“Strangers in the Night”
Sermon on John 3:1-17
June 7, 2009
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
There have recently been a number of celebrities who have adopted orphaned children from some of the poorest parts of Africa, most notably Madonna and Angelina Jolie. These high-profile adoptions have drawn some criticism from folks, so much so that Madonna even appeared on Oprah to defend herself. Now, far be it from me to hold up Madonna as a great example of ethical behavior, but I think the line is pretty clear cut when it comes to adopting orphans and rescuing old ladies from burning buildings and the like. I think it’s wonderful that some famous people with a lot of money are actually doing something noble and ethical for a change.
The latest reports list that there are over 12 million orphans right now in Africa. And estimates place that number at 18 million by 2010! Can you imagine for a moment being that adopted child? Here you are, barely eeking out an existence in Africa. Your parents have died from AIDS, your belly is swollen from hunger, you risk getting any number of diseases that have been all but eradicated in the western world from vaccines that cost a few cents. You probably even know a kid or two in the orphanage who has died from something as simple and curable as diarrhea. And here this Hollywood celebrity comes and takes you home with her to raise as her child. You go from an African orphanage in Malawi to the life of luxury in Malibu—wow! It’s almost like you’ve been given a new life, a second chance, a new birthright. Instead of having parents that died of AIDS, you now have a parent that is world-famous—and don’t forget the vast riches beyond your imagination part.
In ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures birth status was the single, all-important factor in determining a person’s honor rating. It was the one thing about you that never changed. It was also the one thing about that most influenced your direction in life. If your father was the governor of Galilee, chances were pretty good that you wouldn’t become a shepherd or a fisherman. And, if your father was a shepherd or a fisherman, chances were pretty good that you would never become governor. Who your father was, what he did for a living, and where you were from was the biggest factor in the direction of your life. It defined virtually everything about you.
This was a great thing if you were a powerful member of the Sanhedrin, if you were of that pedigree in Judaism that made you one of the ruling elders of the people and an authority in the religious life in Israel. Your birthright and your birth status was a cherished possession that nobody could take away from you.
That’s where our story from John picks up this morning. A man named Nicodemus, a powerful and respected member of the Sanhedrin, a man with a noble birthright, comes up to Jesus at night to talk with him. We don’t know exactly what Nicodemus thought of Jesus, but it is sufficient to say that he didn’t want to be seen conversing with Jesus in broad daylight in front of the Temple. What would people think? This guy Jesus had no birth status. His father was a lowly carpenter, and here he was going all over Israel stirring up trouble, turning over tables in the temple, doing miraculous healings on the Sabbath, associating with other people of low birth status; even eating with people who were blatant sinners. No, Nicodemus couldn’t be seen talking with this Jesus fellow.
But still, one can’t just dismiss these incredible things he was doing. Even though he might not have been a noble member of the Sanhedrin, even though he might not have studied under the most pretentious rabbis, even though he was of lowly birth status, one simply couldn’t ignore the mighty deeds of power Jesus was doing. Nicodemus was curious. He had to get close to this guy and talk with him. So he comes to Jesus like a stranger in the night. In reading John’s gospel, you can almost see the hood of his cloak up partially covering his face just to be on the safe side. And Nicodemus even flatters Jesus, calling him Rabbi. It would be like someone nowadays calling him Reverend even though Jesus had never been to seminary. Nicodemus acknowledges the fact that Jesus couldn’t do the things he did unless he was filled with the spirit of God—regardless of one’s birth status.
And even though Nicodemus was socially, culturally, and religiously Jesus’ superior, Jesus pulls no punches in their conversation. Jesus tells Nicodemus that his birth status is actually inferior because he has not been born from above. There is no easy way to translate this from Greek into English, except to say that the word Jesus uses here can mean three different things: (1) born from above, (2) born anew, or (3) born a second time / born again. It’s funny that the phrase “born again” has become so popular because it is the one meaning out of those three that Jesus wasn’t going for.
When reading John’s gospel, it’s important to remember that there are two different levels going on at once. You have the literal story, but then there’s the deeper and more spiritual side to the story. Jesus is painted in John’s gospel as the one who orchestrates all, and everybody else is ignorant except the demons. The other characters in John’s gospel only see the literal side to Jesus’ words and actions. They fail to grasp the deeper meaning behind it all. Jesus isn’t speaking literally here. There’s no way Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he needs to re-enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time or “born again.” Jesus is saying that Nicodemus needs to be born anew or born from above. He needs to recognize his birth status in God’s kingdom over his birth status in Caesar’s kingdom. Nicodemus needs to stop hiding behind his noble birth and see that we are all children of God and that nobody is more important than anybody else. This has far-reaching implications socially and culturally for us if we are to truly believe and live as though we are all God’s children, equally precious in his sight. That’s why Jesus was always seen eating with blatant sinners.
One of my friends was talking with me about Madonna’s adopting that African kid. I made the comment that I wish she would adopt me, or at least pay off my student loans. That kid has it made now, at least from a financial perspective. But his whole worldview is going to be different now after his adoption. His birth status has miraculously changed overnight. And, his direction and expectations in life are going to be different now too. It’s the same with you and me. As children of God, born of water and the Spirit at our baptisms, our whole worldview has changed too, as has our direction in life. Who our Father is happens to still be the largest determining factor in our direction in life. As this adopted kid from Africa has gotten a second chance in life, so have we. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Thanks be to God for our heavenly birthright. Amen.