This story of Nicodemus and Jesus in the garden–the way Nicodemus seems to have snuck away to see Jesus at night, Jesus’ teachings, this image of two men surrounded by the sounds of crickets and big green trees (fine, that last one’s my own image, and Israel is nothing like that, but that’s what I always picture)–is one that we all know. It’s a classic, so to speak.
I’ve heard a lot of sermons on this Scripture–and when I think back on them, the feeling I get is sly, exasperated laughter on behalf of Nicodemus: come on, man. You weren’t even brave enough to go see Jesus during the day. You come to see Jesus, and then you just don’t get it. You keep asking all these dumb questions even though it’s obvious what Jesus means!
And I hate that.
Instead, this story reminds me of this time I was with my mom. We’d just driven by an optometrist’s office, and I asked her what an optometrist does. “I?” she asked, and I said, “No, O.” “I,” she said again, more insistent, and I insisted, “O,” and we went back and forth a few more times before I said, “It starts with an O,” and she says, “An optometrist is an eye doctor” and we were trying to have two different conversations: I was trying to spell the word for her and she was trying to tell me what an optometrist does.
Nicodemus is trying to compliment Jesus: ‘Only someone who has been sent by God could do the things you do.’ And Jesus, being Jesus, goes off on a non-sequitur: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus, being equally unsure what the heck that has to do with Jesus being a godly teacher, asks how, exactly, that is supposed to work: Do we… enter the womb again? Because, you know, coming out the first time was difficult enough, for everyone involved.
And Jesus is off, talking about wind and spirit and heaven and God and what is happening?
We talk about Nicodemus like he should have known that Jesus wasn’t being literal, he should have known what Jesus meant. But come on. Besides the fact that Jesus says weird stuff all the time, it’s not as easy as that. If we’re being honest, we know that. We still struggle to listen for what God is saying to us. God says weird things to us today, or we struggle with Scripture, or we’re just not sure we’ve heard right, or we struggle to hear at all.
This is one of those passages that brings out the judgment: I know what Jesus meant. Obviously Jesus meant this, or that. You don’t understand it in the same way I do, so you must be utterly and completely wrong.
And on the one hand, I get it. This is a passage about eternal life, about why Jesus came to earth and what it means for us. That’s important. That’s central to our faith. And we want to get it right, we want to understand it.
And also: calm down. Seriously. Take a deep breath. Feel the air in your lungs. Remember what Jesus said about the wind, how we don’t know where it’s come from or where it’s going. What do we know about air? The way it fills our lungs and gets into our bloodstream and keeps us alive is a total miracle–I mean, yes, give me ten minutes on Google and I could explain the science to you, but even armed with that knowledge: we don’t control this process. We cannot make the air around us do anything. We can barely control our own lungs.
And if we bring it back to faith, to salvation, to God’s grace in our lives: we don’t control that either. We can theorize and theologize all we want about how salvation works this way or that way, how we’re inside and they’re outside because they’re doing it all wrong and only we understand exactly what Jesus meant, but that is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.
That task of salvation is God’s prerogative, God’s task, God’s joy. That is not something we can accomplish by ourselves, with our perfect beliefs–because our beliefs aren’t perfect. We’re doing our best, we are striving to understand correctly and follow correctly and live correctly, but we are not all that successful. As Paul said (1 Corinthians 13:12), now we see in a mirror dimly–one day we will see clearly, but for now we see only dimly, and we do our best to follow.
Salvation is something God does. And whatever boxes we try to put it in–whatever system we build up to say, “This is how God does it, this is how God chooses who is good enough, this is the process we can work through so that God will absolutely save you”–that is not how this works. Salvation is God’s act of grace for us. There is nothing we can do to earn it or make it happen.
Some people find that frightening. Or maybe it’s better to say that we find that frightening, at some time or another. But it’s also freeing. We don’t have to do anything. There is not one single thing we have to do to get this gift that God has offered to us, because it is an act God’s grace. We don’t have to believe just so, or pray just so, or act just so. We don’t have to follow a certain set of rules, we don’t have to be a certain kind of person, we don’t have to go to a certain kind of church. We don’t have to be good enough to get this free gift of God.
And this is good news because of who God is: “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.” God loves us. God wants good and beautiful things for each one of us, and Jesus came so that we could receive them.
And that–that is good news. That is a gift. That is a reason to rejoice.
Alleluia, and amen.