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SIGN, SERPENT AND SPIRIT Romans 4:1-4,13-17; John 3:1-17

Some of the early Celtic saints set out on pilgrimage not with a particular place in mind to reach but simply letting the journey unfold. They travelled on foot or in tiny coracles, allowing the tide, wind and currents to take them where the footpaths or the forces of nature guided them. They thought of themselves as hospites mundi = guests of the world. In this way they followed the example of Abraham and Sarah who set out in obedience to God’s call, not knowing where they would end up, simply trusting that God would bring them to the fulfilment of their hopes and desires. These days we find that kind of journey difficult to understand because we are so goal orientated and the world is mapped and satellite navigated!

Perhaps that was the problem with Nicodemus as he came to Jesus by night. He was not open-minded enough to gain anything much from the encounter. John’s gospel uses words in carefully chosen ways and often to carry more than one meaning. In saying that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, he is not just telling us that a leader of the Pharisees wanted to come secretly. John is also pointing out that Nicodemus came in a spiritual night – he thought he knew where he was going in his conversation with Jesus, but he ended up not really seeing his way.

We tend to pick up on the familiar landmarks when we read or listen to this portion of John’s gospel. We pick out verses as mottos – crucial truths to accept if we are to be Christian. We fail to understand the broad sweep of the whole encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. What is really going on? What does the coded language mean?

The conversation begins with talk of seeing things – which is ironic, bearing in mind that the encounter is at night when Nicodemus does not want to be seen. The conversation revolves around seeing signs, or understanding them. “The signs you do,” begins Nicodemus, “show that you are a genuine teacher from God.” In other words, “I can see that you are a truly godly teacher.” That may have seemed like a generous and open-minded thing for an official religious figure to say to an outsider like Jesus. But Jesus’ response is not to play ball. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or again).” What did that mean? Something like this: “you do not see me for who I really am! I am not simply a genuine Rabbi. I am the sign of the kingdom of God and only those who leave their birth-family for another completely different family of faith, will truly see me for who I am!” This may seem harsh even confrontational. But Nicodemus is not necessarily coming as an open-minded enquirer. That’s why Jesus goes on to talk about the wind. The thing about the wind is that you cannot contain it – it blows where it will and you cannot predict its coming and going. Nicodemus is a leader of the Pharisees and they were always attempting to control Jesus. Often they confronted Jesus in open debate. But here they try a different tactic – they try accommodating Jesus. But Jesus is not to be contained, accommodated – it is as good as trying to box up the wind. “You may not be mistaking my signs as those simply of a miracle-maker,” says Jesus to Nicodemus, “but you are not really seeing what the sign of me is all about!”

Jesus talked about the serpent lifted up in the wilderness by Moses. What is all that about? Well, it refers to the time when the children of Israel were wandering about the wilderness to the south of the Promised Land. They suffered poisonous snake bites and many died. As a remedy Moses set up a bronze serpent on a pole so that anyone who looked on it if they were bitten would survive. This is the origin of the medical symbol with which you may be familiar. Looking at the symbol with faith saved them – not that it was in any way magical, but it was a focus for their faith in God when their life was under threat.

Nicodemus would have known all of that. But in the context of his conversation with Jesus it would have stood for a great deal more. The serpent on the pole in the wilderness here represents the whole identity of the people of Israel. Deeply embedded in their consciousness of who they were at the time of Jesus were the events of exodus, wilderness wanderings, receiving the law of Moses and then settling in the Promised Land. The Pharisees in particular emphasised the importance of keeping the law of Moses in order to be God’s faithful people. But in laying so much emphasis on this aspect of their faith the Pharisees had become legalistic. Now Jesus says something deeply confrontational to Nicodemus: “The Son of Man will be lifted up as a new version of the serpent in the wilderness.” Looking on this replacement symbol in faith will be what gives life, what saves. For John, writing this story of the night-time encounter years after Jesus’ death and resurrection the meaning was clear: the new serpent in the wilderness with power to save is Christ on the cross. Those who gaze on him with the eyes of faith will be saved. This went beyond performing signs which showed that he was a genuine teacher from God. Now Nicodemus is confronted with a replacement to the identity of Israel. Will he look on this new sign and still see the authentic teacher from God?

This leads us into the third word that John uses which is heavily coded. A little knowledge of the original language John used comes in useful. The Greek word is pneuma from which we get English words such as pneumatic. There is a kind of pun being employed here for pneuma in Greek means both wind and Spirit or breath. Jesus tells Nicodemus that no-one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of the spirit – without receiving the divine breath to enliven their faith.

Now we can see how John carefully weaves all three significant code words together. Nicodemus comes in darkness, feeling his way towards the one who does signs which point to God. He tries to conciliate, to contain the sign-worker, who in fact, cannot be contained because he is like the wind. But this wind that cannot be boxed is in fact that very one who has come with God’s breath enlivening him. He has come, not just to do signs, but to be that very sign by which those looking on him will receive God’s breath themselves. As they look and perceive who this sign is, they take on a new identity, leaving their former identity and all they relied on, as if they were starting in a completely new family – being born again. But the nature of being born of the spirit is to be like the wind – to go wherever it will. Those who are born of the spirit in fact become like Abraham and Sarah. God called Abraham and Sarah to a life of wandering wherever he would lead them, to a life of faith. This faith, this reliance on God was all that Abraham and Sarah needed to do in order to belong to God. Or, as Paul puts it in religious-sounding language: it was counted as righteousness to him. Through that simple trust in God and the willingness to leave behind what was familiar for love of God, Abraham and Sarah were promised the earth.

Nicodemus goes away after their confrontation. We may think that is it. But actually, he reappears after Jesus has died on the cross (remember the reference to the serpent on the pole). With Joseph of Arimathea they take the body of Jesus and lay him in a tomb. Was this the beginning of Nicodemus beginning to really see through the darkness of his night? Was this the beginning of Nicodemus leaving his Pharisee’s reliance on Moses and keeping the law, and Abraham-like, daring to wander as the wind-spirit blew? We do not know. But it is an intriguing thought! And what about us? Does the challenge touch us, too? We home in on the key verses in John and Romans, using them as the touchstones of our faith. But it is like Nicodemus coming in the night, trying to contain what cannot be contained. Dare we believe that anyone who gazes on the Son of Man with faith, whether they fit with our kind or not, receives that restless breath which gives life but goes wherever it will?

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Almighty God,
by the prayer and discipline of Lent
may we enter into the mystery of Christ's sufferings,
and by following in his Way
come to share in his glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.