Nicodemus is one of those figures in Scripture, that, if we could meet him personally, many of us would find it easy to relate to him. Deeply entrenched in the Jewish orthodox faith, he is a man of education, position, and status. While others in his circle regard Jesus with suspicion, Nicodemus recognizes a rare spiritual quality in his life. Cautious by nature, he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness at a location far enough from the city to allow them to chat discretely. In spite of all that Nicodemus has going for him, he has a lingering, nagging feeling within that something is missing in his life. Simply stated, Nicodemus senses his life has been filling, but not fulfilling.
In his book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, the famous psychologist Carl Jung makes this observation: “About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senseless emptiness of their lives. This can be described as the general neurosis of our time.” His words ring truer today than when the book was published in 1933.
If you ask the average person what she or he really wants out of life, the answer (in one form or another) will be “I want to be happy.” The pursuit of happiness is a right guaranteed in the Constitution. We buy books, take classes, do charity work, attend church, go on vacations, drink and flirt and spend a little more than we ought, all in a never-ending attempt to find the elusive quality called “happiness”. Even still, I suspect most people do not feel very happy most of the time. Our lives are full, but they are not fulfilling.
I read recently about a woman who dreamed of marrying a successful doctor or corporate executive so she could live in a fancy house in a posh suburb. But once her dream came true she began to wonder if maybe there wasn’t more to life. She made lunch dates with friends and worked to raise money for worthy causes. She even opened a boutique, hoping if she could fill her days so she could banish the gnawing sense of emptiness in her soul. But no matter how busy she kept herself, the hunger did not go away.
Why is happiness so difficult to find and to maintain – both for those who get what they want out of life as well as for those who don’t? Why do people with so many reasons to be happy feel as if something is missing from their lives? Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted isn’t Enough, observes the more we sacrifice our lives before the altar of success the more we find things like money and power do not satisfy the unnamable hunger in our soul. Kushner writes:
Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through it. What frustrates and robs our lives of joy is the absence of meaning.
In South Wales there is a species of moth that has no mouth. As a caterpillar it lays its eggs and then changes into a moth with no digestive system. It has no way to take in nutrition and therefore starves to death within a few short hours. Nature has equipped it for one purpose – to reproduce. When the moth has assured life for the next generation it has served its purpose and then dies. Are we like that? Are we here just to produce children and then fade away? Or, is there some higher purpose to our existence? In the end, do we matter? Is there more to life than filling our days? Can we feel fulfilled?
These questions about meaning are the ones we turn to religion for answers and insight. Maybe they are the questions Nicodemus has on his mind, but I don’t know. My guess is he, like many of us, is looking for something more significant than he has already found. He wants Jesus to say or to do something that will lead him to a sense of meaning and purpose; to a feeling of fulfillment. Jesus perceives this and quickly brings their discussion to this very point.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “No one can see the Kingdom of God [find the one thing so significant in life that with it all the other pieces fall into place] unless he is born from above.”
I suspect many of us view with skepticism the born-again rhetoric of revivalist religion. You only need to watch a few minutes of a TV evangelist to come to the conclusion nothing close to a deeply significant, life-changing insight is going to be mediated through born-again religion. But if we can separate ourselves from the preconceived stereotype of the televangelist and listen again to Jesus’ words we might hear something important. He says it is God’s Spirit that not only fills us, but fulfills us. He says what will fill the unnamed hunger in our soul cannot be found in this world nor is there anything you can do to secure it. It comes to us freely from God by the means of God’s grace.
The fancy name for the Christian doctrine of new birth is “regeneration”. Now, regeneration is not a resolution – a commitment on your part to turn over a new leaf. Regeneration is not morality – a desire to be a better person. Regeneration is not even religion, if by this you mean devotion to a religious institution or practice. II Corinthians 5:17 states, “If anyone is in Christ he or she is a new creature. The old has passed away and behold, new things come.” This is regeneration.
There is a story about a frustrated social worker that gets to heart of what regeneration and new birth from above is all about. In the story, a social worker tries in vain to persuade a family to clean up their trash-filled home. When nothing succeeds, she creates large, colorful arrangement of flowers, brings it into the house, and sets it on a table in the center of the family’s living room. From there its beauty sits in judgment of all the filth surrounding it. First the family tidies up the living room to make it a more fitting place for the new gift. Then the living room sits in judgment of the rest of house until the family cleans it up too. Beauty comes into the house and changes both it and the people who live there.
This is exactly how new birth/regeneration happens. God’s Spirit comes into us in ways we do not know, understand, or deserve, and yet there is God… in us! When we recognize God is within, even though we are not worthy to stand before God, much less have intimate fellowship with God, we begin to change in ways we ourselves never dreamed possible. We begin to move from existing to thriving, from being filled to fulfilled.
Now, lest you send me packing with a tent to preach my revivalist thinking to the less educated, let me point out no less of an authority than our own cherished Rite I liturgy supports me in this matter. We say in our corporate prayer,
Here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may  worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ,  be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and  be made one body with him, [why?] that he might dwell in us and we in him.
By any measure these words are a prayer for new birth from above. But it is not the words or the actions that are important, it is, of course, the longing of the heart and stirring of the soul brought about by God’s indwelling which leads to regeneration. John Lincoln, a scholar and critic of the late 20th century, once stated that the time he was converted was when religion became no longer mere duty, but pleasure.
Nicodemus comes to the Lord in secret under the cover of darkness. Although he has the best of all life can offer, although he is a success by every standard of the world, he still wonders if there might be something more. This is what he comes to Jesus to ask. Jesus replies, “Nicodemus, if you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born again!” You must allow God’s beauty to dwell within you and let it begin to change everything about you. Embrace this intimate divine, holy fellowship and your life will be fulfilling.