Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, March 12, 2017
Scripture: John 3:1-11, 16-17
In 1967, the Beatles released a 45 rpm record that gave the music industry quite a jolt. On one side of the 45 was the song, “Penny Lane”, written by Paul McCartney; on the other side was “Strawberry Fields Forever”, written by John Lennon.
Both songs recalled locales from The Beatles’ childhood years. Penny Lane was a bus stop where Paul McCartney as a boy would catch rides to go meet up with his friends. Strawberry Fields was a children’s home run by the Salvation Army which had a garden where John Lennon and his friends would go to play.
So, 1967, here’s this 45 rpm record, two songs recalling childhood gathering spots with friends, both songs by the same quartet, the Beatles. But, that’s where the similarities ended.
Lyrically and instrumentally, these two songs diverged dramatically. “Penny Lane” has lots of place references that anyone could recognize; there’s a bus stop and a fire house and a bank and a barber shop. Those are common reference points for most anyone. The tune of “Penny Lane” is bright and lyrical and vibrant and very accessible.
Then, you flip over the 45 and play “Strawberry Fields Forever”. It goes off into some whole other direction known as “psychedelic”. The lyrics are more like riddles, the tune keeps shifting keys, the tempo is weird. They did things with the editing in the studio that just weren’t done in producing a typical pop song of the day.
D.J.’s, fans, other bands, record executives, wondered: “what in the world is this record, with this strange song, “Strawberry Fields Forever”? Most of all, they wanted to know, “how can we possibly get in on it?” Because, this standard 45 rpm record The Beatles had put out there on the market clearly was something new and significant that marked a major shift in popular music.
That’s something of what Jesus was doing. Yes, what Jesus did was a early first century Palestinian version of The Beatles’ 1967 release. Nicodemus and his brethren on the Sanhedrin, they could follow along and tap their toes to the “Penny Lane” variations of their faith. Then, along came Jesus on the flip side. He took the words and the tunes and the tempos of that same faith inheritance and reconfigured them into a different kind of “Strawberry Fields Forever” song.
All the Jesus-fans; other rabbis; especially, that exclusive group of religion executives known as the Sanhedrin; they all wondered, “What in the world is that Jesus from Nazareth is putting out there?”
One of these religion executives named Nicodemus considered whether he might like to get in on whatever this new thing was that Jesus was doing. On the surface, Jesus spoke of things with which Nicodemus could identify, because he and Jesus shared many common points of understanding of God. Yet, Jesus’ way was so different as to be downright impenetrable to Nicodemus. He wants to know and to understand what the lyrics mean that are coming out of Jesus.
Knowing and understanding. Knowing and understanding were to Nicodemus what making music is to a musician. Knowing and understanding the things of God are what Nicodemus thrives on. Could it be that this young rabbi from Nazareth knows and understands something of God that he’s missed, something that’s more or different? He has to be very careful about these questions he has, given his position in the religion business.
This has to be a private meeting between him and Jesus; no one else can know. So, Nicodemus goes out after hours and catches up with Jesus. It’s nighttime. It’s a great time to skulk about; the sun gone down, everybody gone home, shut their doors, gone to bed.
Nicodemus finds Jesus. He begins with what seems to be a safe-enough statement, there in verse 2. “we know that you are a teacher come from God”.
Nicodemus is hedging when he says “we”. He’s hiding his own doubts, in the safety of the larger group of Sanhedrin. His encounter might go badly, word somehow might get back to the Council that he’s met with Jesus–who know exactly what Nicodemus’ fears were? He’s covering his backside: “Well, that’s not what I really thought; it’s what everyone else thought…it’s the safety of the group.
But, likely, the “we” of whom Nicodemus speaks doesn’t really include many others of the Council, if any at all, in fact. I seriously doubt that Nicodemus took a straw poll earlier that day among his fellow execs in the Sanhedrin.
Nicodemus is out there on his own, under cover of darkness, because this is his personal quest to know and to understand Jesus.
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.
Nicodemus extends Jesus the courtesy of acknowledging Jesus’ standing as a rabbi. He offers Jesus a degree of religious authority, which Jesus should have received as a great honor coming from a member of the Sanhedrin.
It’s like the elder, senior executive coming into the cubical of a lowly entry-level employee and saying, “I’m sure you’ve got some great ideas that you might to share with me so I can better run this great company.”
Jesus says, “nope; not playing that game with you.” Whatever Jesus has to say to Nicodemus will come from within Jesus’ own sense of authority, whether Nicodemus chooses to acknowledge it or not. “Not sure who this ‘we’ may be, Nicodemus, nor what you all think you know about me, but truly, truly, I say to you, this is what I do know.” Jesus speaks out of his own authority.
Three times Jesus will set himself in counterpoint to Nicodemus, each time beginning with Truly, truly, I say to you. He does it immediately in verse 3, in verse 5 and in verse 11.
With his first, “truly, truly” in verse 3, Jesus pivots off Nicodemus’s status as a religious elder. Nicodemus has earned his standing through education, through religious service and leadership, through the wisdom of his long years. That’s how he’s come to receive this great honor of serving on the Sanhedrin Council. Jesus tosses it all out the window in verse 3.
Truly, truly, I say to you, Nicodemus, unless one is born anew…born over again…born from above…he cannot see the kingdom of God. The phrase is a little ambiguous, whether it’s “born anew”, or “born over again” or “born from above”.
Nicodemus chooses to go with the literal and silliest choice, “born over again.” How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born? Thanks for that image, Nicodemus!
But, Jesus runs with it, with his “Truly, truly” number two, in verse 5: Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Some folks like to see “born of water” as referring to baptism; that’s possible.
But, I agree with others who think Jesus is playing off of Nicodemus’s reference to physical birth when he says “born of water”. That’s the moment when the expectant Mom announces to everybody that her water’s broken; get me to the hospital! In that watery moment, the process of physical birthing has begun.
There also is a process of spiritual birthing that must begin. It begins with the Holy Spirit generating spiritual life within a person. That’s the way one enters this spiritual reality Jesus likes to call, “the kingdom of God”. You and I can’t generate nor sustain spiritual life. We can’t do that. We’re mortal; we do well just to keep our mortal selves alive and healthy, and eventually, we can’t even do that.
Only the Holy Spirit of God can infuse and sustain the eternal life-force within mortal beings. This is what Jesus means in verse 6, flesh gives birth to flesh; the Spirit of God births spirit.
This verse 6 opens up the way for a digression worth making. “Flesh gives birth to flesh; the Spirit of God births spirit.” In other words, my mother could birth me as her mortal child. But however hard she tried, Mom could not birth me as God’s eternal child. The only mom that ever got to do that was Mary, mother of Jesus.
God dearly loves every single baby ever born to any mom, anywhere, at any time. God fully intends that every infant mature across the years of childhood into an awareness beyond herself or himself, into an awareness of God’s intimate love for them, a love which they then embrace for themselves.
A child may be a royal terror to adults, but that doesn’t make the child a sinner in God’s sight. That just makes them children who need the guidance and discipline of the adults responsible for them.
Well, what about babies and children and original sin? For the most part, a lot of what is said about original sin is just a bunch of religious trash talk. Babies are not born tainted by some sort of original sin which would, therefore, mean they are born already cursed of God. The only curse children are born into is being born into a world corrupted by the sins of those who’ve come before them.
It works this way: God’s love reaches out in constant pleasure upon every child, the way sunlight warms the ground drawing forth the seed to germinate and sprout and bear fruit. That’s the Holy Spirit working, and the process often goes as God intends. Tragically, too often this response to God’s love gets delayed and delayed and delayed, and the ground becomes hardened and thorn-infested and besieged by prey, as Jesus once described in a well-known parable, the Parable of the Sower.
That’s why the Lord sends workers out to chase away the prey and rip up the thorns and break open the hard ground and plant new seed: that our call to evangelism: “good news! God still loves you despite the years that have gone by and despite whatever you’ve been doing all those years.”
O.k., that’s the end of our digression on verse 6.
Apparently, verse 6 confuses Nicodemus; we can assume that based on what Jesus says in verse 7, Don’t look so befuddled, Nicodemus, that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew’”. So, Jesus switches metaphors. Instead of birth, he talks about the wind.
Jesus uses the same word for “wind” that can also be translated as “Spirit”, so not only is Jesus switching up metaphors, he also is making a pun. The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.
The wind is always blowing somewhere. The elements of wind are always present: you’ve got the atmosphere itself and the heating and cooling and low pressure fronts and the high pressure fronts slipping under and over each other and creating atmospheric turbulence we call the wind. The wind is always moving and interacting with everything in its path.
The point Jesus is making to Nicodemus is: we don’t command the wind. The wind is simply there, and the wind does its own thing. All we can do is experience its presence and its effects upon us.
So, Jesus says to Nicodemus, to enter the kingdom of God, this community of God’s beloved, is like a baby born of the parents’ love and essence; or, to come alive to God is like being awakened by the wind brushing across one’s face: that’s what the moment of entering God’s Kingdom is like, Nicodemus, says Jesus.
No doubt, by this time finding himself thoroughly exasperated, verse nine reports, “Nicodemus asked Jesus, ‘How can this be?’ To which Jesus answered, ‘Really? Are you a religious person who claims to lead others but you don’t get this most basic truth?’”
Which leads Jesus to his third declaration. This third “truly, truly” takes them full circle to where Nicodemus started off this little chat in the dark. Remember, Nicodemus started off in verse 2 by claiming what “we” know based on what “we” have witnessed.
So, in verse 11, Jesus says, Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; [the problem lies with you all, Nicodemus, for] you do not receive our testimony.
Receiving. Receiving. Maybe that’s the problem. Nicodemus and his fellow execs on the Sanhedrin are not the folks accustomed to “receiving” anything, especially things of God. Instead, they are the ones who pass judgment, who hand out decisions, who issue the orders. They’re not geared to receiving; they’re in charge.
With each of these three declarations, Jesus hammers away at Nicodemus’s sense of control and entitlement and authority over matters of God and Spirit. This unseen yet present reality we call the Kingdom of God, says Jesus, you don’t choose that life: that life first must come to you, and you follow the Spirit.
Well, where does that leave us? It leaves us mortals in pretty bad fix is where it leaves us. It leaves us with absolutely no hope except one: that God chooses to give us that birth, to send that invigorating wind, to impress of that testimony upon our souls. God alone, saves us. So, it’s a very good thing God is in a saving frame of mind toward humanity.
One Saturday, Karen and I went strawberry picking in a beautiful strawberry field out in Nelson County. As we started picking berries at the end of our row of strawberry plants, a young family with two little kids started picking berries just a few rows over. One of the children was a little boy probably 3 years old, maybe 4.
At the very first plant he comes to, the little boy says: “Daddy, daddy, I found a strawberry!” “O.K.,” says Dad, “pull it off and put it in your bucket.” Two seconds later, the little boy with great delight shouts, “Daddy, I found another one!” “O.K. If it looks like it’s ripe, then pull it off and put it in your bucket.”
A third time this little boy announces with great surprise and delight to his parents, “I found another one!” Then, he seemed to catch on: there were strawberries everywhere around him to be found. So, he settled in to picking and filling his little bucket.
Jesus spoke of birth and wind, and I’m using strawberries. Spread before us, children of God and children of this world, are acres of strawberry fields, up the hillside and on over the rise beyond where we can yet see; “strawberry fields forever”. We do not have to worry about God providing fresh strawberries for us to find.
God is generous beyond our asking or imagining or desiring. God has caused to spring up at our feet and all around us as far as the soul’s eye might see, the rich fruit of God’s own Self, God’s own Spirit.
But will we see, as with that child’s delight, “I found one!” God most certainly will then say to us, “well, pull it off and receive it…it’s yours to have.”
This was and is and always shall be our salvation. In whatever way your soul perceives the Spirit of God testifying to you, in whatever way you as a congregation discern the Spirit of God leading you, then, please, “pick that fruit and put it in your bucket” while it’s still in season.