If you ask a child about the "kingdom," you get excited looks. That's because they might be thinking of the Magic Kingdom in Disney World. A magical place, no doubt, where stressed out adults can soon wear Mickey Mouse ears and gleefully enjoy a $35 turkey leg.
We all have a "kingdom" lens, it's just whether we have one shaped by the narrative of the Christian Scriptures, or say, Mickey Mouse or Lady Gaga. Another way of talking about "kingdom" is simply to say, "What vision do you have of the good life?" Everything in our life shapes this, and sometimes without us knowing it.
In John chapter three, Jesus is approached by a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a pretty important dude. He was wealthy, a leader over the Pharisees, and a Bible scholar. He had it going on as far as Pharisees are concerned. He was the bee's knees, so to speak.
Nicodemus approaches Jesus and says, "Rabbi...." Right off the bat, the narrative of John clues the reader in that Nicodemus does not "get" Jesus. Jesus is the Word who was with God, and was God (John 1:1), not just a Rabbi. Like all of us, he doesn't see Jesus clearly. Jesus didn't come to be a teacher. He was that, but surely far more than that. In fact, often in the four Gospels, those who call Jesus "Rabbi" or "Prophet" are the ones who don't see Jesus as they ought to. In fact, a tell tale sign of not getting Jesus is when we say, "Well Jesus never said anything about ________." How then should Nicodemus see Jesus?
The text says Nicodemus came at night. Why? Was he ashamed to meet in the day? Was that the normal time for Rabbi's to field questions? Maybe, but as we read John, we realize that light and darkness are major motifs. In fact, darkness is used throughout the book in reference to spiritual darkness. You'll notice things like how Judas begins John's Gospel in the light, but John 13:30 says, "So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night." Judas begins in the light, but ends in darkness. Where will we end up finding Nicodemus?
I don't believe Nicodemus is coming to Jesus at night to ask a question. The text doesn't really say, but what we do see is a man who is bewildered by what Jesus says. Jesus says crazy things like, "You must be born again to see the Kingdom," and, "One must be born of water and Spirit to enter the Kingdom."
I can only imagine Nicodemus in silence glancing out of the corner of his eyes looking for the nearest exit, thinking "This man is crazy!" And of course, Jesus sounds crazy when you have the wrong kingdom before your eyes. His entire life, Nicodemus has been taught that the good life is being born into an Israelite family, obeying Torah, and waiting for the Messiah/King to come and defeat Rome. "Be born again? I'm already and Israelite! I already have the promises! I'm already in the kingdom!"
So blind, is Nicodemus, to the good life taught to him, that he can't even see clear references to Scripture. Jesus refers to the great passages of Ezekiel 36 and 37, where it reads, "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." Ezekiel 37 is that great passage about the valley of dead bones (aka Israel), in which the wind from above brings life to the dead people of God. Of course those chapters don't seem so weighty when you don't know you're dead.
Nicodemus thinks he's thriving; Jesus sees him as spiritually dead. Nicodemus thinks he's got his theology and Torah down; Jesus says, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? (John 3:10)" It's funny how the pseudo-kingdoms, or the vision of the good life we've been taught, hinders us from seeing Jesus and his word how we ought, isn't it? It's almost like we see what we want and nothing we don't want. (Think about that odd sentence.)
If you notice, Nicodemus drops out of the conversation, but he's still listening. As Jesus often does, he interacts with Nicodemus uniquely. He leaves him with an even more obscure passage -- Numbers 21, which is about snakes biting Israelites. What the heck! You won't see Numbers 21 popping up in many bulletins under the preaching text for the day, but that is what Jesus leaves him with. That is the gift Jesus gives Nicodemus. In Numbers 21, Moses is told to make a bronze serpent and lift it up. All who look on it would not die from the serpent's poison.
I don't think Nicodemus has the foggiest about what just happened during his interaction with Jesus. Born again? Water? Spirit? Bronze snakes lifted up? But when we find Nicodemus later in chapter seven we see him still listening to Jesus. He's not sure whether to accept or condemn Jesus, but he's listening. It's not until John 19 that it clicks.
It takes Nicodemus seeing the body of Christ nailed to a cross and "lifted up" before Numbers 21 makes any sense, and before the Spirit of God brings his dry bones to life. We find Nicodemus in John 19:38 with Joseph of Arimathea caring for the dead body of Jesus, which of course was women's work. You wouldn't find an elderly, sophisticated, wealthy, ruling, Bible professor anointing a dead man on the Day of Preparation, unless of course he had a new Kingdom lens.
What makes this even more compelling is that fact that John's Gospel is the only one that omits the darkness that covered the sky. As far as the reader would know, Nicodemus is anointing the body of Jesus with the sun overhead like a spotlight. Nicodemus, in the light, anointing Jesus. John's Gospel is sure to point out the Nicodemus brought 75 pounds of myrrh, which is an unusually large amount of anointing supplies. Perhaps Nicodemus is more interested in anointing the true King and Messiah than a deceased man? Perhaps.
I like Nicodemus, because I'm a lot like him. I don't realize the many ways culture has taught me what to pursue. Why do I desire and love so many things that cut against the Kingdom of God? Why is it so easy to elevate myself at the expense of others? Why is it so easy to get rather than to give? We've all inherited bad kingdoms, bad ways of believing how things in life can satisfy us. Jesus flips the pseudo-kingdoms upside-down as he introduces us to the real Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. As we enter into that Kingdom, we begin to learn dry bones are given life as we think of others more highly than ourselves. A heart of flesh is given as we experience the truth that it is more blessed to give than receive. We learn that the serpent's venom has no power as we see the King who crushed his head by the cross.