’s Spirit that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel. This is us, receiving Christ anew.
To apply today’s Gospel passage to our own lives requires openness to God’s call to live for him and, as it were, to put ourselves in Nicodemus’ place and hear Jesus calling us to new birth and a radical new beginning. We must recognise Jesus as the one who “came from heaven”, from God, and was “lifted up” (v.14) on the cross. In him is forgiveness and new life. But beyond church and our worship, we need to make a change in our daily lives too. Friends, as we go about our daily lives we encounter a myriad of different people; some of whom we find it easy to engage with, but others who really challenge us and some whom we choose to ignore. Yet each of them carries the opportunity to know and love God and each of them has the chance to be transformed by the grace of God – and by their influence upon us maybe change us also.
Finally, this passage does not say how Nicodemus responded, but later in the Gospel, just before the crucifixion and at Jesus’ burial, he appears very much on Jesus’ side. There is hope for all of us, if we walk in the light of faith. Amen.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus with words of esteem but Jesus is unimpressed and challenges him in ways he finds hard to understand.
What Jesus wants for Nicodemus is the radical experience of birth from above, through baptism and the work of God’s Spirit.
Jesus’ words mystify Nicodemus but his aim in the long run is not to confuse nor condemn, but to give life.
We are called to open our own lives to new birth and to consider how we might challenge others with God’s call on their lives.