This is last Sunday's sermon as written. Kept going off script in delivery. It happens. From time to time.
March 8, 2020
With our second reading this morning we begin a Lenten journey through John’s gospel. In these verses we will cover some pretty familiar territory. The challenge for us this morning is to not let our understanding be the last word… but to continue to seek out the Word of God and hear what it has to say to us to today.
READ John 3:1-17
Nicodemus. I think we oftentimes give Nicodemus a bad rap because this is the story we know most about him. In fact, I would venture to say that most people don’t know that Nicodemus has a second story in John’s gospel. In chapter 19, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare the body of Jesus for the tomb. The story has Nicodemus bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. He and Joseph are the ones who take the spices and wrap the body in linen cloths and place it in the tomb in the garden.
That’s the way John tells the story.
So that got me to thinking about Nicodemus this week. I think there’s this prevailing impression that Nicodemus left this encounter with Jesus feeling discouraged… which is interesting because there really isn’t an ending to this story. There is the set-up and then Jesus goes into a theological monologue… which is common in John’s gospel. Most of John’s gospel is Jesus talking in monologue… and the writer puts emphasis on those words rather than the narrative.
Maybe we don’t give Nicodemus a chance because he comes seeking Jesus in the middle of the night under cover of darkness. He is a Pharisee and we aren’t supposed to think much of Pharisees. They are the opposition to Jesus, especially in John’s gospel because of the time it was likely written. Christians and Jews were going their separate ways and leading the break up were the Pharisees. So this turmoil and negativity of the time found its way into John’s gospel.
Still… despite all this… the thing about Nicodemus that I keep coming back to is how much he is like us. He practices his religion. He is good at it. He’s a leader. A Pharisee. He is someone who knows the ins and the outs. I would say… despite the impression given… he is pretty learned and adept at theology. He performs the proper rituals. He does the right things by his faith. He seems a man of relatively good character. But what makes Nicodemus stand out from the others like him is that Nicodemus is still seeking after God. He maintains his religion well… and that’s a good thing… that’s an important thing… but he also seems to understand that maintaining his religion isn’t all there is. He does not confuse his faith with God. God can still surprise. God can still challenge. So with Jesus in the area… Jesus who is clearly a teacher who has come from God… Nicodemus seeks him out to learn more. Nicodemus opens himself up for God to speak to him. He takes a risk. A risk that may change him… change his understanding… change his way of interacting with his religion.
Which is what makes Nicodemus such a great example for the season of Lent. This is an intentional season of self-reflection. And for some, it may be that hard look at how we maintain our individual faith through the practice of our religion. Because our practices are important. Our practices give weight to our words… to our saying what we believe. Lent is that intentional time for looking at what we give importance to in our lives… where we place our priorities. Like so many things, it is easy to talk about something… it’s harder to do that something… it’s definitely harder to be that something. So take a religious practice like prayer. How much of that practice is talking and not doing? Or the real study of scripture and the gaining of more than a shallow surface understanding? How many try to gain an understanding where they feel comfortable being in dialogue with scripture… getting their hands messy digging around in the meaning and the history and the possibilities? Study takes time and will probably mean shifting priorities. We can’t do everything. We can’t have it all. There has to be decisions made… whether intentional or not… decisions will be made and a certain pecking order for the use of your time will develop.
Now for Nicodemus… his pecking order likely favored his religion. But he sought out God beyond where he could have stayed comfortable and satisfied. Doing so under the cover of night is probably more of a commentary being made by the writer of John… there are many among the Jews who know the truth of Christ, but they are just afraid to come forward because of what others might say or do against them. That commentary colors so much of this passage. I prefer to see Nicodemus’ seeking as more important. To circle back to our religious practices… that’s part of why we have these practices. Yes, our practices… prayer, doing good works, studying scripture… they help us to maintain and build a solid foundation for our faith. They help us give substance to our words. They help us see the truth of our religion better. But they also open us to that encounter with the Spirit. It’s like Jesus answers… “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” How many of you have ever been working on a mission project and that Spirit shaped light bulb suddenly goes off above your head? It might be an encounter with a person… or something said in a conversation… or suddenly just seeing things from a different point of view. It’s like being born from above… of having a piece of you being made anew. It’s never the end… the end all and be all of your faith. You’ve been given a brief glimpse of God. A glimpse that might have you saying, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” I think I understand that a bit better now. Being born from above is not that one time church sanctioned process… jumping through the certified hoops so that at the end you can declare yourself to be born again. Being born from above is more of a peeling back the veil… and it can happen time and again… old or young. It’s like seeing the light for the first time and then your eyes start adjusting… and then suddenly seeing it again like it’s the first time.
When we stop seeking after God… when we stop being open to the continuing work of the Spirit… we become content… and contentedness changes the nature of our faith. Think of it this way… I’ve heard this somewhere but can’t remember where or from whom… think about a scientist who became content with what they knew. A scientist who said to themselves, “Well, I guess that’s all I need to know about epidemiology and the way viruses are spread. No need to understand anything or else or to seek out new knowledge on the subject. What are the chances a new virus is going to show up?” That scientist to that point was a good scientist… studied hard, went to good schools, did lots of research, maybe even had a few breakthroughs along the way… but then in deciding that there was no more to be learned… that there was no new knowledge to be found… or at least no new knowledge they were interested in knowing… things changed.
At some point, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”… at some point, that has to become more than a slogan or a sign held up at a sporting event. At some point, it has to be said without an air of superiority that gives us cause to boast. At some point, it has to be said as a Spirit infused glimpse of God that gives us real hope.
Nicodemus… again, like us… comes to Jesus to ask something… to try to understand God better… to encounter the Spirit… Nicodemus comes seeking, but doesn’t understand the answer he receives. Definitely like us. Not understanding the answer. But this is where all that unwritten Nicodemus story comes into play. Nicodemus doesn’t stop seeking God through Christ simply because he doesn’t understand the answer that was given. He keeps seeking. He keeps asking. He keeps going beyond what for him could have been safe… and comfortable… and acceptable to the people around him. He keeps going in that unwritten story, otherwise Nicodemus wouldn’t have been there with Joseph of Arimathea at the end. He wouldn’t be there with the necessary spices… doing his duty… still following his religious practices in preparing the body. Seeing clearly the results of one path of belief in the body of the man before him. Nicodemus washes off the blood. He sees the damage to the hands and feet and head. He bears witness to the marks of the lash and the spear that pierced the side. He knows that this is not what love brings into the world. He knows that this is not the work of God… but that the work of God… the revelation of God will continue… perhaps in a new way… perhaps down a path Nicodemus has yet to realize. Amen.