Begin the begin

Genesis 12:1-9
Psalm 121
John 3:1-17

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine


3 1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “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. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “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. 17 “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.  (John 3:1-17, NRSV)


Let us pray: O God, grant, that the prayers we offer may be your channel for new and abundant life not only hoped for, but worked for, through faithful word and deed. Amen.


If you were asked, what is your favorite bible verse what would you answer? Psalm 23, Romans chapter 8, John chapter 14, maybe John 3:16?  John 3:16 just may be the most powerful verse in the whole Bible, if not it is one of the most loved.  It is the Holy Gospel in one sentence.  It is the “original Gospel sound bite.”  Think of how many people have memorized it. You see it on cross stitching’s, you see it on signs held up at sporting events, it is on road side signs, it is on pencils, pens and coffee mugs, it is spray painted on overpasses and sidewalks.  It is the quintessential Biblical verse, but it has almost become ho hum we see it and hear it so much. A verse like John 3:16, that is so well known, that is so familiar to the church as well as the public has lost its meaning, because it is so common place and we have stopped listening to it.


As hard as it is to preach on such an important verse, I think it is crucial for us to occasionally pause and contemplate what Jesus is saying to us. This one verse is so powerful and profound that it overpowers verse 17 that follows it.  Most of us have found great comfort in those famous words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” But as much comfort as these famous words offer, sadly they have been co-opted and used to threaten others, 16″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…18 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.”   It makes me really sad that this glorious message of God’s love for the cosmos, and the entire world can be used as a threat to some to literally or at least spiritually beat the hell out of them. So, it is all the more important to lift up and point out the verse that is sandwiched between verse 16 (love) and verse 18 (condemnation). Not to condemn but to save.


“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.’

God loved the world, loved so much that he gave.

Not to condemn but to save, John says.  Not to condemn.


I guess I have come to the point in my life and my faith that I am tired of the fear and judgment that is so rampant in Christianity today and our nation today.  I am tired because verse seventeen is so overshadowed.  Jesus came Not to condemn but to save.


As with any verse in the Bible we can’t really understand it unless you look at the verse in context, unless we look at the verse and how it works in the whole story.


Our story for today starts with a man, an important man around town named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which meant that he was a faithful teacher of Torah, a leader of Jewish worship, piety, and tradition.  He was a leader of the community who was respected, well connected and prominent in the community. But, something in Nicodemus’ life left him empty, wanting, searching, wondering.

Have you ever had that feeling?


That gnawing feeling that there is something more, something deeper about your life, your faith and you just haven’t discovered it yet?


Nicodemus visits Jesus at night.  We aren’t sure why some say he was afraid that others would notice, and disapprove.  Others say that he was a busy man and it was the only free time he had.  And still others that he hasn’t been able to sleep and he decided amid his tossing and turning to seek some resolution.


Whatever his reason, Nicodemus was looking for something more, something deeper, some sense of purpose and understanding.  So, in the dead of night he goes to see Jesus.  When he finds Jesus, Nicodemus looks him in square in the eye and says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can perform these miracles that you do unless God were with him.” Jesus listens and says, “Very truly, I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This can’t be the answer Nicodemus was looking for.  I am sure he wanted clarity, certainty and answers, not some mysterious talk of rebirth that made no sense.


So, Jesus tries to explain again what he means.  He tries to explain the mystery of being born from above, being born of the Spirit and not the flesh.  Jesus explains how the wind blows where it wills.  The wind is mysterious and is not predictable or controllable.  Likewise, God’s spirit blows where it wills. God’s spirit is mysterious and unpredictable and impossible to control.


Nicodemus is asking the question many of us ask when we have that gnawing feeling that something is missing.

What do I need to do?

How can I feel the spirit?

How can I gain the kingdom of God?


What Nicodemus doesn’t realize is that being born again is solely and completely God’s doing.  We cannot control it or manipulate it.   We can’t cause it to happen.  Being born again is not about the one-time experience that you may or may not remember but instead it is a new way of seeing and being in the world, a new way of living that is grounded in God.  It is an open mindedness, open heartedness that is open to the great mystery of faith.  It is a new way of living, full of gratitude for all of life’s blessings. It is thanksgiving and generosity, not scarcity and fear.  It is living with overwhelming awe that God loved the world so much that he sent his Son not to condemn but to save.  May it be so in your life and in mine.  Amen.


Let us pray:



[1] Title of an REM song…from the Album: Life’s Rich Pageant Released: 1986

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