Digging Into Our Certainty, Lent 2(A) – March 12, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17 

“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.”

Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the Gospel in a nutshell.”

Without a doubt, this is the most famous verse in the New Testament. And yet, as most preachers know all too well, the more popular a Biblical text is, the harder it is to preach! Such is the case here.

The popularity of John 3:16 has, in a sense, robbed it of its power. Far from the “heart of the Gospel,” it now seems like nothing more than Christianity’s catchphrase—the logo of the Christian brand.

John 3:16 pops up on tee shirts, on bumper stickers, on billboards, on Facebook, and (most annoying of all) on those little pamphlets that get wedged into the screen door on Saturday mornings! It’s the equivalent of the community choir singing Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmas: much-appreciated, well-loved, but just a bit taxing to hear recited over and over and over again in exactly the same way time after time after time.

But there’s another, more dangerous side to John 3:16 that cannot be overlooked.

Regardless of what we make of this text’s familiarity, the truth of the matter is that John 3:16 has been used time and time again in Christian history to hurt, divide, and demean people. For some, the requirement that we “be born again” is code for “you have to look, sound, and act like us.”

The Gospel becomes a prooftext by which we determine if other people’s salvation is as certain as ours is. From this vantage point, the text loses its transformative power altogether and becomes a weapon to re-enforce a particular worldview.

As is the case with the whole of Scripture, when we read John 3:16 apart from its larger context, we run the risk of missing the point. John 3:16 isn’t a theological maxim in and of itself; rather, it is part of a much richer conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, says John’s Gospel, was a leader among the Jews. In public, Nicodemus’s loyalties were clearly devoted to the Jewish establishment. But in private, Nicodemus had his doubts. And so, he visits Jesus under the cover of nightfall.

“Rabbi,” Nicodemus says, “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.”

To put it another way, Nicodemus saw that Jesus was clearly mediating the presence of God, and Nicodemus wanted that kind of experience, too.

Then, as Jesus so often does, he says something that utterly astounds everyone: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”

In other words, glimpsing the Kingdom of God isn’t a matter of praying a certain way or believing a certain way or following a certain set of liturgical customs; it’s about a complete rebirth of our entire existence!

On hearing this, Nicodemus asks an honest albeit naïve question that sounds funny to our 21st century ears: “How can an old man like me go back into my mother’s womb and be born again?”

Nicodemus makes what is perhaps the most common mistake when it comes to reading and interpreting Scripture: confusing something meant as metaphor with something meant to be literally true.

Like all of us, Nicodemus had already been born once into both a physical and a spiritual context: He was born into a Pharisaic Jewish home, with all the customs and traditions of the day.

But this second birth that Jesus is talking about comes not from below—with all the physical and visceral mechanisms of childbirth—but from above.

So how do we do that?

More than saying the right prayers or professing the right statement of faith, being born from above is about a way of life. It’s about living so that those around you will see you and know about Jesus.

For Nicodemus, being born from above happened slowly. The Gospel of John tells us that he came to Jesus under the cover of nightfall. He wasn’t quite sure he believed just yet. He didn’t want anyone to recognize him.

Then, after he leaves Jesus, he returns to his position among the Jewish establishment. His conversion doesn’t happen with a bolt of lightning or sudden blindness; it doesn’t draw the same kind of attention that the Apostle Paul’s conversion does; and there’s no incredible dream that converts or upends Nicodemus’s life like the dreams of Saint Peter or Saint John the Divine.

But deep down, and ever so slightly, something begins to turn.

Nicodemus’s rebirth happens over the course of a long journey, which began under the cover of darkness when he took a chance on Jesus. He was an uncertain, fly-by-night, wanna-be disciple.

And the truth is, with the exception of one brief mention in John chapter 7, we never hear from Nicodemus again—that is, until the end of John’s Gospel. And it is here that Nicodemus’s birth from above is laid bare.

As Jesus hangs crucified, after all of the other disciples had fled for fear of persecution, there stands Nicodemus at the foot of the cross, armed with myrrh and aloes and the other provisions for Jewish burial, ready to bear the broken and lifeless body of the crucified Lord to its grave.

Jesus said, “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.”

We can never fully know what Nicodemus was thinking as he departed Jesus’ company after hearing these words. But we can be sure that something within him began to turn. And then, little by little, his heart was broken open and he was born anew, finding his way through darkness and doubt, to the cross.

In his poem, “From the Place Where We Are Right,” the great German-born Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai put it this way:

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.[1]

In the midst of this Lenten journey, may we allow our doubts and questions to dig into our certainty. May we be broken open by a love that evades even our wildest imagining until, at last, we come to the foot of the cross.


Written by The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly. Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He studied at Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies). His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching, appearing most recently in the Journal of Appalachian Studies and the Anglican Theological Review. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, a preaching resource authored by Millennials, and enjoys exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

[1] Yehuda Amichai, “The Place Where We Are Right” in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, edited & translated from Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell (University of California Press, 1996).

Download the sermon for Lent 2(A).

How can these things be?, 2 Lent (A) – 2014

March 16, 2014

Genesis 12:1-4aPsalm 121Romans 4:1-5, 13-17John 3:1-17

A question that must echo through the centuries is this: Did Nicodemus ever get it? Did this righteous, sober, pious man ever let go of the letter of the law, of seeing and believing only what his eyesight perceived; did he let go of security to plunge into the uncertainty and wonder of mystery?

He was obviously a perceptive man. His first words to Jesus that night show that he understands what his eyes see: The signs of Jesus, known to us as miracles, are proof to Nicodemus that this young rabbi has come from God and acts in the presence of God. “You are a teacher who has come from God,” he says to Jesus, and he continues by admitting that no one can do these signs “apart from the presence of God.” This is a powerful statement, even though a question mark, a “but,” is about to follow. Why doesn’t Jesus accept it as is? What was it that he saw in this pious man that caused him to turn the conversation in another direction?

It is possible that the author omits a great deal; maybe there was quite a bit more said between them before Jesus speaks the words that have been repeated by Christians through countless testimonies, words that have been misused and misunderstood to the exclusion and detriment of many: “to be born again, to be born from above.” How many have gloried in these words, and how many have spoken them in derision in our troubled and divisive time!

Jesus does what he always does. He turns the conversation to what matters and points Nicodemus’ attention to the transforming power of God and to the reality of God’s kingdom.

He sees in Nicodemus the desire to see God’s will, God’s kingdom, this new order that gave the power to Jesus to perform his astounding signs. And Jesus wants Nicodemus to have his heart’s desire; if he would simply let go of what he knows as true, because it is thus written, in order to enter into the Spirit of the One who is not willing to be imprisoned by words.

Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He asks the literal questions: How can the old be born again? How can one reenter the mother’s womb? He is thinking of flesh, not of spirit.

Jesus tries again. He has come to open for us the door to God’s kingdom – to the truth and justice and love of God. He reminds Nicodemus of the baptism of repentance, being born of water; and the baptism of transformation, being born of the Spirit. He gives him the analogy of the wind that is felt but invisible; the origin and destination of the wind is not known. Everything that is real is not perceived by our five senses alone. The effects of God’s Spirit, God’s breath, are all around us and we feel them when we are born of the Spirit.

But Nicodemus again doesn’t get it. “How can these things be?” he asks, and we continue to hear his question phrased in similar ways all around us today.

“How can there be a God?”

“How can you call yourself a Christian when you are not born again?”

“How can you claim that you believe the Bible literally?”

“How can you ignore what the Bible says?”

Together with Nicodemus we cry, “How can these things be?”

We live in an age of astounding technological and scientific advances. We are used to having everything explained. Even religious desire, even the longing for God, we are told by experts, has a biological basis in the brain. Everything depends on the body and on chemical balance or imbalance. We are losing the gift of mystery, the gift of being born of the Spirit.

Everything in today’s remarkable story is surrounded by mystery. This is what has made it so irresistible through the ages. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Given Jesus’ status as a man who had nowhere to lay his head, the meeting probably took place outside, under the stars, beneath a tree, probably shortly after Jesus had lain down to rest and perhaps to sleep.

A man better dressed than Jesus and his companions arrives in the night. He is probably well known to them by sight. He comes to reassure Jesus that he recognizes in him the gifts of God’s presence because of all the visible signs performed by him in the light of day. And Jesus takes the man and plunges him into mystery. Nicodemus, a man who has spent his whole life studying the Law and the prophets, studying the Scriptures, does not get it. He is too committed to what he has known until this point. This talk of being born of the Spirit, of participating in God’s life through eternity, of death on the cross – these are new concepts and he cries out, “How can these things be?”

In sorrow, Jesus says, “You are a teacher and you do not understand these things?”

To paraphrase: Oh, Nicodemus, if you don’t believe me, the one who has come from the Father, whom are you going to believe? God loves you and all these friends around me, yes, even the whole world. God sent me to testify to this love. All you have to do is trust in this love and be saved from despair.

There is much talk of spirituality in our culture. “I am a spiritual person,” we hear friends tell us, “but I don’t believe in God, and I don’t go to church.” Others say, “I am a spiritual person, but I don’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God.” And many other variations of this same theme, the vogue of vague spirituality.

Yet here is Jesus offering us someone visible and recognizable who embodies the Spirit of God, himself! And unless we take the plunge into the mystery of the incarnation, we, like Nicodemus, don’t understand, and reject him. “How can these things be?”

The answer is that these things are real because Christ is real and present. As Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things, and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

This is a question to meditate upon throughout Lent, a daily discipline in the dark of night that can lead us to the light of Easter Sunday.


— Katerina Whitley, an author and retreat leader, lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.


Jesus has outlined the way, 2 Lent (A) – 2011

March 20, 2011

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

The architecture of Saint David’s Episcopal Church in San Diego, California, is quite intriguing. From the parking lot, a long, winding path leads to the sanctuary, landscaped with trees and plants indigenous to the Holy Land. Walking through the olive trees and fragrant flowers, the first part of the sanctuary seen is a solid, cracked, unfinished concrete portico extending from the worship space. The stark brokenness of the entry is startling. Even more shocking is the support, or lack thereof; it appears to be held up by two massive concrete pillars, but when one looks closely, the pillars stop two inches below the overhang. It appears that there is nothing supporting the massive, cracked concrete structure. A wary guest recently asked, “Is it structurally sound?”

The answer is yes; it was constructed in full compliance with the state’s building codes. But the architects intentionally designed the real support to be invisible. The entry to that sanctuary represents all people as we come to Christ broken and unfinished, and although we have many visible and tangible supports on our Christian path, such as scripture, worship, the sacraments, and our faith community, that last “two inches” of our Christian journey is built on faith. Faith in things that we cannot see. To follow Christ requires faith.

In today’s reading from Genesis, we hear the story of God’s call to Abram. In this reading we hear God tell 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.” And Abram said yes to God. Abram went. And not only did Abram go, but so did his nephew Lot and wife Sarai. Picture how that conversation must have unfolded. One can only imagine the scene as Abram, a senior citizen, informs his elderly wife and nephew of his encounter with God, and that they are all to leave their country and head to the land that God will show them. While we are not privy to the conversation, we see that, in the end, the group must have together discerned that this was a call from God and acted with faith, despite their fear and doubt.

Abram’s response to God’s call teaches to us to have faith when we discern God’s gentle voice in our lives. We are to act with faith and go forward, even when it means embarking on a scary, unchartered course. Is there a new path, a new journey, a new way of being that God is calling you to this morning? Maybe you feel God calling you to a new ministry within your church, or a new vocation, or a new profession or workplace, but you have been afraid for some reason to act. Maybe you are passionate about something that is unjust in the world around you, but you have never been brave enough to be a voice or to act for transformative change. Or maybe there is something that you’ve needed to give up to fully live out God’s call – an addictive behavior, angry reactions, or other destructive behaviors. Lent is the time to both embrace new life and let go of those things that stand in the way of our fully following God’s call. Like Abram, if after careful discernment, our sense of call is affirmed, we are to trust in God and act in faith.

But sometimes it can be hard to hear God’s message. In this morning’s reading we hear the story of the Pharisee Nicodemus, coming to Jesus in the dark of night – a powerful leader who comes to a peripatetic preacher in the darkness of night for illumination. Clearly he senses God in Jesus, yet he seems to have tremendous difficulty hearing and understanding Jesus’ new teachings as their conversation unfolds. Perhaps he is too rooted in the world, and with those things with which he is familiar, to hear Jesus’ radical new message of love that paves the way to eternal life.

As followers of Jesus, are we like Nicodemus? Coming to God from a place of darkness, yet being unable to hear Jesus’ call to new life? Are we, for whatever reason, actually choosing to stay in a place of darkness, hands over our ears like children, chanting, “I can’t hear you,” over and over again?

Fortunately, God continues to call. This morning we hear Jesus illuminate the path to new life once again. In today’s familiar words from the gospel of John, we hear of God’s enormous love for the world, a love so great that the path to eternal life is opened to all. All that is asked of us is to believe. To have faith. Like opening the shutters to the morning sun, Jesus brings light to not only the darkness of our lives, but to the darkness of the world. “For God came not to condemn the world, but to save it.”

Did Nicodemus finally hear Jesus and act with faith? Or did he leave that night, and continue to live in the darkness? We really don’t know. But what we do know is that if we truly seek new life, Jesus has outlined the way. And like Abram, like Nicodemus, we have a choice. We can choose to retreat back to the cave of darkness, or we can hear God’s call and walk toward the light of Christ in faith, trusting that, like the church in San Diego, the broken, cracked overhang of our lives really is supported by unseen structures.


— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson currently serves as priest-in-charge at Saint David’s Episcopal Church in San Diego, California. Prior to moving to San Diego she served at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City for over three year in the areas of strategic planning and collaboration, Center direction, and small church ministries. She has also served in congregations in New Zealand and Carmel, California. She is a graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a proud mum of three teens and a tween.