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3 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, 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 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
8 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.
9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
These are the words of a song that you will all be far too young to remember:
Take my hand, I'm a stranger in paradise,
All lost in a wonderland, a stranger in paradise.
If I stand starry-eyed, that's a danger in paradise
For mortals who stand beside an angel like you.
I saw your face
And I ascended
Out of the commonplace
Into the rare!
Somewhere in space
I hang suspended
Until I know
There's a chance that you care.
So open your arms to the stranger in paradise
And tell him he need be a stranger no more.
The words are from the 1940s musical Kismet, and the music from Alexander Borodin's opera Prince Igor: together they catch the heart of what is going on between Nicodemus and Jesus in today's Gospel reading. Nicodemus represents the classic outsider, or stranger, coming to Jesus alone, "by night" (John 3:2), and cautiously asking Jesus about his teaching. Jesus' reply reveals that he is interested not so much in teaching Nicodemus as in changing him: he invites him to step into a completely different world, a world where people are born again "from above" (3:3), and live in the "kingdom of God" (3:3), animated and transformed by being "born of the Spirit" (3:8). In other words, Nicodemus' cautious enquiry is met by an invitation to become a stranger in paradise, to raise his sights, to step "out of the commonplace, into the rare." So perhaps it's not surprising that his response to the invitation is incredulous wonder: "How can these things be?" (3:9).
Those famous words - "How can these things be?" - catch exactly the response that most people must have when being encouraged to try praying. "How can that work?" - we must wonder; "who's conning who?" What Jesus says to Nicodemus offers us three key ingredients for a creative engagement with prayer. First, it's about imagination; secondly, about suffering; and finally, about the whole creation. First, then, Jesus responds to Nicodemus' question by inviting him to take a step, not just of faith, but of imagination: to embrace the possibility that there might be more to life than the life of "the flesh" (3:6) - which doesn't mean physical life, but all of life seen in a narrowly me-centred, what-I-can-get-out-of-it approach. The great Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann once wrote that "people are not changed by ethical urging, but by a transformed imagination." Simply telling a child to stop doing something may work for a while; but before long the child will be asking "why not?" Enlarging the child's imagination, and inviting them to consider a different way of seeing things, and you may change them for life.
Now this is, of course, not simply a challenge for people of faith. If politicians or journalists are to persuade people to change their views, they have to do more than what Brueggemann calls "ethical urging." They have to open up new imaginative possibilities, kindle in us a new way of seeing society or the world. After the shock and horror of 9/11, when President Bush proceeded to declare war on terror, someone at the time astutely pointed out that you won't ever defeat terror by declaring war on it. That's precisely what the terrorists want you to do. Instead, this same person argued 9/11 was not just an act of appalling evil but of imagination - by attacking the ultimate icon of western capitalism - and that the only way to defeat that kind of evil is not to declare war on it, but to out-imagine it: to offer young people tempted say) to join al-Qaeda a different and more attractive vision of how things could be.
And that's what prayer tries to do. For all true prayer involves a step, not just of faith, but of imagination: a willingness to be "born of the Spirit." Christians believe that rebirth begins at baptism. But it continues every time we pray seriously for others, because to do that is to be lifted out of self, out of a me-centred life, and to begin to glimpse the infinite potential that each person has if only we can respond to the world of the Spirit, to see that there is so much more to life than what we are inclined to settle for. In that context, prayer becomes not ticking names off a list but an adventure of the Spirit, an aspiration for how things could be. New Testament prayer is astonishingly aspirational: the very earliest Christian prayer (in 1 Thessalonians 3) begins "may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all..." - a life-changing, world-changing prayer, where we tend to settle for something much duller. Lord (Chris) Smith, the head of the Environment Agency, once told the story of what happened when he was Secretary of State for Culture, and was invited to contribute to an article about what famous people would like for Christmas. Not wishing to look greedy, he wrote back to say he'd like a small basket of glazed fruit. When the article came out, he was mortified to find it began: "What famous people would like for Christmas. The Archbishop of Canterbury has asked for an end to world poverty for Christmas, the Chief Rabbi for world peace, and Culture Secretary Chris Smith for a small basket of glazed fruit." To pray, say, for the people of Ukraine, or for someone diagnosed with terminal cancer, is to refuse to give way to apathy or despair. It's to defy - to out-imagine - the seeming certainty of war or death, and to batter the gates of heaven, sharing with God your deepest longings for that place or that person's future and, precisely by doing so, to help dream that new future into being.
But this begs a big question. What happens if your prayer is not answered? This brings us to the second part of Jesus' answer to Nicodemus, and it's about prayer and suffering. In today's reading, Jesus says: "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" (John 3:14-15). Jesus is referring to an incident in the Book of Numbers (21:4-9): the people of Israel, en route to the Promised Land, were attacked, and many killed, by poisonous snakes. Moses prayed for them; and God told Moses to fashion a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that all who looked at it might live. In other words: the very instruments of suffering and death were transmuted into an instrument of life. And exactly that, says Jesus, is what the cross of Good Friday will accomplish. All Christian prayer for others involves taking those for whom we pray, and walking with them to the foot of the Cross: crying out, with and for them, to the crucified Christ, deeply hopeful that your prayer will be heard, yet believing that even if it isn't, the energy of our prayer, and the grim reality of so much human suffering, can become, like the bronze serpent, a sign of hope and new life. This does not make suffering good: it makes it redemptive. It means that nothing, not even death, can ever separate us, or those for whom we pray, from the reach and transforming power of his love.
Now it follows from all this that good prayer for others will always have a subversive quality about it. The finest image of prayer for others in the Bible is that of the stretcher-bearers in the story of the paralysed man in Mark chapter 2. They lower the man through the roof because of the crowd, and bring him into the presence of Christ. They don't say anything. They don't heal anyone. They simply make space for him to encounter Christ, and then get out of the way. In worldly terms, it's an act of extravagant folly. You can imagine people there saying "who do you think you are, making a hole in my roof?" Much more still: the reason they have to do this is because the holy people, in the story, have crowded round Jesus, unconsciously excluding outsiders from getting to him. Churches can all too easily become like that, so preoccupied with their own institutional agendas as to make it impossible for outsiders to get a look in at all. To pray creatively for people is to be, like the stretcher-bearers, a holy disturber, breaking through the narrow churchiness of some forms of religion and enlarging our horizons, our sense of kinship - making possible an encounter between Jesus and those outside. And that brings us to the last and most important point of all.
"How can these things be?" Jesus' response to Nicodemus ends with the most famous words in today's reading, and perhaps in the New Testament. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son....God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (3:16-17). We rarely notice the astonishing significance of those words. Jesus doesn't say. "God so loved the Church," or even "God so loved the human race," but "God so loved the world." That's even more surprising because in John's Gospel "the world" nearly always denotes the creation in all its hostility to God: "he was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him" (1:10). So when Jesus says "God so loved the world," he is saying to Nicodemus that nothing less than the whole created order is the object of God's redeeming love. Our prayer might begin with a particular person or problem; but it should go on to embrace the whole creation, the world of nature, the world of systems and institutions, the world of the internet, and the unimaginable vastness of space. For when we pray, we bring a particular person or place to the foot of the Cross, to the intimate presence of God. We pour out our deepest hopes and longings for them. Precisely by doing that, we begin to be lifted out of a narrowly me-centred view of things, "out of the commonplace, into the rare." We can begin to catch a glimpse, not just of a few individuals making it to the Promised Land, but of a transfigured cosmos in which every creature is made new in God's love, a paradise in which both they and we are strangers no more.