Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
A bus crashed. Three men died. They opened their eyes, and found themselves outside the Pearly Gates. One was a mystic; another, a Uniting Church minister; the last, a fundamentalist.
St Peter said to them, “Before you come in, you’ll have to have a chat with Jesus in his office to make sure you’ve got your doctrine straight.” Pointing to the mystic, he said, “You can go in first. Follow me.” He took him through a side door. Five hours later, the mystic emerged with a wonderful smile on his face. “I thought I’d got it all wrong,” he said.
It was the Uniting Church minister’s turn next. A whole day later, he came out shaking his head. “How could I have been so foolish?” was all he said.
St Peter beckoned to the fundamentalist, who stood and picked up his bible—a huge, well-thumbed, black, leather-bound, Scofield Reference King James Version Bible. He entered the side door, head held high. St Peter sat and waited. And waited. And waited. Two weeks later, it wasn’t the fundamentalist who emerged from the office. It was Jesus, shaking his head and looking he needed some Panadeine—and quick. And all Jesus could say over and over again was, “How could I have got everything so wrong?”
Nicodemus went into Jesus’ office for a chat about doctrine, just like the mystic, the minister and the fundamentalist. Unlike their conversations, we know something of what was said between Nick and Jesus…
Nicodemus is a mysterious character. He’s a Jewish religious leader and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish chief council. He’s mentioned three times in John, and nowhere else at all:
- In chapter 3, here, where he’s as thick as two short planks.
- In chapter 7, where he sticks up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin. However, once he is opposed, he is silent.
- In chapter 19, where he and Joseph of Arimathea get permission to remove the body of Jesus from the cross. Nicodemus brings about forty five kilos of myrrh and aloe vera to anoint his body, a stupendously generous gift and a truly amazing amount—particularly for one executed as a common criminal. It seems that Nick has finally come into the light.
But back in chapter 3, Nick comes to Jesus by night. Why by night, John doesn’t say; it could be that he was afraid of being seen consorting with Jesus; it’s possible—though I think unlikely—that he thought night time was a good time to study the Torah, the Jewish Law. I said there are a number of opinions about what role Nicodemus plays in chapter three. To decide which of them we might go with, we need to begin reading about Nicodemus a few verses earlier. (Remember that the chapter and verse divisions we have were only introduced in the 1500s; the writer of John’s Gospel didn’t know the the story of Nicodemus would be in chapter three.) So let’s look at 2.23-25, which is where the Nicodemus story really starts:
When Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
“Many believed in Jesus’ name because they saw the signs that he was doing.” This is the introduction to Nicodemus knock-knock-knocking on Jesus’ door. And John wanted us to read it first. And Nick reinforces it for us when he says:
‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’
Nick believes in Jesus’ name because of the signs. Signs like turning water into wine.
I mentioned that Nick comes to Jesus by night. We can keep talking about why, but that doesn’t really get to the point. That’s because in John’s Gospel, we have to look deeper than the surface meaning. We need to look at what things symbolise. ‘Night’ symbolises God’s absence in John. Now, John is not saying that God is literally absent at night time; he is using night as a symbol of the absence of God. So we can say that Nicodemus coming by night shows that God was absent from his life; yet we should also say that he was coming towards the light, the Light of the world.
Ok, so this bloke Nicodemus—an important man, but one who doesn’t ‘get it’—comes to Jesus. He calls Jesus ‘Rabbi’, ‘Teacher’. And Jesus proceeds to teach him. I don’t understand Jesus’ teaching technique here; I should ask the teachers here later what they’d call it. But his technique seems to be to let fly with a great assortment of themes for Nick to take in—you’ve got to be born from above, Nicodemus; the Spirit is like the wind that blows where it chooses; the Son of Man has come from heaven, from God; he is like the serpent lifted up on the pole. And whoever believes in this Son of God has eternal life—right now. It’s not pie in the sky when you die; it starts here, and it begins now.
Jesus might just be treating Nicodemus like an ‘A’ student. Can Nick keep up the pace? I suppose he does the best he can, but I have to say his best is pretty ordinary. His head is spinning. Nicodemus may be a teacher too, but he’s not keeping up with Jesus.
So what do we know about Nicodemus now? He believed in Jesus for the signs. He takes Jesus seriously, but he’s thinking in old categories. ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ ‘How can these things be?’
We’ve been challenged by the Lent Event to give something up during Lent, as Christians have through the centuries. Therefore, we’re asking a particular question in our preaching this Lenten season: what did the people around Jesus have to let go of so that he could break into their lives? What was keeping them from Jesus? (And: what do we have to let go of so we can know Jesus better?)
Nicodemus had to let go of his attraction to Jesus purely for the great things Jesus could do. He had to let go of reducing the words of Jesus into his categories, in other words, he had to start believing in Jesus—trusting Jesus—whether Jesus did any signs or not.
Are we at all like him?
I’ve met people who have stopped being Christians because it didn’t work for them. They thought that Jesus would fix everything for them. They wanted him to do a sign for them. They thought they’d stop being unhappy, or never get cancer, or get a nice house and a nice partner with nice kids. They didn’t love Jesus for who he is; they loved him because they thought he would do a miracle for them.
Listen: miracles don’t always happen. That’s why they’re miracles. If they happened all the time, they’d just be stuff. So we shouldn’t be angry with God when the miracle we hoped for didn’t happen. Followers of Jesus need to learn to walk by faith, not by a yearning for the spectacular. Remember: Jesus resisted the temptations he faced in the wilderness by refusing to work impressive miracles on demand.
The scariest thing about all this is that Jesus would not entrust himself to those who believed in him because of the signs. What a wonderful thing it would be to hear, when we stand before the Lord one day, that he could entrust himself to us. Can he?
When Nick visited Jesus, he had his ideas already worked out. I see him going to speak with Jesus as an equal. Teacher to teacher. But it became a case of the teacher taught. Nick had lots of ideas, but Jesus doesn’t try to talk about ideas. No, Jesus tells him he has to start again:
You must be born from above, Nicodemus.
This doesn’t fit Nick’s belief system, so of course he misunderstands.
How can anyone be born a second time?
Nick needs to meet God, not just believe things about God. He needs to trust in God, abandon himself to God. He needs to stop being in control. A newborn baby has no control. Over anything! Nick needs to allow himself to be pushed through a birth canal, and emerge into a whole new world.
Jesus doesn’t just require a slight cosmetic change from Nick—or from us. It’s not a little nip here and a tuck there, a bit of spiritual Botox that Nick needs, and we need. We need to be remade. Reborn. Born of the Spirit. We’ve been born of an earthly mother, and we need to be born of our heavenly Mother, the Spirit.
Nick thought he knew lots about God. And so may we. But Nick kept God at arm’s length. His God was an object of study, not a living, loving, sovereign Lord. Do we keep God at a safe distance? A newborn child can’t keep her mother at a safe distance; and why should she? A newborn doesn’t know much about this person she will one day call ‘mummy’; but what she knows is true and real and life-giving. This strange person feeds her, and bathes her, and keeps her warm at night and cool during the day. This person loves her. And the baby learns to love in return. You must be born of the Spirit.
When a child is born, he encounters the air for the very first time. He breathes it in for the first time. Soon, he will feel the breeze blowing on his cheeks. He can’t control where the breeze comes from, or goes. It’s not always soothing. So it is with us. We need to see where the breeze of the Spirit is blowing. This week, I believe it blew in Canberra when the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition said ‘Sorry’ to Australia’s Indigenous people. I wonder if you felt that too? It’s not necessarily comforting when the Spirit blows. Sometimes the Spirit-wind is a cyclone, not a breeze.
Where will the wind of the Spirit blow us this year? I have to say I’m waiting a little impatiently to see what clues Fuzz Kitto’s report may give us. The Spirit-wind blows where it will.
And again, we are not in control. Not being in control fills many of us with anxiety, even fear. Young people grow up thinking they are in control. If they’re lucky, they won’t be too hurt when they learn it’s just not so.
In the end, the thing we need is faith. And we need to let go of anything that stops us trusting our loving God with our whole being. We may have to let go of old ways of thinking and behaving.
I am beginning to think that Nicodemus might be there in John’s Gospel both as a warning to us, and as an encouragement. Nick’s story encourages us in this way: Jesus can finally break into his life so he may come to a living faith in Jesus, he can break into ours.
But he is also a warning: a warning that faith in Jesus because of the things he can do is not enough. A warning not to be afraid. And this warning: be ready to let go of anything—except that which leads us to God.