A sermon based on Psalm 25:1-10 and John 3:1-21 preached on February 22nd, 2015.
John’s story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is one of those famous stories. No matter is you’ve ever stepped foot into a church or not, or even opened the bible at all, people know about this story—or at least a part of it.
I mentioned this passage a few weeks back when we talked about reading the entire bible as one story, because this passage contains the most famous verse from all of scripture: John 3:16. We know the verse well even if we have a hard time connecting it to the encounter of Jesus and Nicodemus.
What’s more, this passage contains a bumper sticker phrase for so many Christians out there. Here, we are introduced to the idea of “being born again.”
If you asked 20 Evangelical Christians what the phrase “born again” means, it’s likely that you’ll get the same response from all of them. If you asked 20 Presbyterians or Methodists or Episcopals the same question, it’s likely that you’ll get 20 different responses.
We take that phrase “born again” and we don’t grasp it as tightly as some other Christians might—it means bigger things to us. Where many Christians can point to one moment in their life where they were saved or born again, I bet most of us would say that things like that happen not just once but all the time.
Most likely, there have been pastors who have stood up in this pulpit and declared the truth that we are people who are born again and again and again—saved over and over—throughout our lives. Amen to that!
John’s gospel is full of encounters like this one. In John’s gospel, whenever Jesus shows up, watch out, because he’s likely to turn your world on its head. He’ll blow your mind and make you think about your life in an entirely different way. That’s how you know you’ve met Jesus: When your world becomes undone. Jesus confronts us with truth and leaves us speechless and windblown. You’ve heard the phrase (and I’ll adapt it so it’s church-friendly):
The truth will set you free, but first, it’ll really tick you off.
That’s what Jesus does. He’s here to set us free, but first he’ll put us through the ringer. Jesus is here to knock us off our balance and confront us with Truth with a capital T. That’s when you know Jesus has shown up—when you’re knocked off your balance. The passage just before this one is Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, overturning the tables of the moneychangers.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke place this story in the back of their gospels, but John sticks it right here at the beginning, in his second chapter, as if to say, Jesus is here to overturn and upset everything—tables in the Temple, but that’s just the start! Jesus will overturn our entire lives. And that’s what happens to Nicodemus when he meets Jesus in this passage: his life is turned upside down in his encounter with Jesus.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night—under the cover of darkness. Nicodemus was a teacher of the law and a high-ranking Jewish leader—a high priest. Because of his high ranking among the Jewish elite, Nicodemus doesn’t want to be seen with Jesus. It’s too dangerous. Jesus had already has established himself as a rabble-rouser, a table-overturning troublemaker—that misfit “over there” who wants to undo everything—who has already tried to undo things in the Temple.
So, Nicodemus visits Jesus in secret. He’s interested in Jesus, this man who’s caused quite a stir. Nicodemus comes to Jesus to ask him questions, to learn more about him, to try to understand him.
Little does Nicodemus know, Jesus cannot be grasped with one conversation, he cannot be understood in one encounter. Understanding Jesus takes a lifetime, doesn’t it?
Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is a teacher who comes from God. He says,
No one can do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.
But that’s not the half of it. There’s much more to Jesus than that.
So, right away, Jesus changes the conversation. Jesus gets straight to the heart of the matter. No need for small talk. Jesus doesn’t do small talk.
I assure you,
unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.
And here’s where we all are confronted, right along with Nicodemus. Right away, Jesus pulls us out of our comfort zones and into unknown territory. Nicodemus is a smart man who knows tons about scripture, but in this conversation, he quickly becomes a bumbling fool.
Jesus says that in order to see what God is really doing, we have to be born anew. Here’s where Nicodemus gets his wires crossed, though. In Aramaic (Nicodemus’ and Jesus’ shared language) the word for “anew” can also mean “again” or “above”. So while Jesus means to say that Nicodemus needs to be born anew (in the spiritual sense of taking on a new kind of life), Nicodemus mishears Jesus, taking him more literally:
How is it possible for an adult to be born?
So the two of them spend the whole conversation talking past each other, Nicodemus never really understands the full measure of what Jesus is trying to say to him.
What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus takes some parsing. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that as long as he comes to Him under the cover of darkness, as long as Nicodemus refuses to be seen with Jesus in the light of day, he’s like a fetus in his mother’s womb who refuses to be born.
Jesus is telling Nicodemus that his faith is still in its gestational period. It hasn’t come alive for itself, it doesn’t know how breathe on its own. Nicodemus’ faith has yet to be born into the world because it doesn’t make a difference for the world.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.
With his encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus is inviting us to enter into new relationship with God—to birth our faith into the world.
So many of us, just like Nicodemus, are scared to go public with our faith, to move out from under the darkness of night, that it’s almost like that darkness is like a comfort to us, so what we have is more like an immature womb-like faith. But Jesus wants our faith birthed into the world where it can live and breathe on its own. Jesus wants the umbilical cord cut. Jesus wants us not to have an inward, gestational faith—something small and hidden away in dark and comfortable places. Jesus doesn’t want us to seek him under the cover of night. Jesus wants our faith to be delivered into plain view.
What Jesus wants is for us to go public with our faith. So, the question that this story wants us to ask ourselves is: Are we willing to be with Jesus by day? Are we willing to speak up about our faith in the public square, where others can hear us and see us?
Nicodemus’ answer to those questions is “No.” He was not willing to go public with his faith. Nicodemus left Jesus that night and crawled back into the darkness—walking away from Jesus’ invitation and slinking back home undetected. No one ever knew.
Nicodemus never comes to Jesus by day, and we are left to wonder what happens to him.
Here’s the thing about Nicodemus, though: He was a good guy. He was a pillar of his 1st Century church. He never missed a worship service. He served on all the boards—he attended all the meetings. He was as responsible and trustworthy as they get. He was successful and self-confident, he appeared to have it all together. He was spiritually open and curious enough to make an appointment with Jesus, but he couldn’t bring himself to go public with his interest in Jesus.
Nicodemus is like the church member who keeps his faith secret, separated from the rest of his life. The church-goer who compartmentalizes her faith, because although it’s important to her, she’s not ready for it to change her life.
How are we just like Nicodemus?
How does our faith still need birthing into the light of day?
Is our faith in Jesus gestational, hidden away, still in the womb where it first grew? Or has it been birthed into the world? And if it has, is it mature enough to stand on its own, walk on its own, and find its own way? Does our faith go with us wherever we go, or is it relegated to secret visits with Jesus? Have we gone public with our faith?
See, these are all the questions that this story should challenge us with, the most direct of which is: Will we, like Nicodemus, relegate our relationship with Jesus to only the private sphere, to womb-like encounters made only under the cover of darkness, or are we willing to have our faith born into the light of day? Living and breathing, and out in the world for everyone to see? Will we declare what we believe and come to Jesus by day?
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!