At first glance, Nicodemus does not seem like a man in need of a Savior. He is not in pain. He is not disappointed or angry. He does not appear to be suffering. In fact, it is the opposite. By all measurements of his world, he is a success story. He has arrived! He has achieved the Jewish Dream, he is a Pharisee- member of the ruling class, and a leader among the Sanhedrin.
We only hear of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, where he is mentioned three times: in this passage where he comes to Jesus under the cover of night seeking information on who exactly Jesus is and where he gets his miraculous power. Later on, when he advises his colleagues, the “chief priests and the Pharisees” to hear and investigate about Jesus before making a judgment concerning him. And lastly, toward the end of John’s gospel, Nicodemus brings a personal donation of one hundred pounds of aloe and myrrh to be used to anoint Jesus for burial after the crucifixion. It is made clear by all of these actions that Nicodemus is a man of both power and means. He is, by today’s standards, a prominent member of the educated upper class elite, a Jewish man who achieved worldly success in spite of the fact that he’s an outsider in the Roman world.
And yet, in spite of his success, Nicodemus is clearly not satisfied with what his life has become. He comes to Jesus seeking something that all worldly success can’t give him. He’s drawn to Jesus. He isn’t coming to grab some of Jesus’ power for himself, but rather, because he yearns for something deeper and more meaningful in his life than what the world has to offer.
As we consider this encounter, it is important that we don’t miss the detail that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. This would suggest that Nicodemus doesn’t really want his friends and colleagues to know that he is interested in Jesus. He doesn’t want to risk being publicly associated with the teachings of Jesus or the growing movement Jesus is inspiring. He wants to keep his curiosity and admiration for Jesus a secret.
Eventually, Nicodemus comes around to letting others know he seeks the light.
How too are we like Nicodemus? Maybe you sit here thinking I’d like to be under the cover of night- only proclaiming to know Jesus in the shelter of these church walls. Did it take you a long time to go public with your faith in Christ? Part of being under cover these days is by not admitting where we stand on worldly issues. So much has happened since November 9th that our nation and the world that is watching, have felt torn apart.
And I don’t want to go here but the denomination has challenged us to be real about the political scene. They even challenged us to speak up about who we voted for- not to bully or sway anyone but to speak truth to the issues America is facing.
Folks, somewhere along the way, approximately half of our country has felt that the American Dream has failed them. Perhaps now more than half. People have lost hope. They have become bitter and resentful, cynical. The anger emanating from both sides of the division still seems fresh and raw.
And what we need is healing. There is a great need for healing. This work of healing and reconciliation must start with us. It begins with us in the local church. Who do we need to forgive? Ourselves first, our spouse, our family from ten years ago, those who have wronged us. How have we taken steps toward forgiveness within our own families, relationships?
God has called me, as a preacher, to engage the teachings of Jesus seriously and honestly so they can bring the power of God to bear on God’s people. Therefore, it is critical that I let the gospel of Jesus Christ speak to our world, no matter what is happening in the larger world.
What Jesus offered Nicodemus was something much greater than anything the world could give him. It is something much greater than anything the world can give us.
But Jesus asks for more than that from Nicodemus and from us. He says we must be born again. He suggests that believing in him is less about we what say than it is about what we do. “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (verse 21). In John’s Gospel, believing cannot be separated from doing.
It is one thing to say that we are Christians, but it is another thing entirely to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. And yet, how often do the words of our second vow flow simply from our lips without sinking in fully when we stand before the congregation to present ourselves or our children for Christian baptism:
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Yes! We give our verbal assent.
But then what? Now what? What changes in our lives, in our hearts, in our souls? How do our lives testify that we been born again by the Spirit of Christ? How has baptism into this new life, this being birthed into a whole other kind of world, claimed us?
There have always been Christians in name only. In every generation there have been those who claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ, but who continued to live in the shadows and love evil more than they loved the light of truth that comes from God.
We stand at the end of a long line of human beings whose history is one of being aggressive to the point of ruthlessness. The ancestors of this great nation took land from the indigenous people and broke every treaty we ever made with them. Others took people by force from the content of Africa, enslaved them for generations, and later went to war to uphold their right to treat human beings as property. We the people are using up the natural resources in this land and around the globe at an alarming and destructive rate. Our own United Methodist Church, instead of being the House of God working into usher in God’s kingdom, has instead succumbed increasingly to marketplace values and grown to represent not the oppressed of our world, but rather, the status quo!
Nobody is pure. I am corrupt. My nation is corrupt. My church is corrupt. The WORLD is corrupt. “But God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
We may have made our vows, but many of us, maybe all of us, have not been born anew into the lifestyle Jesus requires. We continue to refuse to listen to our God, believe in our God, and most importantly, obey our God.
The good news is God would not have us perish. God offers rather, eternal life. God did not send Christ into the world to condemn it, but to save it. God sent Christ to be lifted up before the eyes of the world, that all who would believe might be healed of this sin that infects us all.
Just like Nicodemus, we desperately need to be born again. We need someone or something to believe in besides ourselves and our dreams of material prosperity. We need to get ourselves uncentered from our own problems and our own personal needs.
When the Son of Man is lifted up, anyone who does not love the misery and evil in his or her own heart will, just like Nicodemus, be drawn to Jesus and compelled to follow in his example.
All of which leads me to Jesus himself. Once we encounter Christ Jesus, once we begin to study him and learn what he really said and what he really taught- the Jesus of history, the radical, rabble-rouser revolutionary who openly resisted evil and injustice, who stood up against the oppressors and the status-quo of his day, who turned over the tables in his own Temple— once we come to know that Jesus, either we love him enough to want to be born again into the way of life that he taught, or we don’t.
To love Jesus is to love the taste of healing and self-giving and justice and inclusivity and mercy. Love means to hunger and thirst after a way of life that opens us up more and more to other people. For that is who the Son of Man was and is: the person for others, the one who could not consider himself apart from others or others apart from himself.
The dreams of this world whisper to us to be independent…. to make our own way….and to judge others….to decide what is good or bad. But Jesus Christ, the one from whom Nicodemus could not stay away, is not a teacher from this world and its dreams. He is a teacher from God (verse 2).
Living into our vow to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves is not something we accomplish by vocalizing our assent on the occasion of our baptism. It takes a lifetime of commitment, and study, and practice, and constant new beginnings.
Only through him will we truly find rest for our souls, and only in him will we discover the very thing Nicodemus so craved. Perhaps not today, but over time…through study, practice and new beginnings. May you be drawn to express your love of Jesus out from under the dark of night.
May it be so for each of us. Amen.
NRSV, NIV and CEB Bible Translations
Dawn Chesser, UMC Discipleship Worship and Lectionary Planning. Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2017.