Ths Bible reading about Nicodemus has a lot in common with the children's book "There' A House Inside My Mummy" by Giles Andreae. They’re both funny stories, although I think "There’s a HOUSE inside my Mummy" is funnier.
In the Bible story there’s really only one joke, perhaps because it’s much shorter than the picture story. Jesus tells Nicodemus that if we want to be close to God, and become the best kind of person that we can be, we have to be born again. But Nicodemus is puzzled, so he asks Jesus a rather silly question. I think Nicodemus knows it’s silly, but he wants Jesus to explain exactly what he means, so he asks him: ‘How can I get back inside my Mummy? Isn’t that going to make us both feel quite poorly? Because I’m going to need a lot of room!’
So, then, of course, Jesus explains to him that he isn’t talking about the sort of birth that we have as a baby - the one we don’t remember very much about. He’s talking about a different kind of birth - a new beginning, really, like turning over a new leaf and starting life afresh on a clean page.
When I was a teenager I belonged to a young people’s group. One night the leader of the group said, ‘It’s Christine’s birthday tonight.’ I said, ‘I thought your birthday was in February, Christine!’ ‘Oh I’m not talking about her real birthday,’ said the leader piously. ‘I’m talking about her spiritual birthday. You’re one today, aren’t you Christine?’ And Christine agreed that she was!
Perhaps that way of looking at the story was taking it a bit too literally as well. Because I think we have to be reborn over and over again. We’re constantly having to make a fresh start, and turn over a new page, aren’t we? And one of the wonderful things about God is that he’s very patient with us. He let’s us start again, whenever we ask him.
But, of course, we don’t want our lives to be made up of constant new beginnings, do we? So that where God’s Spirit comes into the picture. Although we can’t see the Spirit, like we can’t see a baby before its born, we can see and feel the difference it makes. For the Spirit makes it possible for us to start again and stick at it.
One of the interesting things about our readings over the last few weeks has been the constant parallels which the writers draw between Jesus and Moses. First, there was the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, which parallels a similar encounter with God that Moses had on top of Mount Sinai, and also in the Tent of Meeting where God caused his face to glow so brightly that Moses had to cover himself with a veil so as not to frighten the horses.
Then, of course, there’s Jesus’ temptation in the Wilderness, which has some parallels to Moses encounter with God at the burning bush, when he ended up arguing with God and giving reasons why he wasn’t good enough to undertake God’s mission for him. Jesus never doubts his own mission, of course, but he is tempted about it and encouraged to take the wide and easy route that leads to destruction rather than the hard and narrow way that leads to eternal life.
And then, this week’s reading draws an interesting parallel between the ministry of Jesus and the episode in Moses’ career where he had to deal with poisonous snake bites. The poisonous snakes were - we are told - a punishment sent by God to afflict the people of Israel when he got exasperated by their constant moans and complaints. In those days it was clearly not a good idea to exasperate God.
The writer Garrison Keillor sums up the dangers like this, in his book “Lake Wobegone Days”: ‘In the Bible people who did wrong tended to get smote, and that at a time when God smote hard: when he smited you stayed smitten, smiting was no slap on the wrist. Mrs Tollerud illustrated this in Sunday School with a flannelgraph: a cloth-covered board on which she placed cloth figures and moved them around. Pharaoh, though decent in some ways, didn’t obey God. She took down the figure of Pharaoh the ruler and put up the figure of Pharaoh with his hands over his face. It made us think twice about striking out in new directions!’
But in the story of the poisonous snakes there is a remedy. When the people say they’re sorry for upsetting him, God relents. He tells Moses to make a bronze image of one of the poisonous snakes and stick it on a pole. Anyone who looks at the image will be healed. Problem solved.
John interprets this strange story as an allegory. The snakes or serpents represent temptation. People easily complain about following God’s way - the hard and narrow way that leads to salvation - and then they get bitten by temptation. But there is a cure, a way of getting back on the track which leads to new life and rebirth. And that is to gaze in our mind’s eye upon the cross, where the Son of Man was lifted up to die as a remedy for sin and disobedience.
So, then, being reborn, being enabled to make a fresh start and turn over a new page, is inextricably linked to dying - dying to sin and disobedience with Jesus on his cross. For God does not stay angry with us. Rather he loves the world so much that he gives his only Son so that we might be enabled to find life in all its fullness.