United Church of Christ  

Indianola, Iowa 

 an open and affirming congregation

Worshiping at Smith Chapel

on the Simpson College campus


Pastor: Rev. Julia Tipton Rendon


Jan. 23


John 3:1-21

            First of all, props to Nicodemus for going to Jesus and asking his questions.  Jesus had just overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple, and he was not in the good graces of the religious authorities.  Nicodemus is a Pharisee, not a Sadducee, so he’s not as concerned with the Temple as others were, but he’s committed to getting things right, and going to Jesus for that is a pretty daring move.  Props also to Nicodemus for asking the dumb questions.  When he responds in a literal-minded way to Jesus’ assertion that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born “from above” or “again,” he prompts Jesus to explain himself, which is something that we all would have wanted to do, I think.

            All that said, Nicodemus is a little bit of a foil for Jesus in this story.  He’s the guy who doesn’t get it, who’s going about the spiritual journey in exactly the wrong way.  “How can these things be?” he asks, and Jesus’ answer is not a “how-to” answer.  Laura Mendenhall of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur Georgia says,

Nicodemus came to Jesus because Nicodemus knew that Jesus knew the answers. However, Nicodemus did not know the questions. Nicodemus wanted to know how to win the prize, how to achieve for himself the life that was beyond his grasp, how to place himself in the presence of God. Jesus recognized Nicodemus' searching and answered the questions which Nicodemus did not know how to ask. Jesus told Nicodemus about being born of the wind.[i]


What do you say to a guy who wants to know how to place himself in the presence of God?  You have to undermine the premise of his question, which is that there is a “how to” and that being in the presence of God is up to him. So Jesus does.

            Six hundred years earlier, the prophet Ezekiel had said that God was going to renew the people by sprinkling them with fresh water and putting God’s own spirit within them.  It’s a mistake to hear Jesus’ language about birth through water and the Spirit simply as a prescription of baptism.  He’s evoking Ezekiel as a reminder that this unpredictable wildness and generosity from God has been known for a long time, and that Nicodemus should be oriented toward that dynamic.  Jesus goes on, then, to talk about how the Spirit of God is like the wind, whose effects you can see after it’s blown through, but whose direction you can neither predict nor control.   The capacity to understand God’s workings is not primarily intellectual.  It’s in your orientation—what you’re prepared to see or recognize as important.

            Last week in confirmation I wanted to talk about story as a vehicle of truth, kind of preparing to review the Bible as a collection of stories and a meta-story that we as people of faith orient ourselves around.  Well, Josh was way ahead of me.  In our conversation, he started to tell me about the latest Disney movie, Encanto, and I’m sure I’m going to butcher a lot of the details, but you’ll get my gist and then you can ask him for the accurate version.  The premise of the story is that each member of this multi-generational family gets a gift, like tremendous strength or the ability to foresee the future.  Except one granddaughter does not have a gift.  They value their gifts enormously and put them to use to maintain the family’s stability.  But it seems like there’s always something—I can’t remember how Josh put it, but there seems to be a constant strain or threat or fear behind their efforts.  At one point I said, “It sounds like the gifts are sort of a curse,” and he said, “Yeah.”

            There is a crisis, a reckoning, in the story, and you realize several things: first, the family has suppressed some unwanted gifts because they found them too frightening.  I should say that there is significant trauma in their origin story, and they see the gifts as their means of heading off such trauma ever again.  So they’ve suppressed some unwanted gifts because they felt so threatened by them.  Second, the gifts themselves have not been salvific; they have been a burden that distorts the lives of those who have the gifts and feel responsible to use them to keep the family safe.  And third, what actually saves the family is not a gift but the love of the one ordinary, ungifted member, who is valuable just for being herself and who sees the value in her family members not for their gifts but for themselves.

            Well, there’s a lot there.  But I want to bring out two points.  One is that this family, like Nicodemus, is trying to save itself by employing the tools at their disposal.  Unlike in John’s rather cryptic account, the Disney story lavishly illustrates the costs of trying to save oneself: family members are strained and stretched, always faintly desperate; other members are suppressed and virtually invisible.  They are not living an abundant life.  In their desperation to prevent further trauma, they’re re-traumatizing themselves.

            The second point is more meta: Josh had absolutely no trouble diagnosing their problem.  He told me very early in the conversation that people are not special because of their gifts, but because of being, period.  People are special in and of themselves.  This is what I meant when I said that the capacity to understand Jesus’ truth is not merely intellectual, that it’s also a matter of one’s disposition toward the question of salvation.  If you think that there is a process or a formula or a secret for placing yourself in the presence of God, you are not disposed helpfully toward the question of salvation.  And it was abundantly clear to Josh, and easy for him to understand and put into his own words, that ordinary people are special in and of themselves, because he was already properly disposed toward the question of where specialness or sacredness lies.  Thanks to his folks and his excellent Sunday School teachers.  Jesus says in verse 11, “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.”  Nicodemus doesn’t “receive” this testimony because it comes to him from his blind side—he doesn’t have any openings on the side of confidence in God’s benevolence. 

            The disposition or orientation that Jesus is trying to convey to Nicodemus is one of trust in God, hope in God.  How do you tell someone like Nicodemus that God is so much on their side that God takes the initiative toward wholeness and reconciliation?  In this story, Jesus reaches again to the Hebrew Bible and reminds Nicodemus of the story in Numbers in which the people bring on themselves a plague of deadly snakes.  God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and raise it up on a pole.  Then anyone who gets snakebit can look at the bronze snake and be healed.  By looking at a representation of what has made you sick, you get healed.

            John suggests a parallel: Jesus, the reader knows, will end up also raised up on a pole.  We should look at him, to be healed of our brokenness.  But Jesus was never harmful to us, the way poisonous snakes are.  Perhaps what John means here is that as we look at the human being raised on the cross like a criminal, we’ll see the very human orientation toward suspicion and reductionism and fear that makes us so broken—and at the same time, we’ll also see the unbounded willingness of God to give everything in order to reach us, to heal us.  There’s a whole nother sermon there, and I’m just not going to tackle that today.  What I want to point out is the whole thrust of this reading, which is that you can’t see if you’re not properly oriented, and you may not want to see if you’re in the dark because you fear that light might expose the scaffolding that you rely on for your safety. 

            Jesus is trying to liberate Nicodemus from this scaffolding of doing things right so God will love him.  Jesus wants Nicodemus to turn around, to become disposed to believe that God is already on his side.  To quote again from Laura Mendenhall,

God loved us first and loves us still, calling forth from us a life beyond our imagination. Such life is ours not because we figure out the "How to's" and did the right thing, but because the God who loves us breathes life into us.

To be born of the wind is to trust our life to the God who gives birth to us.

To be born of the wind is to embrace the mysterious newness of God knowing we do not have a final hold on the Holy Spirit.

To be born of the wind is to live as ones born of love.

So, then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the giftedness that solves our problems, but to the graciousness of God who cherishes us as we are, to the graciousness that we reflect and multiply as we bless our ordinary neighbors as God has blessed us.  That is the testimony of our own family members in Christ, and it is to be believed and enacted.

Birthing God,

You gave us new life when we were born of water and Spirit. Help us live into that new life, refreshed and renewed for your work. Amen.