Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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John 3:1-17 Nicodemus Visits Jesus
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 said to you, “You 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 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? 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.
Today’s reading, about a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is only in the book of John. Sometimes the Gospel stories reference old Bible stories to help us understand who Jesus is. I think today’s reading has one of the strangest references to a Hebrew Bible story in any of Gospels. It’s that part about the snake in the wilderness. John 3:16 usually gets all the attention. But, I think 3:14 is pretty important, too. And, that verse has a serpent we need to learn about.
Does anyone remember what time of day Nicodemus came to talk to Jesus? That’s right. He came to see him at night. According to Karoline Smith, who wrote a book about the Gospel of John, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because he’s afraid that his fellow Pharisees will not approve of him having friendly conversations with Jesus. So, he went out when it was dark and maybe when other people were asleep, so he could hide from people who might not like what he is doing.
Something we should remember when reading all the Gospels is that they each were written by a person. And, each writer makes choices about how to introduce people to Jesus. Now, all the Gospels show Jesus performing miracles. John is the only one where the writer says that Jesus performs miracles specifically to prove himself to be the Messiah. In the chapter about John in his introduction to the New Testament, Bart Ehrman points out that over in chapter 20: 30-31, it says: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you many come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.” So, in John, you have to see Jesus to believe in him.
One of the first things Nicodemus says to Jesus is that he saw performing miracles, and seeing those miracles makes him believe that the power Jesus has has come from God. Because of what he has seen, Nicodemus also wants to talk to Jesus and wants to ask him some important questions about faith. It is in their conversation about faith that the snake part of the story shows up. The serpent is a reference to a story in the book of Numbers where Moses lifts up a serpent in the wilderness. When you go read that story in Numbers, it turns out that that story is also about people seeing something that shows them God’s power.
The book of Numbers is a book that is mostly set during the wilderness travels of the Exodus. It is the book where most of Jewish religious law is collected, too. That means it’s a book where people learn what it means to follow God and not the Pharaoh, whom they had ran away from. Part of following God is living with a new kind of freedom as well as responsibility to love God and love neighbor. That is different from what Pharaoh wanted.
The part of the story with the snakes happens in chapter 21. The people 40 years into their journey in the wilderness. Even though God has been taking care of them... providing mana and quails in the desert for decades now, the stress of the journey has been wearing on them. They have started to be afraid that God will not continue to provide for them. They also, not for the first time, have grown impatient. They do what a lot of impatient people do: Complain.
God is kind of cranky in that story, too. After 40 years, God is tired of hearing people complain about the food, and probably a little tired of hearing questions about whether or not God will keep taking care of them. So, God decides to teach the people a lesson. Now, I don’t think God makes people sick on purpose or hurts people on purpose. I do think that sometimes, when people are trying to make sense of something hard they are going through, they will decide that God is doing the hard thing. In this case, somebody decided that God has sent them a plague of poisonous snakes.
If you know anything about snakes, you know that unless you are mouse, they are not going to chase you down. For a snake to bite a person, usually the person has to be making it mad or scaring it. So, this plague of snakes is kind of an accident waiting to happen. The snakes aren’t chasing people down, but there are so many that it’s hard to avoid them. The last time I preached on this text was the Sunday before we closed our building up at the beginning of covid. I think the last three years have shown us how difficult is to have a danger all around, that is technically possible to avoid, but often only with the most cautious, vigilant behavior, and with lots of people being willing to be just as cautious as you are.
In the Bible story, as in real life, when a threat is abundant, people will end up succumbing to it. Enough people were bitten that the people grew afraid, and blamed themselves for what happened. They begged Moses to intervene with God and get rid of the snakes. Moses prayed on their behalf. God decided to help, but not in the way the people expected. God didn’t take away the snakes, but God does give them a way to be healed when they do get bit by a snake. God had them build a bronze snake. When they looked at it, they were healed.
Who here would like a statue that would heal you when you look at it? I think that would be pretty neat. That being said, what does a random statue in the book of Numbers have to do with Jesus? Remember, the book of numbers is about people learning to live a life that showed that they loved God and loved their neighbors. Sometimes they forget to do that and have to learn how to do it all over again. Numbers names some things people did when they forgot how God said they should behave: they would become jealous, start hoarding food, start being mean to each other and to their leaders... start to believe God wouldn’t help them anymore. These behaviors are avoidable, like a snake, but sometimes you need to see a sign to remind you of the danger. The snake statue was that sign. I think the author of John knew that story about that snake statue as a sign in the wilderness and decided that Jesus himself could be a similar kind of sign.
There are ways that Jesus and the snake statue are similar. Jesus heals people who come to see him. People are healed with they look at the snake statue. And, the presence of a healing statue and a healing teacher both show people that God, who created both them, was at work in the world, offering people a way to be healed when something bad has happened. I think the author of John believed that people could practice living in a way that would help them to remember that God would take care of them and that they should take care of each other. Nicodemus is scared, like the people in the desert in Numbers. He needs a sign that God is at work in the world. He sees Jesus, who is that sign, like the snake was a sign to remind the people in Numbers. And, this sign brings healing.
I wish I knew how Nicodemus is changed by his conversation with Jesus. It’s too bad that we don’t hear from him again in John. But, what I hope happened is that what he saw in Jesus that night in the dark healed him of his fear. I hope it helped him begin anew his walk of faith. And, I hope what he does in the daylight reflects the love and eternal life he learned about from Christ in the dark. May we, too, be willing to be open to new beginnings and healing from Christ.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5075
Karoline Lewis: John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Melissa Bane Sevier: https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/snakes-on-a-plain/
Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.