Isaiah 6:1-8; Ps 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Those of you who were here last Sunday will remember that the service was taken by Rev’d Dr. Christopher Swift. He told me of a surprising headline in a Cambridge local newspaper which reported “Anglican Christians sunk by Trinity“. This extraordinary headline is explained by the fact that Westcott House, a Church of England theological College and Trinity College were engaged in the ‘Bumps’, a rowing race where boats are sent off at intervals and gain places by catching and touching the boat ahead. On this occasion the ‘bump’ was more aggressive than usual and the boat sank. And why did Dr. Swift remember this? Well he was rowing in the Westcott boat, and got an early bath! Back to today.
When I first looked at the readings for today I was disappointed for two reasons. Firstly, it appeared to have no immediate link with the ‘Trinity’; the fact that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and secondly, because the subject matter was difficult to understand. So where would I start and what could I say?
Mind you I did have a connection with the verse John 3, 16. It was on Palm Sunday back in 1943, when a Beach Missionary came to visit the Plymouth Brethren Chapel where my family used to worship. At the end of the evening service, he did a ‘Billy Graham’, and asked if anyone wished to give their life to Christ, and I went up. Later we had a talk, and after I had convinced him that I was sure about the step I had taken, he showed me the text of John 3 16, saying that throughout his life he had found great strength in the words, “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.” I commend it to you.
Now the reason that we may find the passage hard to understand is that Jesus was talking to one of the sharpest minds in Jerusalem. The passage has a lot about ‘new birth’, and some very active Christians go about asking, ‘Have you been born again?’ For some, the moment they accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour can be quite traumatic, like Saul on the road to Damascus. He went blind and changed his name to Paul.
For me, and I am sure it is the same for many, it was not traumatic, as although I was only a school boy, I had come to believe and trust in God over a period of time. What matters most, is not that you can remember and define the time when you were reborn or ‘born from above’, but that you are alive now, and that your present life, day by day and moment by moment, is showing evidence of health and strength and purpose of living in the way that God intends.
Where there are signs of life, it’s more important to feed and nurture it, than to spend much time going over and over what happened at the moment of birth. In fact, what Jesus says to Nicodemus is more sharply focused than we sometimes think. The Judaism that Nicodemus and Jesus both knew had a good deal to do with being born into the right family.
Being born from above is different.
To bring people into the kingdom-movement we have the baptism in water begun by John the Baptist and continued by Jesus’ disciples, and today we will be welcoming Natasha into the Church when she is baptised later.
Closely joined to the water baptism, is the baptism in the spirit, the new life, bubbling up from within, that Jesus offers. In this passage, Jesus is explaining how this double-sided new birth, which brings you into the visible community of Jesus’ followers, firstly water-baptism and then spirit baptism, which gives you the new life of the spirit welling up inside you, that both were now required for membership into God’s kingdom.
Indeed (as Jesus says in verse 3), without it you can’t even see God’s kingdom. You can’t glimpse it, let alone get into it.
But the point of this is that God’s kingdom is now thrown open to anyone and everyone. The spirit is on the move, like a fresh spring breeze, and no human family, tribe, or gathering can keep up with it. (It is interesting to note that the word for ‘wind’, in both Hebrew and Greek, is the same word as you’d use for ‘spirit’). Opening the window and letting the breeze in can sometimes be inconvenient, especially for the Nicodemuses of this world who suppose they have got everthing tidied up, labelled and sorted into neat piles. But unless we are prepared to listen to this dangerous message we aren’t ready to listen to the gospel at all.
In verses 10-13 we have the first of many passages in which Jesus speaks about a new knowledge – indeed, a new sort of knowing. It’s a way of knowing that comes from God, from heaven. It’s humbling for Nicodemus to have to be told this. He is, after all, a respected and senior teacher. But this way of knowing, and the new knowledge we get through it, is given by the mysterious ‘son of man’, God in human form. And I would suggest that it is from this new way of knowing that we get our first understanding of the truth about the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit working together in love.
Do not expect to fully understand the mystery that the Trinity is, just believe and accept that Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit work together divinely as one. In the first chapter of John we are told that, Jesus is now the ladder which joins the two dimensions of God’s world, the heavenly and the earthly. If we want to understand not only the heavenly world, but the way in which God is now joining heaven and earth together, we must listen to him, and walk with him on the road he will show us.
Jesus then reflects back to the Book of Numbers and the time when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. They grumbled against Moses, and poisonous snakes invaded their camp, killing many of them. God gave Moses the remedy: he was to make a serpent out of bronze, put it on a pole and hold it up for people to look at. Anyone who looked at the serpent on the pole would live. The serpent entwined around the pole, is still used as a symbol and as a sign of healing, and is used by various medical organizations, including the medical branches of the armed services.
In this verse, Jesus is clearly pointing to his own death.
Moses put the serpent on a pole, and lifted it up so the people could see it;
even so, the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Humankind as a whole has been smitten with the deadly disease of sin. The only cure is to look at the son of man dying on the cross, and find life through believing in him. This is very deep and mysterious, but we must ask: how can the crucifixion of Jesus be like putting the snake on a pole?
But evil isn’t then healed, as it were, automatically. Precisely because the evil of sin lurks deep within each of us, for healing to take place we must ourselves be involved in the process. This doesn’t mean that we just have to try a lot harder to be good. You might as well try to teach a snake to sing. All we can do, just as it was all the Israelites could do, is to look and trust:
to look at Jesus, to see in him the full display of God’s saving love, and to trust in him. .
In the first chapter of John, he speaks of the great divide, which he describes in terms of darkness and light. Believing in Jesus means coming to the light, the light of God’s new creation. Not believing means remaining in the darkness. The darkness (and those who embrace it) must be condemned. It must be condemned because evil is destroying and defacing the present world, and preventing people coming forward into God’s new world (into ‘eternal life’; that is, the life of the age to come). ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’. The point of the whole story is that you don’t have to be condemned. You don’t have to let the snake kill you. God’s action in the crucifixion of Jesus has planted a sign in the middle of history.
And the sign says: believe, and live.