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“How Can These Things Be?”
John 3: 1 – 17
May 30, 2021
If you’ve ever read Alice in Wonderland, you know that when Alice told the Queen that there was “no use trying” to believe the impossible, because “one can’t believe impossible things,” the Queen replied, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
When was the last time you believed something impossible? Sometimes I feel like that Queen, because there are things I once did not believe possible that now appear to be true.
Do you remember in Star Trek when Dr. McCoy would wave a scanner over the patient that would diagnose the problem? Science fiction, right? Pure fantasy, we thought back then. Today, not only do we have CT scans and PET scans and MRIs, there now are medical devices that can be implanted under the skin to provide diagnosis and treatment! I know someone who is diabetic and has an implanted device that checks blood sugar level and automatically supplies the right dose of insulin. Other devices monitor heart function, and then send the data through cyberspace where a doctor miles away can have immediate and accurate information without examining the patient in person! It seems impossible!
When we travel, we don’t need maps anymore, because all we have to do is tell our GPS where we want to go, and it speaks: precise, step-by-step directions. How is this possible?
My cell phone can tell me how many steps I have taken, how many miles I have walked, what my heart rate is---all while resting in my pocket! How can this be?
Some people have apps on their phones that allow them to adjust their thermostat, turn off the lights, check the security system, and even show them who is at their front door---even when they are across the country. How can this be?
Yes, I can identify with the Queen in believing six impossible things before breakfast.
In our passage from John’s gospel, our lectionary text for this Trinity Sunday, Nicodemus feels like he has been asked to believe the impossible. When Jesus tells him that he must be born from above, he is astonished, and asks, “How can these things be?”
On this Trinity Sunday, we celebrate the miracle and mystery of the impossible: that somehow God becomes known to us—the Almighty, Omnipotent, Holy One, becomes known to us and lives with us. Somehow, the one God we worship becomes known to us in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. How can these things be?
Let’s see what this passage has to tell us about the possible impossible.
In this passage, we meet Nicodemus, a fascinating person. The first thing we learn about him is that he was a Pharisee; Pharisees were some of the most respected people in Jewish society. They were religious leaders, authorities, the ones others looked to for instruction and example.
Not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, he also was a member of the Sanhedrin, a very select group of Jewish men, numbering about 70, who were experts in interpreting the law. For Nicodemus to be part of that group meant he was extremely knowledgeable and well-respected. Not only was Nicodemus a member of the Sanhedrin, we see in v. 10 of this passage, where Jesus calls him “a teacher of Israel,” that he was also a scribe, a scholar who taught others about Jewish law.
This was a person who had all the answers! We might not want to say that he was a “know it all,” but he certainly knew a lot! Nicodemus had been taught—and had taught others!—that following the law was what was important, was the way to life. But then he learned about Jesus, teaching a different message, and Nicodemus wondered if he had gotten it all wrong.
Verse two tells us that Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night. Some have suggested that he came to Jesus at night because he did not want to be seen—this wise, older teacher of Israel coming to seek answers from this young upstart rabbi. That may be true. But I also believe that it is in the night when we wrestle with some of the deepest things. Questions arise in our hearts and give us no peace. I can imagine Nicodemus, lying sleepless in his bed, troubled and restless. What questions drove him? What were his secret worries? What needs stirred his heart and soul? Perhaps, deep inside, this wise teacher somehow sensed that all the ritual and religious law did not bring him closer to Almighty God. All of that wisdom and lore that he knew so well did not give him the answers he sought. And so, he came to Jesus.
Whatever our age, whether we are old or young, we should remember that as Christian people, we never stop learning and growing. Our growth in Christ doesn’t stop when we graduate from school, or when we get our first job, or even when we retire! Nicodemus grew in new ways; in essence, he reversed the roles, saying, Jesus, teach me.
Jesus used the analogy of birth to communicate to Nicodemus the mystery of life in Christ. Is there any greater mystery than the creation of a human life? How do the cells come together to form a person, with body, mind and soul? Who can explain it? As one person said, “If there’s one thing in life we don’t do on our own, it’s being born. We burst into this world screaming and kicking — perceptions confused, eyesight blurred, thoroughly dependent upon others for everything. How can we ourselves possibly arrange to be reborn in the Spirit? It’s not our doing. It’s a holy mystery.”1
When Nicodemus told Jesus that it was impossible to be born anew—after all, a grown person can’t re-enter the mother’s womb—so how can this be? Jesus said, Nicodemus----that is the point. You cannot do this yourself. Instead, you must rely on what has been done for you, just as when you were first born.
Today, on Trinity Sunday, we give thanks for this mystery, and in this passage, we see all three persons of the Trinity at work. God, portrayed as Father, out of love sent the Son, the second person of the Trinity, God incarnate, clothed in flesh. Through his action we have salvation. But here is the important role of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. We cannot attain this salvation on our own. All our working and striving, trying to know enough, to do enough, to be good enough, is not what does it. Our new birth comes through the Spirit. How does that work? It is a mystery, as Jesus said in verse 8, “The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”
Like Nicodemus, many of us have heads full of knowledge. Like Nicodemus, we have studied our scriptures; we know what is right and what is wrong and we faithfully try to adhere to that. But deep inside, we know that is not enough. There are times when we have failed. When we have sinned. And we need Someone to do for us what we cannot do on our own.
The love and grace of God that Nicodemus received through Jesus that night, by the power of the Spirit, changed his life. While we don’t have a record of his response in this passage, we know that he did respond. Later in John’s gospel, in chapter 7, there were Pharisees and priests plotting to have Jesus arrested, but Nicodemus protested and spoke out against his fellow Pharisees.
And then we have an even more significant sign of Nicodemus’ devotion to Jesus. After Jesus died, when other disciples were in hiding, it was Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, who tenderly prepared Jesus’ body for burial—an act normally done by the family or closest friends of the deceased. Nicodemus did indeed receive the miracle of new birth.
The words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus became some of the best known words of scripture: “For God so loved the world that God sent His only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
It may seem impossible, but through the loving power of God, we can be born again! When we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, when we rest in the mystery of the impossible, the Spirit fills us, and we are born anew. We receive salvation: life abundant in this life and life eternal in the next.
All the impossible things that we face in life can be changed by God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The One who created this world also redeems us from sin through the saving death of Christ our Lord and sustains us through the power of his Spirit. It may seem impossible, but it is true. In Christ, we have salvation through grace and faith. We do not have to earn our salvation, to work our way into a relationship with God. The Holy God comes to us in Jesus Christ, for God so loves the world, and God so loves each one of us. Impossible things: possible, through the power of the Triune God.
When we, like Nicodemus, wonder, “How can these things be?” may we remember that with God all the impossible things are possible, through the power of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
- “What is Second Life?” Homiletics, June 2, 2009.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church