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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a cavernous, dark vaulted structure which houses both the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion atop Mt. Calvary as well a lower grotto holding the place of Jesus’ resurrection. Beneath the altar there is a hole in the marble floor which allows you to place your hand through the floor and touch the rock where Christ was crucified. The place of Christ’s resurrection is in a second chapel within this great, vaulted dome less than 50 yards away. During the middle hours of the day, the church feels like chaos as tourists, priest and pilgrims elbow each other trying to secure a place in line to touch the holy relics of Jesus’s death and resurrection. For many pilgrims to the Holy Land it is hard to imagine how this could place could have once been outside the city wall. It certainly doesn’t have the color and brightness we associate with an Easter morning worship service.
Surprisingly, the first image to greet you as you enter the church is not a site of the crucifixion or the resurrection. Nor it is a station included in Roman Catholic Church’s fourteen stations of the cross, but it is a large Byzantine, mosaic fresco in gold, dark reds and greens of depicting two minor saints, St. Nicodemus and St. Joseph of Arimathea. They are seen ascending a ladder just above a large elongated marble slab on the floor where legend states that the Jesus’ body was washed before his burial. In the fresco Nicodemus and Joseph are surrounded by the weeping women as they remove Jesus’ dead body from the cross. They were the only men who stayed close to Jesus when his own twelve disciples scattered. They were educated men of means, so noble in birth and stature that they could ask the Governor Pontus Pilate personally to release Jesus’ body to them at his death. They were Pharisees and members Jewish Senate or Sanhedrin. Our gospel text this morning is a portion of the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus, and provides us with one of the most memorable verses in scripture, “For God so loved the world.”
Unfortunately, we often assume that the Pharisees represented the established religious authorities of ancient Israel who wanted to stamp out the work of the early church, and even Jesus himself. In scripture the Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin are often appear as the heavies who have no place for new ideas. This would be simplistic stereotype. In truth, the Pharisee were cautious figures who were not easily swayed. They were the trusted defenders of the Jewish faith who were called upon frequently to respond to needs and concerns. If you were searching for a church council president or a man to lead your next capital campaign, you would inevitably turn to the Pharisees. So when we read in St. John’s gospel, that Nicodemus came to visit Jesus one night by the cover of darkness, we should not assume that he came simply to trick Jesus, but rather he came cautiously because he was a respected leader. He knew people would curious be about his opinion of the Rabbi from Nazareth.
Nicodemus was not a common name in Hebrew or Aramaic. Nicodemus, like the word Nike, begins with the Greek word for victory, and demos the means the people. Hence the name means “victory of the people.” Ancient Jewish scholars suggested that he was the great Talmud scholar Nicodemus Ben Gurion. Regardless, he came to Jesus to learn more about the Rabbi from Nazareth’s teaching. “Jesus, we know that you are a teacher; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” But hardly had Nicodemus begun the discussion than Jesus turned the tables on him. “Nicodemus, you have all the fine ornaments of religion. No one would question your sincerity. Your knowledge of scripture is praiseworthy. Your theological astuteness is great. You love religion and theology. You love the Law and the Ten Commandments. But you lack one thing. You have no passion for life.”
Of course, Nicodemus is not alone in such a judgment. It happens to many good people who try to live productive, upstanding, righteous lives and I am not simply referring pastors and theologians. It happens all the time to upstanding men and women- especially to those who have planned out their lives from birthplace to grave. They are so cautious about religion and matters of the faith, that they choose to be like Nicodemus and come to Christ by the safety of darkness, when no one can see or judge them.
For all of us, there are moments when life gets a little empty, when it seems you are just doing the same things over and over again. It happens to us in our jobs when you simply go through the motions and the work becomes stale. It happens at school when your inner enthusiasm is gone and everything simply seems dull and routine. It even happens in marriage. At one time, your marriage had a touch of excitement, but now it seems merely repetitious. Regretfully, your conversations always lead to arguments Even from the start, you know where it is going to end. All the passion for life and living is gone.
Perhaps that’s how you feel about your faith this Lenten season. You have no passion or energy for life or God. Like Nicodemus you are only an occasional night visitor, and you’re curious if there is anything more? You’re in a rut, and you wonder there is another way? To those who are searching for such clues and answers, Jesus responds, “Yes. There is. You must be born from above.” It is to be filled with Holy Spirt and to begin anew.
Nicodemus scoffed at such a thought. “Can a grown man crawl into his mother’s womb?” For some Christians, to be born from above means to have an exciting and defining religious experience which allows them to make a decision to follow Christ. Oddly, this wasn’t what Jesus expected of Nicodemus. There is no mention of such decision making or an altar call. Mind you I do believe that there should be an excitement and renewal of the faith, but it doesn’t have to be defining or dramatic. At the turn of the 19th century, the American Law Professor and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his biography, “I might have entered the ministry, if certain clergyman I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.”
Jesus himself says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know from whence it comes or whither it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” A personal religious experience is just as elusive. Some Christians portray the renewed faith in their lives as a heavy and sad burden which we should be avoided. We seldom look upon such a Christian faith as a gift to enjoy and cherish. Perhaps that is what Nicodemus feared as he came to Jesus that night. My poor wife Janna is reminded of this when she introduces herself to new acquaintances as the wife of a pastor, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” they say, did he tell you this before you were married?”
Being born from above may happen again and again. If I am honest, I would have to admit that I have been born anew many times in my life. It happened when I accepted to the call to ordained ministry. It happened again when I was married. I was born from above when I became a father. Yes, I have been born anew many times in my life, and I hope to be born from above, many times more. You see, in Christ, to be born from above is to open yourself to the possibilities God places before you. Now you may be wondering: So what does this whole midnight conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus have to do with the Moses and the Bronze Serpent in the wilderness? Surprisingly, the answer is not so difficult. Just as God provide a remedy for sin and death in the wilderness long ago, God provides a remedy for you now. You can be saved from your emptiness, your hurt, your pain and your meaninglessness. That is God’s desire for you and for all creation. That is the message Jesus came to share with you, and Nicodemus and all night visitors. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in his should have eternal life.” This grand remaking of souls and lives is possible because God loves you more than you love yourself and allows his spirit to blow where it wills.
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were both night visitors to Jesus early in his ministry, but in the closing hours of that Good Friday afternoon, they were present to climb the ladder for all to see and to take Jesus’ body from the cross- when all the other followers had scattered. According to tradition, Joseph placed Jesus in his own family tomb. Yes, the two respected and noble night visitors were changed even before the final word was in and the good news was spoken of Christ’s resurrection. Their faith and commitment is captured in the mosaic fresco in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Occasionally in life, we come to the point that we know we need to be born all over again, and we long to be saved from all that is wrong within us. At such times, it is tempting to go back out, retreating into ourselves and into the familiar darkness. But there is another way. It is to allow yourself to be open to the Holy Spirit. At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Nicodemus came as visitor by night, but he opened himself to God’s spirit and he allowed Jesus to become a permanent resident of his heart.
How about you my friend? Are you still an occasional, night visitor? There is another waiting possibility open to you. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in his should have eternal life.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.