Nic at Night
Sermon by Steven McClelland on John 3: 1 – 17. Focus on how experience trumps book smarts every time!
We know that Nicodemus is a Pharisee, which explains why he came to Jesus by night. He didn’t want to have to explain to his peers why he was hanging out with their chief religious rival. What is surprising is the admission from Nicodemus that he and his fellow Pharisees even though they criticize Jesus publicly, privately admit among themselves that Jesus has come from God.
So what does he want from Jesus? Like Jesus he is well versed in the Bible and the law. There is no question that the Pharisees are Jesus’ intellectual equals, but what they know intellectual they do not know spiritually. What they are jealous of is Jesus’ relationship with God and I think that’s why Nicodemus comes to Jesus. He wants to have what Jesus has – an ongoing experience with God.
So begins this great conversation between the two religious leaders and the first thing we learn about Nicodemus is that he has trouble understanding the language of metaphor. He like so many religiously educated people know all the correct theological answers, but haven’t a clue about spiritual matters. So Jesus says, “Nicodemus, unless you are born from above, which the English has translated as born again you cannot see the God’s kingdom, better translated, God’s power.”
Seeing that Nicodemus is taking him literally, something we religiously educated types tend to do, he repeats himself adding two new words: water and spirit. “Nicodemus, unless you are born of water and spirit, you cannot access the power of God.” What does that mean? What do you think it means? I think it means that unless you are willing to go into the chaos, which water always represented in the Bible, you cannot experience the spirits movement.
Why is this important?, because until you arrive at a place of chaos in your life you are pretty much in charge of your life. In essence you are god over your own life. And when we are in charge we are not even aware of God, much less able to need God.
And that’s why Jesus says to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Flesh knows only flesh. We are born of flesh and we are taught to live as flesh, but we are also born of spirit, yet we are not taught how to live as spiritual beings.
Nicodemus your first problem with what you seek is that you seek it from only what you know. You seek God only from your mind. You seek God only in this book that you call sacred and it is, but not because it is God. It is sacred only because of what it speaks to beyond itself. Thus Nicodemus you do not seek God as Spirit as something that is all around you yet you are completely unaware of its presence.
“Nicodemus don’t be so surprised by this. You didn’t birth yourself to begin with so why are you surprised that you will not give yourself a new birth. You must be born from above, by something beyond yourself. The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, you know it exists, you’re so used to it that you probably don’t even give it a second thought, but you don’t know where the wind is coming from or where it’s going do you? So it’s like that with those who are with God. They go where the Spirit leads and they do not ask why and where they are going they just know it’s the Spirit of God that’s guiding them.”
Poor Nicodemus trying to understand this with his mind when it can only be understood by experience, and so he asks how this can be? Oh, Nicodemus, says Jesus. After all you have studied. After reading the Bible cover to cover you still don’t know about God? How can you as a religious teacher teach others about God if you have never experienced God? Oh Nicodemus, how sad it must be to talk about God and never have experienced God?
“Nicodemus I know you are sincere in your questions and in your being here tonight, but how can I teach about what I know and have seen if you will not believe me? If you spend all your time trying to find fault with what I say how can you possibly expect me to teach you about things that can’t be found in the Bible like God.
And here’s the rub for all of us? We go through life expecting to be told what to do and how to do it. We go through life expecting to find God in written form on pages written long ago. God isn’t in these pages. God is beyond these pages. These pages only speak about our ancestor’s experience of God. They do not contain God. Just like the temple ceased to contain God. Why is it that we are so slow to know this truth?
And that’s the heart of Nicodemus’s question, “Is it possible to change?” How can I change Jesus? I’m old how can I go back? I know things by what I see. I know things by what I’ve read, learned and been taught. How do I change?
And the answer is found in love. Love is how we change and have always changed. Rules, regulations, and dogmas we follow but we do not love because of them. See the problem with religious types is that in order to understand God we have to put God into categories we can understand and we write those words down and follow them as if they are God, but they are not. They only point to what we call God who is much greater than all our words and thoughts but who thankfully has made it easy for us.
And this is why John says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For the son came into the world not to condemn it but to save it.”
The focus is on imitating God’s self-sacrificing love for the world. In this manner God loved the world and in this manner we demonstrate that we get it when we act as God did.
You see when we boil this passage down to something that focuses on what we believe in, as if we have the power to make the right choice on our own we cut off the meaning of what God is doing for us. And when we do this the only thing we are conveying to others is that God’s love is conditional, and under these conditions God will love you.
But for love to be love it must be sometihng that we are free to accept or reject. That’s what makes God’s love so much more amazing than ours. When we think about it God is willing to love us enough to let us reject him, which we did at a place called Calvary.
So does Nicodemus get it? Does he finally change? Well we know this – his name means “victory of the common people.” Nicodemus is the only other person to appear more than once in the gospels outside of Jesus’ inner circle. He appears again to defend Jesus before his colleagues who are seeking to have Jesus arrested and he comes to claim and prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
So does he change? It seems so, but how it happens is never answered, because it never really can be. It remains like the wind, something we can see, but not something we can adequately explain. So what are we to take away from this story?
I take away this: If you and I are really asking the question that Nicodemus asked with as much desire, honest searching, and wanting to know as he exhibited we are at least on the same path that led Nicodemus to finally find and experience God.
There are many ways to arrive at this honestly not knowing searching desire, but the one I’m most familiar with is brokenness. I believe that our greatest hurts, the things we wouldn’t wish on anyone are the means by which we come to experience two essential things: our own powerlessness and a power greater than ourselves that is quite capable of giving us a new life not lived in isolation and illusion, but in a relationship as real and as mysterious as the wind itself who promises, if we will allow to take us for the ride of our lives. Amen