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Advent Dec 8: What the Pharisees Never Saw Coming

• Philip Sasser

Posted in Advent, Devotions

Reading for Advent: John 3:1-15

Reflection: What the Pharisee Never Saw Coming

Nicodemus seems close to saving faith, doesn’t he? In John 3, the Jewish leader comes at night to visit and talk with Jesus, not to accuse him or catch him in a rhetorical net, and offers to Jesus what must have seemed to him a generous concession: “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him” (3:2). Such a statement is a mixture of simple observation (the working of miracles must come from a source beyond humans) and genuine kindness (after all, he could have said, as some did, that the source of Jesus’ miraculous power was demonic).

But rather than Jesus attempting to convince Nicodemus that he is, in fact, more than just another “teacher come from God,” Jesus attacks the very means by which Nicodemus knows and sees anything at all. And he raises the stakes further in this way: how much you know about me, Jesus indicates, is how much you know about the kingdom of heaven; it is as much as you know about anything at all. And human reason will never get you there; you must be born again. By the water (of repentance, of baptism), by the Holy Spirit’s irresistible call and regenerating work, you must be born again.

Is there any more passive act than being born? Any act in which the actor is so helpless? What a terrifying moment for Nicodemus, to hear that to understand the most important thing in the world requires a work precedent to it that is so elusive. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (3:8) Nicodemus’ lifetime of right living has availed him not. He stands before the Christ with an understanding roughly equivalent to the demons. After all, even the demons knew the Son of God when they saw him walking in Galilee. They know him, still, and they tremble. He must be born again but he has no idea how.

The marvel of the proceeding verses (and here we must be careful to move slowly, for we are inching our way toward John 3:16 and already our eyes are panning ahead like tourists in the 7th arrondissement, craning our necks for a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower) is that we discover in a single flash of revelation that Christ is more than a teacher (he is, in fact, the subject of all teaching) and that we are simultaneously helpless to discover this and condemned for not knowing this, but that – and here’s the majestic, magisterial, moment – that he will be lifted up on the cross for our sins and all that look upon him in faith will be saved.

Our culture’s celebration of Christmas can seem a kind of concession similar to the one that Nicodemus makes. “Church,” the world says to us during the month of December, “something special happened in Bethlehem that night. We don’t know precisely what, but something happened, and it moves us still. Now, pass the eggnog.”

But such vague gestures of recognition of our Lord’s rulership over the kingdoms of the earth are as far from engendering a saving repatriation into the kingdom of God as Nicodemus’ was. No, Jesus says to Nicodemus, human understanding is not enough. No, Jesus would say to our culture, vague overtures of peace and goodwill to men, separated from the entirety of Christ’s redemptive work, are not enough. You must be born again.

We never learn what Nicodemus originally had in mind when he came to Jesus that night. Instead, the Lord arrests his logic mid-stream and recites to the Pharisee that great summation of Christ’s work on earth in verse 16: the salvation of the world. The thing I am, he says, is unseeable with natural eyes. I am not another teacher, I am the one that all the teachers were teaching you about. I am not another Moses, directing the eyes of the people to a future savior. I am that Savior.

Philip Sasser

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