Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” — John 3:1-8 ESV
My dad once said to me, “The man who calls you an idiot is reliable for the same reason that the guy who gives you a compliment isn’t.”
It seems to me, Jesus was a hard man to compliment. Nicodemus, a man whose name will come up repeatedly, had been paying attention. He probably heard about this crazy guy from Galilee creating a ruckus in the temple and chasing away an authorized vendor’s spread of holy chachkies. This, “temple cleansing” was a presumption that must have started tongues wagging in high places. A Galilean, of all people, acting like he owned the place.
Nicodemus had witnessed signs which he referred to as evidence of Jesus having come from God. John’s gospel refers to these signs as miracles but doesn’t describe them, but whatever they were, they must have been pretty convincing. Nicodemus speaks to Jesus using the term we, meaning he was speaking not just for himself. He wants Jesus to understand that he has friends in high places and magnanimously concedes that God might be behind some of these signs. This is a fairly brave concession for a member of the Sanhedrin, given that unless it involved killing someone threatening to their power base, the Sanhedrin rarely agreed on anything. Nicodemus’ neck was way out.
Of course, Jesus never received an olive branch that he didn’t throw on the ground and stomp on, so he changes the subject and immediately says something enigmatic like, “…unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This was a spiritual curve ball for Nicodemus. Not wanting to publicly appear flummoxed, he states the obvious and declares that travel down the birth canal is at best… a one way trip. To be fair, the concept of rebirth was new to Nicodemus and for that matter new to the world. Jesus says that absent this rebirth, we will not be able to see the kingdom of God. We will remain blind to it. It might surround us and even touch us, but we won’t see it.
At our first birth we are surrounded by water, or to be precise amniotic fluid, the release of which signals the beginning of our traumatic entry into the world. Unlike any other mammals who are better prepared, we are born utterly helpless. A milestone following our birth is the opening of our eyes. Sight slowly improves to the point where we can reliably navigate the world based on what our eyes see.
But there’s more to the world than what we can see with our eyes. Our science shows us that the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum we perceive with our eyes is actually quit narrow. Just a few hundred nanometers of an infinite spectrum. In fact, vision works because most of the spectrum is absent. Our visual cortex allows us to construct a model of our world based on signals coming down the optic nerve, but our ability to do so is finite. Too much data would be the same as none.
Jesus is telling us something important about sight. Perceiving isn’t the same as seeing. We can look right at something and not perceive it. Jesus is bringing God’s kingdom into the world, but to see it requires a new kind of sight with different sort of eyes. To get those eyes you need a new kind if birth. Not just a birth of water, but of spirit.
Jesus was once specifically asked when the kingdom of God would come. He responded this way:
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” — Luke 17:20-21 ESV
Just prior to sentencing Jesus to death, Pilot asked if Jesus was a King. Jesus said:
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” — John 18:36-38 ESV
Pilot feels a sudden need to wash his hands in an attempt to remove the blood. Blood that he would have been better off to bathe in.
So, those of us who claim Christ as King are part of a kingdom that is not observable and is yet, within our midst. This is the little puzzle Jesus left us with. It’s little wonder, that the world views Christians unrealistic or even quixotic. Of course, Christians also share in this confusion relating the kingdom to everything between environmental sustainability to a moral majority.
So… Just where is this kingdom? Even with these new eyes we’re meant to possess, why do we have such a hard time seeing it? Are we, his church, also blind? Perhaps to the extent we’ve borrowed the worlds glasses, I think maybe we are. We see what we’re shown by people who themselves are blind. Turns out that when the blind lead the blind, everyone falls into a pit.
Christ has hidden his kingdom by making it unrecognizable to the world. It can’t be conquered, simply because it wouldn’t resist. It can’t be looted, because it doesn’t possess anything it wouldn’t give away freely. It can’t be controlled, because it seeks only to serve. The kingdom is something that the gates of hell won’t prevail against. It’s big and it’s powerful… but it’s hidden. It’s hidden in plain sight.
The kingdom is that portion of us over which Christ rules. That part of us that is poor in spirit, and hungers and thirsts for righteousness. The kingdom is made from meekness and purity of heart and mourns for the world as it is. The kingdom is built on the mercy we extend out of the grace we have been given. The kingdom seeks peace in a world full of violence. It’s power is sacrificial love and it’s strength is it’s willingness to turn the other cheek, to be reviled and endure when all kinds of evil is said against it.
Evidence of the kingdom consists of gentleness and peace in the face of sorrow and violence. Kindness and goodness in the midst of selfishness and insolence. Faithfulness and self-control in a world full of deception and depravity. It is joyful when evil is overcome with good, and love endures in the midst of loss and brutality.
We think it’s getting weaker but we’re wrong. We’re wrong because we’re looking with the world’s eyes. In truth, we are the bricks with which Christ builds his kingdom. The kingdom is hidden because it doesn’t look like any kind of kingdom the world would recognize. Yet it’s everywhere and all around us.
As for me, I think Christ’s admonition to the church in Laodicea is appropriate for us today. Jesus said to the church:
“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see. I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference. Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” — Revelation 3:15-20 NLT