“Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
We continue our series on the Gospel of John and I wish to begin this morning by making two points of a general nature concerning the Fourth Gospel. The first over-arching point is that the Fourth Gospel is full of a particular genera that people over the years have come to refer to as the Johannine Discourses. This nocturnal encounter with Nicodemus, his intimate and extraordinarily open conversation with the Woman at the Well, the Bread of Heaven discourse, the Light of the World, the Good Shepherd, and the farewell discourse are all examples. There are of course discourses in the other Gospels like the Sermon the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain, the long set of instructions he gave to his disciples in Matthew 10, and Matthew 18, which is sometimes called the Discourse on the Church which includes the parable of the Lost Sheep as well as the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. But there is a conspicuous difference between the discourses of the first three Gospels and the Johannine Discourses. The center of the Johannine Discourse, every one of them, is Jesus himself — his identity and his mission. Up until the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus had spoken hardly a word about himself and then all of a sudden he declared that Temple worship has been transferred from the stone and mortar Temple they were standing in, to the Temple of his Body. And now with John 3 our Lord speaks even more openly with Nicodemus about his identity and his mission. From here on through John, Jesus opens up his full identity to the people he is forming as his disciples. So to summarize: in the first three Gospels, Jesus’ discourses are about the fruit of his mission — the Church, the Kingdom of God, the behavior of his disciples in the Church and in the world. But in the Gospel of John all that is collateral to Jesus himself: his true identity and his mission.
Secondly, over many years of studying the Gospel of John, I confess that I have had the feeling that in some sense the deck is stacked against Nicodemus and the Pharisees, as well as others. I used to have some sympathy for them. At times Jesus seems to be deliberately obscure, even evasive. Who could possibly have known right then and there that he was talking about his own body and not the brick and mortar Temple they were standing in? And look at Nicodemus. I used to wonder whether Nicodemus was stupid or more likely, whether he was intentionally provocative and cynically taking what Jesus said in the most literalistic and absurd manner possible. It can look like a fatuous game: Jesus says, “Temple” and I am supposed to know he mean his body. Really? Or, Jesus says you have to be born again and you say: “What? Can I enter a second time into my mother’s womb and be born?” Why not when Jesus says, “Be harmless as doves” you say, “Oh, now I am supposed to lay eggs, sprout feathers and fly away?” I say, I used to have some sympathy for them, but no longer. These are men and women who love darkness; they and their children and their communities are materialists, naive empiricists, captives of the literal, historical level of things: To know the true, the good, and the beautiful all I have to do is to take a look at what is there. And because they are confined to the literal, historical reality they are always missing what the Fathers called the “mystical” meaning of the event and that is of all things the most important meaning for you to grasp. The mystical meaning, as I have said, is not obscure or hidden, but it is habitually overlooked by those who think that only the literal, historical, material is real or has any meaning or value. We will return to this matter at the end today. But we can see right here that Jesus is speaking to the issue:
“If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.”
Jesus pushed back and said that what he has spoken to Nicodemus, that is, the new birth by water and the Spirit, without which one cannot recognize the Kingdom of God, much less enter into and participate in the Kingdom of God — that, the New Birth, Jesus says, is an “earthly thing.” Now what on earth does that mean? Nicodemus had come to Jesus, the Light of the World, to learn heavenly things, which he was petty sure he already had a grip on. He certainly did not come seeking forgiveness of sin nor in any way can we justly attribute the word humble to his conversation.
Nicodemus came to Jesus, rabbi to rabbi, acknowledging that Jesus, like John the Baptist, was a man sent from God. But before anyone can hear of heavenly things, according to the Rabbi from Nazareth, he must first be equipped by the earthly. How can these things be! Nicodemus did not get the “gentle answer that turneth away wrath,” but rather Jesus spoke openly with the clear intent to overthrow Nicodemus’ confidence in the Jewish Dominion. And his actions backed up his words: He eliminated ceremonial washings of the Law, he put an end to animal sacrifice, he declared that the only lasting Temple of God’s presence is his own Body, and now he has lumped all of Israel in with the whole lump of mankind with regard to the Kingdom of God. A child of God, a child of the Kingdom, is born, not made; generated of God by water and the Spirit. The “earthly thing” that Jesus declared to Nicodemus is the Sacramental life he has brought into the world and in particular, regeneration through the sacrament of holy baptism. Being a Jew did not effect the New Birth. The Children of God are born again by water and the Spirit and they truly free and they will recognize and participate in his Dominion. And Jesus informed Nicodemus that that is earthly!
And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.”
Nicodemus is privileged not because he is a teacher of Israel, but because Jesus continued, after that initial miserable failure, to frankly uncover for Nicodemus even more of the mission of the Man from Heaven. John the Baptist had not ascended up to heaven only to return with God’s message. We know that because we know the Prologue: it was the other way around. The Son of God has come down from Heaven, from the bosom of the Father, which is his natural home so that he may become the Son of Mary. Look at this: Jesus had by that point disclosed his true identity and his origin to Nicodemus. He now possesses much of truth contained in the Prologue. Jesus is the Son of Man and he came down from Heaven. Jesus continues to open up his mission:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Jesus then associated himself with the Serpent of brass lifted up in the wilderness. This must have thrown Nicodemus off completely. How can such things be, indeed! Is it not just a little troubling that Jesus is citing an example of Moses obviously breaking the Second Command, the one against graven images and comparing himself to the graven image of all things? If I had been there and if I had been Jesus’ publicist, his press relations person, this is where I would have called time-out. I would have advised against comparing himself to a snake. Snakes, especially snakes in the Bible, do not evoke positive feelings. You don’t have to do a focus group on that one. Futhermore, I would have said to our Lord, with all due respect, “Especially in light of the fact that the pious King of Israel, Hezekiah, whom Nicodemus like the rest of us certainly holds in highest esteem, did a cleansing of the Temple back in his day, and as a matter of fact, that cleansing involved smashing to smithereens that very Brazen Serpent that you, my Lord, are comparing to yourself.” And I would have cited the Old Testament text as my proof text:
“Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign… And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that David his father did. He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it.” II Kings 18:1-4
Of course all that sage advice makes perfectly good sense on the materialistic, literal, historic level of things. But there is only one Person who is competent to speak directly and openly of things in Heaven and things on earth and that is the Man who has come down from Heaven. And it is not that he gave us the correct interpretation of the event of the Brass Serpent as though the “correct interpretation” was there all along inside the thing waiting for us to discover for ourselves. No, rather it is he, the Man of Heaven, that effects the interpretation and the value of the thing. The Heavenly Man who will draw the whole world to himself when he is lifted up like the Serpent of Brass in the wilderness is what matters — it is he, Jesus the Messiah, who gives meaning and value to that event and every other event in the history of mankind. It is not that the Serpent of Brass has a meaning all ready there in itself and thus it gives that meaning and value to Jesus and his mission; it is entirely the other way around — Jesus and his mission infused the Serpent of Brass with mystical meaning. And I submit to you that when the authors of the Gospels write things like, “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” — that is what such statements mean. Such statements mean that what Moses and all the prophets did and said is infused with heavenly virtue, bathed and saturated with mystical meaning by Jesus the Messiah, the mission of the Word made Flesh.
Then Jesus finished up the conversation this way:
“And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” John 3:16-21
Finally, Jesus drew a terrible line of demarcation between darkness and light, and he declared that men love darkness and hate the light because their actions are evil. What are these dark and sinister works? And note — not only the Greek, not only the Barbarian, not only the Samaritan, but the Jew as well — all have embraced darkness. This is why I no longer feel any sympathy for Nicodemus, the Pharisees, myself, or anyone else: people who are confined to the literal, historical level are confined because they hate the light and they love the darkness and they will not believe. It is not that they cannot believe, it is rather that they will not to believe. What appears to be stupidity or possibly ridicule and scorn — “can a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born” — that is unbelief, specifically unbelief in Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God and the Son of Mary. Regardless of how religious they appear, they are atheists and they remain in darkness and their whole behavior is menacing to all life. Jesus’ mission, the mission of the Word of the Father made Flesh, involved bringing Light into the world and the Light that lighten every man, magnifies the wicked and sinister behavior of men and so they hate the Light and they will do all they can to extinguish it. Jesus wanted Nicodemus, the Teacher of Israel, to grasp this: the appearance of the Son of Man has brought about the final crisis between Light and Darkness. Jesus wants Nicodemus to understand that now the Warfare was about to break wide open right there in streets of Jerusalem.
“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”