When we were growing up, my parents bought a brand-new Apple computer. It was a big blocky thing, with that hard plastic that always makes me think of early 90’s computers, the monitor a big cube, and really, really tall keys on the keyboard that clacked when you typed. My mom did a lot of work on the computer—she was just starting to take my grandmother’s genealogy work under her wing, so she was typing up all my grandma’s handwritten notes.
Somewhere along the way, my mom got really good at typing. Like, between her and my brother, they are really, really fast typists. But with this early-90’s Apple computer, the processing speed…well, it wasn’t quite up to snuff. So my mom found it very entertaining to rapidly type out sentence after sentence, then stop and watch as the cursor raced across the screen, catching up to her already-typed letters.
We live in an age of fast things. We get our food fast—I remember the big flashing clock making sure our drive-thru time stayed under three minutes a car when I worked at Hardee’s. We get all kinds of services done in the click of a button—everything from bank transfers to whole mortgage applications can be done in an instant. We even expect our deliveries to be completed in two business days thanks to Amazon. And, in a way, I think we’ve come to expect that everything will more or less catch up to this instantaneous fulfillment.
But, as Nicodemus found out, some things just don’t work like that.
Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night to sit with him and learn what he had to teach. And Nicodemus was a pretty smart guy! He was a teacher among his own people, a member of the Sanhedrin (the high court of the Judeans), a man deeply devoted to knowing and being known. He was curious about Jesus, and he wanted to learn. And I think, at least some part of him probably figured a night of conversation with Jesus would set him well on his way to understanding what Jesus was preaching.
But he got stuck right away on being born anew.
It’s not that Nicodemus didn’t realize Jesus was speaking in metaphors. Instead, it was the radicalness of what Jesus was suggesting that put him off. Being born anew wasn’t just a matter of interpreting a law or two differently, or putting some extra rigor into good practice—the kinds of things he probably expected a rabbi to suggest. Being born anew meant starting over. It meant abandoning all that he had built up. It meant being like Abraham, leaving everything familiar around him to go into some unknown place with nothing but trust in God to guide him.
And that would be super hard, because Nicodemus had a lot to lose if he started over. He’d already reached the best years of his life, where he was respected and honored in his community. He was wealthy—wealthy enough to get on the Sanhedrin where the important decisions were made. He was well-known and well-liked, necessitating a night visit to this radical rabbi that might raise some gossip. He had a lot going for him, and risking all of that was something he couldn’t quite wrap his head around.
But that’s just how radical Jesus’ call to be born anew is. It means surrendering those things in our lives that hold us back from fulfilling our baptismal promises to love our neighbor, serve the needy, and build God’s kingdom in the world.
Our abundance of things makes us suspicious of Jesus when he tells us to give to the needy without expecting anything in return.
Our unearned social standing that centers our story as the default makes us wary of Jesus when he tells us that we must become servants of others and give our place to someone lower on the social ladder than we are.
Our trust in the power of violence to preserve peace sets us at odds with Jesus when he commands us to pray for our enemies and turn the other cheek to those who would strike us.
Being born anew involves a lot of risk, enough that we, like Nicodemus, can end up trying to split hairs to figure out what Jesus really means by all of that stuff he said rather than just listening to the words. We can end up probing the depths of metaphors trying to discover that what Jesus really meant isn’t something that would require we change anything about ourselves. But Jesus doesn’t back down. Jesus doesn’t water down his message so that we can keep everything in the exact same place as if Jesus never said a thing.
And that’s hard. It’s hard like birth is hard.
But it’s also not the end of the story for Nicodemus.
See, Nicodemus shows up two more times in John’s gospel. There’s this reading here, where he first asks Jesus to teach him, where he totally botches the lesson and comes away more confused than when he began.
The next time we see him is at the Sanhedrin, and instead of sitting with Jesus he’s watching over Jesus in chains. He still had that conversation held in his mind, that he needed to let go of whatever got in the way of sharing the hope of the kingdom of God in the world. In that moment, the most he could muster was to argue a technicality—some arcane point of procedure in Jewish Law that was being overlooked that might be able to save Jesus from the cross. He wasn’t willing to risk it all.
And the last time we see Nicodemus he is with Joseph of Arimathea, asking for Jesus’ body. And this was risky. This was end-your-career-and-everything-else-with-it risky. Because Jesus was crucified by Pilate as a traitor to Rome. A criminal of the worst variety. He was asking to honor this traitorous rebel with a decent burial. And in that moment, Nicodemus, finally understood that Jesus meant it when he said you had to be born anew, to risk everything, to let go of all the attachments that keep you from serving the kingdom.
Nicodemus is a reminder to us that we don’t have to “get it” right away. He shows us that we can struggle, take half-measures, mess it up. But he also shows us that trusting Jesus takes time. It doesn’t happen all at once for most of us. But it can be done. This wealthy, well-connected, well-respected man eventually got to the place where he was willing to blacken his name if it meant he was serving God’s call for him to build the kingdom.
So where can we grow? Where are we still on the fence about trusting Jesus to take the lead? What is keeping us from giving to those in need, making ourselves servants of others, sharing the light of hope in places of despair, speaking out for justice, praying for our enemies? It’s not something we do overnight. We can’t all be like Abraham, pulling up stakes to go wherever God leads without question. But we can be like Nicodemus. We can grow. We can wonder, and be confused, and try, and do better next time.
And I hope each of us takes the time to wonder what God is calling us to surrender so that we can serve the work of the kingdom more fully. I hope each of us grows deep enough in trust in Jesus that we can be born anew, shedding everything that keeps us from loving God and neighbor, and lets us see the kingdom of God. Even if it’s not right now.
Thanks be to God. Amen.