By night Nicodemus came to a teacher he knew was from God. Jesus told him of earthly things that were not visible, but were happening nonetheless, and Nicodemus could not understand. How then would he understand heavenly things?
On a summer’s day a couple of years ago I took my youngest son and two of his friends on a walk on Redmires moor, west of our Sheffield home. I led them to a spot where I knew the perfect echo could be generated—not a reverberation but a proper call-and-response effect. The moorland path runs alongside a wide, shallow dip in the land, maybe a quarter of a mile across. On the other side the land rises up to a pine plantation—the sounding board.
We stood for a while making whooping noises, whistling and shouting and listening to each sound play back to us. We were held in eerie fascination. It seemed like there was someone over in the trees repeating exactly our sounds and voices, even though we knew that wasn’t possible.
Compelled, my little companions decided that the trees looked like a good place for an adventure. So we crossed the dipping land and wandered amongst the tall trunks. Intermittently the sunlight broke through the fine gauze of needles overhead, and around us the forest receded into a deep and seemingly impenetrable lightlessness.
‘We’re inside the echo!’ one of my little companions declared, with all the wonderful logic of a child.
Inside the echo. I wrote it down as soon as I got home, sensing that something unintentionally profound had been said about human existence.
You can’t be inside an echo. But then nor can you be inside a sound. There is a difference though. Every sound has a physical cause. On the moors, we were the cause. The sheer volume of my son and his friends left that in no doubt. But for them, the echo was harder to fathom.
Jesus described to Nicodemus what it means to be born of the Spirit. You cannot perceive how it happens, but the effect is discernible.
How can this be? Nicodemus asked.
By heaven coming to earth, Jesus told him. The Son of Man, sent by the Father. Intervention in the natural by the supernatural.
Born of the Spirit
To Nicodemus Jesus revealed the very essence of God’s purpose:
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.
Jesus said that to believe in him, lifted up on the cross, is to be born again, of water and the Spirit. And to be born again in this way is to enter the kingdom of God.
I have known this for myself. I can remember clearly the moment when the Christian things I had heard of all my life became my own. When the Spirit of truth made Jesus known to me, I was, in a moment, reborn. Alone in my room in my halls of residence at university, I died to a deeply unsatisfactory belief in works and was raised to a liberated belief in grace.
Intervention in the natural by the supernatural. The Spirit came to live in me and, twenty-three years later, he lives in me still. That is the only reason I have continued to walk in faith—the Spirit continually turning me back towards what Jesus taught, guiding me into all truth, my advocate and my helper.
This is what the Spirit has revealed to me: I walk through the often loved darkness of the world and Jesus shows the way that leads into the light. I know God’s kingdom is established. I know its fullness and eternal glory are yet to be revealed, that even now Jesus is preparing a place for me in his Father’s house.
The End of Echoes
Today I hear echoes of what is to come. I live by the Spirit, striving against the flesh to keep in step with the Spirit. I glimpse the goodness of perfection and sense the wonder of heaven, whilst contending with my fallen, earthly existence. But on that day, when I know at last the life which Jesus has won for me, which the Spirit opened my sinful eyes to see, it will no longer be echoes but the full and glorious sound of heaven rejoicing. And greatest of all, I will live in the presence of the very cause of all things.
I recently walked again on Redmires moor. When I came to that wide, shallow dip in the land I found myself looking at the place where the plantation had once been. Instead of tall pines, there was a wasteland strewn with tree stumps and discarded offcuts. The landscape was completely changed, flattened and wide open, and when I called out, no sound came back to me.
I crossed again the dipping land and stood where the echo had been. The expanse before me was impassable, the ground covered with a layer of sticks and branches, haphazardly protruding at all angles. But I could see where the sky came down and met the land. I could see the clouds moving. Where previously there had been a gauze of fine needles overhead, now the sunlight reached the ground unhindered. The deep and seemingly impenetrable darkness was gone for good.