Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Conversation That Leads to Life: Jesus and Nicodemus

How do we know if Jesus is from God?

Year A • The Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a • Psalm 121 • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 • John 3:1-17

Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures

Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here.
as an Audio File by clicking here,
and as a PDF by clicking here.
The Sermon
Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire.  Amen.

Locked in Without a Sermon
Good Morning on this fine blustery, spirit-like day. This past Friday night, I was at Eighth Day Books working on my sermon. I had been reading and writing throughout the day, but I still had no idea what I was going to preach. It was 8:30 in the evening; the Eighth Day staff had gone home; and I was locked in the bookstore…. On purpose, mind you, not by accident. I wasn’t trapped or anything. Warren Farha, the owner, is very generous and thoughtful. He lets me stay late when I am working. I just let myself out when I am finished.
     Anyway, I was struggling with what I was going to focus on in today’s sermon, really struggling with how to even begin it, when I looked up. There across this room filled with books, was a book whose title caught my eye: Sermons that Work. “Holy cow,” I thought, “I could sure use one of those.” So I walk over, picked up the book, and read the full title: Sermons that Work: Ten Prize-Winning Episcopal Sermons. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. If this isn’t a sign from God, then I don’t know what is. I begin feverously flipping through its pages to see if there might just happen to be a ready-made sermon on John, chapter three: Genesis 22, Genesis 18, Mark 6, John 21,… I go through all ten sermons, but not a single one has anything to do with John 3.
     But maybe, just maybe I could modify one of these award-winning sermons. I flip to the beginning of one sermon and read, “When I was in the Navy in the Philippines…” Well, that’s no good. I’ve never been in the Navy, nor have I ever gone to the Philippines.  So I turn a few pages more, and the next sermon begins with, “My great aunt’s name was Lolo.” I did have a grandmother we used to call Momo, but no Great Aunt Lolo. “Oh well,” I said to myself, “I guess I better just bite the bullet and write my own sermon.” But as I think back, finding that book wasn’t a total loss, it may not have given me a sermon, but it did give me a way to begin.

Enter Nicodemus
And, it raises a question. Was seeing that book of sermons a sign from God, or not? Perhaps it was just my unconscious self pointing me in that direction, because it knew I needed a sermon, and it had seen the book out of the corner of my eye? Or perhaps it was all just a coincidence? But how do we know? How do we decide? How do we determine when something is from God, and when it isn’t?
     These are the questions that kept Nicodemus up late at night. These are the questions that compelled him to leave his house after dark in order to seek a clandestine audience with this Jesus of Nazareth, this new Jewish rabbi who has been causing such a stir. Is Jesus from God, or not?... And, does it even matter?
Well, it mattered to Nicodemus; it mattered a lot, in fact. For Nicodemus, it was a matter of life and death, not just for him personally, but for the nation. You see, Nicodemus was a leader among the Jewish people; he had some political responsibilities. He was also a Pharisee, a man devoted to studying and living out God’s law, something that had become increasingly difficult in a world that was being taken over and shaped by those pagan Romans. And now, he is faced with another dilemma. Jesus of Nazareth has been performing some noteworthy signs, but where do they point? Do they point to God, or somewhere else?
     For example, Jesus attended a village wedding in Cana of Galilee. It was reported that on the third day of the celebration, he turned water into wine. And it wasn’t just a small amount of water; it was a hundred and fifty gallons worth. And it wasn’t just any water, it was the water used in Jewish rites of purification. The Pharisees had worked so hard to remain pure and undefiled. They had also worked hard to get all the Jews to live pure and undefiled lives as well, all in the hopes that God would finally forgive his wayward people and send his Messiah to rescue them. And now, this Jesus had transformed ritual water into wine. And not just any wine, the best they had ever had. Was this a sign from God?
It sure seemed like it, until Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. He was visiting the temple, when suddenly he started going about like a crazy man. He made a whip and drove out all of the vendors and the sacrificial animals. “Take these things out of here!,” he shouted, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Many people believed in Jesus because of these signs, but some didn’t (2:23).
Nicodemus seems genuinely undecided. On the one hand, Jesus turned water into wine, but on the other hand, he engaged in a public demonstration against the temple. Is Jesus from God, or not? Does he speak for God, or not? These are tricky questions because Nicodemus would no doubt have been familiar with some Old Testament texts that warned God’s people against being taken in by false prophets. For example, in Deuteronomy 13 we read:
1 If prophets… appear among you and promise you omens or portents, 2 and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods… and let us serve them,” 3 you must not heed the words of those prophets…; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. 4 The Lord your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. 5 But those prophets… shall be put to death…. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deut 13:1­–5).
Then, in Deuteronomy 18, the Lord God, speaking to Moses, says:
Any prophet who… presumes to speak in my name, a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die” (Deut 18:20).
So the question of who Jesus is, is a tricky one. It is not as simple as pointing to his miracles because it is just possible that he is a false prophet trying to lead the people astray. So how is Nicodemus going to decide if this Jesus speaks and acts on God’s behalf? It’s critical that he make the right decision, because if Jesus really is from God, then he must be followed and obeyed. But if not, then he needs to be eliminated. There is no middle ground. And so, Nicodemus goes to meet Jesus, but he does so at night because he doesn’t want anybody to know.

Enter Jesus
Shifting gears a bit, I have a question for you: Have you ever been in one of those conversations where the other person keeps changing the subject?—Perhaps I should also ask, have you ever been that person?—Anyway, you know the sort of conversation I am talking about. You feel like you are always trying to catch up. You are never quite able to get a word in edgewise, maybe a question here or a head nod there. And when it is all over, you feel a bit exhausted and a bit confused.
     I wonder if that’s how Nicodemus felt when he was talking to Jesus, or rather, when he was listening to Jesus talk, because Jesus pretty much takes over the conversation from the very beginning. Each man speaks three times, but Nicodemus’ contributions get shorter and shorter, while Jesus’ get longer and longer. Granted, if you had the opportunity for a one-on-one conversation with Jesus, I think you would want to listen more than talk. But the problem is, Jesus keeps changing the subject, so that even we readers of the story sometimes find it hard to follow the logic and flow of Jesus’ thought.
     For example, Nicodemus begins the conversation very politely by saying,
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God (3:2).
To which, Jesus responds:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (3:3).

Well, Nicodemus hadn’t said anything about the kingdom of God, but he goes along with it, and he responds with a couple of questions.
How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can a person enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? (3:4)

Jesus picks back up with talking about the kingdom of God, but now, instead of talking about being born “from above,” he talks about being born “of water and the Spirit.” “What is born of the flesh is flesh,” Jesus says, “and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:6). Then, when Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?,” Jesus leaves off talking about the kingdom and the Spirit altogether and instead begins talking about snakes in the desert, the Son of Man being lifted up, and about eternal life.
     I should say that I don’t really think that Jesus keeps changing the subject, but he does employ a variety of metaphors to refer to the same reality: seeing the kingdom of God, being born again, having eternal life, being saved. He also employs a number of stark contrasts: heavenly and earthly; spirit and flesh; life and death; light and darkness. These contrasts suggest that there is no middle ground when it comes to Jesus. Today, there isn’t time to explore these images, metaphors, and contrasts in detail, but they will reappear in the weeks ahead as we listen in on Jesus’ conversations with other individuals—a Samaritan woman, a blind man, and the sisters of Lazarus. But today, the question we must answer is this: Through all of these images and metaphors, what is Jesus trying to convey to Nicodemus? What does it all boil down to?

The Point of It All
Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is. He wants to trust Jesus, to believe in him. He has an inkling that Jesus is from God, but he wants a greater level of certainty because so much is at stake. But here’s the deal, we cannot know for certain who Jesus is apart from the exercise of faith, apart from actually putting our trust in him. Seeing with our natural eyes and reasoning with our natural minds can only take us so far. For Nicodemus and for us, there has to be a leap of faith. It isn’t a blind leap of faith, nor is it an irrational leap of faith, but it is a leap of faith nonetheless.
     For example, a child standing on the edge of a table cannot know for certain that his father will catch him until he jumps and is caught. Certainly, the child sees the father standing there with arms outstretched. So the child has some reason to suspect that his father is willing and able to catch him, but the child will never know for certain until he exercises faith and jumps, again and again and again.
     This is what Jesus offers to Nicodemus and to us. The signs that he has been performing point to his identity as the Son of God, but they do not constitute proof. Evidence, certainly, but nothing like irrefutable proof, which is why some believed and some didn’t. The signs Jesus performed were true, but ambiguous, at least when observed without the lens of faith, without being born of the Spirit, which is itself as mysterious as the movements of the wind. It’s there, you see the effects, but you can’t quite pin it down. It takes faith, which is to say, that it takes submitting ourselves to the movements and inklings of the Spirit. For you see, faith is not something that we generate. We exercise it; we put it into practice. But faith does not originate with us; it is a gift given to us by God. More specifically, faith is the gift of the Spirit, that is, faith is the gift of the indwelling presence of the Spirit. To be possessed by the Holy Spirit of God, that’s what it means to be spiritual. That’s what it means to be born of water and the Spirit, to see the kingdom of God. And this gift has been made possible by another gift, the gift of God’s one and only Son who became flesh and blood for our sakes, who submitted himself to human death, that we might have the opportunity to possess and be possessed by God’s divine life, which is, the eternal kind of life.

What Became of Nicodemus?
There is so much more than could be said about his, but I am sure that you are all dying to know what became of Nicodemus. Did he get his questions answered? Did he ever figure out who Jesus was? Here’s the rest of the story.
     Nicodemus appears two more times in the gospel. In his first reappearance, Jesus is causing another disturbance in the temple precincts. The temple guard are dispatched to arrest him, but they are unsuccessful. When they return to give their report, they are reprimanded by the chief priests and Pharisees. However, Nicodemus stands up and asks, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51). His colleagues bite back, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (7:52). Nicodemus’ question may not be a public declaration of allegiance to Jesus; nevertheless, he is putting his reputation and standing at some risk by posing the question.
     Nicodemus’ final appearance occurs during the postlude of the crucifixion. Jesus is dead, his disciples are in hiding, and his body still hangs limply on the cross. Out of the shadows come two men. Joseph of Ari­ma­­thea and Nicodemus. Joseph secures Pilate’s permission to remove the body, and Nicodemus joins him, having brought along a hundred pounds of burial spices. They prepare the body according to Jewish custom, and lay it in a tomb. By why? Why would these two respected members of the Jewish community risk their reputations and possibly their lives to bury a man, a criminal, an enemy of the state who was obviously a false prophet, for the crucifixion of Jesus was the surest sign yet that he was not from God.
     Their actions just don’t make any sense, unless… unless their eyes had been opened to see who Jesus really was, a king of a very different sort of kingdom. And so I think we have our answer, Nicodemus’ presence at the tomb was an exercise of faith. In the cross of Jesus, he had seen the kingdom of God by faith, he had seen God’s love by faith, and now he was in possession of eternal life by faith.  
     Thanks be to God!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Delivered on Sunday, March 16th, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

The Scriptures
Click Read More for the text of the Scriptures

RCLEE • Year A • Second Sunday after Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

The Collect
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
     So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

Psalm 121 • Levavi Oculos • BCP 779
   1      I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
                  from where is my help to come?
   2      My help comes from the Lord, *
                  the maker of heaven and earth.
   3      He will not let your foot be moved *
                  and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
   4      Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
                  shall neither slumber nor sleep;
   5      The Lord himself watches over you; *
                  the Lord is your shade at your right hand,
   6      So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
                  nor the moon by night.
   7      The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; *
                  it is he who shall keep you safe.
   8      The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
                   from this time forth for evermore.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness….
     For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
     For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

John 3:1–17
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 ”For 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. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

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