The Second through Fifth Sundays in Lent all share common themes or images for preaching.... I am struck by the fact that ancient allusions to baptism abound in these stories. We find references to "Water and the Spirit" in Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus. "Living water" is offered to the woman at the well. Anointing and enlightenment, which confer new status to the baptized, are lifted up in the man born blind. And the resurrection, life in the Spirit and the power of Christ by which the baptized live, is prefigured in the raising of Lazarus. If Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday in Lent set the course for our journey by pointing out our need of God, these Sundays propel us forward so that finally, on the Sunday of the Passion, we find our feet planted at the base of the cross, with our eyes gazing beyond death to behold the power of the resurrection, and to seek its manifestations even now in our daily baptismal living.
The gospel readings for these Sundays all come from John. John's Gospel is based on the distinction between the kosmos or world, which, though created by God, is the realm of ignorance, falsehood, flesh, and bondage, and the epourania, or heavenly things. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the Christ of glory who as Logos embodies the presence of God. Jesus is truth, light, life, spirit, knowledge, and freedom. That Jesus is the Son‑of‑Humanity is a fact that we are invited to accept or reject.
Our Gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Lent is Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is introduced as "one of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews," and "a teacher of Israel." Nicodemus comes to Jesus "by night." Nicodemus comes out of the darkness of the world into the light of the Word. Nicodemus' movement from darkness to light is to be understood as a significant step toward believing, toward receiving the One sent to make God known. Although in the end Nicodemus comes to the cross by day and, with Joseph of Arimathea, prepares Jesus' body for burial, Nicodemus doesn't get to this act of discipleship all at once.
In this encounter, Nicodemus' words to Jesus make clear that, although he is attracted by the signs or miracles that Jesus does, "for no one can do these signs unless God is with him," Nicodemus wants to fit Jesus into something he knows, into an exact definition. And so Nicodemus calls Jesus "a teacher sent from God," a dignity reserved for the great figures of Israel. But Nicodemus is limited by his definitions, for Jesus is more than a teacher sent from God.
Still, Jesus tries to build upon Nicodemus' limited understanding. He says, "No one can see the dominion of God without being born anothem, which in Greek means both "anew" and "from above." Jesus plays on this double meaning in his demand for rebirth. One sees the dominion of God only through an experience of being born a second time in a spiritual sense that comes from God.
But Nicodemus is trapped by his definition of what the dominion of God might be like. He relies on what he knows to be true, physical birth. When Nicodemus asks about being born "a second time," he is only asking about the physical birth of a child from a mother, which is impossible to do twice. Nicodemus’ question shows that he has not grasped what it is to be born anothem—anew from God.
Jesus tries to explain in another way. He replaces anothem with words that define being born "anew" as being born "of water" and being born "from above" as being born "of the Spirit." Jesus also defines "seeing" the dominion of God as "entering" it. A human experience "of water" and a spiritual experience "of the Spirit" are required for entrance into the dominion of God. This is not something Nicodemus can understand and do. It is something he must receive and experience. Birth into a new situation, where believers become the children of God, is the gift of God's initiative and not the result of human response. But there is also a physical experience, a rebirth "of water" associated with the gift of the Spirit. Rebirth from above is marked by the ritual of baptism "of water," now perfected by the baptism "of Spirit" brought by Jesus. Seeing and entering the kingdom of God are consequences of a ritual of water that accompanies the gift of the Spirit.
The dominion of God is to be understood as realized here and now. It is a community, a gathering of Christians who have experienced the passing away of a former situation of life style and belief, and who profess and attempt to live according in the truth, light, life, spirit, knowledge, and freedom that comes from Jesus as the embodied presence of God. Baptism brings about a passage from life in this world to life in the dominion of God.
To be "born of the flesh" is to be content with what we can observe, understand, and control. Living in the flesh means making judgments based upon what we know and sense. Birth in the Spirit leads us into a different way of seeing, understanding, and living. Playing on the Greek word pneuma, which means both "wind" and "spirit," Jesus moves from the everyday experience of the wind, which we can experience but not explain or control, to the Spirit, which though beyond our understanding and control, nevertheless breathes into this world from another reality.
Unable to move beyond his own categories into the mysterious life in the Spirit that Jesus is offering, Nicodemus fails to grasp that we do not enter into the dominion of God by understanding it. We are summoned into God's dominion by God's initiative. This is why the Son‑of‑Humanity descended from heaven, to summon all people to God. And when Jesus is lifted up and exulted on the cross, Jesus will draw all people to himself. Like the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness, all who gaze upon the elevated Son‑of‑Humanity and trust will be given eternal life. For Jesus came that the world might be saved, not judged.
As we prepare for baptism at Easter, Jesus reminds us that God's gift of rebirth through water and Spirit leads to a new orientation of life based on "heavenly things"—Spirit, truth, life, knowledge, and freedom. The call is to let go of old definitions, understandings, and categories in order to experience the Spirit that blows where it will.
Craig Satterlee, a member of The Litugical Conference Board, is the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair of Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.