Second Sunday in Lent A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
In 1975, Bill Hybels met with 125 other people in Willow Creek Theatre in Palatine, IL, and organized a new church. Over the next 35 years, the church grew and grew until over 20,000 people were worshiping there every week.
The secret to getting more people following Jesus, they said, was to first get them in the door. That’s the hard part. Once in the door, you cater programs and services to them which engage them as they are. Figure out what drives them, what they want and desire, and build your church and your programs around that.
Using this system, Willow Creek experienced this remarkable growth in membership. The numbers were there, and where there were numbers, good things happened.
Then, in 2007, Willow Creek released the results of a multi-year study of their programs, practices, and the spiritual health of their members. The results of that study could be summed up in three little words:
We were wrong.
What Willow Creek discovered was that their method, their system that they had designed themselves, the system that succeeded in bringing 20,000 people through the doors every week did very little to actually grow the faith of the people. The people they attracted, whom they targeted with carefully crafted programs and services, to whom they advertised as if they were consumers, never made the leap into being active disciples in the faith.
They had filled the building with people, but as many as they brought in each year, the same number were leaving out the back, weary of the product that brought them there. An obsession with numbers was killing the church.
Whether Willow Creek has actually learned from their own study is still up for debate. It is difficult to let go of something you’ve invested so much of yourself in, particularly when you still have 20,000 people showing up and funding you. But the message still rings true for others to hear—numbers don’t equal health. Gimmicks, programs, and attractions don’t create faith.
Jesus had people eager to see him wherever he went. The Gospel of John reports that when Jesus was in Jerusalem, people saw and heard of the signs and miracles he was doing. And being very attracted to that sort of thing, they flocked to him. No one like him had been alive in their lifetime.
They came to see more miracles, more signs. What else did Jesus need to do? Their butts were in the seats, metaphorically speaking. He had a captive audience ready to hang on his every word, eager to see more of this wonder-worker. Nicodemus was one of these very people, already impressed by Jesus’s works. He could have easily kept Nicodemus entertained and engaged.
Instead, Jesus pulls out this stuff about being “born again”. Ah, one of my favorite phrases in the Bible. And if you know me well enough to pick up on that sarcasm, good for you.
I tend to shy away from phrases that I feel are overused and abused in modern American Christianity. “Born again” is one of them. Because I don’t think Jesus is talking about Nicodemus accepting him as his personal Lord and savior—after all, they are having a personal experience right then and there. Nor is he talking strictly about a spiritual birth that Nicodemus has not yet had.
Nicodemus’s confusion is understandable. He has already been born once, twice. He was born from his mother’s womb, a physical birth that began his living out of life on earth.
But, we often forget that Nicodemus has already had a spiritual birth as well—he is a Pharisee, after all, extremely well-learned in the law and a devout follower of said law. He’s a member of the Sanhedrin, the temple court and political body of the Judeans. He is no stranger to God or devotion.
Yet, Jesus implies that the spiritual birth he’s already had is not quite enough. Like the church growth model that emphasizes numbers over actual spiritual health, Nicodemus had emphasized following the law to the letter so often that it no longer satisfied his spiritual life. He needed to be born into a greater one.
I often feel like Nicodemus, coming to Jesus in the middle of the night. Am I frightened to be seen approaching him? Maybe. The idea that a pastor may not have all the answers readily available is sometimes foreign to churches. What if I get caught going to Jesus without everything already all figured out?
I also feel like Nicodemus because I probably do need to be born again. And again. And again. Nicodemus is caught up in what he already knows. He doesn’t know how to move forward or think about his faith in a way other than what he already knows.
He knows the way his group of Judeans has always done things, and when Jesus presents him with a new way of thinking, it puzzles him. “How can one be born again?” He misses the point.
If Jesus would just make a point nice and clearly, we’d be a lot better off, wouldn’t we? Instead, he resorts to word play and ambiguity—he makes us think. He’s either saying we need to be born again or born from above, depending on how you translate the word; he’s talking about either wind or the Holy Spirit, again, based on how you translate the word. Maybe he means one or the other, or maybe both at the same time. Talk straight, Jesus!
Have we ever considered, though, if we are asking the right questions? “Can a man enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” is clearly not the right question in Jesus’s mind. What questions do we have that aren’t on Jesus’s mind?
We, too, need to be born again, from above. It is all too easy to get caught up in the flashy, showy signs of our faith—our music, our liturgy, our building, our worship materials, our numbers. When these become the focus of our faith, our security it is not faith at all. Faith and security are not the same things.
Faith is a word that, at its core, means “trust”. In what do we trust? Ourselves? Nicodemus could do that without Jesus’s help. He could even trust Jesus’s actions without much prodding.
What Nicodemus needs, and what we need, is to move beyond merely trusting what we can see and know, but trusting in what we cannot know. A little baby does not “know” for certain that her mother will feed and care for her, but she has no choice but to trust. Her life depends on it.
Our lives depend on Christ. Without his death and resurrection, there is no life for us. We can try to figure out how it all works, put God in a box that we can see and know, but then we’re back to worrying about the signs and how they can be. How isn’t important. That Jesus came, not to condemn, but to heal and save and make whole: that is what is important.
After this initial speech, Nicodemus seems to fade into the background, and we don’t know what he does with what Jesus tells him. We don’t know any more of his story, except for two things.
Nicodemus was a leader of the Judeans and sat on the Sanhedrin, remember? And at Jesus’s trial, Nicodemus is the only member of that council to defend Jesus.
And when Jesus is finally executed, and his body left to hang on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate if he can take it down. Who else goes with him? Nicodemus.
Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night, in secret, where he wouldn’t be seen. But by the end of the story, he comes out in broad daylight to care for the one who cared for him. Something about Jesus, his message, his life, and his death, caused Nicodemus to be born again, from above, out in the open.
We, too come to Jesus by night, unsure of ourselves and our faith. Will we also come to him by day?