There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
This is our fifth and final week “Becoming Wise.” It’s given me a lot to consider as I’ve written about what wisdom actually is, or how we define it as Christians. The thing about wisdom is that you could think about it forever and not be done. So, even though five weeks seems woefully inadequate to cover such a topic, it was a good start. And, hopefully today the ending will be just the beginning.
One of the first things I do when I think about wisdom is list who I consider to be wise people, and why- what characteristics do they have? what about them do I admire? For me this isn’t a “10 Habits of the world’s most successful CEOs” type of list. The last two weeks I’ve talked about the wisdom we find in complexity, and the wisdom of abundance, and so I suppose I look for people who have a sense of abundance within themselves, a sense of satisfaction and fullness about their lives, but don’t use it as an avoidance strategy. Rather they dig into their own sense of worthiness as a long-term mechanism for dealing with some of the most difficult things we face in our world. I suppose we each have different ideas about what wisdom looks like. But, I assume, if you’re here at church, you are likely curious about who or what God might consider wise, or how you can become wise in the eyes of God, or others. Or maybe you’ve never thought about it before, and this all sounds like a lot of pressure- isn’t God gracious because we aren’t really very wise at all? It could be the answer to that question sums it all up- those who remain curious and humble are the wisest of us all.
One of the wise people on my list, though, and I’m sure countless others is Fred Rogers. Maybe it seems silly, but I grew up watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and as an adult I’ve come back to many things he did and have admired him for them, even more so since he was a Presbyterian minister, like me. Fred Rogers really was subversive in his show- highlighting issues of justice, and often times, unbeknownst to his viewers, he did them through the lens of faith. He used his platform and power to mold a generation of kids, helping them to know they were loved and enough, just as they were.
Remember the episode where he invites Officer Clemmons to join him in putting his feet in the kiddie pool? Officer Clemmons was an African American Police Officer on the show, which, in and of itself was a commentary on policing back in 1969 when it aired. But then Mr. Rogers invited this black man to put his hot feet in a pool of water on a day during the Civil Rights movement, and in doing so, did something really wise and important. He used the image of Jesus washing the feet of disciples to convey how we should treat each other. Officer Clemmons, in a later episode years after, re-enacted the same scene, and the second time he sang a song with these words, “there are many ways to say I love you.”
There’s a video of Fred Rogers toward the end of his career where he accepted a Daytime Emmy Award. When he goes up on stage he says, “So many people have helped me come to this night, some of you are here, some are far away, some are even in heaven. All of us have special ones who have loved us into being, would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people of who helped you become who you are, those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.” The camera then spans the audience for ten seconds and you can see everyone’s eyes welling up with tears, thinking about the people in their own lives who loved them into being. He managed to make his acceptance speech about every other person in the room besides himself.
Fred Rogers wasn’t going to solve all the problems in our world on a children’s television show, but he got at something I think Jesus was trying to do with Nicodemus. I wonder- did you catch it in the story? Nicodemus, a very important decisionmaker in the Jewish high council comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, under the cover of dark. He’s curious enough about Jesus to want more information, but he doesn’t want to be caught talking to him. Asking Jesus questions about faith would have had a direct impact on Nicodemus’ authority as someone who held the wisdom of the Jewish community and used it to enforce the law. He couldn’t risk being seen- getting too close. Jesus was compelling though- he seemed like someone who knew how to say I love you in many different ways- he was loving people into being, transforming their lives and hearts, and Nicodemus couldn’t ignore it.
The two men end up having a conversation, not in a kiddie pool together, but it is one that has gone down as one of the most famous in all of history. Jesus tries to convey to Nicodemus what it means to really know God, and be known by God. One must, Jesus says, be born again. “But how can someone be born as an adult?” Nicodemus says. Clearly, he is thinking more about the biology than the metaphor. Jesus says you have to be born of the Spirit, and you have to accept that sometimes you’ll hear it and you won’t know where it’s coming from or what it’s going to do. Basically, you have to have faith.
My seminary preaching professor, Karoline Lewis, was a stickler about this text. She didn’t like it that John 3:16 had historically been taken so out of context. Verse 16, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” It’s been used as an exclusivity text- you have to believe in order to be saved. But verse 16 is followed by verse 17, “God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Karoline writes that we have taken John 3:16 to “justify damnation for unbelievers, perpetuating our myopic musings about God, and validating our hubris. Rather than signal God’s desire to be in relationship with all people, this verse has become a weapon… God loves the world is not a theory for salvation of a select few, though it is specific. Particular. God loves a Samaritan woman. God loves a man paralyzed his entire life. God loves a man blind from birth. God loves Jesus’ friend dead in the tomb for four days. God loves Peter who will deny him, in the end.” And, God loves Nicodemus. Even if he didn’t know it. Even if he never knew it or acknowledged it. Even if he never got up the courage to talk to Jesus in the light of day. This story isn’t about Nicodemus’ faith or lack thereof, it’s about God’s faith in him, that he would know how he was loved into being. God didn’t just love the Jewish world, or the Gentile world. The particularity of this text is people, all people, not just Nicodemus. Fred Rogers did this, too, it wasn’t just about the details he included in his show, but who he included, and how he included them.
Even though Jesus and Nicodemus don’t come to a resolution, Jesus does give him a few tips. He tells him to try and release the control he so desperately wants to have over his own salvation and surrender to the wisdom of trust. We don’t see immediately that Nicodemus is changed. But later on in the story, back with the other council members he argues against them, saying that a person is required to be heard before being judged. And, after Jesus dies, Nicodemus shows up at the burial, in the bright light of day, with one hundred pounds of myrrh, aloes, and spices, and he helps gently wrap Jesus’ deceased body in them.
I have to wonder how frustrating this must have been for Nicodemus, the process of being born anew, of becoming wise. Birth is painful. It takes time and effort and requires help and is messy. Nicodemus isn’t able to accept what Jesus has to say using his intellect, and that is confusing for him. But, the risky acts of arguing in court and coming to the burial do signal a change of the heart. Gail O’Day says that like Nicodemus, “we too can’t determine who exactly Jesus is, but who we are can be determined by who Jesus is.”
Maybe wisdom is less about gaining knowledge confirmed by outside sources, and more so a lifelong discovery of who we are in light of the particular love of God we know in Jesus. Maybe wisdom isn’t something you keep- it’s something you give away. Maybe it’s not what you learn, but what you embody. Maybe wisdom isn’t static, as though wise people are perfect and never make mistakes. Maybe wisdom is God’s gift to us in world that tells us we aren’t adequate. Maybe wise people are those who trust they are loved and enough, and make others feel the same way.
“Who are those people who helped you become who you are?” Fred Rogers asks. Maybe Nicodemus would have risked saying Jesus. Maybe not. And that’s not what matters, in the end. Because in God’s infinite wisdom, Jesus loved the whole world, including Nicodemus, whether he knew it or not. My prayer is that you, too, know it, rather than not.
Thanks be to God. Amen.