20 March 2011
He is one of my favorite characters in the Gospels. He is subtle. Gracious. Unafraid of mystery. A daring risk-taker who uses his power and position for what he sees as good and just. I’d call him honest and authentic. You can’t help but like Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was born into a well-to-do quite religious family. In someways he was the poster child for aggressive religious education. He never missed Sabbath school and was active in the Junior Lions of Judah Club (JLJC)-- a kind of Awana on steroids. They memorized large blocks of scripture. And they didn’t do games or refreshments.
These guys were serious. And by the time that he was in his mid-teens Nicodemus had memorized ⅔ of what we call the Old Testament -- including the convoluted book of Leviticus. He was a smart disciplined dude.
And with that kind of background he no trouble at all in getting into the honors agri-management program at Jerusalem U -- in which he excelled -- double majoring in agri-management and philosophy.
Now, you might think that Nic was all business and no play. And that’s partially true -- if you’re thinking of play as rowdiness and irresponsibility. Nic was a devote and pious Pharisee -- intent of avoiding even the appearance of rule breaking. Not interested in the party scene. But he did play rugby and was also in the robotics club for at least three years, according to the yearbook.
People liked the guy -- not only the other students but the professors as well. And after he graduated summa cumma kudos at the age of 20 both his family and university professors encouraged Nicodemus to go on and to become a rabbi -- which was okay by him because he loved studying the scriptures.
And he easily matriculated into the Judean Rabbinical Seminary where he earned both the Master of Hebrew Letters and Doctor of Hebrew Letters degrees. Oh, and did I mention that he did all of this while running the family farm on the side?
By the time Nicodemus graduated and took his place of responsibility in the synagogue he was close to retirement age. That simply meant that he didn’t have to do any work on the farm. He only supervised from a distance and amazingly before he reached the age of 40 he was sitting with the village elders at the edge of town everyday.
His wisdom and irenic ways quickly propelled him to a position on the Jewish ruling council -- the Sanhedrin. It was in his capacity as a council member that he started to hear about Jesus.
At first the rumors were distant -- something stirring up in the fringe territory near Galilee. Then, somehow, Jesus got tied in with John the Baptizer over at the Jordan River. Then there was the wedding over in Cana where it was rumored that he turned water into wine -- fine wine. People were starting to talk.
At one point Jesus apparently showed up in the temple and rather aggressively chased all the money changers out of the courts -- which didn’t bother Nicodemus much -- although it upset some of the Sadducees on the council. They felt like things were getting out of control -- too chaotic. They didn’t like chaos and Jesus seemed to create chaos everywhere he went. What if the Roman overlords started to crack down?
Nicodemus, the statesman, decided that perhaps he could do something -- I mean, if he didn’t, some of the political hot heads on the council might fly off the handle and really stir up trouble -- not just for Jesus but for everyone.
It was intervention. If Nic could get Jesus on the side of the Sanhedrin -- even better yet the Pharisitical faction -- well... he could do some amazing good for everyone.
So, as we read in John 3, Nicodemus the Pharisee -- a prominent member of the high council -- under the cover of darkness drops in on Jesus.
You gotta remember this was the pre-street light era and once the sun dropped for the day and darkness set in -- generally speaking people didn’t go out much at night.
Bad things happened at night. Bad people wandered the country side. Wild animals came out. So people stayed home. But Nicodemus under the cover of darkness, so as to not stir up the rumor mill, had a clandestine meeting with Jesus.
“Rabbi,” he said to Jesus, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”
True diplomacy -- the best spin possible.
Jesus replied, (John 3:3) “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
Actually, “born again” can also be translated as “born from above.” I like the Common English Bible’s “born anew.” That cuts to the heart of the matter without as much confusion. Although, it does sound like Nicodemus was a bit confused by the response.
But before we go on, look again at verse 3 in John 3 and Jesus’ words -- “unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
We’ve kind of created a religious system which reads this -- unless you are born again you cannot be saved. OR Unless you are born again you cannot go to heaven.
And while those things may be true that is not what Jesus is saying here. He is talking about the kingdom of God.
And a faithful and trained Jew hearing that phrase is going to be thinking of cultural and political transformation -- the restoration -- the very thing that Jews anticipated -- the very thing they were hoping a Messiah would instigate.
But Jesus slams a full body tackle on the momentum of the conversation. If you want to be a part of what God is doing -- his agenda to change the world -- the kingdom of God -- you’ve got to be born again -- twice born!
Nicodemus, has the look of extreme bafflement on his face. The facial muscles around his eyes draw together. He takes a moment to measure out his words.
He thought that he was going to be having a conversation about politics and inviting Jesus to create an alliance and about how all of the signs of Jesus might be interpreted in light of scripture as the signal that God was finally on the move in the land.
Nicodumus -- in spite of all his religious training -- in spite of his great reputation -- and in spite of his solid position in the community -- Nicodemus is confused.
Vs. 4 -- “What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”
Now at first glance it might sound like he is taking Jesus, too literally. But that’s not likely. Nicodemus was trained in rabbinical discourse and they were always talking in metaphors. Nicodemus knew that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. And in fine rabbinical form he throws the metaphor back at Jesus.
How can this? You don’t really expect me to go back in my mother’s womb and to start my life all over again? Do you?
Vs. 5 -- “Jesus replied, ‘I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.”
Water here is perhaps a reference to birth water -- or physical birth. But Jesus then adds. “and the Spirit.” In other words, from above -- from God himself.
Remember in the OT, the prophets kept referring to the new era -- the coming era -- as the period when God would pour out his Spirit on his people. Jesus is saying, this is that.
And you can’t have a part in what I’m doing if you yourself are not transformed by God’s Spirit. It’s not enough to have a good education and a good reputation and a good job -- community respect or a family that cares. As fine as those things are. They are not the full experience of the newness in the new era -- the kingdom of God.
Vs. 6 -- “Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. 7 So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’”
The surprise is that Jesus is saying this to Nicodemus -- doctor of Hebrew letters, respected rabbi, member of the ruling council -- five time Bible quiz champion -- undefeated!
I mean, it was not unusual to refer to a convert into Judaism as someone who was “newly born” -- but to tell someone so entrenched in the system that he has to start all over -- as though he were a newbie -- that’s the shock here.
You, who grew up as the poster child for good religious education -- you who know the words of the law inside and out. It’s like you haven’t even started to live, yet. You need a new start. You need to be born again.
Listen closely to this. I’m going to say something very nuanced -- and I don’t want you to misunderstand. In our religious culture we’ve come to think of being born again as an enhancement to our lives.
You get religion.
You get saved.
You get born again.
You add Jesus to your life -- and it will make the quality of your life better.
I’m certainly not going to argue with that -- because it’s true. But it’s not what Jesus is saying.
He isn’t saying, add me into your existing life to improve your existing life. Rather he is offering a total new life. It’s like you’re totally twice born.
We’ve all been extremely concerned about the recovery of Senator Gabrielle Giffords. She was shot in the head on January 8th and miraculously survived.
We’re grateful and we are optimistic about her rehab. But there are still unknowns. When someone has a head injury of that magnitude it’s like they’re having to start all over again. They have to learn how to breath, eat, walk, talk, read, remember -- sometimes the injury completely changes their personality -- and they come out of rehab as a totally different person.
With good rehab a lot can be accomplished. But it’s like you’re starting all over again. And this is probably the magnitude of the change that Jesus was telling Nicodemus about -- a total reorientation.
You know, we’ve kind of reduced the whole idea of being born again to a single crisis-like experience. And there is no denying that if often comes that way. But when you’re born again it’s really just the start of a new life. Born again means learning a completely new way of doing things -- talking, thinking, processing, prioritizing, walking and breathing in the Spirit.
You have to unlearn the old life and learn the new. And that’s because the old ways no longer cut it in the new era of God’s kingdom. Everything is becoming new and you’ve got to start a new life if you’re going to be a part of the new thing that God is doing. (key point)
Vs. 8 -- “The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”
Don’t try to reduce the work of God to a predictable formula or a system. Like the wind, it’s a mystery -- that God might take a leading rabbi (or a criminal or a respected business leader) and change him into an agent for God’s new kingdom.
“How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked in verse 9.
How can you possible teach an old dog new tricks?
Jesus ribs him a bit. Poke. Poke. Vs. 10 --
You are a respected Jewish teacher, and yet you don’t understand these things? I assure you, we tell you what we know and have seen, and yet you won’t believe our testimony. But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven. And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.This is a reference to an incident in the OT. In Numbers 21 the people of Israel, after the Lord had given them a great victory over their enemies, grew impatient and began to grumble against both God and Moses. So, the Lord sent poisonous snakes to get their attention. People were being bitten and dying. FINALLY they turned back to Moses and the Lord, and the Lord had Moses make a bronze snake and attach it to a pole. Whenever someone who had been bitten looked up at that bronze snake on a pole he was healed.
That illustrates what God is doing, says Jesus. The Son of Man (remember, this is Jesus’ favorite title for himself)-- the Son of May who has come down from heaven is about to be lifted up on a pole and all who look to him will be healed and will have new life.
Vs. 15 again, “...so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”
And isn’t that why Jesus has come into the world? Nicodemus came by night inquiring, trying to figure out what Jesus was about -- maybe even to get him to side with the establishment. But Jesus challenges that agenda and tells him you need to be twice born -- a new start in life -- to look up to me.
For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.Nicodemus, you really want to know what I’m up to? God sent me to be the Savior of the world and if you look to me I’ll be your savior, too. I’ll get you started on a new life -- a life that won’t end but which will extend through eternity.
And the fact is that he is saying the same thing to us this morning. Maybe you think you’ve got all the God stuff figured out and people look to you as a respected person in the community. Or maybe you’re not quite so together. It doesn’t matter.
If you want to be a part of what God is doing -- his kingdom -- his eternal life -- his purpose and agenda -- the only way is through his new life.
You’ve got to start a new life if you’re going to be a part of the new thing that God is doing.
And I want to challenge you to either start that new life today -- or if you’re already born again, so to speak, to continue on -- relearning how to walk, talk, eat, and live in a way that is more appropriate for the new era -- the Kingdom of God. New lives for a new era!
Now, you might be wondering what became of Nicodemus. The story in John 3 ends somewhat abruptly. John doesn’t say how Nicodemus responded that night. We’re kinda’ left hanging -- until the end of chapter 7 where the Pharisees are plotting against Jesus.
Vs 50 -- “Then Nicodemus, the leader who had met with Jesus earlier, spoke up. ‘Is it legal to convict a man before he is given a hearing?’ he asked.”
“They replied, ‘Are you from Galilee, too? Search the Scriptures and see for yourself—no prophet ever comes from Galilee!’”
Hmmm? That was significant push-back. Had Nicodemus become a twice born follower of Jesus?
And then, he fades to the background again -- until John 19 -- after the crucifixion:
Afterward Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus (because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate for permission to take down Jesus’ body. [So much for the secret disciple-gig] When Pilate gave permission, Joseph came and took the body away. With him came Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night. He brought seventy-five pounds of perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes. Following Jewish burial custom, they wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices in long sheets of linen cloth.Had Nicodemus been born again?
Scripture says no more -- probably doesn’t need to -- but tradition has it that he was among the first century martyrs -- those who died for their faith in Jesus.
And really, the story of Nicodemus is there to show us that an unlikely guy -- seriously glued into the establishment machine -- broke loose and started a new life.
If twice born could happen to Nicodemus -- think about the possibility for you.
You see , it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done -- how high or how low you are on the totem pole, how many Bible verses that you have or have not memorized.
Jesus is inviting you to enter into his new life -- to become twice born -- a new person for a new era.
And that’s the good news.
Let’s pray -- Be in silence. Be still before God and listen to what his Spirit is saying to you.
If you are in the position where you are now recognizing the need to start a new life -- to become a born again -- a twice born person in Christ -- I would encourage you to say this prayer with me -- quietly repeating the words.
Father in heaven, I know that I have through my sin and self-focused life turned my back on you. I know, too, that no amount of good that I do could ever make up for that or fix it. I believe that you love me, and that you sent your son Jesus Christ to die for the whole world -- including me. I welcome you and your forgiveness into my life and I give you my life to use as you see fit. Teach me how I should live. I trust that you know what is best for me. Thank you for loving me so much. Make me into a new person -- a twice born person -- growing and walking in step with Jesus. In his name I pray. Amen.