3 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew,[a] it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit[b] blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One.[c] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One[d] be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
The most important conversations I have ever had have happened late at night.
They happen over coffee at a midnight diner. They happen after parties and get-togethers, after we’re all good and tired and our inhibitions are down. They happen while studying for important exams. They happen during inventories in the back room before a big sales day. They happen after the kids have gone to sleep. They happen when your kids have a bad nightmare and they’re shaking and aching for comfort. They happen as you sweat and cry over your finances. They happen after funerals. They happen after weddings. They happen after all the non-essentials have fallen away and you can have the conversations you dread to have and yet ache to have.
I could fill a book with all the midnight conversations I’ve had, and how they’ve changed me, who I am, how I think, how I believe. You learn about yourself at midnight. You learn about what matters.
I’ll tell you about one such midnight conversation.
It was after a long night hanging out with my brother and his roommates. Nobody had work the next day and it was right as the school year ended, so we could relax knowing the next day was off. I got to talking on the back porch with one of his roommates, who I’ll just call “Bill.” Bill was raised catholic, but didn’t go to church anymore. He had long abandoned the faith for atheism, and he was quite vocal about it, because church didn’t make much sense anymore to him. At the time, I had only just begun my journey to be a minister, and so I was freshly instilled with a sense of purpose and hope. He and I talked a long, long time. We talked about the nature of God. If God is real, why is there suffering? Why do so many people do such evil in his name? What’s the purpose of belief? Why does the church seem to resist independent thought? We talked for a couple of hours on all of this, and so much more. It was a long time ago. I don’t remember all the details. But what I do remember is that we had a genuine connection, and though we remained on opposite sides of the faith spectrum, we came to mutual understanding why we believe what we do. So I didn’t make a New Christian that night. He didn’t enlighten a New Atheist that night either. But we came together and talked. It changed me. I hope it affected him too.
The midnight conversation happens when you least expect it. Neither Bill nor I expected to talk about the meaning of life that night. But we did. And so today, we talk about another midnight conversation, one between a religious official and a religious outsider. There was mutual respect between Jesus and Nicodemus. They came to each other openly, honestly, and in good faith. And that midnight conversation has echoed down through the ages to challenge not only Nicodemus, but us in his place.
Enemies become Friends
This story contains one of the most important and most recognizable passages in all of scripture, but if all you take away from this passage is John 3:16, you miss out on everything that makes 3:16 so powerful.
First of all, Nicodemus makes the first move. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. I’ve said it before, but Pharisees and Jesus actually didn’t have all that many theological differences. They were very similar in beliefs. It is because they are so close in belief that their differences become all that much more apparent, and the difference is of crucial importance. For Nicodemus, and for his Pharisee cohort, they are preoccupied with the letter of the law and adherence to purity. Doing the right things the right way is the way to righteousness, and the details are what is most important. In a way, they adhered themselves to rigid structures, like the temple, like the governing power. Preserving that power meant preserving their people, or so they thought. They debated endlessly how to best implement the teachings of their people, to preserve themselves, and didn’t see what was going on beyond the small scope of their interpretation.
In comes Jesus. Jesus, the outsider. Jesus, the Nazarene, who preached holiness and goodness. Jesus who cleansed lepers. Jesus who healed. Jesus who was not connected to the temple, or to the established order. Jesus, who broke the smaller laws so he could fulfill the law of love. He was tremendously popular and charismatic, and Nicodemus saw him as a good and right teacher, who came from God.
They were, categorically, enemies. Nicodemus represented a seemingly immovable object, and Jesus an unstoppable force. They were bound for collision. And yet… Nicodemus saw in Jesus a friend. A compatriot. A good and godly teacher. One who maybe could change the problems of the world.
So Nicodemus approached him as a friend under the cover of night, and sought out a conversation. He made the first step, something that not a lot of people in his position would do.
Seeing in Nicodemus this willingness to do something different, Jesus presented his teachings in the way he did. Confusing, yes, but he knew he didn’t have to dumb it down for Nicodemus. He could pick it up.
The Come-To-Jesus Meeting
Let me ask you a question: Have you ever heard of a “come to Jesus meeting?”
It’s a fairly popular phrase in our culture, especially in the south. It’s kind of funny too, because usually when it’s said it refers to an especially difficult meeting that one has to have. It’s a climactic meeting. It may not have anything to do with Jesus, really, but it’s a meeting in which tough love is administered. In other words, it’s become another way to talk about an intervention.
This meeting that Nicodemus had with Jesus could be called one of the first come to Jesus meetings. However, there is a crucial difference. He came to Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to him.
That’s something I think is often when we talk about Come to Jesus meetings. Meetings we have are confrontational. Jesus didn’t confront Nicodemus, and Nicodemus didn’t confront Jesus. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t serious though. This was definitely serious.
After Nicodemus approaches Jesus, Jesus gets past whatever pleasantries that were customary and gets straight to the hard philosophy: Unless you are born anew, you won’t see God’s kingdom.
In the past, when I’ve read this, I saw this conversation as Jesus talking over Nicodemus’s head. But that’s not necessarily correct. I now think Nicodemus knew what Jesus was talking about–and was questioning because of how hard it was to do what Jesus said.
Nicodemus knew what Jesus was talking about. We’re born into this world one way, born into sin. Jesus is saying you need a whole new life, period. Nicodemus is on his level, going with his metaphor. He resists not because he doesn’t get it. He resists because it feels impossible from where he is.
He’s a pharisee. He’s invested his entire life into one way of being. And now Jesus is telling him what he needs to know to see the kingdom, and it’s something that wasn’t in the plan. He’s got to go back to square one. He’s got to change his entire life.
Jesus continues that you have to have a renewed spirit, cleansed and born again to live a spiritual life. And yeah, it’s not what you wanted to hear. And yeah, it’s going to take you to God knows where. But that’s what has to happen.
Nicodemus final question is one of great importance: How are these things possible?
Nicodemus knows that that he doesn’t literally have to emerge out of a womb again. But rebooting his life completely? That certainly feels impossible. So he has to ask, how does this work? How can I restart my life like this? How can I follow where the spirit goes? How can I be cleansed by the water of new life? How is it going to work, Jesus?
And Jesus response is not one necessarily of chiding mockery, but one of confidence. You’re a teacher of the law, and you’ve been in this you’re whole life–and you’re gonna ask me? You know what to do. You know how this is going to work. If you don’t I’ve seriously misjudged you. If you don’t know this, then you aren’t who I know you to be–and I know you.
The Final Word
The final teaching is the most important part of this midnight conversation. The last teaching is grace.
Jesus admits that yeah, he’s seen the kingdom of God. In fact, he’s the only one who’s done it. But Nicodemus, and others who seek this kind of wisdom, they’re going to get there. In the darkest wilderness, in the most hopeless places, God’s going to show the way. You know how Moses got out of the desert: a snake had to be lifted high so people could see it. In the same way, you’re going to see Jesus lifted up, and you’re going to find the way.
So have some hope. God didn’t send Jesus here because we’re hopeless, but rather to give hope. God loved the world, and because God loves the world, he loves it in this way. He’s gonna send the Son. And if you believe him when he says you gotta change? That’s going to be all the difference. In fact, that’s when you’re new life begins. He didn’t send him to condemn anyone. He didn’t send Jesus to consign you, who may be on the other side of the law, to damnation. Jesus came for everyone, everywhere, to be given a way out of the wilderness, so they can have their lives changed.
I think about this conversation a lot. I’ve changed how I think about it a lot too. Nicodemus was on Jesus’s level. He knew what he was talking about, and how hard it was going to be to do. But Jesus had faith in Nicodemus, and that’s what gives me hope, because it means Jesus has faith in me. Jesus has faith in you. He has faith in us. Faith to know that we can follow him. Faith to know what the right thing is. And faith that we can turn the ship around and find the right way.
It may be harder than we think. It may be the hardest thing we do. But we can have a new life. We can hit the reset button. We can renew ourselves and be born again, because God loves us, and Jesus has faith in us. We can do it, with God’s help. Amen, and amen.