By Pastor Michael Cofer
March 12, 2017
Imagine you woke up one day and found yourself in medieval England. People more or less speak your language. They might look at your clothes or hair funny, but otherwise, it’s not too hard to get along. But then the wake-up alarm on your phone goes off, and you pull it out of your pocket…
How do you explain this device that you’re holding? It glows. It captures imaginary paintings of any subject in less than a second. It can play music without instruments and emulate the voices of men and women you’ve never been in the same room as. If there are two of these devices and you know the proper code, you can speak to each other anywhere in the world as though you were together.
How could you possibly explain those things – and that leaves out an awful lot – without being accused of sorcery or madness? Explaining how the various components work wouldn’t help at all – presuming you even know that. To understand a cellphone, you really have to have seen the world in which we live.
Now, this is not a perfect analogy, but thinking about a situation like that gives me some understanding of how frustrating it must have been for Jesus to try and explain the kingdom of heaven to people.
He uses a lot of metaphor since they don’t have the proper frame of reference for Him to speak plainly. Parables aren’t His way of being difficult – they’re accommodating our limited capacity to imagine or understand the kingdom of God.
So, from Nicodemus’ perspective, the conversation with Jesus took a turn for the bizarre pretty quickly. Nicodemus opens up with what you’d think would have been a really good start, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
But Jesus doesn’t commend him or even accept his praise, because Jesus knows something that isn’t obvious to you and me – Nicodemus doesn’t really see Jesus when he looks at Him. He sees Jesus’ effects, but he doesn’t see Jesus – not yet at least. But Jesus wants him to. Nicodemus thinks he’s figured Jesus out. But he isn’t even close to grasping the whole thing. Jesus isn’t just some teacher that God sent. In fact, teaching isn’t even Jesus’ main purpose. But it doesn’t matter how Jesus tries to explain His purpose; until you have been born again you cannot see the kingdom of God.
Think about the disciples. How plainly did Jesus tell them over and over again that He must die and that he would rise again! They saw his works. They knew he was a teacher sent from God. Peter even confessed that Jesus was the promised messiah. But still, they could not understand Jesus.
And it’s no different in our day. A lot of people like the idea that “God is love.” But they reject the idea of their own sinfulness. They refuse to believe that a loving God would condemn anyone – or, more probably, they only wish that the people they hate would be condemned.
When you look at how Jesus and Nicodemus interact from a worldly perspective, Jesus doesn’t look very loving. He tells Nicodemus that he is blind and spiritually dead. He tells Nicodemus that he’s going to have to give up the life he lived up to this point if he is going to enter God’s kingdom. But Jesus isn’t condemning this man. He stands condemned already. Jesus is offering him life. “You don’t see the kingdom of God yet. But you can. I want you to. I came so that you can enter the kingdom. Your religious education and your acts of righteousness are only pushing you farther and farther from it. To see this kingdom, you must enter it, and nobody enters it as anything but a spiritual newborn. You bring nothing but dependence into this relationship – no wealth, no stature, no wisdom. You come into this kingdom small, and naked, and new. You come not as a father or teacher or leader. You come as a child.“
Remember how Paul said that he counted everything before Christ as a loss? For those with nothing, this is easily good news. For those with a load of guilt or a checkered past, the idea that they can start over is really welcome. The idea that Jesus is all that matters is a blessed mercy. But if you think you’ve scratched your way to the top and have accomplished so much without Jesus, the idea of giving up that prestige, influence, and pride is really difficult. The idea of starting over is agonizing. Being called a child is insulting. Being told you don’t get it is frustrating. And if you are a righteous, religious, moral, upstanding citizen it’s hard to believe that you need a savior.
And if you don’t think you need a savior, then you don’t know a thing about God’s love. Because Jesus is what God’s perfect love looks like. God’s love isn’t about ignoring your brokenness – it’s about healing it. God’s love isn’t about rewarding the deserving but about rescuing the undeserving. God’s love isn’t about making you feel better about yourself – it’s about making you new and alive.
God loved his creation so much that He sent His only natural Son to become one of us. To become an object of hatred and scorn. To bear on his shoulders the full weight of mankind’s evil from Adam and Eve until the end of the world. To take the death that we earned for ourselves. To be lifted up on a cross so that whoever turns their eyes to him will not perish but will have never-ending life.
Nicodemus probably wasn’t ready to hear it all. He probably couldn’t see it yet. But he was brought to Jesus because he felt the effects of the Spirit. He saw what God was accomplishing through Jesus and it led Him to this place and this conversation. That may be true of the people in your life, too. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” When the people in your life see you about God’s business, they may not understand it. They may not recognize where it’s coming from or what it’s going to accomplish. But they will notice it’s happening.
That’s how God prepares people to receive this rebirth in the Spirit. He shows the proud what humility looks like. He shows the lost what love really looks like. He shows the dead what life really looks like.