Sunday, November 30, 2014

Facing away (A homily for Advent, Isaiah 64:1-9)

First day of Advent (Year B)
Isaiah 64:1-9

If you are familiar with the history recorded in the books of Kings and Chronicles, you know that time in which the prophet Isaiah lived was not a pleasant one. Isaiah lived during the reign of four kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah; and during that time northern Israel and the fortified cities surrounding Judah would endure political and economic turmoil, as well as many, many wars. By the end of Isaiah's life, a number of Israel's fortified cities would be laid to waste, and many of Gods people would be dragged into captivity by the Assyrian military.

The reason for all of that, Isaiah says, is because Israel's iniquities had ruptured their relationship with the Lord. Isaiah tells the people that their hands are covered in blood—but the blood shed is not caused by murder; their hands have become bloody by defrauding their neighbor and suing their brother to the point of leaving him impoverished. Their hands are covered in blood by speaking lies too; and even when they do speak the truth, they speak it in such a way that that speech is violent. Isaiah also denounces the rulers of the land for being companions of thieves, people who love bribes. Instead of upholding justice for the poor, the widow, and the stranger within their gates, Israel's leaders disregard the cries of the poor, and they exploit the widow and stranger. And to make matters worse, when the Lord confronted His people with their sins, they merely went and offered the correct sacrifices, pretending that would appease God's frustration with them and make all things better. 

But the people of God didn’t stop their wicked schemes

Time and time again, the Lord stretched out His hand to help Israel turn from their wicked ways, but the people would not listen; and they would not call upon the name of the Lord for help to change their own ways. They would only call upon the lord to deliver them from troubles. Israel's wickedness had risen to such frustrating heights that the Lord turned His face away from that terminal generation and didn't look back.

All of this stands in the background of Isaiah’s prayer in chapter 64 (part of which is in the lectionary reading for today, vv. 1-9). Here in these verses, Isaiah is found pleading on behalf of Israel, pleading for Yahweh to come down, tearing the heavens open and shaking mountains in order to make His presence known. Isaiah knows Yahweh could come down and visit His people again because the Lord had done it many times before, delivering them from oppression, from fools, from enemies, and even from their own sin. 

Isaiah cries unto the Lord asking Him to come down and make His presence known, to deliver Israel from the Lord's enemies. But the irony of Isaiah's plea is that the Lord had already come down and judged His enemies. Surely it would be great if the Lord came down to deliver Israel from His enemies again, as He had done in the past, but what was Israel to do once they had become His enemy too? What was Israel to do once Yahweh had turned His face away from that generation of His people?

Speaking on behalf of Israel, Isaiah 64:5-7 says this:
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned. We continued in sin for a long time, and shall we be saved  
We have all become like a person who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, carry us away.
There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of You, for You have hidden Your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. 

The picture which Isaiah paints is not pretty. God's people walked obstinately in wickedness for a long, long way, and they had reached a point in which even they should have wondered if they had passed the point of no-return. Even they should not have been surprised when the Lord finally turned His face away from them. Isaiah asks, "Will we be saved?" Or, to put it another way, Isaiah is wondering, 'Why would the Lord save us?' After all, they certainly didn't deserve the Lord's help. Isaiah describes them all as being unclean, and even their best attempts of doing good demonstrate their uncleanness. At best all their righteous deeds were like polluted garments--garments spotted by the flesh, bloody garments which kept them from drawing near to God's holy presence.

At this point in the story we should be asking ourselves, ‘What hope would there be, or could there be for the people of God?’ The Lord seems to have already made up His mind, and so, what could Israel do to change that? 

What would you have done if you were in their situation? Would you quit on God or would you wait for Him to return again? 

The reason why I think we should be asking these questions is because of the season that begins today. Today is the first day of Advent, and Advent is a time when questions like these should be asked by the people of God. Advent is a time when Christians are supposed to think through where they have come from, how they stand today in their relationship with God, and how they got from where they were before to where they are now.

Because Advent is a time of serious reflection about life, it’s also a time of repentance and penitence for the people of God. It's a time when we should want Jesus to come into our lives again, delivering us from our sin, to deliver us not only from the oppression of our enemies but also the way we oppress others. We wait upon Christ to come and deliver us from our foolishness, from our hardness of heart, from our injustice, from our ingratitude, so that there is no more blood on our hands.

Isaiah describes the importance of waiting upon the Lord in this way, even during times when everything appeared hopeless:
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear; no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. (v.4)
O Yahweh, you are our Father. 
We are the clay, and You are our potter. 
We are all the work of your hand. 
Be not so terribly angry, O Yahweh, and don't remember our iniquity forever.
Behold--please look!--We are all Your people  (vv. 8-9)

As we wait upon the Lord this season we not only remember that Christ has come, but that Christ comes again in time and history, in our lives now as well as at the Last Day. When we look around and see how dark and confusing the world is without Christ, Advent reminds us that it's not, in fact, hopeless. It's not hopeless because Christ came into the world to make all things new, and He keeps visiting His people to keep making all things new. His Kingdom has come and His will is being done on earth, as it is in heaven. Christ is deeply involved in His creation, and He will remain deeply involved in this fallen world up to its Last Day. 

God is not absent from His world, and He has not turned His face away from everyone in it either. That is, in part, what we learn from participating in the Eucharist. That is partly why we feast at the Lord's Table week after week as a rhythm of life. In first Corinthians, the apostle Paul teaches that by participating in the Eucharist we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes, and that proclamation of death each and every week is a continuous token of hope for the world until our Lord comes in final judgment.

In the Eucharist we proclaim the death of a man who tore the heavens open and came down to condemn the sins of His people--that includes the sins in Isaiah's day, in Jesus' day, and even our sins today

In the Eucharist we not only proclaim the death of a man who condemns our sins; we also proclaim the death of a man who took all of the condemnation that we deserve upon Himself, on a cross, to save us from Judgment.

In the Eucharist we receive Christ, and by receiving Christ we have assurance from God that He has not, in fact, turned His face away from us.

* * * * * * *

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins that we may greet you with joy at the coming of our Lord. Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Separating Sheep From Goats (a homily for Christ the King Sunday)

Last night I noticed that one lectionary reading for this upcoming Sunday (Christ the King Sunday) was Ezekiel 34:11-16 and 34:20-24. This immediately struck me as odd because it skips three verses in the middle of Ezekiel's message. Whatever point Ezekiel was trying to make in the middle of his message, the lectionary discards. So I looked at those three verses and decided it would be helpful to write down some notes about it. After a little studying I just decided to write a homily instead.

Ezekiel 34 is a message of salvation through judgment; it's a message from YHWH to his people, Israel, announcing salvation for those of his flock who have suffered under the foolish and sinful leadership of Israel. YHWH speaks against Israel's "shepherds" because they are supposed to be shepherding like David, YHWH's servant, but are not. As shepherds they're supposed to protect YHWH's sheep from the violence of outside predators, gathering those who stray away, and also to protect them from harm within the fold, caring especially for the weak, but also leading them all to good pastures and clean drinking water. But according to Ezekiel, this is not what YHWH's shepherds are doing.

According to Ezekiel, instead of feeding the sheep, the shepherds feed themselves (v. 2); and the ones they do feed, they feed simply to fatten and slaughter for themselves. The Lord reprimands them for eating the "fat" portions of His sheep, which, interestingly, is the portion allotted to YHWH with all the required peace offerings. They fatten the flock to keep the best portions for themselves. They also clothe themselves with the skins of the fattened flock, but they don't care as long as they are warm, as long as they are clothed and covered. Some of them don't realize that in YHWH's sight, they're really not covered at all; they're actually naked and exposed before His eyes; He sees their schemes and He is coming to judge them for their "harsh" rule over the sheep.

This mention of "harsh" rule (in verse 4) is only found in two other passages of Scripture. In Exodus 1:13-14 it describes the way Israel's enemies (the Egyptian rulers) treated them as slaves. In Leviticus 25:43 YHWH even told Israel that it is unlawful to treat another brother in such a "harsh" manner. Both, of course, stand as indictments against these shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel's day. They have become harsh taskmasters like Pharaoh, instead of shepherd kings, like David. 

But they, the harsh taskmasters of Israel, are not the only ones whom YHWH addresses in Ezekiel's message. This brings us to 34:17-19, which are omitted from this year's lectionary reading. That portion (ESV) reads: 
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: 'Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water of your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

Notice that this addresses people within the flock, and YHWH is going to judge between them as well, because their sins against others within the flock are just as worthy of judgment as the harsh rulers over the land. In context, these sheep and goats constitute the broader class of leaders within Israelite community, the "under-shepherds" so to speak. YHWH provides a good pasture for them to  feed on, but that's not good enough; they tread down the rest of the pasture without consideration of others who could glean there too. What they did not need for themselves, they left as damaged goods for others. Even though they enjoy drinking from clean and clear water, they leave the rest of the water from which others drink to be murky and muddy. The natural resources are limited, and they use their power to their own advantage; they forsake the responsibilities of caring and considering the well-being of their "weaker" brothers, and YHWH sees this and is abhorred by it. To prevent this from happening again, YHWH says he will intervene, setting one Shepherd--a Davidic Shepherd (vv. 23-24)--in their midst to judge between "sheep and sheep." Simply being a "sheep" of his pasture on that day of YHWH's visitation won't be good enough. Some sheep--the "fat" ones (vv. 16, 20)--will be destroyed. 

All of this message, of course, takes place within a certain historical context. In this case, Ezekiel's message of the Lord coming to judge his people, saving some and separating others for judgment, refers to time of Israel at the end of the books of Kings and Chronicles, the time when we learn about an eclipse of Israel's empirethe destruction of Solomon's Temple, and the exile of God's people to Babylon. All of that, we learn from Ezekiel and prophets, occurred because Israel loved evil deeds; they would not come to the light because their deeds were evil, and they enjoyed that evil as though it were good. At that time YHWH was determined to judge his people for their wickedness because they had become like all the surrounding pagan nations. He would lead a new exodus  of his people and build His house in Babylon for a time (which is what the book of Daniel describes), but his curses would fall upon Jerusalem and its rulers like the nation of Egypt from which He delivered them, the Egypt that Israel had now become. 

However, this is not simply a description of Israel long ago, before they went into exile. In the other lectionary reading for this day, the message of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 speaks the same way, using the same language of separating sheep from goats. In that passage, Jesus was talking about his coming in judgment upon Israel in that generation, and their exile culminating in 70A.D. with the destruction of Herod's Temple. In that message of Jesus, a Shepherd-King like David comes in His glory, with all His angels, to visit Israel. All nations are gathered before the Lord because all nations have been given to Him as an inheritance, and on the day of the His visitation Jesus said there would be separation. Interestingly, the judgment Jesus spoke of is not based on what the sheep and the goats believed per se, but rather on what they did, how they behaved toward one another, whether they trampled down good pastures and muddied waters with their feet (or not). And the same is true regarding the salvation he brings to them. When this Davidic-King of Matthew 25 welcomes those among His flock to inherit the kingdom, He doesn't welcome them based on the imputation of Christ's active obedience, or even their belief in such technical scholarly conjectures (however thoughtful or helpful they may be); instead He welcomes them because they fed His brothers with the good portion of their own pastures. They gave others within the fold clean water to drink. When they saw a stranger destitute, they welcomed him into their homes, and if they were naked, they clothed them with their own wool; if they were sick, they tended to their needs. When their brothers were imprisoned for following Jesus and his apostles, instead of following the Scribes and Pharisees, they visited their brothers in prison. They sacrificed what was their own to provide for their brothers. They didn't use their power to oppress others within the fold; instead they used all their power to do what Jesus did for them. 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are the sheep of His pasture too. The Church today suffers from the same temptations as Israel in Ezekiel's day and in Jesus' day. And the Lord sees all of it just as he always has. We are all naked and exposed before him. We can't hide our abuse of power. We can't hide our envy of our neighbors. We can't sit idly by and watch our neighbor being oppressed and think that Jesus, the King of kings, is somehow indifferent to it all. Brothers and sisters, He sees it all. He knows it all. And we shouldn't be surprised that many of the judgments we see around us, and around the world, arise as a result of his many visitations upon his people. Jesus comes to His house and inspects his flock every week as we gather together to worship him. Through our assembling together, all of us enter His holy presence in the liturgy, and all of us enter with some sin; all of us enter with some mud or grass on our feet from the good pastures we tread down wrongly. And YHWH sees it. Christ sees it all; which is why, each and every week, we bow down before him on our knees, imploring him for his mercy and forgiveness, so that we can be washed clean, clothed in his righteousness, and welcomed in to His house to feast at his table.

Each and every week the Lord comes to visit us, and He will continue to do this in every place of worship throughout the course of redemptive history; a similar day of visitation awaits this fallen, sinful world too on the last day. Only that day will be a total separation of goats from sheep, evil from good, darkness from light, of muddy waters and trampled fields from a well-watered garden with springs that well up to eternal life. 

Each and every week in the liturgy we gather because the Lord has already separated us from the darkness and welcomed us into His marvelous light. We are gathered together by the Spirit of God to be exposed and judged and shaped by His light, not to hide from it. He gathers us together so that in Christ we become the light of the world. In Jesus' sermon on the mount, Jesus looked at all his disciples and said "You are the light of the world." When you hear God's Word, remember that Jesus is speaking the same message to you, His disciples. As Christ speaks to you, remember that Christ gives light to this world of darkness so that it spreads everywhere. People don't light a lamp and then hide it under a basket. In this same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Good works are what the Body of Christ, the New Israel of God, is called to do. And we do them not simply because the God tells us to--which, if you think about it, should be sufficient for us to respond favorably--but also because God provides everything we need to want to do so.

Earlier in this chapter, chapter 34 of Ezekiel, we learn that because the shepherds of Israel failed to feed the Lord's sheep, the Lord Himself promised to come down and feed them, leading them to rich pastures. He would come down and visit His people, seeking the lost, bringing back those who strayed away, binding up their broken hearts, and strengthening the sick. All of this He promised to do as the greater David, the great Shepherd-King of the sheep. People of God, this Great Shepherd, our Lord Jesus, invites us today to rich pastures here at His Table. It is in this place of worship that He comes to visit us each week, and it is here in this meal where the lost are found, where those who have strayed are brought together, where the broken are restored, the sick are healed, and the weak are strengthened.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

One Thought

God's entire counsel may be reduced to one thought, that in the end of the ages He may have a Church which shall understand His love and return it.
- Abraham Kuyper

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Book Review: The Temple of Jesus' Body, by Alan Kerr

The Temple of Jesus' Body: The Temple Theme in the Gospel of John

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once in a great while I stumble across a book that deserves 6 out of 5 stars, and this one is it. (The last one like it was "The Tabernacle Pre-figured" by L. Michael Morales.) What makes this book so great are a number of factors. For starters, it's a Sheffield/T&T Clark/Bloombury Press book, aka highly academic, but it's also highly readable. The author doesn't blast page after page with complicated jargon or references to sources that aren't readily accessible; instead he works a steady pace, page after page, introducing the reader to the idea of the main thesis, using scripture and contemporary rabbinical sources.

Also, what he inserts at a steady pace is golden. Because the thesis of the book is that Jesus fulfills Old Covenant temple typology, and that John's Gospel was written convey that very clear message, he begins with a section discussing the significance of the Gospel being written shortly after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 A.D., and how Jews responded to the destruction of that Temple. In contrast with that, John's Gospel is set up to teach that destruction as a necessary consequence of covenant infidelity; nevertheless hope is offered in the new Temple, the temple of Jesus' Body, which also was destroyed, but also raised to greater glory.

Theologically, this book is fascinating. One of my favorite aspects of the book is how the author tries to clarify some of the goofy looking parts of John's gospel. For example, chapter one has this really goofy [at least I think so], out of place conversation between Jesus and Nathaniel (John 1:43-51). Nothing seems to flow together well. He insults Nazareth for no apparent reason, gets complimented by Jesus, is seen sitting under a fig tree, and then suddenly comes to believe Jesus is "The Son of God"! The narrative seems choppy and forced, and the reader is left wondering if it's supposed to be as cryptic as it appears. However, its choppy feel is not so choppy to me anymore after reading Allen Kerr's explanation of it's connection with the surrounding narrative (and it's temple typology). Indeed, Kerr's contribution to the exegesis of the first five chapters of John's gospel are worth the price of the book. (And this book is pretty pricey!). Thankfully Kerr surveys much more than just the first five chapters.

Kerr also contributes significantly to the conversation about temple festivals and priestly activity in John's gospel. However, Kerr remains focused on how John seems to have used those themes in connection with temple typology. In this area, one observation that stood out to me was Kerr's explanation of Jesus' footwashing, and how many factors within that narrative section (and yes, he deals with literary structure!) allude to Jesus' footwashing rite as a priestly rite of preparation for entering the temple.

Bottom line: read this book if you're interested in John's gospel and temple typology. You won't be disappointed.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 7, 2014

Tragic and Comic

There are two things in which all men are manifestly unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever or equally muscular or equally fat, as the sages of the modern reaction perceive. But this is a spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And this again, is an equally sublime spiritual certainty, that all men are comic. No special and private sorrow can be so dreadful as the fact of having to die. And no freak or deformity can be so funny as the mere fact of having two legs. Every man is important if he loses his life; and every man is funny if he loses his hat, and has to run after it. And the universal test everywhere of whether a thing is popular, of the people, is whether it employs vigorously these extremes of the tragic and the comic. 

- G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ignatius of Antioch on spiritual warfare

Labor with one another; contend together, run together, suffer together, sleep together, and rise together; as the stewards and assessors and ministers of God. Please him under whom ye war, and from whom ye receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter; but let your baptism remain as your arms--your faith as your helmet--your charity as your spear--your patience as your whole armor. Let your works be your charge, so that you may receive a suitable reward. Be long-suffering, therefore, towards each other, in meekness, as God is towards you. Let me have joy of you in all things. 
-- St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, fall 107 A.D. [Letter to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Born of Water and Spirit?

Jesus's encounter with Nicodemus the Pharisee is a very well known story. "You must be born from above," Jesus says. Nicodemus wants to know how that can be. Jesus reiterates that "unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Volumes of literature have been written about how to interpret Jesus' statements within this pericopae; and I'm probably not the first to make the following observations; but since this blog is about my observations, I'll jot down some thoughts anyway.

Immediately before this dialogue with Nicodemus, John inserts some words of his own worth taking into account beforehand (John 2:23-3:2):
Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, Himself, had not been putting-belief-in Himself to them, for He knew all them, and because He did not need anyone to witness about mankind, for He Himself knew what was in mankind. And there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him."
It is after the encounter with Nicodemus that we find John inserting further comments of his own (John 3:13-21):
Indeed, no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life; for God so loved the world that He gave his one-and-only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; but he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one-and-only Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.
Between all of these personal comments by John we find Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus. This happens in three brief phases of dialogue: 

1)  Nicodemus begins by saying: "...we know that you are a teacher come from God...". 
Jesus responds with a statement about an individual being born "from above" in order to see the kingdom of God. 

2)  Nicodemus follows that with something like, "How can that be and how does that even work?" (I'm paraphrasing, obviously). 
Jesus provides an answer for that question too: a person must be born of two things: water and Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God. And "do not marvel," Jesus says, "that I said to you, 'You-all must be born again.'"

3)  Nicodemus responds one more time, saying "How can these things be?" 
To which, Jesus replied: "...we speak of what we know and witness of what we have seen, and you-all do not accept our witness. If I told you-all earthly things and you-all do not believe, how will you-all believe if I tell you heavenly things?"

Now, at this point some questions remain. For instance, how do John's comments help us interpret Jesus' comments toward Nicodemus? The words of Jesus do not speak for themselves, and if left to interpret themselves within their own very narrow setting of John (3:1-21), we'll be left with curiosity at best and confusion at worst. 

I'll try my best (below) to illustrate what meaning I think Jesus' statements were intended to convey, according to the way John composed the narrative.

The most important place to start is by recognizing that John is writing a letter about Jesus' ministry to Judean Jews---Jews and Jewish authorities around Jerusalem and its Temple. Matthew, Mark, and Luke don't record much about this aspect of Jesus' ministry. 

A second important factor to realize is that John is recording a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus that, in context, was entirely about Israelites. Sure, John comments about "man" and people generically; but he is utilizing those terms to illustrate Israelite "men," Jewish people. One would think that the context of this discussion taking place in Jerusalem at the time of Passover would be a clear enough indicator of this, but Christians often insist anyway that the references to "men" must mean something more. Well, they might have been intended that way originally, but I don't think they were, even though I think they teach principles which apply to all men today. But understanding John's point makes a whole lot more sense if it's kept in its original historical context about Jesus witnessing to Judean Jews in Jerusalem (which is where 9/10's of Jesus' actions in this Gospel take place). 

Notice also that Nicodemus begins by saying "...we know." This "we" must at least refer to Israelites in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, but it also highlights the other Pharisees and "rulers of the Jews" like Nicodemus himself. By the end of the discussion Jesus hands Nicodemus' words back to him, saying "...we speak of what we know...but you-all do not receive our witness". That "we" refers to Jesus' disciples: those disciples from Galilee who followed Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem (2:17, 22), some of whom heard John the Baptizer declare Jesus to be "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29, 36); it refers to disciples who receive a certain "witness"---a witness of what they have seen.

In Jesus' first response to Nicodemus, he says that any Israelite (like Nicodemus, who just saw his "signs") must be "born from above" in order to see the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is  something visible, but not every Israelite could see it because, as John said immediately before the dialogue, Jesus "had not been putting-belief-in Himself to them, for He knew all them, and because He did not need anyone to witness about mankind, for He Himself knew what was in mankind." In other words, Jesus noticed that many Israelites believed in his name, believing that he was more than just a man sent from God. But Jesus knew them all, and he knew that not all would (or could) believe that he is more than just a mere man. He had visited the Temple throughout his life, seen the same kinds of people and their faithfulness to God, and he had seen their faithfulness to the traditions of their rulers (like Nicodemus) too. Jesus was not putting on a display of faith in himself before them,  even in his zeal for his Father's house; and he did not need anyone to witness about mankind either.  He knew he was Light sent into a world of darkness, and mankind loves darkness rather than light.  To men he was just another man, only he was a teacher sent from God too; but he was still just a man. To others he was more than a mere man sent from God: he was the Son of God. He was what John the Baptizer witnessed in the opening scene of John's gospel, saying "...I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God!" What is "in mankind" is disbelief that God became flesh, and that such flesh "tabernacled" among them (1:14).

In the middle of all this, Nicodemus asks (paraphrasing again), "How can that be and how does that even work?" Jesus' comments about being born of water and Spirit are supposed to be understood in this context--this very Jewish context about seeing and witnessing the Son of God face to face, along with his disciples, but not actually seeing anything more than a human "teacher sent from God." 

What does that have to do needing water and Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God? 

I don't think the reference to being born of the Spirit is the controversial part to answer. The controversial part has to do with what Jesus meant by needing to be born of water to enter the Kingdom. And that, I think is resolved by looking at the surrounding narratives. 

John's gospel begins with John baptizing with water in preparation for the Messiah to be revealed to Israel (1:19-27), followed by the Spirit descending from above and remaining upon Jesus. Jesus then performs his first miracle at Cana by turning water used for Jewish purification rituals into the best wine used to gladden the heart of the bridegroom. After this, Jesus travels to Jerusalem for the Passover, and his zeal for his Father's House (the Temple) leads into the discussion at night time with Nicodemus. 

Immediately following the discussion with Nicodemus we find more water imagery. Jesus goes out into the Judean countryside to visit John the Baptizer again, and to oversee his disciples baptizing alongside John (3:22-26; 4:1-3). Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it is in that context---the context which immediately follows Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus about "water and Spirit"---that we find John the Baptizer talking about Jesus receiving the Spirit of God without measure at his baptism (3:34), and to utter the words of God himself (v. 34), so that whichever Israelite receives Jesus' witness about the Father, and believes in Jesus his Son, will have eternal life (3:36). Following this pericopae, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well, and Jesus describes himself with very clear Edenic Temple imagery, offering something from himself (the Spirit that descended from above and remained on him) as the water that wells up to eternal life. 

Is this all a coincidence? Did John accidentally surround the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus with multiple references to baptism, water, and Spirit? Of witnessing, believing, and receiving?

This can be approached from another angle as well. It's obvious that John baptized Jesus with water, and the Spirit descended from heaven and remained on him from the time of his baptism with water. It's also obvious that Jesus believed an Israelite could not enter the kingdom of God unless he was born "from above," born "of water and the Spirit." And finally, it's obvious that Jesus visited John the Baptizer again, in a location where "water was plentiful" for baptisms (3:23). There John describes Jesus as the bridegroom, and himself as a guest at the wedding banquet. John is like one of Jesus' drawers of water, waiting for Jesus to turn that water into wine. There John also implies that those who witness and see Jesus as the Son of God are those whom Jesus has given his Spirit and those who have been baptized by his disciples. Those who witness and see Jesus as the Son of God are those who see him as the Lamb of God, the guilt offering to God for the world. They see him also as the Temple of God, who dwells in their midst and whose river flows out to the four corners of the world. They also see him as the baptismal font within the Temple, purifying bloody sacrifices into  food for God and man, turning clear fonts of water into wells of living wine.  

I think it's difficult to overlook the overlapping themes of water and spirit, descending and receiving, witnessing and seeing in the beginning of John's gospel. All those terms are used by John to describe the salvation that God provided through His Son in the first century. And I think it would have been difficult for first century Jews--especially after the Temple's destruction in 70 A.D.--to overlook Jesus' connection with the Torah and Temple of God at that time. It's certainly not too much of a stretch to think John desired his first century Jewish audience to receive his letter in faith, seeing Jesus' Spirit  at work page after page, and witnessing his life-giving presence poured out from above in baptismal waters. I imagine that those Jews who read John's gospel also noticed that Jesus was not well received by many of his own people. Those among Israel who were baptized by John's disciples, were baptized into the Temple and priesthood that God had fashioned with His Torah; Jesus was baptized into that as well, in order to have solidarity with Israel. However, Jesus died and rose from death to life again in order to resurrect a Temple in his own body. The resurrected Messiah commissioned his disciples to baptize the nations in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, baptizing them into His body, the true Temple of God, so they could see and witness eternal life. 

According to John's gospel, and according to Jesus' own ministry, water is nothing without the Spirit, just as speaking God's Word is nothing without the Spirit; but according to Jesus, actual pouring of baptismal water is just as significant to the actual outpouring of His life-giving Spirit as the speaking of His Word is to receiving the true witness about him. So instead of choosing one over the other, as though receiving God's Word is more efficacious than receiving the waters of baptism, John seems to be pointing his audience in a different direction---a direction more familiar to first century Jews than it is to 21st century Americans. According to John's gospel, the waters of baptism flow from the Temple of Jesus himself. What we find is not a dichotomy between receiving the Word and receiving baptismal waters; instead we find a Temple in the Son of God, Jesus, Israel's Messiah, and from the "living waters" he pours out, the nations are called by Word and Spirit to drink so that they would never be thirsty again.