A box without hinges, key or lid.
Yet golden treasure inside is hid.
In JRR Tolkien’s fantasy novel, The Hobbit, poor Bilbo Baggins who really wanted nothing more out of life than to live in his comfortable hobbit-hole at Bag End where the kettle was always on the stove and afternoon tea was served every day at 3.00 o’clock and half past four precisely – poor Bilbo Baggins finds himself stuck in a dark wet cave with a nasty creature who insists on playing a game of riddles. The problem is that the stakes are rather high – if Bilbo wins Gollum gets to show him the way out – but if Gollum wins – then Bilbo gets to be dinner. This riddle nearly stumped Gollum because it was along time since Gollum had been out of his cave, and he’d forgotten what an egg looked like.
This is what you have to do to see God’s kingdom.
Be born from the wind.
It’s passages like this that show us Jesus at play. Like Bilbo’s riddling, this is serious play. There’s a lot at stake, for Nicodemus and perhaps for Jesus as well. It’s in passages like this that we see through the gentle Jesus meek and mild stereotype, because here we see Jesus as the verbal gymnast who sums the situation up at a glance and who in a single stunning metaphor leads his ambiguous visitor into a moment of self-transcendence.
Why does Nicodemus come to Jesus at night? Is it just because Nicodemus, an important religious leader, doesn’t want to get jostled by the crowds around Jesus? Is it because he’s afraid to be seen? In the heavy symbolism of John’s gospel, the ones who act under cover of darkness are generally the ones who oppose the light that is coming into the world through God’s Son. They are the ones who prefer the darkness to the light. So there’s a hint of danger here – and yet – this isn’t a Pharisee-setting-a-trap story. Nicodemus is in earnest, he is meeting with Jesus privately and he is clearly representing others as well as himself. We know that you are a teacher come from God. Is this some sort of back-room deal being proposed? Nicodemus has been compelled into belief by the signs he has seen Jesus doing, maybe he wants to know if Jesus can establish his credentials in a way that will be acceptable to the establishment. There’s clearly a lot at stake here for Nicodemus, and perhaps there’s a lot at stake for Jesus too. I wonder if there is a temptation here for Jesus to become a respectable religious leader – a leader with status and power? Go on - throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple - let them catch you.
Sometimes I think Nicodemus gets a bad rap – he’s the one who gets it all wrong because he takes Jesus literally and so he misses the whole point. Bit of a dumbkopf. Call yourself a teacher? At the same time, I don’t know about you – I find myself relating pretty strongly to Nicodemus – for modern-day disciples who, like me, sometimes feel a bit ambiguous – we want to follow Jesus but we’d like some guarantees first, and we wouldn’t mind having a foot in the worldly-power camp at the same time – for us, Nicodemus is the pin-up boy. In fact, as we learn later in the gospel, Nicodemus the secret disciple ends by declaring his allegiance publicly and, for John’s community at the end of the first century, he may even have represented the ideal type of the synagogue-going Jewish Christian who was being forced to choose one side or the other. Nicodemus passes the test, and so does Jesus. But here at the start, Nicodemus believes for the wrong reasons.
We need to go back just a bit, to the end of chapter two where we read that because of the miraculous things Jesus was doing, many people started to believe in him. Trouble was, Jesus didn’t believe in them. Being impressed is not a sufficient basis for faith. Jesus, who knows what goes on in people’s hearts, is not impressed by those who believe in him because he performs miracles. Because real faith is about transformation. So this is the first problem with Nicodemus – he believes in Jesus because Jesus does what Nicodemus expects that the one sent from God should do – Nicodemus has already made up his mind about what should and what shouldn’t be possible with God.
I remember a number of years ago being described publicly by a person who didn’t know me as a ‘born-again Christian’. I wasted no time in rejecting that description, mainly because it seemed to label me as a particular sort of Christian – as a label it seemed to describe the sort of faith that is all enthusiasm and no depth – and the sort of person who looks back on a particular moment in time as the moment of conversion – the moment when everything was all of a sudden changed for ever – and life gets divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’. To me, that didn’t fit as a description of how I had come to faith, because it seemed to me that I hadn’t experienced a single moment of conversion, instead my life was more like a journey that was gradually leading me deeper and deeper into an understanding of God as the ground of my being, and Jesus as the one who reveals what God is like. A journey that was leading me deeper into the way of contemplative prayer. But a journey that had its ups and downs, a journey that seemed to bring me sometimes closer and sometimes further away from God. More like snakes and ladders than being born again.
I got an email the other day from a colleague who complained that if Nicodemus was such a dumbkopf for misunderstanding what Jesus meant, then so was he. In fact, so are all of us in the church because we’re still arguing over what this one saying of Jesus means.
Jesus, in fact, is posing a riddle. Turning away from Nicodemus’s categorical statements about what should or shouldn’t be possible for God, turning away from Nicodemus’s emphasis on working it out and getting it right, Jesus says no, just do this: just be born out of the wind. The Greek word Jesus uses is anothen – it can mean ‘again’ and it also means ‘from above’, from the spirit or from the wind. There’s no way of translating it into English without choosing one of the meanings and letting the other one go. That’s what Nicodemus does, he decides that Jesus means he needs to be born again, born anew – if we assume that Jesus means we have to be born again then the logical question –that Nicodemus asks – is what do we have to do to make that happen? And that’s still the trouble with ‘born again’ talk. What do we have to do? Is there some special prayer? Do we have to practice talking in tongues? What if you just can’t? And when does it happen? Was there a special moment, for you, or is it a journey?
But Jesus says, this isn’t about what you do. You don’t give birth to yourself. Your mother gives birth to you – being born of water reminds us of the physicality of birth, and the physicality of baptism – for Jesus there is no diving line between the spiritual world and the physical world – your mother gives birth to you and God is the one who breathes life into you and gives you birth from above. And that’s just the start of it, because when you are born then you begin to grow, and you begin to learn about the world around you. But you don’t get to control being born. The spirit blows wherever it blows. Being born of the wind means allowing the Spirit to just be, and to fill our sails and blow us along without knowing quite how that works. Nicodemus wants to ask Jesus ‘how to’ questions, and Jesus tells him about the God who gives birth to us. Notice that here Jesus gives us an image of God as a mother – be born from above, not begotten from above. And this maybe gives a clue to the meaning of his next riddle. You are born from above when I am lifted up on the cross. You don’t give birth to yourself. When you are born, there is blood, but isn’t your blood – it belongs to the one who gives birth to you, it belongs to the God who gives you birth into new life. For John, the writer of this gospel, there is never any separation between suffering and exaltation – Jesus is exalted right in the moment of the crucifixion and in the same way the eternal life that Jesus promises is experienced right now. Eternal life is not something we have to wait for until this life is over, it’s not something we have to wait for until Jesus returns, rather, it is the quality of living in the Spirit that Jesus describes when he prays that his disciples may be one, as he and the Father are one; ‘I in them, and you in me, that they be become completely one’.
So, how do you do that? You don’t. You just need to be willing to be changed. You receive the gift and if you’re willing to be changed by it, then your life gets reshaped and redefined by the love of God that is in Jesus.
Some things have to be believed to be seen.
Just be born of the wind.