A Holy Monday meditation on John 3:1-21 preached on April 10th, 2017
The holy city of Jerusalem came alive for a week. It was Passover. And even though the Palm Sunday parade was over, the festival was just getting started. They say that Jerusalem grew by 150,000 people at Passover. It was a city whose walls bulged at the seams. Inside those walls, people packed in shoulder to shoulder. Imagine Disney World, but with a Temple at the center instead of a castle. The place was teeming, loud, chaotic.
The Jerusalem Temple stood tall and mighty in those days. It was a huge structure, Herod’s Temple was the central symbol in a city full of God-symbols. And that week, somewhere in that Temple complex was a Pharisee—a very important man—whose name was Nicodemus.
Most of our gospels make no mention of the Nicodemus. He’s nowhere to be found. But he is mentioned three times in John’s gospel. Here in his most well-known place in John chapter 3, but he surfaces again in chapter 7, and then one more time near the very end of John’s gospel, in chapter 19.This is interesting. Captivating, really. John, the one who wrote the fourth gospel, must have thought so, too.
Three mentions of this man, Nicodemus—once at the beginning, then in the middle, and another at end of his gospel. We should be curious. Could it be that Nicodemus—this Pharisee—is doing something quite like what we’re doing here at the beginning of Holy Week? Is Nicodemus chasing his way to Jesus?
In our passage for today, we have an account of Nicodemus’ first—and most likely, only—conversation with Jesus. And it doesn’t go well. For the whole conversation, from verse 1 all the way to 21, Jesus and Nicodemus seem to talk past each other.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, curious about who He is, but scared to death He’ll get caught being curious about Him.So he slinks to Jesus. He tip-toes up to Him at night. And for the whole conversation, Jesus talks way over Nicodemus’ head. Being a Pharisee, Nicodemus lives a life built out of rules, facts, head-knowledge. It’s a very cerebral existence. Nicodemus makes a living inside of moral and religious law. So, when Jesus starts in with a metaphor—this talk about being born again—poor Nicodemus gets lost real fast. He has no clue what Jesus is saying. Nicodemus slinks back into the cover of darkness, completely confused by his cryptic conversation with Jesus. Whatever questions he had of Jesus were never answered. His curiosity was left unsatisfied. If we were to guess, we might say, “Well, that’s the last we’ll hear of that guy!” Who would ever come back for more after such a frustrating conversation?! But Nicodemus keeps popping up.
The next time he’s mentioned, is at the end of chapter 7. Just a brief cameo.
The Pharisees send temple guards to go arrest Jesus and bring Him in for questioning. The temple guards don’t do their job. They supposed to take Jesus captive, but instead they get captivated by Jesus’ teaching, and they find no reason to carry through with their orders. They come back without Jesus in hand-cuffs and get chewed out for their insolence. It was right then that Nicodemus speaks up and says,
Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?
Very interesting. In some round-about way, Nicodemus seems to be sticking up for Jesus.
Makes you wonder what sort of spiritual journey he’s been on between John 3 and John 7. This sounds like a man whose heart is changing. Do we sense a glimmer of discipleship, a hint of faith in this question he asks? Is Nicodemus slowly but surely coming out of the dark? Were Jesus’ former words about being born again starting to make some sense to Him? All that talk about being born again—Nicodemus thought then that Jesus was talking biology, but could it be that those words have been working on Nicodemus, coaxing him to grow, to come to life, to be born just like Jesus said?
The third and final time Nicodemus is mentioned, He’s standing next to his friend, Joseph of Arimathea, at the base of the cross—Jesus still hanging from it, his dead body limp. Nicodemus is holding 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes and spices in his arms. The two men take Jesus’ body down from his cross, they embalm it, they wrap it in strips of linen, and then they bury Jesus in a garden tomb.
Here in John chapter 3, Jesus wasn’t trying to confound Nicodemus’ mind; He was trying to jumpstart his heart.
We see no immediate signs of it here, but it happened. Gradually. Slowly but surely, Nicodemus woke up to God alive. He woke up from the darkness of that covered his tracks back and forth to Jesus that first night. He woke up slowly but surely from the slumber of his dead, Pharisaical, crusty religion—the one that diluted God down to facts and rules, religious laws and head-knowledge. His heart had been jumpstarted—coaxed alive by Jesus. It took some time, but it happened.
Friends, could the same be true for us? Can we spend this week—this Holy Week—walking closer and closer to Jesus? Just like Nicodemus can we move from out of the darkness that keeps our life with Jesus a secret we thing we keep to ourselves, and take the same steps Nicodemus took: steps out of the dark and toward the Cross of Christ?
Can we too, walk out into the daylight where everyone can see us as He walks His way toward the cross this week? Can we also tend to Jesus as he hangs there on that tree? Can we, just like Nicodemus, wake up to Jesus this Holy Week—can we become cross-alive? God-alive?
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!