Lift your horizons. Look up!

Week of Sunday March 16 – Lent 2
Gospel: John 3:1-17

2:23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.24But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

3:1 Now there was  [lit. a man of the Pharisees] a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 

3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘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.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’ 

A beginning
I went to stay with my cousin Robbie. He had a small grey plastic submarine about two and a half inches long. It was hollow. You could jam a marble in the underside of the submarine, and it would sink down to the bottom of a clear pool of water at the end of one of the rows in their vineyard. Then, when you pulled the marble out, the submarine would rise to the surface.

I had never before wanted a submarine. But now I coveted that submarine. I still remember it fifty years later! I can't remember the house, or his parents, or anything else but the pool of water and the submarine. I can't even remember what Robbie looked like.

According to Rene Girard's mimetic theories, we desire things because other people desire them. Robbie was very proud of his submarine, and that pool of water. On reflection, it was not so much the submarine I wanted. The submarine was a sign pointing to Robbie, who was older than me. I didn't want the submarine; I wanted to be like Robbie, whom I adored. I wanted what Robbie had… being older, being self assured, being confident… everything I was not.

If I could imitate Robbie, life would be good. (And I would undoubtedly have submarines.)


We need to begin reading this week back in Chapter Two of John where many people (anthropoi) trusted (episteusan) in his name because they saw the signs (semeia) he was doing. (John 2:23) Jesus would not entrust (episteusan) himself to them because he knew (ginoskein) all people (anthropoid)… and knew (ginoskein) what was in them.

Then in chapter 3 a person (anthropos) of the Pharisees named Nicodemus came to Jesus, declaring "we know" (but here know is oidamen not ginoskein, which is John's shorthand telling us they knew only in a very limited way,) you are a teacher from God because of the signs (semeia) you are doing. (John 3:1-1 Note that NRSV translates the anthropos out of the text. (Bill Loader alerted me to this word play.)

This is the style of John. He constantly plays with words and builds up a multi layered and textured quilt of images which don't lend themselves to a clear laying out in essay form. Indeed, part of the problem for Nicodemus was that he was a Pharisee, a scholar who could "write essays." But Jesus was calling him to a different order of experience; untidy compared to essays; windblown and spirit led; supra-rational. We can only step into this in the end— trust it, not argue it out logically, and become part of the pattern of the quilt, as it were, and let the experience swirl around us and carry us on.

So I begin with a summary of sorts, and then will go back and play with the pieces, to see where the wind might blow me.


A summary of sorts

•Do not trust in people. •Do not believe in signs… they are only to point us somewhere else! Why would you hold onto the signpost to the Kingdom of Heaven instead of entering into the experience of the Kingdom of Heaven!?
•Trust the giver to which the sign points.  I saw beyond one thing—  the submarine— but wanted still wanted the sign. Robbie, older and more assured was a sign of what life could be. But to imitate him was to desire the sign, not the deeper life to which the sign pointed. So it is profoundly true to say I idolised my cousin.
•Lift your horizons… look at the one who has been lifted up, not other people.


Meditating on the quilt

Nicodemus means Victory of the People which is a suggestive name for a "leader of the Jews." In John "the Jews," or Judeans, are the power elite who were opposed to Jesus, as opposed to the ordinary Jewish people. John may be hinting that the leaders of the people who should give 'victory to the people' will only manage that when they come to Jesus. 

We are deliberately told he came at night. The time bears at least three possible strands of meaning.

1. Does he come to avoid being seen? Paul Nuechterlein says that Nicodemus "comes at night to guard his reputation, since he is a teacher whom Jesus should be coming to." (We might also wonder if he comes at night, as a Judean, to protect himself politically.) The "woman is sneaking to the well alone at mid-day, in the same way that Nicodemus came to Jesus, sneaking out at the middle of the night. This is in bright daylight, it's her time to go there." What he means is that the woman is hiding like Nicodemus. Women would normally come to get water in groups at the beginning of the day in the cool.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above. "He can reach moral perfection as a Pharisee, and that still isn't the answer [to his questions about life.] He must throw all that off and be born again. No lesser form of transformation will work…. it's not just a matter of changing your mind, or changing your moral behavior, or following a teacher. It's something really profound."

The placing of the woman's story next to Nicodemus' story is essentially Jesus saying to Nicodemus, "The sinners and prostitutes are closer to this transformation than you are; because they are more willing to let go of the old self." There is a lesson here for we who are educated or who have been in the church. As Nuechterlein says in another part of his article in The Girardian Lectionary, "The problem with Nicodemus is that he already has a coherent, integrated sense of self. He's a Pharisee, an upright one, a leader of his people, Mr. Rectitude. [He quotes Buber]: "Each of us is encased in an armor whose task it is to ward off signs." Having life "together," or thinking we do, may mean we are in a worse place to hear the good news! "Blessed are the poor in spirit," says Matthew.

2. A second strand of meaning for at night is simply that Nicodemus comes in darkness. This clearly relates to the dark / light word play in John's gospel. It is present in Chapter Three. Nicodemus comes in the darkness. Will he stay there? The text carries some threat; there appears to be a  sense in which we choose to be who we are, even if the spirit blows where it chooses.

19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’ (John 3:19-21)

Nuechterlien says

We are reborn from above as we find ourselves being known through God's loving eyes in Jesus Christ. Nicodemus is still perhaps too closed off to this possibility. He even comes under the cover of darkness, signaling his not wanting to be seen. But the Samaritan woman at the well in next week's John 4 text …. encounters Jesus in the bright light of high noon, and through the eyes of Jesus she is able to see herself in a new light.

3. A third strand of meaning is noted by Patricia Farris.

While it’s often said that Nicodemus meets Jesus at night to avoid being seen in this illicit liaison, an alternate interpretation is more instructive. The rabbis had taught that the Torah was best studied at night when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided. Nicodemus uses his precious study time to expand his search beyond the standard texts. In this view, Jesus himself becomes the book into which Nicodemus delves, mining every word for wisdom and understanding. Patricia Farris

Nicodemus has seen the signs. There is an unsubtle dig at the rest of the elite here. Nicodemus plainly says "We know that you are a teacher who has come from God…." We are being prepared for the statement of judgement at the end of the chapter; the elite are ignoring what they know to be true. "… all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed…" (John 3:20) Jesus says "Truly I say to you-singular" as he speaks to Nicodemus in verse 3 about being born from above, but in verse 11 and 12 the you is plural. He is speaking to the elite generally.

Farris says Jesus takes Nicodemus seriously as a seeker of the truth, and "invites him into a new realm of insight… even as he pushes him far beyond his comfort zone." Now that the signs have aroused Nicodemus' attention, Jesus directs his attention on further.

"3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’"

Loader provides the insight we need here.

The kind of faith (in Jesus) which is ‘wowed’ by the miracles is inadequate. Such ‘believers’ (including those who take the same stance today) need to be born again (including those who try to make ‘born again’ Christians by such appeals!). John’s gospel is not anti-miracle. Its point is that you have to go beyond that level of faith to something deeper; the value of miracles is that they can evoke such deeper reality….

In our passage, written originally in Greek, there is a nice play on double meaning, typical of the author’s method. The word which follows ‘born’ in 3:3, anothen, can mean either ‘again’ or ‘from above’. Both meanings are swinging into the statement of Jesus. Poor Nicodemus is pictured as hearing only the meaning, ‘again’ (3:4). The sense, ‘from above’, misses him completely - and that is the problem. Nicodemus serves as a stereotype of people who remain stuck with one level of thinking and can’t see beyond it. He needs to become a different kind of person to be able to see.

Perhaps Bill is too gentle here. There is a plague of "signs and wonders" theology in the church which is as blind as Nicodemus. It degenerates into prosperity theology— cargo cult, really— and other forms of testing God which lead not to insight, but which prevent us from entering the Promised Land. (See my discussion of Matthew 4 and Moses' death last week.)

As Stoffregen notes, "It is striking that the popularization of [the expression born again] has accepted Nicodemus' misunderstanding (born again) rather than Jesus' word" (He is quoting Craddock's Preaching Through the Christian Year A p. 160).

The desire for "signs and wonders" blinds us to more subtle dangers of signs. For the longest time I wanted to have some insight, some certainty about my faith. I longed the "penny to drop" so that I would be as convinced of God as I am of the sun or the moon. I wanted faith to all "fall into place." I see now that this, too, was to want a sign!

For my personality type, at least, there is no "penny drop," no flash of insight. Instead, after a long trusting, and rejection of signs as being the thing I was seeking, I began to find "the penny had shifted." I had become aware of a new reality which is far more subtle, much less definable, and yet much deeper.

This corresponds with Stoffregen's observation of the text, that

The word dynasthai--ability, power--appears six times in verses 2-10, usually in the negative, i.e. "not able" or "no one is able."  Under normal power--"that which is born of flesh"--human beings are "not able" to achieve revelation.  Revelation comes through gift, not accomplishment. 

So what does it mean to be born from above?

Heaven is not literally above us. Heaven is a realm (hence a "Kingdom") metaphorically "above" our realm. It is the realm of eternal life which, spatially, is lived here. Heaven and earth coincide, although we may not notice heaven.

Stoffregen quotes The New Interpreter's Bible: Eternal life "describe[s] the change in human existence wrought by faith in Jesus … To have eternal life is to live life no longer defined by blood or by the will of the flesh or by human will, but by God (cf. 1:13). "Eternal" does not mean mere endless duration of human existence, but is a way of describing life as lived in the unending presence of God." [O'Day p. 552]

Kingdom, eternal life, being born from above… has been for me a gradual living of life in a way that is not dependent upon the approval of others. I have begun less to want to imitate my cousin Robbie, so that he will say "You are good," and more to find a new centre. Robbie, of course, stands for all those people and institutions who approve of me and give me a sense of value. That value is always less than what John describes as eternal life, and often, ultimately destructive.

This is crucial for me. My life "starts" in a really conscious way on the day the Head Teacher says, "I have never known Andrew Prior to tell me a lie, so I will believe him now." And this little outcast alienated Year 5 kid suddenly finds a way to live. My discovery then is well described by Richard Beck

… our self-esteem is constructed by the pursuit of "cultural heroics," the ways in which any given culture defines a good and meaningful life. However, according to [Ernst] Becker this pursuit of significance is, at root, a flight from death as the pursuit of significance and meaning is being driven by a desire to "matter" in the face of death. We all want to make a dent in the universe, to have the cosmos recognize our life, to register that we existed.

My "dent in the universe" is that I am a good and trustworthy person. You will never get me so angry and hostile as when you threaten that view of myself. I can tell you this from bitter (and shameful) experience. Beck again:

But there is a dark side to all this. Specifically, the cultural worldviews that support our pursuit of significance can become can become challenged and relativized by out-group members.  People and cultures who don't share our metrics of "success" threaten the foundation of our self-esteem projects. And this makes us anxious.

So in the face of that anxiety we engage in what Terror Management theorists call "worldview defense." Basically, we denigrate, demean and demonize out-group members in order to protect our self-esteem projects and, thus, continue to experience meaning and significance in the face of death.

Importantly, this is no mere speculation. Worldview defense has been observed in the laboratory.

That "demonising" of out-group members easily slides into the scapegoating of Girardian Theory.

In Beck's language, eternal life removes my need to make a dent in the universe. Or, at least, in my slow apprehension, ameliorates that need! Death begins to lose its power.

In Girard's language I become "grounded in the "one essential relation" with the Creator of all." (Nuechterlien) I do not find meaning by imitating others and desiring what they have, but find meaning in my relationship with God. My desires are no longer essentially in competition with others as I imitate them, but instead in "the Spirit, God's loving desire for the whole world begins to become [my] desire."  Death begins to lose its power.

I scarcely dare to write these preceding two paragraphs, except that I begin to find them true. I see glimmers of them in the changes that have been worked in me.

I was dumbfounded in High School when a classmate exploded at me in rage because of an innocent comment on my part. After some very Australian expletives he said I acted like an angel who thought he was better than the rest of the class were.  Slowly I learned I was, as Beck would say, "denigrating, demeaning and demonizing" people who did not "share my metric of success"; that is, being a good person meant I hated others. I was violent toward them. If I didn't make them "bad," then I lost my meaning. And my classmate, who I rather liked, had noticed.

Equally astonishing was the statement made by my daughter in a time of distress, "But it's easy for you, Dad; you like everyone." !!! What had changed in the years between was that I had lost much of the obsessive need to be good, and so had ceased to need to "make people bad." I had also found a new compassion, which seemed to be a desire for good for all people, not just the ones like me.

Anyone who knows me can tell how very imperfect this transformation is! Despite this, I am astonished about what has changed in me; my classmate "only knew the half of me." Knowing the depths of my own anxiety, and the violence and hatred of my "worldview defense" and its condemnatory nature, I can only exclaim, "What has been done to me!?" and rejoice.

What is it about Jesus being lifted up that saves us?
The serpent on the pole is a metaphor that has always been opaque to me. Stoffregen makes it somewhat accessible. We are again in the region of the "above" metaphor.

This imagery refers to Numbers 21:9. There we know the problem and solution:

SOLUTION = look at snake up on a pole and live
PROBLEM = poisonous snakes on the ground who brought death

In John, we are given the solution = the Son of man on a pole who brings life… Since the phrase "son of man" is also a Hebrew idiom for "a human being," we can make a parallel analogy with Numbers

SOLUTION = the human being on a pole who brings life
PROBLEM = human beings on the ground? (who bring death upon themselves)

Jesus says "14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life." And then John says in explanation of this saying: "16 ‘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. 17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

We are so familiar with this verse that we lose its amazing implications. In Jesus' world love meant to be attached. "There may or may not have been affection, but it is the inward feeling of attachment, along with the outward behavior bound up with such attachment, that love entails...." Working from this, Stoffregen says "God's love means attaching himself to the world. God sent his Son."

I think we can push this further. We might say we "hitch our wagon to God's star," meaning we tie ourselves to God's fortunes for good or ill when we trust Jesus. That's what it means to trust and to love God.

Incarnation means that in Jesus God risks hitching his wagon to our star!  God attaches to us! This is God's love for us. And it is for God's ill; Jesus dies. Yet God still loves us.

We need to steer away from penal substitutionary atonement, or we turn the Incarnation into a barbaric act which is unloving.

When we say God sent his son to pay for our sins, what we are really doing is avoiding the fact that it is our sinfulness, our shortcomings and pigheadedness and greed that messes up the world. We say we will be forgiven and saved because Jesus paid for us. We make him a scapegoat and we make God a monster.

Would you like a father who put his innocent son to death so some undeserving mongrel got off scot-free? I wouldn't. I certainly wouldn't worship him!

But it says God 'so loved the world that he gave his only Son', you say. It says it in John 3! How does this work? How is it, then, that the death of Jesus saves us?

God indeed gave his Son. In Jesus, God comes to us in the flesh and allows god-self to be a scapegoat. If we would only have lived as Jesus lived— if we had only listened to him— there would have been no death. God did not come to die. God came to live with us! But we demanded a death, a sacrifice, a scapegoat.

But even then the love of God for us was not destroyed. Even after Jesus' death people still felt the love of God. When they lived as Jesus lived, the power of God in their lives was increased. Jesus saves us because he shows us that even death does not stop God. Even death does not separate us from God. All the hatred and destructive power of the world does not separate us from God. Romans 8:39 says [neither] height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Andrew Prior)

For all its evil, the cross is a "lifting up" of Jesus. It is his being raised into that metaphorical "from above" place. It is love-attachment that is of a different realm, a different order. It is love that comes from being in the presence of God.

My sense is that as I have blundered through life seeking meaning, my growing attachment to Jesus has, if you like, "lifted me up" too. In my attachment to the story of Jesus I have been converted, and given a new understanding of what life can be. I said above, that I "lost much of the obsessive need to be good, and so had ceased to "make people bad." I ... also found a new compassion, which seemed to be a desire for good for all people, not just the ones like me."

John's reference to the serpent on the pole is, in Australian, like saying, "Mate, I don't know how that snake cure worked, but it did. It's a mystery. And God's love for us in Jesus is the same. I don't know how it works, but it changes us... it makes us see the whole world in a different light."

And what we find, in all our fear and terror of life is that God is not to be feared. "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:17) 

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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