I remember as a child watching football games on TV. At some point, the camera would focus on the kick after a touchdown and there in the camera shot was a man with a colorful wig holding up a sign.
Do you remember the man carrying the sign? Have you ever seen that sign at a sporting event?
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life." (KJV)
If there is any passage in scripture that we have memorized this is it. Martin Luther said, the Gospel, the Good news of Jesus is summed up in John 3:16. It is the Gospel in miniature.
But why did Jesus say this? Why to Nicodemus?
I believe Jesus wanted Nicodemus to think about his faith. Likewise, Jesus is asking us to think about our faith, both its abundance and its lack. For instance, if God asked you to leave your home in Monroe, to leave your kindred, your extended family, and close friends, to a land that God would show you, would you do it? Do you think you would call God crazy? Would you consider yourself crazy? In the story from Genesis, Abram does just that! Abram, who we know better as Abraham, went as the Lord told him, he went with Sara his wife and his nephew Lot and took all their possessions. For this act, the Lord blesses them! His faith was without complaint; he acted on what the Lord asked, they traveled to this new land, just beyond Bethel, up near Danbury maybe.
In Romans, Paul remembers Abraham for his faith. Not because he did some valiant work: he didn't start any soup kitchens, he didn't rescue any one, he didn't start a reading program for at-risk kids. He wasn't following any Law. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. It wasn't his deeds, it wasn't his background, it wasn't his bloodline and it wasn't his circumcision. Abraham simply believed and trusted in God and obeyed. That is Faith. Its what Abraham had. Its what Paul was talking about. And its what brought Nicodemus to Jesus.
Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night so he can't be easily seen by others, especially the other Pharisees. He knows about Jesus, and has taken the first step of belief, the first step of faith, but he tries to use reason to understand a point Jesus is making. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, Jesus said. To Nicodemus this made no sense. Does it make sense in our time? There are many in our country who call themselves born-again Christians. To them it makes sense. It makes sense to me in light of what we say at Baptism: that in Baptism we are reborn by the Holy Spirit, for those who are baptized are cleansed from sin and born again. And in this baptism, is Faith in Jesus.
It is through faith that we understand God's gift to us. The gift is the grace of God, the grace that gives us the spirit as a free gift. Not something we have earned. Not something we have by birthright. "The spirit blows where it will; so it is with everyone born of the Spirit." Says Jesus. We have no control of the Spirit. But we need to have Faith.
Nicodemus tries to understand but falls short. He uses literalism and then tries to reason out what Jesus says. Reason of course is helpful. Knowledge is useful. However, we will ultimately understand only through faith. Faith holds both knowledge and mystery together. Faith compels us to do things when knowledge or reason would hold us back. We don't know what Nicodemus did after his visit with Jesus. Did he have faith? I don't know. What is most important is what we do with our faith. That is, what we do out of our being born of water and the Spirit, which is Baptism.
Frederick Buechner wrote, "We believe in God - such as it is, we have faith - because certain things happened to us once and go on happening. We work and goof off, we love and dream, we have wonderful times and awful times, are cruelly hurt and hurt others cruelly, get mad and bored and scared stiff and ache with desire, do all such human things as these, and if our faith is not mainly just window dressing or a rabbit's foot or fire insurance, it is because it grows out of precisely this kind of rich human compost. The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or worse we are being most human, most ourselves; and if we lose touch with those moments, if we don't stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us and around us and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God too."
Lent is our time to stop and notice, to take inventory of ourselves, of who we are and what we do, to reflect and to make new commitments, so we don’t lose touch with our faith. And we remember what love God has given to us. As we have just past St. Valentine’s Day, I think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous love poem
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height…
and our faith is in God who loves us in countless ways, who in turn asks of us to live out of that faith in the depth and breadth and height of love. Like Abraham who went as the Lord had told him. Like Paul. Like the man with the silly wig carrying the sign… all of them a reminder to me of my faith, and its proclamation in who I am and what I do. A faith that is based on love.
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. (NRSV)