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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 German Reformer Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the gospel in miniature.” America’s former Southern Baptist Conference President Frank S. Page referred to it as “the Mount Everest of Scripture passages.” Every believer has their own favorite Bible passage, even if they can’t remember the biblical citation. But as the Scottish Bible commentator William Barclay once observed of John 3:16, “This text has been called ‘Everybody’s text.’”
So why would Jesus speak such an important and comforting word to Nicodemus? After all he was not one of his chosen 12 disciples. Nicodemus appears in no other gospel than St. John’s, and there only three times. But there is something about Nicodemus that makes him the “Everyman” of the New Testament. He is a curious seeker and a confident teacher who knows what he believes, but he also senses that there is something more, something greater and deeper waiting for him, if he would simply dare to go out and pursue it.
My friends, today I would like us to meditate on the spiritual journey of Nicodemus, the “everyman” of the Bible. For the word Jesus spoke to Nicodemus that changed him, is the same word of hope, fulfillment and new beginnings that he speaks to you and me.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Now often, when we hear the word Pharisee in Scripture, we often envision dark, shady characters who almost always played the bad guys. 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. They were the most educated men of the Holy Land. When the community needed strong leadership, they turned to the Pharisees, and they were not disappointed.
Now I rather suspect that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he was just such a respected leader and he needed to be cautious. People looked to him for his judgement, and he knew that his fellow Pharisees would be angry at the very thought of his visit. You see, in the eyes of Nicodemus’ peers, Jesus was a dangerous man. This itinerant rabbi from Nazareth had entered into the holy city of Jerusalem in a firestorm. He had overthrown the tables of the money changers in the temple, and driven out the animals appointed for holy offerings. Jesus was a real threat to the delicate balance between the Roman authorities and the Jewish community leaders who governed the economic interests and well-being of people. But somehow Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus- for reasons he could not explain.
So Nicodemus came by the cloak of darkness to face Jesus, and he began by saying, “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.” Immediately, Jesus turned the tables on Nicodemus and answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus’s words went to the heart of Nicodemus. “No one,” he continued, “Can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Poor Nicodemus was taken aback. He was only thinking literally. He tried to deflect Jesus’ challenge with a joke about the impossibility of returning to the womb. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” But Jesus was having none of it. He countered Nicodemus with a questioning of the depth of his understanding: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand the difference between physical and spiritual things?” Dear Nicodemus, look deeper. You know more than this. You’re curious, intelligent and well educated. You know how to think. In order to see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus, you need something, dramatic to change your life.”
Now you may be wondering, why I believe that Nicodemus is such and “everyman? Because he represents the curious, seeking souls of every age, just like you and me. They have so much going for them. They are accomplished, wealthy, smart. They sacrifice for the good of others. The sky is the limit to what such people can achieve and do. Except, of course, in satisfying the ‘Great Whys of life. They wonder: Why am I here? Why, if I have done so much goods, do I not feel whole? Why am I still seeking answers and where do I get them? No matter how successful you feel, like Nicodemus, you never escape these internal questions.
Let me assure you Nicodemus certainly didn’t come to Jesus by the shadow of night as a broken man who was disconnected from the world, and discontented from his faith. Nor was he concerned of God’s salvation. After all he was a descendant of Abraham. As a teacher of Israel, he taught that the kingdom of God was open to all those who obeyed and fulfilled God’s commandments. No, in seeking Jesus, Nicodemus was acknowledging that he was looking for that elusive answer to his deepest question, why. He was an earnest and curious seeker.
Surprisingly, Jesus’ answer for such a dramatic change in Nicodemus’s life and for anyone seeking the answer to life’s most profound questions was- baptism. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” It may be difficult for us to see the connection, but for Nicodemus it was clear. Water was always associated with clean and purified new beginnings in Judaism. The Jewish path for Gentile conversion included a ritual bath. John the Baptist himself spoke of the Messiah who was yet to come would come one day bringing a baptism of water and Spirit. In the verses following Jesus’ midnight visit with Nicodemus, St. John writes, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized.” Unfortunately, baptism rarely seems to that be that dramatic for us today. But it should be. It is where new life begins.
Nicodemus too wondered and asked, “How can this be?” Then Jesus turned to the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. When they rebelled against God and cursed and complained to Moses, they were punished for it in the form of venomous snake bites. To receive healing, they had to look at a bronze snake on a pole that Moses carried. For the Israelites looking at the snake on the pole was an act of faith, and when they looked up they were healed by God. So Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Jesus, you see, was inviting his night visitor, like the Israelites of old, to take a chance, to act in faith and look up to him and be saved. This was a risky undertaking especially for a Pharisee who had everything to lose. Under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus had curiously come to see Jesus, looking for answers. And yet to his surprise what did he get, but an invitation. Jesus said, “Nicodemus, I am the answer. Believe in me. It will make all the difference- and in time, you will find the answers to life’s great why questions.” To Nicodemus, Jesus spoke the word of hope that would be good news for every man and every woman of every generation, and that Nicodemus as the teacher of Israel would be called to teach. It was a word of hope that the kingdom of God was not limited to those who were born of God’s chosen people, or those who would fulfill the letter of the commandments. That night, Nicodemus was given the promise that would change him forever and turn the world upside down.. The Kingdom of God was open for all those dared to lift up their eyes to Jesus and believe in him. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 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.”
For the Pharisee Nicodemus, this was the first of his three appearances in St. John’s gospel, and with each subsequent appearance he walked less in the darkness and more in the light. The second time, Nicodemus challenged his peers in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council of 70, that the law required that a person be heard before being judged. They scoffed at his defense of Jesus, and responded, “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” Finally, after Jesus’ death on the cross, Nicodemus accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to claim Jesus’ crucified body from Pontius Pilate. Nicodemus bore 00 Roman pounds of myrrh and aloes to embalm the body of the beloved rabbi. It was an amount reserved for a king. In Michelangelo’s Florence Pieta, Nicodemus may be seen with his covered head hovering over Jesus’ body. The face of Nicodemus is said to be that Michelangelo himself.
On that midnight visit, Jesus was not asking Nicodemus to simply to believe in him, but he was asking for something much more. He was calling Nicodemus to follow him in a way of living that brings life in abundance, a way of living that helps to bring about a Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. But it is also a way that can lead to a cross. That is Jesus’ invitation to every man and every woman.
Sources outside of the Bible, including the Gospel of Nicodemus, as well as other apocryphal works, indicate that Nicodemus lost his position as a Pharisee and was removed from the Sanhedrin for his defense of Jesus. He was eventually banished from Jerusalem by hostile temple authorities. According to tradition Nicodemus went to live with Gamaliel, the respected Jewish teacher portrayed in the Book of Acts, who defended the early Christian movement. He later died weeping over the grave of Stephen the First Martyr, but still ever rejoicing in the promise Jesus had spoken to him, “For God so love the world, that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have ever lasting life.” My friends, that is your promise as well. It is an everlasting life that begins now in knowing God in Jesus Christ, and it is dwelling with him in his kingdom eternally –if you will but lift up your eyes to see him. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.