A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church on March 17, 2014
Nicodemus might be the first Presbyterian.
He’s a good guy. He loves Jesus, he just doesn’t want to be too public about his faith, in case he might offend someone. He wants to be a good person and serve his church, but he is busy. Between soccer carpools for his kids and caring for his elderly parents, when is he supposed to have time to live out his faith? Can’t he follow Jesus without any of the inconveniences of radical discipleship?
He comes to Jesus with a claim about who he thinks Jesus is.
“Rabbi, we know 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.”
It is not a bold claim. It is measured. He sees Jesus as a good guy, a teacher sent from God. He recognizes the signs Jesus does could not be done if God was not with him.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness. He makes an appointment for late at night, after his other Presbyterian, I mean Pharisee, colleagues have gone home. It would be better for Nicodemus if he didn’t have to deal with questions about this Jesus.
Like most presbyterians, he’s also educated. And sometimes, we can let what we know get in the way of what we need to learn. When we think we have the experience, the answers, the wisdom we need to solve whatever situation we’re in, I wonder if we forget Jesus might have more to teach us.
Nicodemus sure seemed to think he had all the answers he needed when he started up the conversation in the dark with Jesus.
And then when Jesus starts talking to him about being born anew, born again, Nicodemus just can’t compute.
“What are you talking about Jesus? We know how babies are born. What does that have to do with what I’m talking about?”
Nicodemus has a point.
Jesus has just answered the question Nicodemus never asked.
Nick makes his claim about Jesus and then seems to wait for the applause, waiting for Jesus to say “Nicodemus is the best! I like this status! Thumbs up!”
Nicodemus seems to want some validation that he’s okay, that he’s doing enough to get by in this busy, complicated world. He’s a modern man, wanting to do the right thing, as long as it fits in his schedule and doesn’t inconvenience him too much.
Do you recognize him as the first Presbyterian too?
Anne Lamott said, “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
This mystery of grace is why Jesus answers the question Nicodemus never asked.
He doesn’t shame him for coming at night. He doesn’t call him a failure for not being the perfect Christ follower. He doesn’t tell him he’s unworthy and should just go away.
But Jesus doesn’t give Nick a free pass to just stay where he is either.
He challenges him to boldly step into a journey of faith and to let go of everything he thought he knew so that he could have new life in Christ.
I have a lot of sympathy for Nicodemus, because I recognize and understand his desire to just rely on what he already knows, to not be inconvenienced, to not have to really step out in new ways because of faith.
After he asks Jesus “How can these things be?” Nicodemus disappears from this passage. But he doesn’t disappear from John’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry. At the end of chapter 7, we see him again, asking other religious leaders if Jesus should be convicted before a trial, doing what he feels he can do in the political climate to create a fair playing field–this time in the daylight and presumably at much greater cost.
And then after the crucifixion, Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea. They take Jesus’ body from the cross and take it to a tomb. Nicodemus brings 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes with which to embalm the body.
I don’t want to overstate this next point. I don’t really fault Nick for bringing burial spices, even if 75 pounds of them seems a little excessive to this modern listener. I guess he wanted that dead body to be fragrant for a really long time. Maybe it is the reverse gift of the magi.
Nicodemus, if he had heard Jesus’ message about being the resurrection and the life, didn’t seem to think the promise of resurrection was going to apply in the short term. And maybe that’s how I would have been too.
He brings gifts for a dead body, not a change of clothes and a sandwich for the man who had already called Lazarus out of the tomb.
Nicodemus, at the end of John’s gospel, appears to still be in the process of being born again again.
Maybe that’s why I like him so much. I recognize the journey of “being born again”. I know there are people who can tell you the moment they knew everything they needed to know and were born again.
I’m not one of those people.
I’ve been “born again my whole life”, as the main character in the movie Saved describes herself. Like Nicodemus, I grew up in faith. Sunday School, youth group, the whole thing.
Like Nicodemus, I’ve known of God’s love my entire life.
And like Nicodemus, my understanding of who Jesus is, has changed and grown.
I confess I’m a little skeptical of people who can use this story of Nicodemus as proof that being born again is a ‘once and done’ event. Yes, God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten son so that everyone who believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.
But doesn’t the story of Nicodemus tell us that “believing in him” is a process?
Did I “believe in Jesus” when my Sunday school teachers put a Jesus figure on the flannelboard when I was 7?
Sure I did.
Did I “believe in Jesus” when I responded to a Billy Graham altar call when I was 14?
Sure I did.
Did I “believe in Jesus” when I encountered him during my difficult year in college and received the grace I needed to get through pain and loss?
You bet I did.
Did any of those moments of being born again, or being born again again, have the final answers for me about just who this Jesus is?
Not a chance.
Did Jesus change in the intervening years? No.
But I sure have.
Anytime we go to Jesus, convinced we’ve figured him out, certain we’ve finally figured out how to be disciples and how to do church, as soon as we’ve shared our right answers with Jesus, Jesus answers us, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ He meets us where we are but never wants us to stay there.
It’s maddening, really.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a final right answer and we could just sit back, sipping ice tea on the patio, resting on our laurels?
But the life of faith is not a destination or a right answer. It is a journey.
And as soon as we’ve mastered one section of the path, we’re invited to explore a more challenging stretch of road.
In our story from the Hebrew Bible this morning, we heard about part of Abram’s journey of faith. His experience of following God, of being born again, even led him to a name change. Abram becomes Abraham.
God told him to pack up everything he owned, quit his job, cancel his gym membership and newspaper subscription, and head off to a new land.
God doesn’t even tell him where to find it on the map or what it is called.
And Abram wasn’t selected by God to be a blessing to the world because of any good qualities of Abram’s. If you read on in the text, you’ll discover he tries to pass his wife off as his sister so nobody will kill him to steal his bride. Twice!
Abraham becomes the ancestor of ancestors because God asked him to give up everything he thought he knew to follow God on a journey, and Abraham said “yes”.
That’s his best qualification for the job–his willingness to go on a journey to an unknown land, to give up his known life in order to be born again again to be a blessing to others.
Friends, I don’t know where you see yourself on your journey of faith. You might be newly started on the journey, still breaking in your hiking boots and trying to figure out how to read the map.
You might be a seasoned traveler, having been drawn down new and different roads by God for your whole life, still finding delight in the beauty of the journey even if there are days when you get a little weary of all the traveling.
You may have taken many detours and be wondering if your journey of faith involved too many wrong turns and dead ends.
You may be sitting off the side of the path right now, watching other people traipse down the road and wondering if you have the energy to start journeying again.
As we continue in this lenten journey toward Easter, I invite you to consider how the journey is going for you. And wherever you feel you may be on the journey–accept that without judgment or comparison against someone else.
When Jesus meets Nick at Nite and invites him to be born into new life, when God calls Abram and invites him to journey to a new life, it isn’t about judgment or their being worthy of the task. It was an invitation to new life because that is who God is–the generous and faithful God who did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
How is this journey of being born again again going for you? How can we, this church community, walk alongside you on your journey? I am grateful God has called us together to be companions as we journey into this new life in Christ.