Last week, after I preached on a pretty well-known passage, someone asked me if I found it difficult to preach on a text that is so familiar. I admitted that the familiarity of a well-known passage can make it difficult to say something new. Even more challenging is to try to say something different about a passage when people have very strong beliefs about what a text means! So if I had a challenge last week, I’m up against a wall this week!
John 3:16 is probably the best-known passage in the Christian Bible. It was likely the first verse we all learned growing up, and I bet many of us could still quote it in the KJV. (I’m still not sure what a begotten son is, though.) You don’t even need to be a Christian to know John 3:16; all you have to do is watch professional sports and you’ll see the guy with a rainbow wig holding a John 3:16 sign in the crowd.
So in an effort to say something new today, I’m not going to focus on verse 16 today, but instead, I want to look at Nicodemus and Abram, whom I’ll just call Abraham for simplicity’s sake. I hope to show how God is calling us to new beginnings.
The first 11 chapters of Genesis are filled with human failure. Adam and Eve get kicked out of Eden. There is a great flood that we are told is the result of people’s wickedness. And in chapter 11, the people try to build a tower that reaches to heaven so that they could all live together, but God wants them to spread out around the world and put down roots in various nations.
God keeps trying to work with humanity, and we keep failing. Then God approaches one man, Abraham, and promises him that he will be a great nation. God tells Abraham, “I will bless you and you will be a blessing.” There’s just one thing that Abraham has to do.
Go. Abraham needs to go.
In verse 1, God says, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” God doesn’t first present Abraham with an outline of how he will be used over the next five years. There is no map. There is not talk of how he will earn a living. God just tells Abraham to leave his family, his country, his land, and go to a place to be named later.
I have the upmost respect for missionaries who leave behind family, friends, homes, and jobs to serve in a different location. Take that up one more notch and imagine you are leaving all that behind and you don’t know where you will be going or serving. And let’s be honest, I bet Abraham had a difficult time raising support without a plan in hand.
Just what do we know about Abraham? We know that he was a perfect man, upright and without flaw. Wait, no. This is the guy who, out of fear, told a powerful leader that his wife was his sister and offered her to a powerful leader not once, but twice. You know, because if it worked the first time… This is the guy who sent his firstborn child and his mistress out into the wilderness without food and water when his wife got jealous.
Abraham wasn’t perfect. Abraham was faithful. And that’s what he is remembered for.
Abraham was blessed, and he was to be a blessing to others. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew that he would be a blessing to his new neighbors. This seems to be a central teaching in our religious system. Wherever you go, be a blessing.
I hope that like Abraham, we can all be a blessing to others. Some are sent to new lands, like Virginia, or England. Others are called to be a blessing right where they are. Blessing not only our friends, but also our enemies. That’s right. This idea of blessing those around us isn’t just an Old Testament teaching that we can put behind us because we are under the grace of God through Jesus Christ! Jesus takes it up a notch and reminds us to be a blessing to everyone around us, even our enemies.
I’m not sure what it always looks like to be a blessing to our neighbors, but I can usually spot the opposite. In the last few weeks a number of Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized, with hundreds of headstones knocked over and some shattered. This week a Sikh man was shot outside of Seattle and told to go back to his country. Remember that Abraham wasn’t just told to be a blessing to those who were a part of his religious group. Especially because he was the first and only Hebrew at this time! No, instead we are called to be a blessing to everyone. Even the people we don’t like. Even the people who don’t like us.
But Abraham isn’t the only one that we find stepping out in faith in our text today. In our Gospel reading we find the story of a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus during the night, maybe because he was trying to not be seen by other Jewish leaders, maybe because that was the most convenient time of day. We can’t say. But Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Notice that there is no question in that quotation. Maybe Nicodemus’s voice went up at the end? Either way, Jesus responds to Nicodemus’s confession of faith by answering a question that was never asked, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Our Christian culture is saturated with talk of being born again, and you can find many interpretations of what this means. As I understand the phrase, it means to experience the world in a new and unique way. When we choose to follow Jesus, we experience everything in a new way. We see things with new eyes. That means we no longer see people as individuals we can exploit and use for our own gain, but as image bearers of God. That means you no longer see the beauty of creation and take it for granted, but instead you appreciate the creativity of God’s work. You hear differently, too. The cries of a baby are a reminder of the gift of life. The tweets of a bird and the whinny of a horse are reminders of the diversity of life. And the taste of chocolate is a reminder that there is a God who is good and that he loves us.
To be born again means that we experience the world again for the first time, just like a child who knew nothing of the world outside of its mother’s womb. This is the world that God so loved that he sent his only son. Believe in him, and you will experience the goodness of this world forever. Only it will be better. Remember, we can’t stop at verse 16. We need 17 as well, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Jesus didn’t just come to this world to say that it is all bad. There is no talk of total depravity. When we are born again, we see the work that God has done and is doing in this world. And that work includes the redemption of human beings through Jesus Christ.
What I want us all to take notice of here is that this isn’t something that Jesus is on the fence about. He doesn’t say, “Oh, I could go either way.” How does he first respond to Nicodemus’s (non) question? He says, “Very truly I tell you,” or “I tell you the truth.” If you prefer the KJV, it is “Verily, verily, I say unto thee.”
The word that Jesus uses there is actually a Hebrew word. Perhaps for emphasis, John records Jesus’s first two words in Hebrew and then writes the rest in Greek. And the Hebrew word that Jesus uses is one you may have heard before. It is the Hebrew word, “amen.”
That’s right, amen. The same word that we use to close our prayers and the same word you all yell out when I make a good point. And we find this Hebrew word in our Greek New Testament several times. 28 times it is used at the end of doxologies and benedictions to close out a prayer. Amen literally means to confirm something as true, or when we close a prayer, it is often a request that God allows something to come to be true. Amen means, “May it be so.” It is an affirmation of truthfulness.
But there is something unique about the way that Jesus uses this word. No other person in the Bible does what Jesus does. Jesus begins his statement with amen. And he says it not once, but twice. Verse six begins, “Amen, amen…”
Jesus is trying to focus his listener’s attention on what he is about to say. He isn’t joking around. Pay attention, everyone. This is a big one! I’m about to drop some truth on you.
And that truth is that you need to see the world through new eyes. You need to hear the world through new ears. You need to experience the world through a new sense of touch, taste, and smell. You must be born again and see that God is at work right here and now to redeem this world and the people in it. And that begins, Jesus says, when you believe in him.
Both Nicodemus and Abraham are called to begin again. Abraham is called to a new country, Nicodemus is called to begin again right where he is. When we begin again, we see things differently.
But our experiences of new beginnings isn’t simply for our own good. Recall that we are to be a blessing, wherever we go. Blessing our neighbors, blessing our enemies. Helping them to see the beauty of the world that God is redeeming through Jesus Christ. And this isn’t done the say way at all times.
Sometimes we bless people through the words we say. Sometimes we bless people through our actions. Regardless of our approach, we help others see, taste, smell, hear, and feel the world in a new way.
For instance, two weeks ago, a group from this church went to a new, foreign land, a place God would show them. A place called West Virginia. They went to help rebuild houses that had been destroyed in the floods of last summer. I’ve heard stories of compassion, stories of faith. Stories of love. One story included a young man who made the two-hour trip to West Virginia by motorcycle. I’m sure it was a beautiful drive, but on the last day a big rain and wind storm was hitting the region hard, and the young man didn’t think he could make it back home safely. The mountain man whose house the young man had been working on said, “You just load that motorcycle on my pickup. I’ll take you home and it won’t cost you a dern thing!”
I wonder, who saw the world anew? Who was blessed?
When I spoke with one of our men who went on this trip, I asked him about his experience of helping these Appalachian Americans who were left without anything but the clothes on their backs. He told me, “I was blessed.”
Here is the great paradox: God blesses us to be a blessing. And often times we are blessed in return. Often times we see the world through new eyes. Often times, we too are born again.