Our passage from the Gospel of John is the second half of Jesusí dialog with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a prominent Pharisee. As a Pharisee he was one of the leaders who practice keeping the various rules and regulations prescribed by the scribes as necessary to meticulously follow the Law given by Moses. These rules were very specific in how to live out the Law as described in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. If a person followed these detailed rules, then he (only men were Pharisees) would be right with God.
The Pharisees were not cruel or evil leaders. They were trying their best to preserve the way of life of Jews in the face of a harsh occupation. This meticulous rule keeping was their way of helping the Jews to maintain who they were and not succumb to Roman culture and paganism.
But even so, Jesus saw that they had gone too far. Originally their rule keeping was a method to preserve their culture. But now it was becoming an end unto itself and thereby becoming a burden on the people inasmuch as the Pharisees were so focused on keeping the law, they had become less concern for the ordinary person. Jesus was challenging them to return to their original calling: of preserving the people, not just the Law.
So it is surprising that Nicodemus came to Jesus to have a discussion. Why did Nicodemus come to this man who was challenging his way of life and his life commitment to the Law? Apparently Nicodemus was feeling that something lacked in his life. He found little fulfillment in the constant struggle to be true to the rules and regulations prescribing the practice of the Law. He was feeling a spiritual emptiness.
Nicodemusí predicament isnít unusual. Have you ever felt burned-out possibly with a job? I worked as a software engineer for 33 years at Bell Labs and its successor companies. At the beginning it was an exciting job providing great systems that would provide great telecom services. I worked with people who had helped put people on the Moon. I learned how the telephone system worked and so forth. But as the years past, it all became routine and eventually repetitive.† The company itself began to change in ways that turned the business from a scientific and engineering firm to more of a money-making venture. That just added to my disinterest. So the last years that I was there were empty of interest Ö of a sense of doing work that was good for society.
It the same way I suspect Nicodemus was going through a similar burn-out and needed help.
In the first half of the dialog, he comes to Jesus because no one can deny the power of the signs and wonders that Jesus performed. But Jesus immediately pushes back and says that the signs and wonders are not important. Nicodemus is searching for something and heís embraced the things his eyes and mind can see. Jesus tells him he must be born again but from above.
The rest of the dialog is Jesus trying to explain to Nicodemus and Nicodemus trying to understand what being born from above means. But Nicodemus, like any human is circumscribed by his culture, his upbringing, and maybe most of all, his comfort zone. And for Nicodemus that comfort zone would be practicing the rules. The rules were precise and therefore something he could read and practice and understand. Jesusí statement is on the surface vague and challenging and not the least bit clear about how you would go about following it.
Have you ever needed advice from someone, particularly dealing with burn-out and try as you will you canít get what they are driving at. Often itís because they are coming from a different experience and you just simply canít relate to their context. Thatís why we often seek out kindred spirits. But the problem with that is, is that the kindred spirit is likely not to be able to help as much because they are in the same space as you are. You need to find a way to break out of your routine and your comfort zone. Nicodemus realized this and so went to someone who was not a kindred spirit.
So in our second half of the dialog, Jesus continues to help Nicodemus understand what it means to be born from above. Rather than give Nicodemus a precise set of rules or a road map, Jesus looks for a sign on which Nicodemus could understand Jesusí advice. Jesus goes back to our Hebrew scripture we read today and reminds Nicodemus about the people in the desert. God had liberated them from Egypt but now they were impatient and angry at God and Moses for taking them into this godforsaken desert. As a result they were plagued by poisonous snakes. They repented and God ordered Moses to lift up a bronze snake. All those who would look upon it, would be healed of the snakeís poison. The bronze snake was a reminder to them to be patient with God and have faith in their journey.† For example, when I get a traffic ticket (rarely though), after I pay it off, I keep it in my car to remind me to mind my driving. Itís a bronze snake.
Jesus now says the same is offered to Nicodemus. But it is not a bronze snake lifted up on a pole. It is Jesus lifted up: first on the cross and then at the Resurrection. He promised Nicodemus if he would follow Jesus, he would then be born into eternal life (and eternal fulfillment). And he assures Nicodemus and us that this is Godís intent for all of us: ďFor 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.Ē
So what did Jesus mean by ďeternalĒ life?
The eternal life is not the afterlife. It is a way of being and of living in the here and now. We can be born into the eternal life today if we are ready to commit to living as Jesus lived and called us to live. Indeed, it is living in the Kingdom of God established here on earth. But when we focus on the eternal life we are raised to a higher understanding of being a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
In the eternal life we see our lives not only in our ordinary day by day joys and concerns. We see are lives as co-conspirators in Godís long-term hope where at last our prayers for lasting peace, justice for all, freedom from fear and despair will finally arrive. Secular folks would probably call it utopia. And in many ways it is. But unlike utopia it is not founded on human definitions and rules, but on Godís wondrous celebration of life and change. Unlike utopia where life is predictable, eternal life is eternal hope that as we grow and learn and establish relationships, though we cannot know where they will lead, we have faith that our experience with them will be a part of Godís wondrous celebration.
No matter how desperate life may seem today, no matter how chaotic the world is, no matter how confused and wrong-headed our society may be, our eternal life is always pointing to Godís Kingdom. And living in the eternal life is being guided always and constantly by our faith that God will come through. And it demands and requires patience, unlimited patience. Indeed, patience requires faith and it is the test of our faith. Practice patience and your faith will grow and you will be reborn into eternity.
So how do we go about living the eternal life? Well, after all the spiritual words it can seem out of reach. But actually, it is essentially a matter of changing our outlook, our expectations and our behavior towards the spiritual and away from a material life.
We are imperfect humans and the material world is what we know best and is our first experience. But Jesus calls us to a more perfect living. For example, we humans have an intrinsic need to control the world around us. This comes from a need to survive in a chaotic world. We want to be safe and reasonably comfortable. So we try to arrange matters so that we can control are environment and neighbors and thereby have a predictable life.
Now this makes a great deal of sense in a primitive life, the life of our pre-history ancestors before we had the comforts of ordered societies and technology. But that intrinsic need remains with us, even though we live in an age with a great deal of social and safety support. We still feel threatened by any unexpected action that puts us at emotional, spiritual, or physical risk. If someone should offend us, our first reaction is anger.† Or if one of our children disobey, our first reaction is anger and to act quickly. Or if some official threatens our lifestyle in some fashion, our first reaction is anger and the impetus to seek the end of the officialís professional life.
But that is the response of our living in the material world: our first world where we are constrained by what we can feel, touch, smell, see, and understand. If we have been born into eternity, our faith will overrule our primitive first reaction. The patience that gave us admission to eternity becomes are first reaction. We do not act suddenly and blindly. We stop and consider and pray Ė even for only an instant Ė and ask: Where is God in this? What has really happened here? What can be done for the best of everyone involved? And now we have opened the door of hope for improvement and reconciliation. Think what would have happened, if instead of quickly arming and going to war against al-Qaeda, we stopped and thought outside of our immediate trauma and asked what does God want us to do? And truly listen and take the risk of anger from those who want to respond immediately. Who knows God might have guided us to a way to dismantle al-Qaeda without a war.
And by living the eternal life, we do not raise up ourselves. We do not have the need to boast of who we are and what we have achieved and what we have acquired. We have no need to boost our self-esteem. For we are children of God, with eternal patience acting for God and waiting for the consummation of the Kingdom of God. Our lives are lives that rise up the Way of God, not our way. Our lives are no longer driven by our need to be recognized or honored. We accept such rewards as offered with grace and thanksgiving, but have no need for them. For we are laborers in Godís Kingdom and that is who we are, and that profession is an eternal one with the hope and promise that Godís good creation will rise above its brokenness, find healing and become what God has always sought for it.
Think about it Ö
Godís grace and love be with you Ö