Scripture Readings: Genesis 12:1–4a | Psalm 121 | Romans 4:1–5, 13–17 | John 3:1–17
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3).
If you could have a private, face to face conversation with Jesus alone, what would you talk about? What kinds of questions would you ask? What concerns would you raise? What words of wisdom or hope might you long to hear from Him?
In our Gospel reading this morning, we heard the story of one such conversation: a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and religious leader, and teacher of God’s Law, was drawn to Jesus… convinced by the signs and miracles that Jesus had performed, and rightly discerning there was something different, something significant about Him. Nicodemus knew that God’s own power was at work in what Jesus was up to. And so, Nicodemus sets out one night in secret, hesitant to let others know He was visiting Jesus, to have a chance to talk with Him one on one.
But regardless of how Nicodemus may have had intended this conversation to unfold, Jesus had other things in mind to talk about… and instead of simply answering Nicodemus’ questions, Jesus aims to transform the way this teacher of the Law, as well as you and I today, understand what the Living God is up to… and our part in God’s story.
In our first reading today we were reminded of another key character in that story: Abram, who would later on be renamed Abraham, the ancient ancestor of the family of Israel.
Now Abraham’s story wasn’t a straightforward success by any means. Though he’s renowned as a founding father of the faith, Abraham was just as often driven by fear, and ended up making some truly disastrous decisions. And yet, he was still the one through whom the Living God chose to bless the whole world. This would be the special, covenant relationship that would reveal God’s divine life and love to all nations.
Genesis 12:1-4, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
Note that Abram was not chosen and blessed, because he was particularly gifted, or because God could see some hidden potential in him… actually, it’s quite the opposite!
Abram and his wife Sarai had no children, and had long passed the age when that would be even remotely possible. Yet God tells Abram that He will make a massive family out of this old man… someone without any natural hope of raising up future generations.
In other words, God promised Abram something that only God’s power could accomplish. Abram was called to place his trust, his faith in what God alone could do. If we want to understand the rest of the story, this is the place we must start.
Fast forward several centuries in the story, and we find that God was more than true to His word: many generations of Abram’s great family have come and gone, who have at times shared in their forefather’s faith, but more often than not, fell into fear and unfaithfulness.
The ten Northern tribes of Israel had been swept away into exile by Assyria, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was then overrun by Babylon. But this small portion of God’s chosen people had been able to return to the land, and rebuild… not to rule it like before, but to be ruled by powerful Gentile nations that knew nothing at all about the Living God and His ways.
After years in this situation, some Jews cut themselves off from the outside world to try and keep themselves pure. Many just went along with the strange new cultural context that they found themselves in, eventually forgetting the story of God, and their place in it.
And others worked hard to try to be faithful to God, to hold firmly onto their faith by following the traditions that had been passed on to them for generations. They thought that if they were obedient to God’s holy laws, and preserved their identity as children of Abraham, then God would come to their rescue… then God would send His chosen King, the Messiah, who would overthrow their enemies, and re-establish their kingdom… this time for good.
Then all of their struggles would be overcome. Then their future would be secured. If they just did what they were supposed to do, and be perfectly faithful to the Covenant, the Law, then God would reward them, rescue them, and share His reign with them.
This was the story that many in Jesus’ day were holding onto. And in one form or another, it’s still a story we find at work today.
Perhaps we too can remember a time when our future seemed secure, and our role in the world seemed strong, or at least, we were still hopeful that the best days for God’s people lay ahead of us.
And we know that’s not how things often seem today: Churches keep closing. Future generations seem absent.
The Christian faith seems sidelined in our society by so many other priorities. Like our old kingdom has been taken away, and we’re now living under the rule of those who don’t care about the Living God and His ways.
And in our own personal lives, many of us have faced serious setbacks and struggles… feeling at times like the hope we had for tomorrow has been totally shaken.
Maybe even today, we’re wondering what we’re supposed to do now? How can we turn things around? Searching for answers, for signs of how we can somehow regain God’s blessing. Like Nicodemus the Pharisee, maybe we’re coming to Jesus today with our own mix of faith and fears… hoping He'll tell us what we need to do to set things right.
And maybe, like Nicodemus, Jesus gives us Good News that we didn’t ask for, and often struggle to understand. Good News that doesn’t rest on what we can do, but on what God alone is bringing about. Good News that the New Life for ourselves and for our communities that we long for is truly open to us… but that it cannot be achieved by any natural means.
John 3:3, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Born from above. Or born again, as some translations put it. Not a simple adjustment to the system, but a brand new beginning… one which, like our first births here below, we did absolutely nothing to earn, or achieve or instigate, but which we all received as a gracious gift.
In order to enter God’s kingdom, we must receive it as a gift… trusting, not in our actions in the present, our connections to the past, or our potential for the future… but trusting in what the Living God has given to us all in the gift of His Son:
John 3:16-17, “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.”
Pharisees like Nicodemus thought God’s coming Kingdom would be a special gift for them… for the faithful Israelites… descendants of Abraham alone.
And we can be tempted to do the same, imagining God’s Kingdom is just for us… given to address our concerns, to alleviate our fears and ease our struggles… to restore our place in the world… to help our kingdom come, whatever that might be.
But Jesus came to bring God’s eternal life not just to Israel… not just to you and I… but to the whole broken world He loves and longs to save. This is His divine agenda… His mission from the very start.
Abram was chosen purely as a gift from the Living God, who Abram trusted to do what only God could do… bringing life to the dead, and calling “into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). And through his story… as well as the story of all of Abram’s descendants… though mixed up with faith and fear, God’s own saving hand has been powerfully at work… not just for them, but for everyone.
As Christians today, we too have been chosen to take part in God’s story… in our own time to trust God to do what He alone can do, and bring His new life, not just for us, but for everyone.
For Jesus Christ was not lifted up on the cross for just one family… for one kind of community… or only for those who seem to deserve it. Jesus gave Himself over to endure the shame and suffering of the cross to bring the blessings of God’s everlasting life to all who believe.
We come to Jesus with all of our questions, and concerns, and hopes, and fears, and find Him waiting to give us His life… inviting us to turn to Him and trust Him with everything. No matter how many times we have messed things up. No matter how discouraged, and afraid we may be… no matter how strongly we want to hold onto the past… no matter how well we behave in the present… no matter how promising or desperate our futures may seem…
Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of God, alone can save us. Jesus alone can give us God’s new life, now and forever. Jesus alone is where we must turn to understand God’s love for our broken world. And Jesus alone has given His life to rescue everyone.
Turning to Him in trust is not at all a guarantee that our kingdoms will be restored… that all our concerns will be resolved, our church pews and Sunday School classes filled again… our fears and struggles ended. Nicodemus did not experience the restoration of Israel that he had hoped for when he came to meet with Jesus alone that night… but he did experience a new beginning, the first signs of a new birth… drawn into the unexpected and glorious story of God’s Kingdom which Jesus alone is bringing about… one Nicodemus or Abram could never have imagined, and which invites all of us to believe in, and share with our world so they too can come to know:
that, “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.”
May we believe this Good News of God’s gracious, saving love in Jesus Christ with all our heart, and mind, and strength… with all our lives… and may we share this hope with everyone. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School