Encounter: Nicodemus

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
March 12, 2017

John 3: 1-21 (CEB)
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader.2He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.
19“This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”

Nicodemus was a law-abiding citizen. He was a good guy. Pharisees kind of get a bad wrap in the Gospels, but when it comes to Jewish religious life, these guys were really among the “cream of the crop.” They knew the Jewish law; the best of them knew that law inside and out. And not only did the Pharisees know the law, they observed it. The problem was they got a little proud about their observance of the law, but that’s beside the point in this morning’s scripture passage. What matters here is that Nicodemus was a faithful follower of God.

But the next thing John tells us after identifying Nicodemus as a Pharisee and a Jewish leader, is that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. If Nicodemus is a law-abiding citizen; if Nicodemus is a good guy; if Nicodemus is a Jewish leader, why would he come to Jesus at night? Under the cover of darkness? That’s what criminals do. This is the behavior of thieves and ne’er-do-wells; not law-abiding Jewish leaders. Unlike the twelve who would soon join Jesus in his earthly ministry, Nicodemus was a cautious disciple. Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness because it was difficult, maybe even dangerous, for him to follow Jesus publicly, during the bright light of the day. He was part of the establishment that was at odds with Jesus. He was risking a lot to go and see Jesus, even under the cover of darkness. He had to be careful about when and where he could practice his discipleship.

Throughout history, we see this cautious discipleship again and again. In the seven letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, the churches are warned to beware of the Nicolaitans—Christians who were willing to offer worship to pagan gods in order to remain unnoticed, if not tolerated, in a non-Christian world. In the sixteenth century, reformer John Calvin identified a group he called the “Nicodemites”—those who sympathized with the reform movement, but were publicly afraid to identify themselves. Christians through the ages have compromised true, faithful, costly discipleship in all sorts of ways in order to “fly under the radar” and “not rock the boat.” At times, Christians have even gone so far as to accommodate the gospel to certain policies and powers because it was easier to do that than to risk standing up with the truth of Jesus’ radical good news.

I was powerfully convicted this week. Several of the United Methodist clergy in Chattanooga are reading together the recent book, America’s Original Sin. This book explores racism in America, through our history and into the present, and how Christians have responded to that racism—running the gamut from enabling racism to defying it. As I read, I was reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. I had read the letter in its entirety while in seminary, but as I re-read portions this week, I saw where I at various times and in various ways have been a “Nicodemus,” faithfully following God…as long as I was safe. You see, as he sat in that jail for more than a week, Dr. King wasn’t angry at the jailers that had put him there. He wasn’t even angry at the lawmakers who had passed the unjust laws that he had to break in his pursuit of justice. No, in this letter, Dr. King railed against his fellow clergy in the white churches who were not standing with him. He wrote, “When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead,” King said, “some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”

Here I stand—“behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows,” under the cover of darkness, reluctant to walk into the light that I know is there, because it just might make things too difficult to bear. Do you know the feeling? This is that unsettled feeling; perhaps that twinge of guilt or uncertainty—the knowledge that there is something more to this life of faith. And it’s not that our faith is faulty, it’s just incomplete. That’s what Nicodemus learned as he sat and listened to Jesus respond to his questions. “You must be born anew,” Jesus says. This word that is translated as “born anew,” it can also mean “born from above.” More than a heavenly status or standing, this is the activity of the Spirit. And this new birth from above, from God, it involves way more than just changing your mind about a few things, or even believing in your head that “God so loves the world.” This is about God’s mighty claim on our lives, and our whole lives being an embodiment of that love—even when that compels us to places we don’t want to go. This is about moving from darkness into the light.

And you know what’s amazing to me? Even though Nicodemus was a Pharisee, even though Nicodemus came to Jesus under the dark of night, even though he was having trouble understanding what Jesus was saying to him, Jesus doesn’t condemn him. He even says, “God didn’t send his son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” This has nothing to do with Nicodemus, and everything to do with God’s work, God’s labor, God’s willingness to birth us anew. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” The basis for judgment, Jesus says, is staying in the darkness. “The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light.”

Friends, can you hear these words with Nicodemus? Can you imagine yourself sitting there in the deep of night listening to Jesus tell you the greatest truth the world has ever known? Can you imagine that feeling of apprehension at being caught in the presence of this radical teacher? Can you sense the change in yourself as your realize that you can’t live in the darkness anymore; as you come to understand the depth of God’s love not only for you, but for the world?

The next time Nicodemus makes an appearance in John’s gospel, he is surrounded by his fellow Pharisees, who are testing Jesus. Nicodemus speaks in Jesus’ defense, asking, “Our law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?” Then, after the Son of Man is lifted up on the cross and dies, Nicodemus appears again; this time, along with Joseph of Arimathea, to ask for Jesus’ body so that he can be prepared and buried. Nicodemus moved out of the darkness into the light. He was eventually expelled from the Sanhedrin, the ruling Pharisees, and ultimately martyred for his faith in Christ. The light of Christ compelled Nicodemus to this completely new life. Beyond the affirmation that Christ is Lord, Nicodemus’ life was completely changed and he couldn’t stay in the cover of darkness anymore.

What about you? What about me? How are we still lurking in the darkness? See, this thing about “being born from above,” it’s not just about a single moment of justification. This is about the Spirit’s constant work in our lives, always moving us and shaping us, always directing us to a higher righteousness. Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness, but he didn’t stay there; by the end of the gospel, he was living in the light. And the thing is, even in our faith, no matter how long we have followed Christ, we still have these places of darkness, there are still these moments of cautious discipleship where we are just not quite yet ready to boldly step into the light.

The reason I was so convicted this week as I re-read Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, was that I realized that letter was about me. I am that clergy person who doesn’t always stand up when I need to. I am that person who at times compromises my faith so that I don’t stir up trouble, so I’m not the one who is “rocking the boat.” And admittedly, it happens even in the pulpit. Those moments when I don’t say what I really feel compelled to preach because I am afraid of offending people. There are those times when I don’t stand with my brothers and sisters in Christ because I am afraid of the “image” I might project. So instead, I lurk in the shadows, I linger in the darkness. I come to Christ behind the safety of church walls and closed doors to practice my faith, all the while trying to convince myself this is “good enough.” But what Jesus tells Nicodemus is that this isn’t “good enough.” There is more to life. There is love and there is light for you, and for me, and for the whole world, if we will love the light more than the darkness.

In Nicodemus, we can see and understand that even the best educated, the most authoritative, the most pious among us are still searching, yearning, longing for something more. The good news of Nicodemus’ encounter with Christ is that it is God who labors to bring us new life, and God is prepared. God is ready to do the hard, messy, sweating labor that will bring us to maturity and new life. God love us that much. God so loves us. God has given us the Light.

Now, will we step out of the darkness?

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