A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
March 18, 2012
This text isn’t an easy nut to crack. The longer Jesus talks, the more confused Nicodemus feels. The more confused Nicodemus feels, the longer Jesus talks. Honestly, this wobbly dialogue is a familiar pattern in the Gospel of John.
Jesus is always talking to someone, and the someones are often confused by his talking—be it the woman at the well, the disciples, the Pharisees. Nicodemus, however, is the guinea pig of John’s Gospel—the first one to approach Jesus and to hear those fateful words, “Very truly, I tell you . . .” followed by some strange sayings. Whatever Nicodemus was expecting. . . what he got was probably a surprise. But let’s not get ahead of the story just yet . . .
First off, can you imagine, Nicodemus—Pharisee, strict follower of the Law, a guy who has probably never done a rebellious thing in his life—sneaking off in the middle of the night to visit Jesus? He knows there are some in his rank who are suspicious of Jesus and some who downright fear Jesus is a threat to Judaism. But Nicodemus has a theory that this wonder-worker is from God. In fact, he must meet this Jesus for himself. Face to face. Man to man. He must go, not as an authority to question Jesus but as a true seeker. Of course, the other religious leaders would hardly agree with Nicodemus’ approach, so he decides to go secretly, quietly, cloaked by the cover of night. He sneaks through the city in the dark, trying not to be seen. “Good grief, I’m not committing a crime,” he whispers to his pounding heart, trying to no avail to reason with his fears. He practices his opening lines to distract himself from his growing anxiety.
When he is finally in front of Jesus, he delivers his lines without a hitch, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” To say this feels good, feels right. Nicodemus has been thinking and praying in turmoil about Jesus’ identity for weeks now, but as the confession exits his troubled mind, past his lips, and out into the open, he knows he has arrived at his conclusion. He half-expects to see a look of pleasant surprise in Jesus’ eye, maybe even a glint of pride.
Instead, he glances into Jesus’ eyes and detects sadness, and the reply is solemn: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God, without being born again.”
Nicodemus hadn’t really given much thought to what Jesus would say back, but somehow this feels all wrong. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t even fit.
And this is the start of a messy dialogue in which Nicodemus never really gets answers, and Jesus, frankly, never makes a whole lot of sense. It begins to feel like a classroom with a teacher who is too smart for his own good. The perplexed pupil struggles to understand. The clever teacher thinks of just the analogy, but the analogy is equally complex, well over the pupil’s head. The longer the teacher talks, the more lost the pupil feels.
The bottom line, as far as I can tell, is that Jesus wants to communicate that knowledge about Jesus isn’t enough. Knowledge alone will not cut it, and I imagine that is why Jesus’ answer is so mysterious. If Jesus had explained things all straightforward and simple like, Nicodemus might have been tempted to think Jesus was just offering a bit of information—one more line for Nicodemus to add to his confession of faith, and then he’d have it.
But instead of explaining things, Jesus requires something so extraordinary that is seems literally impossible, entirely incomprehensible: to be born of the water and the Spirit, to be born again, to be born from above. Why, it is almost as if Jesus is inviting Nicodemus into an entirely different life, where the language is strange to your ears and the wind in your face is the very Spirit of God and everything is as new as when you emerged from your mother’s womb and the sheer mystery of utter newness is frightening. Nicodemus had come for a bit of understanding from the up and rising new Teacher—he hadn’t planned to enter a whole new world fraught with startling discoveries and upside-down logic.
“How can this be????” he stutters. This is the second time he has asked, and you can hear the frustration and bewilderment mounting in his voice.
“You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?” Jesus shakes Nicodemus’ self-confidence in his position to the core.
Of course, Nicodemus doesn’t know it, but he is about to hear first-hand what will become perhaps Jesus’ most famous words—the line about how God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life . . . but, Jesus adds, “those who do not believe stand condemned.” And here is the kicker, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people have loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”
Perhaps “people who love darkness” is only a general term Jesus uses for those who resist him. It seems more likely that Jesus is also referring specifically to Nicodemus’ own preference for darkness. Jesus noticed to the way Nicodemus snuck in to see him under the cover of night. Not only does Jesus suspect that Nicodemus fails to get it, Jesus thinks his arrival by night is proof. Nicodemus is curious about the Light, but he still prefers the dark.
Notice that nowhere in the story does Nicodemus repent. Nowhere does it say Nicodemus became a disciple. Nowhere does it say that Nicodemus dropped his baggage, abandoned his status, left his fears behind him, and followed Jesus. We are left to assume that he skulked right back home, heavy beneath the weight of Jesus’ words, but probably grateful for the cover of darkness to hide his shame.
I can relate to Nicodemus’ love for the cover of darkness. I too, am equally intrigued by Jesus. I find him engaging, I want to know more, I think he is obviously from God, someone I ought to know. But I would sort of prefer to hide my confession from the crowds. It is not Jesus who embarrasses me. It is some of the people who claim to love him too. There are those who are terribly misguided about what Jesus is actually like and those who are just downright frauds, and I don’t really want to associated with a one of them. Don’t get me wrong. If it were only Jesus and Jesus’ true followers that I would be associated with, I could handle the scandal. I could befriend Mary, the pregnant virgin, John the Baptist, the locust-eating desert-dweller, Mary-Magdalene who’d been healed of seven demons, Zacchaeus, who robbed the people but then gave it all back fourfold. If I befriend them, and people think I’m crazy, so be it. I can swallow my pride, knowing in my heart I’ve befriended some true disciples.
But then there’s everybody else—the fakes, the real kooks, the con-artists, the religious bigots, the politicians, the hate-mongers, the money-snatchers, the misogynists, the militant fundamentalists. I don’t know which group gets under your skin—if it’s the overly-emotional sort or the intellectually snobbish type, if it’s the Republicans or the Democrats or those truly outlandish Christians who object to voting altogether. There is some “Christian” group with whom we would like to avoid association.
It is not that we cannot strive for a distinctive faith that stands out from the general crowd of Jesus-fans, but saying that no matter how much we want to be entirely separate from the masses of supposed devotees and establish ourselves as the irrefutably genuine ones, we can’t. This is the mess we find ourselves in, and it is just the kind of mess that Jesus graciously wades through day in and day out. He walks among this whole motley swarm of confused, half-hearted, messed-up, wanna-be disciples, and to every last one of us, Jesus keeps offering grace and extending the invitation, “Come, follow me, step into the light.”
Personally, this drives me nuts. I want Jesus to give up on the frauds, at the very least. Also, I wish he’d abandon the hateful types altogether and perhaps send a blinding revelation to the uninformed type, something they couldn’t possibly miss or misunderstand. When it comes to faith, I want in, I really do, but I want them out. I don’t want us to share the same title of Christ-follower when I feel their lifestyle, their philosophy, and frankly, their status before God is so different from mine. But Jesus says I must step out into the light and throw myself in with the worst of ‘em, and I don’t like that. I’d rather skulk back into the night and nurse my faith in private. Of course, when I am my most honest, I know that there is always a bit of fraud, a bit of hate, a bit of ignorance inside me too . . . (but surely not on that scale. Surely not.)
The Jewish situation, of course, was quite different from our current American one, but still, I find Nicodemus to be a kindred spirit to my elitism. Nicodemus just cannot bear that he must emerge fully into the light. Leave the cover of darkness and thus risk his status, his position, his power. He wasn’t willing to throw himself in with the whole lot of uneducated sinners and so he sneaks back off into the cover of the night, not willing, not believing—at least, not believing enough to enter a second birth from above. Nicodemus passes up the chance for new life and heads back home, where people still respect him. However, the story doesn’t end here.
This isn’t the last that we hear of Nicodemus. He shows up twice more in the Gospel of John.
In chapter 7, the Pharisees send the temple guards to arrest Jesus, but the guards return dazed and empty-handed, saying of Jesus, “No one ever spoke the way this man does.”
“You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retort in righteous anger. “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”
Nicodemus is in the room. He hears his peers claim with confidence that not a one of them have believed Jesus. He hears the way they mock the ignorant crowd and call them cursed. His colleagues have drawn a line in the sand, but Nicodemus isn’t sure he wants to be on their side anymore, even if the other side is an uneducated mob. He ventures a defense, albeit a weak one, of the man Jesus, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” Of course, the rest of the room doesn’t know it, but Nicodemus has been to his own private hearing, and though he walked away, he apparently didn’t walk away with a sense of Jesus’ guilt. In fact, his own guilt has been weighing on him since that night, and perhaps it was there among his peers that he starts to feel fed up with his darkness and his hiding.
But we don’t hear about Nicodemus again until the very end of the Gospel. Jesus has just breathed his last. He hangs lifeless from a cross. The religious leaders have won. The mobs have been silenced and scattered. Even the disciples are huddled behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish leaders.
And who do you suppose shows up to care for the beaten, bloody, lifeless body? Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. And Nicodemus, who also believed in secret and who we thought never really became a disciple at all. The two scaredy-cats, who loved the secrecy of darkness, are the ones who come forward at the hour of greatest danger to do something for Jesus. Jesus, who is not even alive to thank them, reward them, bless them, or affirm their courage. It is not the people who loudly confessed their discipleship that show up here. Not the people who waved the palm branches and cried Hosanna. Besides for the women, it is just these two men who show up—two men who had been hiding all this time.
That means there is profound hope for the cowardly, for the uncertain, and for the hesitant.
Perhaps it was not until Jesus was raised up on the cross that Nicodemus finally fully believed, finally saw the Kingdom of God. In other words, respectable Nicodemus was born again, from above. Precisely at the moment in the story where things were as bleak and as incomprehensible as possible, Nicodemus finds his courage and enters the light. Most everyone thought the light had just been snuffed out, but Nicodemus didn’t care what they thought or worry about what they would do, and the new sensation of not-caring filled him with light during the world’s darkest hour.
When Nicodemus first paid Jesus a visit, Jesus had made the world sound pretty black and white: there is light and there is dark, there is condemnation and there is salvation, there is belief and there is unbelief, there is evil and there is truth. But Nicodemus walked away a mixed jumble of all those things, like a big mass of gray, indecisive and unclear, disbelieving his own belief. I don’t know if Jesus knew, right at that moment, that it would be Nicodemus who buried him, but I think Jesus knew Nicodemus would be back, that the darkness couldn’t keep him indefinitely. I think Jesus was sad to see him to go, but he believed, the same way Jesus believes it for all of us, that Nicodemus’ story wasn’t over.
I am utterly persuaded that identifying with Jesus is something we live into, bit by small bit. Sometimes we hide away in fear. Sometimes we swallow our fear and come out into the light, only to dart right back into the shadows. Sometimes our love for Jesus wins the day; other days our inner sense of superiority wins instead. Sometimes the light of revelation finally dawns on our wearied souls, and sometimes we are more confused than we can bear. But someday, somewhere, everyone around us will think the light has been snuffed out for good, and somehow we will be the ones who see Light all ‘round and we will say to ourselves, “Why, the world looks brand-new, like I’ve just been born, and this wind feels like God’s spirit against my flesh, and I am filled with Light.”
May the hope of Christ keep its hold on you until Light has dawned in every dark corner of your troubled soul. Amen.