Sermon, Monroe UCC, 2/24/02
Perhaps Nicodemus is worried about what his powerful friends would say if they saw him talking to the radical preacher. Or maybe he wants a chance to be alone with Jesus, so they can have a private conversation, which would be impossible during the day, with the crowds of followers pressing in. In any case, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. And it's obvious that he's anxious to have a talk. Nicodemus knows who Jesus is. Who in Jerusalem hasn't heard about this famous holy-man? After all, it was just a few days ago that he caused a big to-do at the temple, running around with a whip and giving no end of trouble to those money changers. Not to mention all those rumors of miracles. Jesus is the talk of the town. And I would guess that Nicodemus has had a chance to hear Jesus preach too, no doubt hanging around furtively on the edge of the crowd.
Now here's this powerful, wealthy man--a Pharisee--"a member of the Jewish ruling council." As you may remember, the Pharisees didn't think much of Jesus. And yet something about this young upstart pricks Nicodemus' interest. Jesus has inserted a wedge into his comfortable certitudes, and Nicodemus has the feeling that there is some secret--some truth--here, that he's never encountered before. So now his soul is troubled, and he can't help but run after this spiritual mystery, which he has a hunch might just be the answer he's looking for. And thus we have this clandestine journey in the night.
Nicodemus greets Jesus with respect: "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."
Now, Jesus has a way of reading people--of knowing what is in their heart, even if they don't speak it. And Nicodemus is like an open book. Here's this respected Pharisee, turning up in the middle of the night, out of breath, his eyes alight with child-like curiosity. But Jesus--as with all the people he meets--takes this man very seriously. And as often happens, he comes back with something totally unexpected: "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
This statement slashes across Nicodemus' expectations, yanking him out of the neat, tidy, logical universe that he's lived in. But Nicodemus, as people are often wont to do when confronted with new life, clings stubbornly to what's familiar, and responds with the unimaginative question: "How can a man be born when he is old?"
And so they go on, parrying back and forth, seemingly talking past each other.
The story of Nicodemus encapsulates what Jesus is all about--his life, his teachings--what Jesus here calls the kingdom of God. And it accentuates the unexpectedness--the almost bizarre way the Gospel slashes across our normal, work-a-day, earth-bound, human-bound expectations--goes beyond our expectations, and offers us a path that is surprisingly freeing, opening up vistas that we cannot even imagine.
What a perfect contrast. Here on one side you've got Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the epitome of earthly power and success, as well as the certified religious authority of the day. The status-quo. And over here you have Jesus, uttering his enigmatic statements. "No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit." And all this takes place under the cover of darkness, as if to symbolize the veiled nature of this kingdom of God--which cannot be seen from the supposed daylight of conventional wisdom. The darkness not only covers up Nicodemus' fear, but may also cover up his heart, keeping him from seeing the truth that Jesus is holding right in front of his face. Nicodemus' fear that his friends might see him talking to this dangerous Jesus is not so different from his fear that his self--his life, his history, his very identity--might catch him flirting with this possibility that Jesus is holding in front of him. And after that nothing will ever be the same, and his life will be irrevocably changed!
And that is dangerous.
So no wonder he hides in the dark. . . .
Let me bring this down to earth a little bit.
With the help of the apostle Paul, who's no-nonsense, practical advice is a solid anchor, after the airy, mysterious atmosphere of the gospel of John. Like most of Paul's writings, the epistle we read this morning is from one of the letters he wrote to the first, struggling Christian churches--this one to the church in Rome. "Therefore, I urge you, brothers (and sisters)," he starts this passage, "in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God" OK; this starts out a little puzzling, I'll admit. But if we remember that the old way of worship was to offer dead animal sacrifices, then we can see that Paul is presenting something entirely new hear, when he talks about, "offer(ing) your bodies as living sacrifices." And he's not just talking about our physical bodies, but our whole selves--to be offered to God. Do you see what Paul does here? He takes the idea of worship and turns it on its head. True worship is not what you do in the temple. It's not about sacrificing animals, or reciting the correct creeds, or any of that other legalistic stuff. No; to truly worship God is about how we live our lives, what we do, what we think, where we put our treasure. This, Paul assures us, is "holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship."
This is what Jesus is trying to get across to Nicodemus, when he talks about being born again, or being born of water and the Spirit. This isn't some high-flu tin, mystical secret. Nor is it a magic wand you can wave over yourself simply by repeating the words, "Jesus is Lord." But it is to embody those words in our lives.
And how do we do that? According to Paul, in simple, practical ways. He talks about how our various human gifts bind us together in Christ: "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us." And then Paul goes on to talk about love: "Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. . . . Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality."
So you see, when it comes down to it, it's really very simple--this mystery that Jesus holds in front of Nicodemus. But it does require a shift in perspective. As Paul puts it, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." This is the kingdom of God, made real in our midst. . . .
Last Sunday was my first time here at Monroe Congregational. And I have to admit I was feeling a little nervous. It's been a long time since I've done this kind of thing--preaching, leading worship and all. But I must say, you folks made me feel very welcomed. People were friendly and engaging, and I felt like I was taken in and embraced by the community. And that felt wonderful. It was good for my soul--really an affirming, healing experience, in the midst of this journey to renew my call to ministry. And I want to thank you for that.
But I also share this, because I want to affirm who you are. You are a community of faith, who are blessed with the gift of showing warm, loving hospitality--exactly as Paul is talking about. Not only among each other, but to the sojourner, the stranger in your midst. And that is at the center of what the Church of Jesus Christ is called to be.
There are a lot of lonely, hurting people out there. (And that really includes all of us, at one time or another.) It can be a hard, cold world, and, as Nicodemus was discovering, its values and prizes do not necessarily feed the soul. People are looking for a place where they feel welcomed--a safe home where they can share their sorrows and their joys--where they can bring their whole selves, where they can find meaning in their lives and grow into the people who God calls them to be. . . .
A few of you shared a little bit with me about the difficult journey that you folks have been on--some of your history, but also the hopes and fears that you have for the future of your congregation. And I want to affirm those hopes and fears. Because I believe that God affirms those hopes and fears. And I would ask you to gently hold those feelings, those thoughts--hold those hopes and fears--gently in your heart, like you might hold a little child. And just think about, and feel about, how those precious feelings might be re-visited, in the light of this Nicodemus fellow--how they might be transformed, in the light of a god who says, My ways are not the ways of the world. How they might be renewed, in the light of a god who says, My ways are the ways of a faith that looks beyond narrow human expectations. A god who takes our journeys--whether it be our individual lives, or our communal life together--who takes our journeys, no matter how rough or broken they may be--takes our journeys . . . and blesses them. And calls us forth, into the promise. . . .
What happened to Nicodemus? . . . The conversation comes to an end and that seems to be it. Usually, when Jesus meets people, their lives are transformed on the spot. He heals people, and they drop to their knees, raise their hands, and shout praises to God. And then there are others (like those naughty Pharisees) who don't seem to get it at all. But what about Nicodemus? Perhaps we are left hanging so that we might be encouraged to put ourselves in his shoes. What would we do in his place? Sometimes human transformation doesn't happen at the drop of a hat. Sometimes new life has to percolate a while before it walks in the light of day. . . .
Much later, just after the crucifixion, in the same gospel of John, we read the following: "Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. . . . With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by (. . .) Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes. . . . Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. . . . At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. . . . They laid Jesus there.". . .
Thanks be to God, through who's loving grace all things are possible.