Things rarely turn out like we think they will. If nothing else, this past year has taught us this fact. We have so many events we mark in life. We mark anniversaries, birthdays, holidays and celebrations. We mark major events in our history. We remember during memorial day and veterans day, 4th of July and labor day. We remember tragic events such as 9/11. And in church life, we remember beautiful events such as Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. But this week marked yet another event. It was the one year anniversary of this virus we are facing being called a pandemic. It changed everything. And here we are, a year later, still trying to move forward in some way, shape and form. So it goes without saying that life doesn’t always turn out like we think it will or how we plan.
Today’s scripture is familiar. It is so familiar, in fact, that we tend to skip right to the part we know and forget what led us to it. We don’t think about the conversation which led to the outcome. We do this with scriptures we know – often without even thinking about it. We skip right to the “good parts” and forget what led this to be a part of a conversation. So today, we will spend a moment listening in on a conversation. It is a surprising conversation if you consider what all is going on. This was most unexpected.
It is dark, under the cover of night. No one knows he is there. He has snuck away, for whatever reason he needed to know. He had something gnawing deep inside him. There were unanswered questions. He had heard this teacher. He had been watching him from the sidelines. His fellow colleagues wanted this teacher to just stop. But he was intrigued. There was something about him. He couldn’t put his finger on it but this wasn’t just a fad, a trend of someone that simply needed to be silenced. There was something about the teaching. It was different. So as not to seem obvious, he comes in the dark of night – where he can ask the questions directly. And what he hears, he doesn’t expect. But then, when we ask Jesus questions…he rarely answers us like we think or expect.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b]4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] 8 The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you[g] do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[h] 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[i]
16 “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.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Nicodemus – a leader of the Jews – comes to Jesus. Again, he gets there is something unique, very different about Jesus. He doesn’t so much ask a question but makes a statement. Jesus has come from God – the signs are apparent. If you want to see the kingdom of God – do you want to see – do you really want to experience the kingdom? Because if you do, you are to be born from above. How confusing must this have been?
To be born is to be created, birthed, a fresh new start. It is a beginning. So to start again seems not just odd, but impossible. So we can relate – someone can’t actually physically be born again. It just isn’t possible. So what is the deal? What is Jesus trying to say? This birth is a spiritual one. It is not an actual physical birth but one in which we get a new start, a fresh beginning, we become a new creation in God.
Jesus tells Nicodemus he should be getting this – and this is not to insult him or to belittle him. This is to say…it’s in the Word you know…it is part of the life you have taught and led. This is not new information if you really get what God has told you all along. This should not be a surprise because you really do get the Scriptures. This is your specialty.
And here is the deal…this is a part of God’s love story to Nicodemus. It is that God so loved Nicodemus that this renewal, this new birth, this impossible becomes possible. Nicodemus doesn’t have to understand it all. He simply has to trust – God’s story is big and wide and full of amazing love. The most astounding part of this story is it also applies to us – to you and to me. For God so loved… that’s how the verse begins, right? That is the scripture we know. That is the word we believe. This is what we have taken in. God loves. It is not because of us – our accolades or accomplishments. It is not because we have earned it or deserve it. It isn’t because there is something unique about us that God only does this for us. It is because God loves. And when God loves, God loves big – real big. God loves so big that he loves the world, the whole world, his wonderful, beautiful stained creation. He loves it all – gnats and flies, trees and mountains, flowers and weeds – and you and me. That’s the most amazing part of this all – God loves us. Because he loves us, Jesus. To believe is to become a part of the kingdom. To believe is to have a place at the table. To believe is to know that we are loved even when we feel quite unlovable.
That’s the hard part of it all, I think. We believe in God. We believe in Jesus. But to believe we are loved – that’s the hard part sometimes. We love conditionally in our lives. We can’t help it. We are human. So we love when…we love until…we love if. We love with a condition. God just loves. His love is so overwhelming we can’t understand it. His love washes over us when we feel so dry and parched. His love fills our every need when we are so empty. His love sets us free when we feel imprisoned and held down. God’s love is redemptive. It is a renewal. God’s love changes EVERYTHING.
That’s the story of the whole Bible – God’s love changes everything. God created. God redeems. God renews. God inspires and instills. God so loved – Jesus. It is the story of Christmas, it is the story of Easter, it is the story which fills the pages of this story we call the Bible. It is the story which fills our lives – whether we recognize it or not. God is LOVE. And God’s love is powerful – it changes things…and it changes us.
When we realize just how much we are loved, we are forever changed. We can’t help it. We have a love which is so poured into us it is overflowing. When Jesus challenges us to the hard things – and he really does that in nearly every verse and teaching – he is doing it with the knowledge that we have all we need to do it – and all we need is God’s love. That’s the foundation. It is not only the beginning, it is the necessary, required part of it all. If we don’t do what we do with love, it is useless and void. But when we do things with great love, God does amazing things with it. We are changed.
But let’s be honest. We don’t always feel all that changed, do we? Things don’t go as we expect. To be loved doesn’t mean we walk through this life as though we are living in some utopia of perfection. We mess up. We say mean things. We do wrong things. We hurt ourselves and others. We forget we are loved. We walk in directions we clearly should not. Life happens and it isn’t always good. Nicodemus walked away that day with a teaching – but it doesn’t say he immediately got it. We do know it changed him. But he went back to his life. He had been given a glimpse of the light but was not ready to live in it completely. It was just the beginning for him.
God’s love isn’t conditional on us – on who we are. He doesn’t stop loving us because we act ridiculous. He doesn’t stop loving us when we clearly make bad decisions. He loves us through it all. It simply takes us recognizing it. When God opens our eyes to his love, our heart begins to open as well. When we experience his love, the shell of our insecurities begins to crack. God so loved…and God so loves you.No matter where you may find yourself this day, hear this – God loves you. May you feel his redemptive power overtake you, overwhelm you, and begin to change you. May you experience his love in a new and amazing way. Also remember this…God loves you…but he also loves the person you hate. May he change our hearts to live in his love in a way that is life changing for us – and for others. May we love like him – love big and wide and open. For God so loved…even our enemies. May God show love through you and me today.