Psalm 121; John 3:1-17
Last week, we mashed together all our lectionary texts, and explored the common theme of temptation, and that was fun. At least I enjoyed it! But you don’t have to do much Bible study at all, to realize that mash-ups are an integral part of so many individual Scripture texts. That’s certainly true for our gospel text this morning. So, today—you ready? We explore some of the mash-ups present in our marvelous gospel reading. And aren’t there just all kinds.
First, mash-ups constitute one of the many literary techniques employed by the writers of Scripture. And mashed up with what we read today, we realize, are things we might read elsewhere in John’s gospel: parallels, repetitions, resonances. And so, when we read that Nicodemus came to Jesus out of the darkness of night, it might occur to us that here, near the beginning of the gospel, we have the inverse of what happens near the end of the gospel (John 13:30), when Judas goes from the light into the darkness of night (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary in The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966) 130).
Having invited himself in, Nicodemus goes on to initiate the conversation. “Rabbi, we know [“we”—Nicodemus speaks for others. a number of people are mashed-up into a representative one who speaks for the many]—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.” Hmmm. We’re going to have to think about that for a minute. Good for him to acknowledge Jesus as teacher and even better to recognize Jesus as one who comes from God (although we have to suspect Nicodemus does not mean as much as he says here!). But what’s this business about signs? In John, the signs are acts of power—miracles. And Nicodemus sees signs as indicative of the presence of God. Not uncommon—then or now. God makes miracles. God is power. God is the unbelievable. God is the impossible. Again, not uncommon! So what we have here is a statement of belief, based on what Nicodemus has seen—what he’s witnessed, and what he believes is possible and impossible. And absolutes are based on his own perspective.
But we just read, didn’t we, a few short verses ago, at the end of chapter two, that Jesus himself was rather leery of those who believed because of signs of power. As much as we may pray for them, as much as we may imagine them—want them … Jesus wasn’t overly impressed. We just read, “When Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them …” (John 2:23-24a, emphasis mine).
“Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’” And here’s a mash-up, an important one, that we completely miss out on in our English translations—not so much literary as linguistic. This is wordplay. The Greek word translated here as “from above” can also mean “again.” English translations have to privilege one translation and put the other in a footnote most people won’t read (Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995) 549).
So Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ statement of faith with an “Okay, so I’m not sure what it is you’ve seen, but if you haven’t been born again from above, then you have not seen the truth of God, and you may well have just gotten sidetracked by what you consider impressive.”
And we have to hear both possibilities, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again from above”—because that’s the only way the continuing flow of the conversation makes sense. Because Nicodemus responds to one of the two possible meanings. “Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born again after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’” It’s an absolutely reasonable question … if you don’t hear heaven and earth being mashed-up in what Jesus says. You need to be born again from above.
And let’s not forget the word translated “born.” In the Greek, there’s a feminine dimension to the word, with emphasis on the birth, the labor, the being born, and there’s also a masculine dimension to the word, with emphasis on the begetting of a child (Brown, 130), and the various and distinct events of a process are mashed-up into one word as who we are stems from relationship—from, as we envision the ideal, a loving relationship of those committed to each other and to what is birthed between them. And surely it’s not insignificant that in our text, in Jesus’ responses to Nicodemus, he moves from the Spirit, to the Son of Man to God in another trinitarian constellation! What would become the three persons of the Trinity all mashed together in our text.
Now let’s not assume that Nicodemus is dumb! Let’s assume he heard—recognized both meanings of the word (born again, born from above). Why might he privilege the one interpretation? As a teacher of the faith—a leader in the faith of Israel, why would he respond to the physical and not the spiritual? Was it his personality? To rely on what could be seen? Witnessed? On what he deemed possible and impossible? Or had he given up on more? Wondering after his years of teaching—his years of interacting with people—his years of living, “Can you really start again?” We can almost hear him wistfully wondering. “Can it really be any different that it is? I feel so trapped—so determined by what is. Locked into who and how I’ve been—who and how I am.” You know that feeling?
“Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.’” Most scholars tend not to separate water from Spirit. They claim that both represent a spiritual birth with a Nicodemus like absoluteness that should probably remain rather foreign to interpretations of John! And oh, the mash-ups! Water and Spirit. For the church, we have to think baptism, don’t we? And this would not be utterly foreign imagery to a student of the Old Testament texts. But within the imagery, we certainly have, again, physical birth and spiritual birth, don’t we? We just read about entering the mother’s womb, and you don’t just come out without water! Again, earth and heaven are mashed-up. Such different realities mashed together into truth. What we see and witness, know and experience and the mystery of the grace of God.
So while what Jesus says next: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” might be taken as the separation of the physical from the spiritual, that’s taking the statement entirely out of context. Yes, Jesus is saying it’s a matter of origin (Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971) 137-138), but it’s genetics in the sense of genes and Genesis! You have a human origin. You are born of your parents. But you have a divine origin as well—a heavenly parentage.
“Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The 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.” Many of you may know this, but the word translated “wind” here can also be translated “spirit” (and “breath,” for that matter). And the word translated “sound” here, literally means “voice” (Brown, 131)! It’s another wonderful linguistic mash-up. The Spirit blows where it chooses (like the wind). You hear the voice of the Spirit, but it’s hard to know! The breath of God offers life, but do you recognize the offer?
“Y’all—second person plural (Brown, 131)—have to be born again.” Remember, Nicodemus was speaking for others. (Does he speak for us?) “Y’all have to hear the breathing of God. You have to name the presence of the Spirit. You have to claim the grace that’s offered—the rebirth from above.” Just by the way, I’m sure you noticed, this is the third time Jesus speaks of being born again from above!
and “Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’” it’s the third and last time Nicodemus says anything in this gospel though he’ll show up two more times. so consider, the first thing Nicodemus says is a statement of belief. then he asks a question of clarification. he’s learning that things aren’t quite as absolute as he thought! and finally, he asks a question of wondering and longing: “how can these things be?” interesting for a teacher of the faith of Israel, isn’t it? and don’t we hear echoes of Sarai, listening outside the tent to the angels of God tell Abram she was going to have a baby and laughing, “how can these things be?” but all things are possible with God (Genesis 18:10-15). birth as miracle. rebirth from above as miracle. entertaining angels. hearing the voice of God.
“Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?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.’” A lot going on in these verses. It starts with Jesus gently poking fun at the certainty of the expert. But this is the criteria by which Nicodemus reasons. I speak of what I know and of what I’ve seen. Like many of us, right? But is your mash-up radar buzzing? It’s in this gospel, near the end, that Jesus will observe a similar criteria in Thomas and bless those who do not see, but and yet believe (John 20:29).
And what’s with Jesus using the plural pronoun? He tends not to do that! Is he referring to the church? Or the Trinity? Probably. Yes. “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” They’re all mixed up. But if you don’t believe, you won’t see it. And the church is to reflect the Trinity. And this birth illuminates that one. But you have to believe. And, with regards to this, you’ll excuse my disregard for your faith credentials, I’m sure, who you gonna believe? “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
No one has gone up except the one who came down. I love this stuff! You notice the past tense of “has gone up?” which refers to Jesus’ ascension. But this is well before the ascension, and even time gets mashed up! In my Raymond Brown commentary, I came across this wonderful affirmation: “In the Johannine references to Jesus there is a strange timelessness or indifference to normal time sequence that must be reckoned with ….” (Brown, 132) And time gets all mashed up.
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” We noted mash-ups earlier within the gospel. Now we have some mash-ups from throughout Scripture. There’s the story from the Exodus of Moses raising the bronze snake in the wilderness to heal those dying of snakebite (Numbers 21). And, just in case we missed it, the explicit reference to Moses should cue the implicit resonance with Moses who ascended Sinai into the presence of God, but as the greatest of the prophets and leaders of Israel, is still not in Jesus’ league! I also hear an implicit resonance with Jacob’s vision of the ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28:11-19).
And then, there’s also another important linguistic mash-up. The word translated “lift up” or “raise up” rather explicitly means both the crucifixion—death, and exaltation or glorification (Brown, 146). Jesus is lifted up on the cross and lifted from the grave and lifted up to God. It’s all one movement—crucifixion, resurrection and ascension constitute “one continuous event” (O’Day, 552). Here’s the profoundly important mash-up.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” “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.” Moses lifted the serpent and people were healed. It was a temporary fix! In lifting up Jesus, we are offered a permanent fix! Heaven and earth mashed together for you. Life is not just determined by what you’ve seen and witnessed—what you think is possible. You are not locked into who and how you’ve been. Do you hear the good news?
“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. Those 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. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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.”
The gospel is absolutely clear. Jesus did not come in order to judge, but to save—to bring heaven and earth together. And yet as invitation of grace, Jesus is an invitation accepted or not. Notice Jesus does not determine who anyone is. Jesus does not send people into the light or into the darkness. But Jesus reveals. Remember at the end of our text, that we began considering Nicodemus coming from the darkness into the light, and Judas going from the light into the darkness.
What if heaven and earth are mashed up and there really is no part of our day-to-day not touched by the presence of God, informed by the voice of God, inspired by the breath of God—no part of our day-to-day not permeated by the truth and grace of heaven? What if cross, resurrection and ascension are all mashed up? What if we were to sing our hymns of joyful triumph only and always with the cross included, but sing our saddest most painful songs of the cross only and always with the joy of resurrection? What if we took the appeal of power, of signs, of miracles and mashed it up with the cross? And what if we took what the world holds to be powerless, humiliation and invested that with the full power of God? What if we mashed up Scripture, so that it was never about verses, ideas or language taken out of the context of love and grace—such that the profound risk and the deep joy of love informed absolutely everything? What if, in the disciplines of our faith, in the way we consistently told our stories—interpreted our living, what if we so integrated the whole of the story that to hear any one part was to hear the rest? What if we didn’t have to mash-up different parts of the story, because they all belong together! what if there’s so much mashed up that even when we think we understand something, we hold onto the possibility that more is being said than we can possibly know? And what if we cultivated a sense of so much more instead of one of certainty and absoluteness? What if what were to inform our living was the assurance that there is no darkness within which there is not the sound of God breathing? There is no darkness within which not to hear God’s voice? There is no darkness within which the light doesn’t break forth? Wouldn’t that be like being born again from above? Wouldn’t that be like looking ahead brimming with the hope of new possibility? Wouldn’t that be amazingly good news?