Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
People face challenges every day. Some challenges are noble. As John F. Kenney once said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” While other challenges are matter of persistence, as Albert Einstein chimed, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” For others, the satisfaction of a challenge comes in completing the task. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated, “Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s a day you’ve had everything to do and you’ve done it.” For pastors, the challenge is often taking on a familiar verse of scripture and trying to say something new and meaningful, and there is perhaps no more greater challenge than preaching on the Bible’s most familiar verse, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world.” Martin Luther referred to the verse as the “The Gospel in a Nutshell.” Now as a preacher with such a challenge, you always run the risk of saying something heretical, or nothing at all. And I’m afraid most pastors err on the side of saying nothing at all. Unfortunately, there is the story of the pastor who tried to be daring and told the Sunday School in his Children’s Message, “When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realized, the Lord doesn’t work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me … and I got it!” Needless to say, the pastor was packing the following morning.
I rather suspect that Nicodemus was erring on the cautions when he came to visit Jesus by night. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Now often, when we hear the word Pharisee in Scripture, we envision dark, shady characters who almost always play the bad guys. They criticize Jesus for breaking the laws of the Sabbath. They question him in order to trap him, and then they accuse him of heresy and blasphemy. In Jesus’ last days, the Pharisees were the main instigators of the plot to crucify him. But surprisingly, the vast majority of Pharisees, the 6000 members who pledged themselves to defend the law of Moses, were religious men of high moral character. When the community needed strong leadership, they turned to the Pharisees, and they were not disappointed. The Pharisees were the most highly educated men of the Holy Land. Nicodemus was actually a good man and teacher who had spent his lifetime cultivating his strength, wisdom and judgment for the sake of the Jewish community. He had a challenge that night. He was to speak with Jesus without compromising his beliefs and the respect of his colleagues and neighbors.
Perhaps that’s how you feel this Lenten season. You are being cautious. You too are an occasional night visitor. You have all the habits of faith without the heart. You have structures of belief without the Spirit. You go through the rituals but you don’t have the real thing. It is at such a moment, such a midnight hour, when you might find yourself, like Nicodemus, knocking at Jesus’s door, and sighing “Jesus, I need some help. I’m lost.“ Even now, Jesus with his uncanny ability to look deeply into your heart and soul, is challenging you and saying, “You need to experience a rebirth of God’s love in your heart.“ But what does this mean?
My friends, the story of Nicodemus’ night visit reminds us that God invites us all to a new relationship with him. It isn’t simply a relationship of the head, but he longs for a relationship of the heart. So whether you are simply a curious night visitor, a skeptical acquaintance or a lost friend, let me offer you three suggestion of how such a new life begins.
First of all, learning to know and trust and believe in God with the heart needs time together. Please note- the story of Nicodemus teaches that the doors to a conversation God are always open- no matter what the hour. Indeed, in the middle of the night that same some of our most demanding and personal question arise. Of course, during the days, we may jest that know all the slogans of God’s holy kingdom, “Come work for the Lord. The work is hard, the hours are long and the pay is low. But the retirement benefits are out of this world!” Or perhaps more colorfully, “Would you rather spend eternity in the Smoking or Non-Smoking section?” But the perceptions are different in the middle of the night. If you do not spend time together with God, these words will never move you to try or to dare or to do anything more. Few friendships can tolerate neglect. Marriages that do not have moments alone together will never endure the heaviness of compromise and suffering. The same is true of your relationship with God. An abundant and joyful life with God demands time together. You learn to know God by devoting your time to prayer, in Bible study, time in worship and in the company of fellow of believers
Second, learning to know and trust and believe in God requires understanding. It is a popular notion today to think, God is such a friendly fellow, if you get to know him. So if we are decent and responsible citizens, we shall all somehow muddle our way to heaven. We patronize God by calling him “the man upstairs,” or some other trivial title, and honor him as a celestial Rotary Club president. Such practices and beliefs, deny God his due respect. Our God is the awesome, majestic creator of the universe. He did not give us his law and the Ten Commandments to spoil our fun, but he gave us his law to inform us how human life is lived at its best. He created us in his own image, so that we should be aware of our own high calling. My friends, when you begin to understand and accept God as the wondrous and mighty creator of the universe, the God who chose to share all of his gifts with you, you cannot help but to respect yourself, the creation and your neighbor.
Third, to know and trust and believe in God, means that you recognize a power and a strength which is not your own. It is the power of the Holy Spirit. In ancient Hebrew, the word for spirit, is the same word used for breath and wind. I think that’s helpful in understanding how we may be changed. Like human breath, we cannot see the Holy Spirit, but we know when it is present in our lives. We can sense that we have been empowered by some source of energy which, and like the wind, we do not know from whence it comes or whither it goes. Whether you are an occasional night visitor, a skeptical acquaintance or a lost friend, you need to open your life to movement of the Holy Spirit. To live a passionate, faithful life, may need a change.
For many people, however, God’s challenge to change is daunting. Perhaps, it is true for you as well. You like the respectability of religion. You like the life style in a community that is supported by the standards and morality of the Golden Rule, “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you,” and the Ten Commandments. You like the security of believing that there is something for you beyond the committal service at the cemetery. But you’re not sure you’re want anything more. You’re afraid of being too close to God, that he might ask you to do something that would make you feel uncomfortable or self-conscience.
Or perhaps, you’re simply not confident in God’s love. Your neighbors and colleagues are so public in their convictions, and at times you have felt as if you were being judged and criticized for not being as bold and confident. It is odd, but even the most familiar verse in scriptures, “God so love the world” seems to have become a divide between those who believe and are saved and those who are unsure and come as night visitors.
Perhaps the challenge for you and me is to see that the familiar verse says something more powerful than we have grown accustomed to. After all, it’s easy to love the world, in “it’s a small, small world” sort of way. It is easy to say that God loves all the nations of the world- especially those who believe in him. But St. John actually dares to say something more. Everywhere else in the gospel that the “world,” the world is used in another way. The world almost always represents that portion of creation that is unlikeable and hostile to God. We might just as easily translate the verse as, “In such a way, God loved the hateful, angry world, that he gave his only Son.” This in turn helps us understand the following verse as well, “God did not send the Son into this hate filled world to condemn it, but rather that it should be saved through him.” That is the height and width of God’s unexpected love. And if this is how great God’s love is for a world which resists him, my friend, consider how wonderfully he loves you- who dare to come to him- even by night. God knows your full potential, and he is committed to you.
A gem dealer was strolling the aisles at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show when he noticed a blue-violet stone the size and shape of a potato. He looked it over, then, as calmly as possible, asked the vendor, “You want $15 for this?” The seller, realizing the rock wasn’t as pretty as others in the bin, lowered the price to $10. The stone has since been certified as a 1,905-carat natural star sapphire, about 700 carats larger than the largest stone of its kind. It was once appraised at $2.28 million. It took a lover of stones to recognize the sapphire’s worth. It takes the Lover of Souls to recognize the true value of ordinary-looking people like you and me. That is why he sent his only Son Jesus. He longs to enjoy life with you here and now, and in eternity forever. Shouldn’t you choose to spend time with him now as well?
At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Nicodemus was a night visitor. But he allowed Jesus to become a permanent resident of his heart. Three years later, when the disciples had betrayed their master and denied knowing Jesus, the venerable Pharisee was there to take his Savior’s body down from the cross. Nicodemus had grown to love God and to believe in the promise of everlasting life. He left the midnight hour of the soul to follow Jesus. How about you my friends? Are you still an occasional night visitor or have you chosen to walk as a daily companion of our Lord? May your journey begin by letting go. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.