Jesus and Nicodemus-Inside Out
Scripture: John 3:1-17
Introduction: In the Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out we meet a young girl named Riley who goes through some typical parent-child struggles as she grows up. But inside her head we see a panel of characters who represent the thoughts and emotions inside her that are shaping her words and actions. The same is true for her parents. The characters in their heads give voice to the thoughts and feelings behind the words they say to each other.
Using that strategy, Aaron, Beaver, Nanci, and I are going to recreate the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that we just heard in our scripture reading. This conversation is confusing because so much of it is unspoken. In this skit we will get inside the characters to understand what is going on behind the words they say. This is Jesus and Nicodemus: Inside Out.
[Jesus sits on a stool center stage. There is an empty stool to his left. Behind him is Inside-Jesus. Nicodemus enters from stage left followed by Inside-Nick. Inside-Nick speaks only to Nicodemus; Inside-Jesus speaks only to Jesus. Nicodemus and Jesus speak only to each other.]
Inside-Nick (worrying): Are you sure this is a good idea coming to Jesus in the middle of the night? What will people think if they see you, slinking around in the dark?
[Nicodemus motions as if telling Inside-Nick to keep quiet.]
Inside-Nick: Oh, I get it. You don't want people to know you are here. You're afraid the other Pharisees will kick you off the Jerusalem Council if they see you with Jesus, especially after Jesus drove all those merchants out of the temple. Personally, I'm glad he got rid of them. I hate religious merchandising. But you better be careful. Jesus has made some powerful enemies.
[Nicodemus sits in the stool next to Jesus.]
Nicodemus: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."
Inside-Jesus: Listen to this guy, will you? Such flattery. No wonder he's a politician. But he must have something on his mind, or he wouldn't have come to see you in the middle of the night. What's he after? He called you a rabbi-a teacher. Is he looking for some new teaching, some self-help advice that will straighten everyone out? If only it were that easy!
Jesus: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
Inside-Nick: Kingdom of God? Who said anything about the kingdom of God? You haven't even asked a question yet. And what does he mean by being born from above? Is he suggesting that you must be born over again?
Nicodemus: "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"
Inside-Jesus: Wow, for a Bible scholar he sure is dense. Can't he understand a metaphor when he hears one? He thinks you are talking about obstetrics!
Inside-Nick: That was a stupid question. Of course he is not talking about physical birth. His words must have some spiritual meaning. But that's where you need to challenge him. Changing a person spiritually is even harder than stuffing him back in the womb. Have you ever tried to change someone's personality? (Aside) Spouses try to do it all the time, and it never works. (Back to Nicodemus) Challenge him to tell you how it is possible for someone to be reborn spiritually.
[Nicodemus starts to ask a question, but Jesus cuts him off.]
Jesus: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit."
Inside-Nick (sarcastically): Well that clears everything up. What is he talking about? The water in which we are carried before birth? The breath or spirit we inhale when we take our first breath? What does he mean?
Inside-Jesus: He looks puzzled. Doesn't he get it? People need to be changed from the inside out. It does not work just to give them a new teaching, new set of laws or even a new government. They need a transformation in their lives that can only come from God. I wonder if he's ever heard of baptism.
Inside-Nick: Do you suppose this is some veiled reference to John the Baptist? John baptized people with water, but he also said that someone greater was coming after him who would baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Is that what Jesus is talking about: being baptized by someone greater than John?
Jesus: "What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit."
Inside-Nick: Now what is he talking about? He makes it sound like physical birth does not matter. But you were born a descendant of Abraham. You were born one of God's chosen people. That's why you were circumcised: to show your relationship to God in the flesh! You don't need to be re-born.
Inside-Jesus: You can tell he still doesn't get it. He thinks that life in the kingdom of God comes from being born into the right family, having the right upbringing, being an upstanding successful citizen. He can't imagine needing to be re-born.
Jesus: "Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Inside-Nick: Now he says that being born from above has to do with which way the wind blows! This is crazy. Who can steer the wind? If having a place in the kingdom of God is dependent on which way the wind blows, what can we do? Why spend your life worshiping God, studying the scripture, praying, bringing offerings, and trying to do what is right, if in the end you have no more control over your destiny than over the weather? Ask him that.
Nicodemus: "How can these things be?"
Inside-Jesus: You might as well give up on this guy. All he asks is how: "How can one be born again?" "How can these things be?" He still thinks of eternal life as a human achievement, like a merit badge. He would be thrilled if you gave him a list of rituals to perform or commandments to obey. That's what he was looking for when he called you a teacher. He will never understand the idea of grace.
Jesus: "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?"
Inside-Nick (sarcastically): Oh, so he has been talking about earthly things so far? Being born from above, being born of water and the Spirit, comparing the Spirit to the blowing of the wind-he considers these earthly things? I can hardly wait until he starts talking about heaven.
Jesus: "No one has ascended into heaven."
Inside-Nick: That's right. None of us knows what heaven is like. All we have is this physical, earthly life down here. (To Nicodemus) He wants you to be born from above, but this life down here is all we know. The commandments given to Moses, the rituals we are taught in the law, the offerings we are told to bring to the temple-these are the only links to God we have. Ask him what he propose to take their place.
[Nicodemus starts to ask a question, but Jesus holds up a hand to stop him.]
Jesus: "No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man."
Inside-Nick: Son of Man? Who is this Son of Man? The prophet Daniel spoke of a "Son of Man" coming on the clouds of heaven to judge the world, but that is in the future. Jesus talks as if the Son of Man has already come. Did you notice how he used the past tense: "the one who descended from heaven"? Who in history has ever descended from heaven? Who would want to? I thought the goal was for all of us to get to heaven.
Inside-Jesus: Now he is really confused. He is wondering who would give up the status of heaven for the sake of coming down into the world. Tell him what happens next.
Jesus: "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
Inside-Nick: This guy jumps all over the place. First he talks about being born again. Then about baptism. Then he jumps to this "Son of Man" who comes down from heaven. And now he is talking about snakes! He is referring, of course, to the time when the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land turned away from God and suffered an infestation poisonous snakes. But God saved them from the snakes by telling Moses to make an image of a snake out of bronze and hang it on a pole. When people looked at the snake on the pole they were healed of their snake bites. Why that worked I have no idea. It's a weird story. But what does it have to do with this "Son of Man" Jesus talks about? Is he saying that the Son of Man will come down from heaven not to judge the world but to be hung up on a pole?
[Nicodemus starts to ask a question, but Jesus cuts him off.]
Jesus: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
[Nicodemus again starts to ask a question, but Jesus goes on.]
Jesus: "For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."
Inside-Nick: You sure don't get to ask many questions around here. Okay, so what have we got? Jesus says that none of us can reach God by the works we do in the flesh. But God has sent his Son in the flesh, even to the point of hanging him on a pole, so that by looking to him and trusting in him, we might be part of God's eternal kingdom. Is that what he is saying?
Inside-Jesus: Good. He has quit asking questions and started thinking.
Inside-Nick: I'm confused. All our lives we Pharisees have tried to do the right thing. We looked for rules and rituals to follow so that we might be part of God's kingdom. But now this Rabbi tells us that the key to heaven is not what we do for God but what God has done for us.
Inside-Jesus: Ah, you can see that the wheels in his head are starting to turn.
Inside-Nick: He says that to see the Kingdom of God we must be born from above. But he never explains what that means. Then he starts talking about the Son of Man who comes down from heaven and gets hung up on a pole to give people eternal life. Is that what he means to be born from above: that if we quit trusting in the flesh-in our human ancestry or religious affiliation or our exemplary life-if we quit trusting in our human power to achieve the Kingdom of God, we may finally receive it as a gift given to us through God's Son who is hung up on a pole to save us? Is that what he is talking about?
Inside-Jesus: I think he is starting to get it.
Inside-Nick: Come on, we better get back. We've got a lot to think about.
[Inside-Nick leads Nicodemus off stage left.]
Inside-Jesus (watching them go): Well, for Nicodemus it looks like the jury is still out. But I suspect God is not finished with him yet.