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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.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! The Irish are a proud people, and they are fond of their heritage and their wit. So how do you know if an Irishman is having fun? He’s Dublin over with laughter! Or do you how Irish musicians show off on St. Patrick’s Day? They play their brag pipes. And on a day when scripture speaks of poisonous serpents, do you know why St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland? Because he couldn’t afford to fly them out.
The wise and well-respected Nicodemus who scripture describes as a teacher may not have seen the humor in St. Patrick Day, but he certainly understood the danger of poisonous snakes and serpents. In St. John’s gospel, we read that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, or the Jewish Council. This was a select group of 23 men who met every day in the Temple to judge and direct life in Jerusalem. Nicodemus was privileged by his birth and education, and people turned to him for guidance. Most likely for that reason, he came to visit Jesus by the cover of darkness. He was curious about this rabbi from Nazareth and he was impressed by the signs and wonders he performed. Very quickly into their conversation, however, it seemed that Jesus was questioning Nicodemus rather Nicodemus interviewing Jesus. “Nicodemus,” Jesus said, “Salvation is not about your birthright, your sacrificial offering or fulfilling the law. You must be born again of water and spirit.” Nicodemus was stunned. Ever since then scholars have tried to dismiss Nicodemus because he was a Pharisee. Some regard him as a curious interloper because he came at night, while others criticize him for being completely and utterly confused by Jesus’ questions. But I don’t think any of that is true. Surprisingly, I believe that Nicodemus was being drawn closer to Jesus in that midnight hour. And that is what we will meditate upon today.
As a teacher of Hebrew scripture, Nicodemus knew the stories of serpents in the Bible. They were never portrayed well and they were always deadly. In the Book of Genesis, a serpent spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God cursed the snake for tempting the man and woman to eat of the forbidden tree, he said, “upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” Again, when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, Moses’ brother Aaron threw his staff down before Pharaoh and it turned into a snake. This was to be a sign to Pharaoh of Moses’ and Aaron’s power and authority. The Pharaoh’s own sorcerers were capable of performing the same miraculous feat too, but Aaron’s staff ate the snakes conjured up by the Pharaoh’s sorcerers.
During the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, when God’s chosen people were complaining and speaking out against God and Moses, God sent poisonous snakes among the people who then started dying from the snake bites. Eventually, when they came to Moses and confessed, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you,” and begged Moses to pray that the Lord would take the snakes away, God forgave his people and he told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. God then promised, “Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
Today that image of Moses lifting up the Bronze Serpent reads as an obscure piece of Old Testament history, but for Nicodemus, it was the pivotal moment in his midnight visit with Jesus. Nicodemus came to Jesus proudly. Certainly, he could have never imagined himself like the Israelites of old complaining to God. Nicodemus obeyed the commandments, not just in the spirit of word, he believed that he could honor and obey the letter of the word. But at that midnight hour, Jesus’ words touched Nicodemus’ doubt and unbelief. You see, there are times when values, actions and compliments cannot sustain righteous and just men and women.
Most of us here, I dare say, are a lot like Nicodemus. We too are confident, self-assured, privileged and grateful for the blessings that God has graciously bestowed on us. Unfortunately, we’re often so self-conscious of these gifts that we believe that we ourselves are the source of their very being. And when that day comes, or more often a dark night of the soul, when these gifts are not enough for the challenges if the day, we can feel helpless. It might be age, it might be disease, failure or simply being over looked. It’s when you recognize that you can no longer do everything on your own. It’s when you realize that your strengths are not enough, when you find a road block in your path, when you painfully acknowledge that you cannot control your future or the destinies of those you love. We become as the Israelites of old whose serpent-like tongues get the best of them. We lash out at others in thought, words and deeds.
Over and over again, in those dark hours, we mistakenly place our hopes in those who have accompanied us through those difficult times of life. We begin to think they are the ones responsible for our success and survival and a good final outcome when life returns. But my friends, it was not the Bronze Serpent that saved the Israelites from mortal death. Nor was it Moses. No, it was a faithful and loving God. That is your ultimate alone hope and mine. God provides the answers, the solutions and the direction for our lives. “For just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, and the people lived, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
And why does God do this? Why is God so willing to walk with a stubborn people, a people often more willing to complain than to give thanks. Why is God so willing to lift you up with words of encouragement and inspiration when you are down? Why? St. John record the good news himself. It is God’s wondrous and steadfast love for you. He sees your value, your purpose and your potential. Even when you feel you do not need or deserve it. God loves you and cares for you and weeps for you, undeserved as that love may be.
Biblical scholars often dismiss Nicodemus as one doesn’t understand Jesus’ message. But my friends, later in St. John’s gospel we meet Nicodemus again. Together with Joseph of Arimathea, they themselves came to remove the bloodied, broken body of Jesus from the cross. These were two educated men, so noble in birth and stature that they could ask the Governor Pontus Pilate personally to release Jesus’ body. They were so privileged and wealthy that they could have hired a hundred men to bury Jesus. So why would Nicodemus of all people do such a foolish and courageous thing?
Because, there on Calvary, on that long Good Friday, Nicodemus watched Jesus being lifted up on the cross. Finally he understood the meaning of Jesus’ words about Moses and the serpent. Just as God provided the means whereby the bitten people could be healed through faith, so in Jesus, God provides the only means by which your soul can find healing and restoration. It is by looking to Jesus the one lifted high on the cross that we can find our ultimate hope. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.