Several years ago I went on a course for Creative Writing. It was a holiday at Harlech (Alan went off looking at castles – there are lots in Wales ) and in between the walks on the beach, I, along with 20 others was tutored by someone who was a published author of popular fiction. She set us all sorts of exercises, writing magazine articles and short stories.
I was by no means one of the high fliers. My background as a scientist did not lead to entertaining flights of fancy. But some of the pointers she gave us have stuck with me and have proved useful in writing sermons. I know they are not quite the same as fictional stories but some of the same principles apply. She stressed the importance of an opening hook, something to grab the attention of the readers or listeners. Have I done it?
Cut the waffle
And one of her favourite messages was ”Boil it down” which meant cut out all the waffle and reduce the story to the important bits. It was a bit like those exercises they used to give you at school. An article of 500 words which you had to reduce to say 300. I enjoyed these exercises called precis but I don’t know if they still use them as I am sure they have devised a computer programme which will do the job more efficiently. Will I do it?
Another of her maxims was have a good idea of your ending when you start otherwise you will waffle for far too long. I think that is a maxim which transfers to sermon writing very well. So, I had better stop waffling and get to the text.
Observing every detail
Our gospel story is about the meeting between Jesus and a man called Nicodemus who was a teacher and a Pharisee. Which meant he was one of a select group of Jews. A brotherhood who took a pledge in front of three witnesses that they would spend all their lives observing every detail of scribal law. He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, which was a court of seventy members and was the supreme court of the Jews.
Although the powers of the Sanhedrin were restricted under Roman governance, they were still extensive. One of their tasks was to examine and deal with anyone suspected of being a false prophet. The Sanhedrin were indeed the law enforcers and could exact strong punishment on those who broke them.
By the time of our reading, Jesus had become quite the law breaker. He had been performing miracles, overthrowing tables in the temple, gaining influence with the people and attracting many followers. People began to talk about this unorthodox Rabbi Jesus, who was certainly different, challenging accepted practices and becoming quite a threat to the established religious system.
The Sanhedrin would certainly have heard about him and would have been watching him and noting his activities carefully and with interest and apprehension.
It is amazing that Nicodemus came to Jesus at all.
Obviously, he had heard of Jesus and his teaching and was curious. But it is significant that he went to Jesus at night. Perhaps he was afraid of being seen with Jesus. Apprehensive that his colleagues would disapprove of him consorting with this radical teacher. We cannot be sure, but he obviously wanted to see Jesus alone. He had obviously thought deeply about the works of Jesus, for he asserts that Jesus must have come from God to accomplish such things. And then Jesus tells him that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above – other translations say ‘born again’.
Nicodemus takes the statement literally and asks unsurprisingly “How can someone be born after growing old?” You can see his mind working: that is just not possible – how can someone re-enter their mother’s womb? And Jesus recognises his amazement.
Like the wind
He attempts to explain that being born again is to be born of water and of the Spirit. Jesus explains that the Spirit is like the wind – you can’t see it but you can see what it does.
We often watch the programme about the RNLI – the lifeboat service – and it is only too apparent what happens to the sea when the wind becomes fierce. The power of the wind is amazing and its effects can be life changing. And likewise when people allow the Spirit to enter their lives they can be changed in ways they never thought possible. They become new people – they are indeed born again.
A new heart
Nicodemus still does not understand although he would have been familiar with the concept of the influence of the Spirit of God as it is told in the old testament notably by Ezekiel who says: “A new heart I will give you and spirit I will put in you.” But still he is apprehensive, unconvinced. And now it sounds as if Jesus is getting a little irritated. Nicodemus, you are a teacher of Israel, you are a learned man and yet you do not understand. – perhaps he didn’t want to understand. As my mother would have said there is none so deaf as those who do not want to hear.
Nicodemus as an orthodox Jew, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, must have thought that he was well placed to see the kingdom of God, he had the very best credentials – he had devoted his life to studying the Torah was more qualified that most to find favour with God. Was all his hard work and experience to count for nothing? To be born again should not be necessary for him.
And even worse, did this mean that those who were not Jews, who were not descendants of Abraham would be able to see the kingdom of God as long as they were born again. Was the kingdom of God open to everyone? Surely that couldn’t be right.
Nicodemus was trying to get an academic explanation but Jesus tells him that to experience the Spirit is what is necessary. Discussing the Spirit is all well and good but experiencing the power and effect in real lives is more valuable.
Jesus says I am telling you about things we have seen and you are not accepting them. If that is the case, how will you possibly accept things that you have not seen.
Jesus then relates a story with which Nicodemus would be very familiar. When the Israelites were on the journey out of Egypt they complained and riled against God regretting that they had ever left Egypt. To punish them God sent a plague of deadly fiery serpents and the people were bitten and became ill. Eventually the people repented and cried for mercy. God instructed Moses to build an image of a serpent, put it on a pole and raise it n the centre of the camp. Those who looked on the serpent were healed.
The serpent was placed in the temple for hundreds of years and whenever people looked at it they would remember their rebellion against God and that God had showed mercy and extended grace and forgiveness to all. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.
In a nutshell
I think by now Nicodemus may have had some idea what Jesus was trying to tell him about the grace, forgiveness and love of God for all.
And then we have one of the most famous verses in the Bible “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes on him may not perish but have eternal life.“
My tutor on the writing course would be very proud of that verse. It certainly fulfils her maxim and boils the gospel down. In fact Martin Luther called it the “gospel in a nutshell.” Just as there are tours in Scandinavia called “Norway in a nutshell” which take people just to the most important sights, this verse encapsulates the most important message of the gospel.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes on him may not perish but have eternal life.
Here and now
What is eternal life? I believe it is not something that happens to us in the future, not after we die. But I believe it is a state of righteousness with God that comes after we are born again. When the Spirit enters our lives. It can be here and now and we can experience it because of God’s great love for us.
So, what happened to Nicodemus – the man who came in the night? That’s a good title for a short story.
Well, he must have been greatly affected by his time with Jesus for later on he defends him at a meeting with Sanhedrin and after Jesus’ death takes his body from the cross and lovingly wraps it in spices and linen cloths.
Was he born again?
What does this say to us?
But what has this story to say to us 2000 years later?
Firstly, I wonder if we, like Nicodemus, are happier to meet Jesus in private to keep our faith to ourselves rather than share it with others. Are we afraid of being associated with him, frightened of embarrassment or ridicule?
Secondly, do we, like Nicodemus, not want to understand what being born again means? Do we think we are alright with God, that our place in the kingdom is assured? Are we afraid of the power of the holy Spirit and the change it may bring to our lives?
And thirdly and lastly (my tutor also recommended using triplets for effect)
Do we believe and live according to that boiled down verse: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that every one of us might have eternal life”?
May we, in the coming week, be prepared to show in our acts and words that we are followers of Jesus who know that God gave His Son for each one of us.
As we approach Easter, may our faith be refreshed. May we be born again. Amen
‘Born again’ was preached by Margery Spencer at St John with St Mark’s on Sunday 5th March, 2023. It was based on John 3:1-17