A sermon preached in May 2018
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I say to you, ‘You all must be born from above.’ The wind 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you all do not receive our testimony. If I have told you all about earthly things and you all do not believe, how can you all believe if I tell you all about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal 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.
“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.”
This is the Word of our Lord.
Can you recall a time when you caused a royal mess of things? Really botched things up? Maybe you didn’t intend for things to fall apart – a business deal that never came to be, maybe you hurt someone you loved and didn’t mean to, maybe it was something more complicated, where it was not your fault, per se, but you also knew you had a role to play in how things turned out . . . with maybe a troubled child or sibling, a broken relationship with a former lover, an ongoing strain with a coworker or neighbor.
Or, maybe you did mean to. Maybe you were angry, hurt, or selfish. Just wanted it to go your way. We’ve all had these moments. Times where – intentionally or not – harm or disarray got the better of us. Where we hurt ourselves, our neighbors, or people we love. It’s the kind of stuff that can keep any one of us up at night, looking and hoping for a way through. Preferably, not the slow, hard, confrontational way.
In trainings I lead, I sometimes ask, what keeps you up at night? What leads you to Jesus in the middle of the night? Hear are some of the answers I get back:
And Jesus, as usual, immediately goes to the personal heart of the matter. Nicodemus, you think you’re in the presence of God, and yet you don’t see the kingdom. [pause] You don’t see the kingdom. And the only way to see the kingdom is to become born again.
Nicodemus is confused, and misses the point. How can anyone become born again, he wonders aloud.
A counselor whom Erik and I greatly respect, once said, “There’s no such thing as confusion. Confusion is just a moment when you either don’t want to or aren’t ready to take in the information before you."
I’m confused, Nicodemus says and, as so many of us do when we’d really rather not face what’s at the heart of the problem, instead he stalls a little more. How could I possibly be born again at this age? Maybe he’s even confessing part of what he’s wrestling with – how maybe he’s not sure could actually help fix things after all.
Jesus takes another tact. Here, look at the effect of the kingdom. It’s like the wind. Though you can’t see it, you can see what it does all around you.
Still, Nicodemus struggles to bring it home.
So Jesus moves the conversation back towards the heart of whatever is keeping Nicodemus up in the night.
You are a teacher of the law of Israel, Nicodemus. You have studied these things extensively. Remember, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness – remember what you’ve studied – so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
Now, not everyone has studied the law – or the Old Testament – like Nicodemus. So you might not recall right off what Jesus referring to here. When did Moses lift up the serpent in the wilderness, you might be asking. Why did he do that?
Let’s go ahead and take a look at the passage Jesus is referring to – Numbers 21:4-9. At this point, the people of Israel have been brought out of slavery in Egypt and are making their way through the wilderness. Starting with verse 4, we read:
They set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, but the people became impatient on the way. [In their impatience,] the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt [only] to die in the wilderness? There’s no food and no water, and we detest [the miserable food that is here.]” [In immediate response to this proclamation] the Lord sends poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
So, that’s the passage Jesus is referring to when he’s talking to Nicodemus. You may recall a couple months ago when this passage came up in the liturgical calendar and was preached here. That Sunday, your Christian Education Director used a staff that she had made to talk with the kids and help them envision the staff Moses created. She also talked about how there are times, like at recess, when you might bump into someone else and that person gets hurt. Sometimes, you bump into them on purpose. Maybe in your playing, you become frustrated and you mean to hurt them. Sometimes, you’re just racing and its accident. Either way, when you’ve hurt someone, she encouraged the kids, you apologize – whether you meant to do it or not.
The staff and the serpent – which you may also recall seeing in other settings as a sign of medicine and healing – reminds us that mending wounds is not just a physical activity, but a mental, emotional, and spiritual activity. In other words, we don’t just say we’re sorry only when we really intend to be mean or only when someone is physically hurt. We say sorry, or seek to restore a relationship, when someone may be hurt mentally, emotionally, or spiritually and we had some role in that. It’s one of those important lessons we learn in kindergarten that makes a difference our whole life long. Our relationships matter.
Now, we’re still not quite at the heart of what’s going on here with Nicodemus – and the word for us today. We’re almost there. See, there’s an important piece – it’s what links the Numbers, Isaiah, and John passages all together – something that can too easily be missed.
See, Moses doesn’t raise just any serpent. “Poisonous” really is not a helpful English interpretation of the Hebrew here. In fact, it’s really the wrong word. What’s happening with them in this passage has nothing to do with poison. Because the word in Hebrew here says these are seraphim serpents. The same seraphs that Isaiah says he saw in attendance to God, and that John speaks of in his book Revelation. The same seraphs that praise the Lord without ceasing, saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.”
It’s seraphim serpents – the very attendants of God’s realm – that came in instant response to the Israelites’ careless, ruthless, thoughtless complaints. And it’s worth pausing and taking that in. The attendants of God’s realm burst onto the scene at a moment when the Israelites are willing to cast it all away without a second glance. In their grievance, they have clearly missed something key. What were they not seeing? What were they missing? Maybe, how fragile life is? How precious, how valuable? How it can be gone in an instant? Might they have been missing the respect and honor of their lives and their relationships with one another and with God? How they could have quality of life, a sense of well-being, even in the wilderness where they found themselves?
Renowned psychologist and survivor of the European Holocaust, Victor Frankl famously demonstrated in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, how some people can have a sense of personal well-being – a sense of the value of life and relationships – no matter the circumstances and even being in a concentration camp. In fact, his book was originally titled: Nevertheless Say Yes to Life.
At one point Frankl recalls an especially grueling time he had in the concentration camp, and he describes how:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment . . . In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation . . . achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory…”
(Man's Search for Meaning, Part One, "Experiences in a Concentration Camp", Viktor Frankl, Pocket Books, ISBN 978-0-671-02337-9 pp. 56–57)
It is this, this angel, this messenger lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory, it is that very being that reminds the Israelites they crossed a a critical line of value and honor – of themselves and their relationship with God in all circumstances. It is this being that is lifted up on the rod as a sign and symbol of healing and restoration. No matter what – never the less – you are called to say Yes to Love.
So, Jesus referencing these beings – the seraphim serpents on the rod – with Nicodemus begs the question . . . what’s keeping Nicodemus up at night? What’s keeping him from seeing the kingdom all around him and in him? What about seeing the kingdom will help him with what’s keeping him up at night? Has he, possibly, crossed a line in his heart or with his relationships or with God? Or, might he be standing at that delicate threshold? Are the seraphim right there, just beyond the veil, with bated breath, cheering him on, as they continue to proclaim holy, holy, holy? You can do it Nicodemus! You can move toward love and not away from it. You can do it, beloved siblings. Repent, and become born again, filled and renewed by the Spirit. Amen.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.