There are some who assume that because we live in a "so-called" Christian country, then we're going to be OK when it comes to the day of reckoning. There are some who think that because they belong to a particular religious group or denomination that this somehow grants them privilege points in the Kingdom of God. There are others who believe that their devotion to Church or Chapel - their longstanding membership and service, sometimes over a lifetime - will hold the key.
These people need to look long and hard at the familiar story of Nicodemus. It's one of those stories that we've all heard so many times. The questions it raises are; have we understood the message behind the story, and how has our hearing of the story affected us?
Let's recap with a short character profile of the main character, Nicodemus. He lived in a very religious country. He was a very religious man, one of a select few, the Pharisees. There were never more than 6000 of them, together known as a chaburah or brotherhood. Nicodemus along with all the Pharisees had taken an oath that he would spend his whole life observing the letter of God's law as written down by the scribes.
To the Jew the Law was the most sacred thing in the whole world, the sacred word of God to his people, and therefore if it was God's word it was perfect and complete and must relate to every aspect of a person's life. The scribes had spent generations refining these laws so that they could be applied to the minutest part of a daily life, and the general population had no doubt spent generations looking for loopholes.
Nicodemus as a Pharisee had dedicated his life to keeping the rules and regulations, and although we might look at a life like his and ask the question "why?" - because it seems so pointless - the fact remains abundantly clear that here was a man totally dedicated to serving God in the way that seemed right to him. To Nicodemus a good man, a righteous man was one who had set himself apart from the world in order to keep the Law.
Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee, he was also a member of the Sanhedrin - the ruling body - one of 70 members of the supreme court of the Jews. The Sanhedrin had one particular role that is of interest here - that of examining and dealing with anyone suspected of being a false prophet.
So what on earth was someone like Nicodemus doing coming to Jesus? Was he out to try and trap Jesus into saying something controversial - gathering evidence? There were many who were out to do just that.
Well I don't think so, and there are clues in the story. He came at night - if he was simply after evidence, why not corner Jesus when there were reliable witnesses around rather than turn up after nightfall when no one might see him. Night-time was also considered the best time to study the law because there were less distractions. Jesus was of course surrounded by people through the day.
No, I think the answer is far simpler and yet far more miraculous. Taking into account Nicodemus' strict religious background it was a miracle and a great act of courage on his part that he came to see Jesus at all. That he came at night emphasised the fact that here was a man who was serious in his intent, a man who was in every way a devout and religious man who realised that there was something missing in his life.
He came in the dark looking for light.
He started the conversation with a compliment
"Teacher," he said, "we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are proof enough that God is with you."
This was no chance encounter, Nicodemus knew enough about Jesus to have started to formulate an opinion about him. Jesus replies in a way that almost brushes aside the complement to get his message across. It's not external signs that are important, he tells Nicodemus, it's what happens inside a person's heart - and that has to be a change that can only be described as being born again.
Born again. Two words which cause a lot of religious people to feel uncomfortable. Born again. We're talking Pentecostals here, aren't we? Charismatics and the more "happy clappy" Christians? It's not a "non-conformist" experience, is it?
Sorry, Jesus was talking to a pillar of the establishment here. But take heart, because those two words possibly caused confusion in the mind of Nicodemus. The confusion could arise because the Greek word translated as born again in some versions, born anew in others, and born from above in yet others can mean all three. It's one of those words that just can't be translated properly into English and retain its full meaning. So it can mean
a radical and complete change
it can mean "again", in the sense of a second time
it can mean "from above", and therefore from God
If we try and bring all these meanings together, to get a feel for what Jesus was trying to say to Nicodemus, then we have Jesus saying that there is a fundamental change that happens to anyone who experiences and enters into the Kingdom of God. Something happens deep inside, in the soul, in the heart of that person, which could only be described as being reborn; and there's nothing of self in this because it comes from the grace and power of God.
Do you realise just how important this concept of rebirth is in the New Testament?
1 Peter 1:3 "In (God's) great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope.."
1 Peter 1:23 "For you have been born again.. through the living and enduring word of God"
Titus 3:5 "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit"
2 Corinthians 5:17 "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"
There are others as well, but do you see how this idea of rebirth, of being born again which so many Christians find so uncomfortable in the story of Nicodemus is actually one of the themes running through the whole of the New Testament.
If so, then it's something that we can't simply dismiss, and talk about "born again Christians" as if they are a different species from Protestants, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists and Presbyterians!
Nicodemus doesn't seem at first reading to have understood what Jesus was on about. He takes the 'rebirth' as being reborn physically
"What do you mean?" exclaimed Nicodemus. "How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?"
One commentator remains unconvinced by this one, and sees in Nicodemus' actions and words a great longing. After all here was a man who risked ridicule if it was discovered that he'd consulted and talked with Jesus about spiritual matters. It's almost as if he's saying to Jesus "You talk of this fundamental change being necessary, and I can see where you're coming from but to me that's impossible - you might as well ask me to go back into the womb and be born over again."
Nicodemus, it is argued, was a man who saw the need for change and wanted to change, but couldn't change himself. It's a problem that has dogged humanity from the early pages of the Bible.
And the evidence for this opinion about Nicodemus is quite strong. Jews understood the idea of rebirth very well. When a man from another faith became a Jew and was accepted through prayer and sacrifice and baptism he was regarded as being 'reborn'. In fact so radical was this change that past sins were forgiven because he was considered a new person.
Nicodemus knew all this and was a man well versed in Scripture. He would have known passages like Ezekiel 18:31 "Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against me and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!"
Ezekiel 36:26 "A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you"
So although we might find this concept of rebirth as difficult, to a man like Nicodemus it should have been something he could have easily related to.
The NIV says in verse 5-6 "I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit."
The CEV "The truth is, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven."
The prophets had spoken over and over again of the very thing that Jesus was talking to him about, this spiritual rebirth, and generations had not understood or more likely chosen not to understand.
How many times in our lives have we heard those words of Jesus and thought 'Very good, but that's a bit radical for me. I'm not that comfortable about change - I rather like me as I am thank you, Jesus'. It's a common enough response to the challenge of the Gospel.
Nicodemus is starting to get uncomfortable now. He came to Jesus knowing that there was something lacking in his life. Jesus saw the root of the problem and told him what was needed. It was far too radical for Nicodemus, and now he clutches at straws. 'I don't understand how it works!'
Here Jesus does what he often does, takes pictures from everyday life and uses them to open people's eyes to the truth.
Today he might have said 'Do you have a television. Do you know how it works? How the pictures and sounds find their way often via satellite link from a remote corner of the globe to a studio, then through the airwaves to the receiver on top of your roof, down a wire, through the wall into the back of the set, so that when you switch on there is the news from around the world. Do you understand the technology behind the remote control that you use to change channels, or even how the little battery inside it powers the electronics inside?
Do you need to? You may not know how it works, but you still enjoy the benefits of TV. Therefore you're not going to say that TV doesn't exist because you can see the end result.
'See the wind' says Jesus to Nicodemus (who didn't have a TV). You've seen trees flattened by it, or leaves blown by the gales of winter. You may not understand the physics of what you see, but the effects are plain to see. Well, it's like that with the Spirit. You may not know how it works, but the effects are plain to see in lives that have been changed.'
This is not some 'airy fairy' concept that we're talking about here. We may not understand the full implications of Jesus' words when he talks about the flesh giving birth to flesh and the Spirit giving birth to spirit, but we can see the effect of this spiritual rebirth in the lives of Christians who have experienced it.
One commentator explains it this way 'The unanswerable argument for Christianity is the Christian life.'
Jesus then issues a warning to Nicodemus in verse 12 'I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?'
'I've tried to make things simple for you to understand,' says Jesus. 'I've used pictures that you can relate to from your everyday life. If you can't see what I'm getting at, how on earth are you ever going to understand the deeper, spiritual things?'
There is a serious message in this paragraph for us I think. Christianity is not something that you can understand by discussion, argument, reading or listening to sermons - it is something that has to be experienced. Then it all makes sense. That doesn't mean that we understand everything - remember the analogy of the wind or the TV set. Try explaining the wind or television to someone who has never experienced it.
You see, at the heart of Christianity is a mystery, it's the mystery of redemption - that God should send his Son into the world to die so that mankind might be made right again with it's creator. It's not a mystery that can be puzzled out like a novel, it's a mystery that has to be understood through experience.
To be born again, born anew, or born from above are not alien concepts that belong to the 'happy clappy' brigade of Pentecostals, or even something that suits the younger element within the Church. This is fundamental change in the life of every one who would call themselves a Christian. If it isn't, then like Nicodemus no matter how hard we try and live our faith there will be that occasional nagging doubt that there is a piece of the jigsaw missing; that our experience of faith lacks something that we see in the lives of others - that we are not complete, and we are not fully enjoying the benefits of life in the Kingdom of God.
'I tell you the truth,' says Jesus to Nicodemus and us all. 'Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.'
Verse 6 in the CEV
".. only God’s Spirit can change you into a child of God. Don’t be surprised when I say that you must be born from above. Only God’s Spirit gives new life"
'Father, all the riches of life in your Kingdom are ours if we will but open up our lives, our hearts and our souls to the New Life that you would have us live. Open our eyes to the truth of your word and our hearts to the need of renewal, rebirth. Amen'