There are some things that define the differences between generations. There are young adults who have never known a world without the internet, for instance, and others for whom this is still a pretty recent phenomenon. Or, there are those who remember rotary phones, and others who would have no idea what to do if one was put in front of them.
There’s another one, and my generation is sort of right on the dividing line for this: library card catalogs. Do you remember having to write papers using a card catalog? You picked your topic, went to those big wooden stacks full of drawers stuffed with index cards, and you looked up all the different books you would need.
That changed while I was in college. Most libraries don’t have those anymore. Now you can use a computerized system, and maybe even pull up what you need at your home. But I’ll never forget being about elementary-aged and being at the library with my friends. And we had some questions. Questions of the type that our parents weren’t ready to answer.
You get where I’m going here.
So you could innocently enough go to the card catalog, pretend you were looking for something else, and find that card that would send you to a book that would explain everything. And there’s no shame in natural curiosity, but even still, your heart was pounding the whole time, right?
Library card catalogs answered a lot of questions that we couldn’t ask others back in the day. Today we might turn to the internet. But, what if you were a Pharisee, a religious leader, back in Jesus’ day? And what if there was this guy who kept doing these things you couldn’t explain? And what if all the other religious leaders you worked with didn’t like him at all, but you were curious? And what if you needed to find out who he was for yourself?
That was the situation that Nicodemus was in. He was a Pharisee, a religious leader, and he was expected to toe the party line. And the party line was that this guy named Jesus, who kept doing things like turning water into wine and running money changers out of the temple, was bad news.
But Nicodemus was curious. He thought there might be something more to this. But there was no card catalog, no webpage, for figuring out Jesus. And so, he did the only thing he could think of…he went straight to the source. But, like a kid looking in the card catalog, pretending to be doing something else, Nicodemus didn’t go in the bright of day and just ask. Instead, he snuck out under the cover of night, and went to Jesus while everyone else was asleep.
Can you imagine Jesus? He was probably sleeping himself, and now this Pharisee was waking him up asking him questions. He says, “Jesus, I know you’ve got to be a teacher from God, because otherwise you couldn’t do these things. Who are you?”
And Jesus, as usual, doesn’t answer the question. Instead he starts talking about being “born again” or “born from above”. And Nicodemus is like, “What do you mean ‘born again’?” And he actually asks if he’s supposed to reenter his mother’s womb so she can give birth again.
But Jesus tells him, “that’s not what I mean”. And Jesus explains about being “born of the Spirit” and how we have to have a spiritual rebirth, one that changes us. And Nicodemus doesn’t know this at the time, but Nicodemus himself is in the midst of this second birth. He is having a sort of birth pangs brought about by a curiosity that he cannot ignore any longer. He is being changed.
There’s an old saying: “Curiosity killed the cat.” And I have vet bills to attest to the fact that curiosity can at least cause very expensive injuries to the cat. And we humans sometimes take this saying to heart in order to discourage our own curiosity, and sort of keep our heads down.
And, though he wasn’t a cat, Nicodemus’ curiosity was indeed dangerous. If his friends had known what he was doing, it would have cast suspicion on him. It would have changed the way he was seen. That’s why he had to look for answers in the middle of the night.
But curiosity, while generally bad for cats, is actually a really good thing for humans, especially in our spiritual lives. Asking questions is a sign of deep faith. Nicodemus knows there is something about Jesus, and so he goes and tries to learn more. And that’s what we do too.
We get curious, and when we do we sometimes have these encounters with God’s love and grace. We wrestle. We grapple. We try to work out who we think Jesus is, and what that means for our lives. And that work doesn’t always go quickly, or end neatly.
This text is the same way. Nicodemus just sort of disappears in the end. He doesn’t get this big “aha” moment where it all makes sense. Instead, he probably walked away from Jesus more confused than ever before.
That’s not surprising…Jesus can be infuriating like that.
Down South where I grew up there were a lot of people who would talk about being “born again” the way Jesus does here. And, for them, it was often this one, shining moment when all of a sudden they believed and their lives changed and everything made sense.
But I never got that moment. I had times when things made a little more sense, and I felt God’s love, but the curiosity and questions never ended. And like Nicodemus I’ve had that same pattern of getting curious, seeking answers, and then ending up with more questions. And sometimes I’ve had to wrestle with faith and doubt, and fight my way out of the safety of the womb and into new life.
I actually think that’s a good thing. I don’t want my spiritual life to ever come to a terminal point where I have all the answers. That would be boring, intellectually and spiritually.
Instead, I like the idea that we are continuously and gradually being born again. We are living lives of change, in a world full of change, and that means we are constantly having to go back to Jesus and ask the questions that keep us up at night. And we have to keep being born again, maybe not just once, but over and over and over again in many ways.
Martin Luther King once used the story of Nicodemus to talk about being born again. He said that Jesus hadn’t given Nicodemus easy instructions or said “stop doing this” or “stop doing that”. Instead, Dr. King said, Jesus told Nicodemus “your whole structure must be changed”. This was nothing less than a total shake-up.
Dr. King was talking specifically about how America had to be “born again” and deal with injustice. And that’s a good example of how we as people, and as institutions and communities, must also sometimes be born again, and do what is right and what is good, for the love of God and for the love of the world.
And it is the love of the world that Jesus is talking about. If you’ve ever watched a football game you’ve seen signs with a verse written on them from this very passage. John 3:16: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.
There’s a real irony in the fact that this one line, that comes in this passage about the kind of faith that is not easy or simple, has become emblematic of easy and simple faith. Because he whole story of Nicodemus is a little too long for a piece of poster board. But that’s fitting, because our faith journeys cannot fit onto one sheet of paper, or one bumper sticker. They require nothing less than the full length and depth of our lives.
That’s true of all of us, and that’s true of Nicodemus too. We see him only two more times in the Gospels, but in those two appearances we see a man who is in the process being born again. The next time we see him he is making a sort of tentative defense of Jesus when Jesus is in trouble, trying to save him, trying to keep the religious authorities from killing him.
And the last time we see him, he is one of the two men who takes Jesus’ body after his death, and buries it, putting it in the tomb.
I think there’s something meaningful about that. In mourning Jesus death, Nicodemus was showing that he had been reborn. And when Jesus rose again, that new life took on new meaning.
Sometimes curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. Sometimes it saves him. For God so loved the world, that God would want nothing less for us. Amen?