The following is a segment of the sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, based on John 3:1-17. 

The title “Pharisee” means “the separated ones.”  Pharisees were a select group of no more than 6000 Jewish men.  They aimed to live better lives than the rest of the populace, and most of them were hitting that target.  The Pharisees separated themselves from the rest of the populace.  They devoted themselves to the study and interpretation of scribal law.  They believed that their acceptability to God was a matter of believing the right things and expressing those beliefs with right living.   “Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way!”  This was the Pharisaical way of SALVATION and BLESSINGS.

That’s why Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus is considered so strange.  He came looking for answers to issues most Pharisees thought were already settled.   Even Nicodemus must have thought that his visit was strange, for he approached Jesus under the cover of darkness.  It was scandalous for a learned scholar of theology like Nicodemus to seek counsel from a man like Jesus, an unorthodox, passionately free-spirited, trouble-making and rabble-rousing rabbi.  Still, he comes to Jesus. 

He’s hidden in the shadows of darkness, but still he comes. 

Nicodemus comes to Jesus seeking answers to the great questions about life.  He had spent his life learning and teaching others that “being right with God” was a result of believing the right stuff and living the right way.  Yet somehow it wasn’t enough.  He’s facing an identity crisis. 

He does the right things,

says the right stuff,

participates in the right rituals,

and has joined the right religious clique,

but something is missing. 

Nicodemus represents the religious establishment.  He represents the status quo.  He represents the clergy, the church leaders, the denominational officials, and the professors of religion.  We make a mistake to cast ourselves in the role of Jesus and the rest of the world in the role of Nicodemus. 

He starts his conversation with pleasantries.  “Rabbi, we know who you are. You are a teacher come from God.  No one can do the things you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus ignores all that.  Jesus plows right through all that manure and cuts right to the chase.  “You must be born again!” 

Now here is one of the most radical,

off the wall,


what did he just say,

he really didn’t mean that,

is he crazy or what,

kinds of statements in the entire Bible. 

Here’s what Jesus is saying,   

“If you really want to experience the life God intends, you are going to have to start over from scratch.” 

“If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you’ll have to be born of God.”  

Up to this point, Nicodemus’s faith had become a cosmetic matter.  He had painted his life with broad religious rituals and obedience to all the rules.  He had followed the formula.  He had said the right words.  He had confessed correct doctrine and had practiced right behavior.  And when he did all those things he did so with passion and zealotry.  He stood behind every action and meant every world.  Yet somehow something was missing.

Jesus is saying, “It’s not about you.  It’s not about what you’ve done or failed to do; it’s not about what you’ve said or failed to say.  It’s simply not about you at all.  It’s about God.  If you want to be a part of this God thing, you’ve got to start over from scratch.  You’ve got to be born of god.  It’s the only way!”

This is not the “new birth” teachings of my Baptist church growing up.  I remember when the guest evangelist would come to town.  He’d hold his finger in the air then point it in our direction and say: 

“You must be born again!”

Then he would tell folks what that means.  Being “born again” meant confessing A-B-C and doing 1-2-3!”  You have to affirm a particular religious formula and live with a certain lifestyle.  What the evangelist was doing was taking this most radical of biblical statements and domesticating it and making it a message about joining the religious establishment.

He probably didn’t think he was doing that, but that was the effect, nonetheless.

The problem is that Nicodemus IS the religious establishment.  He does not represent the irreligious masses that are living pagan lifestyles with no knowledge about doctrines, dogmas, and creeds.  Nicodemus represents those (of us) who place our confidence in our religion traditions, our good deeds, and faith – pretending that these things somehow place God is now in our debt.

This text is aimed to make religious folks feel uncomfortable.  Raphael Warnock writes: 

We are Nicodemus! For Nicodemus is clearly the religious person with all of the right credentials. Nicodemus is the religious veteran who represents the institutional religion of the establishment. And it is Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the radical, Jesus the religious heretic, who stands on the margins of our religious comfort zone and says to those who (think they) have it all figured out, “You must be born again!”

 We use the phrase born again – but  that not exactly right.  It’s more accurate to say that we must be born from above.  

This is not a lesson about turning over a new leaf,

redoubling our efforts,

 or rededicating ourselves to live right (whatever that means). 

 It’s not about reaffirming our traditions,

remembering what granny taught us as a child,

and then devoting ourselves to the doctrines,







and requirements of our established religion. 

It has nothing to do at all with human effort or human resolve.  None of these things have anything to do with being born of God.

Nicodemus didn’t get it.  I fear we don’t get it much of the time either.  We make it about all that religious stuff.  We make it about what we do rather than what God does – as if anything we do can save us or put God in our debt.

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