Are We Being Too Literal?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 8, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 3: 1-10
Ecclesiastes 1: 12-18
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
Over the course of the next three weeks we will be looking at the conversation that Jesus has with the "Pharisee named Nicodemus," who comes to see him at night. The conversation has three movements. One about this notion of being born from above, or again, which we will look at this morning. The second is about Jesus' mission to bring eternal life to those who believe in him, and the last, the third is about darkness and light, lies and the truth. In many ways these are connected, and work like the bread of a sandwich around the amazing teaching about eternal life, which finally gives us a real insight into this notion of "believing and receiving" that we have been looking for. So here it all begins with Chapter 3: 1-10.
3 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? 
Have you guys ever seen the movie, Spaceballs? It was made in 1987 by Mel Brooks as a spoof of Star Wars. It is definitely a silly movie, but a classic. There is this one scene, where the President, President Scroob, tells his henchmen, Dark Helmet and Colonel Sanders, to comb the desert looking for Lonestar, Princess Vespa and the rest. And so in typical Mel Brooks fashion there they are out there with combs and they are literally combing the desert. . . . classic, the visual is priceless. They have this big pocket style comb, and ask them, if they've found anything. . . but after they say no, Colonel Sanders asks Dark Helmet, one of my favorite lines. . . He says, "Are we being too literal?" And right then Dark Helmet pipes in, "No, he told us to comb the desert so we're combing it!" Too literal. . . I always think of that moment when I read this encounter with Nicodemus from John 3. Look at it, there is the "unless you are born again, or born from above, or born anew," depending on your translation, you cannot see the Kingdom of God. . . and the first words out of Nicodemus' mouth are, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Can you believe that question. . . is that what you would have asked? It's almost as bad as the folks in the last chapter, who when Jesus says, that he's going to tear the temple down and build it back in 3 days, said, "That's impossible it took us 46 years to build it." Again, how can you take the things that Jesus says literally. . . but yet we do and the problem is just like here with Nicodemus is that the literal puts limits on Christ, and just when we had torn the temple down, setting God free to run wild in this world.
Let's take a look at this Nicodemus guy for a second. It tells us he is a Pharisee, and it tells us that it is late at night, but other than that not much. Who is he? What does he want? What is he after? So many times when a Pharisee makes an appearance in the gospels they are usually trying to trick Jesus, trying to catch him in a gaffe, where he seemingly blasphemes, or breaks the rules, or says something to run afowl with the Romans, but this seems very different. It's almost as if Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he is genuinely interested in Jesus, he's intrigued by Jesus, that maybe he even believes. He comes right out and says, "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." That doesn't sound like someone who is trying to trick Jesus, but rather a genuine interest. He calls him teacher, Rabbi, and he says we know he is from God because of the signs. . . and it is to this that Jesus turns it right around on him. . . Very truly I tell you, that no one can see the kingdom of God who is not born from above. . . Imagine that, you come in the middle of the night to Jesus, you tell him how great he is and that he must be a teacher of God, and in answer to the affirmation, Jesus says, "no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born from above. . . or born again, as it is often translated. And it is to this that Nicodemus says, how can you be born if you are old? how can you re-enter the womb? Weird right, I mean what Jesus says is weird, and the fact that Nicodemus takes him so literally is weird. Who is writing this dialogue? Jesus goes on to say that being born from above, is like being born from "water and the spirit" but this time he says it in reference to entering the kingdom of God, the first time it was just to see it, now to enter it. But then as if to sense Nicodemus' confusion, and possibly our own, Jesus goes out of the way to make it just as clear as mud by saying. . . "The wind blows where it goes, and the sound of it you hear, but you don't know where it comes from or where it goes.. . so it is with everything born of the spirit?" Now Nicodemus' reply makes sense. . . he says, "How can these things be?" and Jesus hammers him, with, "are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not know these things?" Talk about speaking right to the issue. Strange and strange, curiouser and curiouser. . . . we have entered wonderland for sure, a wonderland where the literal is confusing.
But the typical takeaways for this passage are the most literal ones possible. They take what Jesus says at face value and build those familiar walls of who is in and who is out, on the basis of being "Born Again." When you hear the term born again what picture do you get in your mind? I think generally it refers to a sense that there should be a conversion experience to Christianity, but I don't know about you all, but the picture I get isn't the most positive one. I see alot of permasmile. . . I see alot of pushiness. . . often slogan filled. . . and shallow, well literalism. . . literalism that if questioned is fought hard against. . . that is fragile. . . protective. . . narrow. And it is this passage that gives it credence. Have you ever been asked the question, When were you born again? And if you don't have an answer, it feels like you have failed a test, one that obviously suggests that literally you will never enter nor see the kingdom of heaven. . . and ain't that a pitiable shame. I've heard the question be answered in the snarkiest way possible before. The person said, I don't need to be born again, I was born right the first time. . . . and the righteous competition has begun. . . who is right? who is wrong? What is authentic and faithful? and what isn't? Are we to take this literally that there must be a conversion experience, and it has to come at a "second" birth and not the first one. . . what constitutes a conversion experience? How close do you have to come to going back into the womb? What counts and what doesn't? It is amazing how easy it is to find yourself right back out in the desert with your comb. . . again being too literal. Isn't it funny that Jesus has just torn down the temple, walls and all, and already in the next chapter we want to build those walls right back. Walls dividing in and out.
But Jesus isn't describing walls. . . he is describing spiritual stuff. . . water, spirit, breath, heaven, above. . . all of these things. . . and that a teacher of Israel should know what is going on? Now why should a teacher of Israel know? What is the basis for their knowledge? What do they study and base life on? What source do they study for truth? Right, the Torah, the Law, the books of Moses. . . the first five of our Old Testament. Now what does that teach about spirit and water. . . now I'm sure there are many places, but you don't have to get very far because right in the beginning of Genesis, you have All of these. . . You have the spirit flying over the waters there on the first day where God was making the heavens and the Earth. Is it possible that Jesus means you have to be born in that moment. . .you have to recognize your connection to the whole, to the beginning, to the Father, realizing that you are very much a part of God's creation, and that from that everything else comes. It is a spiritual birth. . . from above. . . an adoption. . . . not literally of course, but figuratively.
Having this knowledge and disposition and understanding of yourself can really make a difference in the way that you see Jesus, yourself, your purpose, how life works, and that each new day is a new day of creation, a new day of creation that is all connected back to the first day, when the kingdom of God was very much intact and being built. If you don't acknowledge that creation of God, that God is in control, that God has built this world and is building this world, and that you are a part of that glorious creation, taking part in it with the spirit and the water, flowing over you, then how could you ever possibly see the kingdom of God, and that since Jesus knows that seeing is believing, that we must see, he has to replace that visible temple he tore down with something we can see, himself, and connect that self to the world around us. We are born from above. . . children of God. . . if you can't see that, how could you see the kingdom, and if you can't see it how could you enter it? Is this what Jesus is talking about? I don't know, but it makes as much sense as the other, the rigid "Born Again" doctrine that has divided people for so long. But this kind of thinking may be just as off base. . . again, are we being too literal?
What does John want us to get, to pull away and learn from this encounter, that starts here in such a confusing way? What does Jesus want Nicodemus to do? Is it anything specific? He goes on to say in what follows. . . " 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?" But Nicodemus remember came to Jesus stating that he believed in him. . . what does all this mean? Is it only that Nicodemus has seen Jesus do miracles and he is so sure that Jesus is a teacher of God. . . isn't it interesting that Nicodemus, a teacher of God, sees Jesus perform miracles and then puts him directly into his own category, a teacher. . . You must be like me, a person of God if you can do such miracles. How arrogant? and how typical of us? We like to put Jesus in a box to be like us, to be like something we understand, to be like something that doesn't change us all that much, that we can go about life as normal without any difference. . . . is this why Jesus says, you haven't seen anything yet. . . you have seen and already you are trying to categorize, already you are trying to put me in a box you can understand, you are trying to adopt me into your world, rather than leaving your world and entering into mine. . . let me blow your mind then and tell you that there is more to me than what you have seen, and more to me than you will ever understand unless you give up yourself first, completely washed away by water and the spirit, things that are necessary to life, the wind, the air, and water, and they are both all around us, completely accessible by all, and they do not make rigid barriers, but instead are fluid. . . ever changing, yet ever present, and they fill everything. . . let it fill you, not the other way around. Stop trying to put everything in your literal earthly categories, if you do so, if you put all of this in your rigid earthly categories, how will you ever understand heavenly things because heavenly categories don't fit in the narrow earthly boxes. . . I am not just a teacher of God, but I am God, and I am the son of God, and as the son of God I will die so that I can be raised. . . For it is in this exchange with Nicodemus that Jesus says, for God so loved the world that he sent his only son so that everyone that believes in him may have eternal life. . . that is a claim that goes far beyond someone being a teacher, and it goes far beyond any other limits we might think to put on Jesus. Jesus defies categories, defies logic, breaks through the walls that we build. Why does Jesus need to tear down the temple. . . why do we need to be born from above? Because he lives outside of our preconceived notions and they have to be torn down before we can go forward. . . as many of you know I wrote my own version of the gospels a rhyming ballad that puts the stories of the four together into one. I concluded that poem with these words, I wrote it thinking about this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus:
So we are saved, at least from the grave,
The Bible allows us to know it,
But there is more, for us to learn for sure,
For God is also a great poet.
And any artist knows that his creation grows
Under his watchful care,
So you and me, should struggle to see,
And keep searching for what is there.
Don’t miss a miracle, trapped in the literal.
Instead thank Him for every breath.
His power is all, and even after our fall,
God is still stronger than death.
And so victory was won with subtlety,
But many still cannot see,
But perfection takes time, and through reason and rhyme,
One day all will truly be free.
It is a story about growing and expanding definitions of the world, expanding definitions about life, and death, and love, and God, and even us, so we have to be careful of being too literal because we might miss something, we might miss some of the glorious scope of Jesus if we try to keep him safely within our safe literal mindset. "Don't miss a miracle, trapped in the literal, instead thank him for every breath" for each breath is a miracle. . . maybe it doesn't literally fit our definitions of how big a miracle must be, but it does grow our understanding of God, and just might work to make us a little more humble, and a lot more grateful. May it be so, thanks be to God.