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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

March 12, 2017

 Nicodemus: The Courage to Grow

Genesis 12:1-8; John 3:1-17

            Today we turn in this Lenten season to one of the Bible’s great stories: the account of Nicodemus, that leader of the Jews, who comes to Jesus by the secrecy of night.  What is amazing is that Nicodemus came to Jesus at all.  He was, after all, a learned man of the Law of Israel, a Pharisee, a ruler of his own Jewish people as a member of the Sanhedrin, a council of seventy-some men who ruled the Jewish people in Roman occupied Palestine.

            We know that the common people heard Jesus gladly, but Nicodemus was hardly one of them.  To come to see Jesus, even if by the cloak of night, would have taken some courage.  It also betrays that Nicodemus did not presume that he had it all figured out when it came to God.  So here is this older, educated, privileged man coming to Jesus, a young, itinerate would-be rabbi with none of Nicodemus’ “uber-Jewish” credentials or authority.  What made him come?

            Nicodemus says, “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.”  Some have suggested that he may have come to entrap Jesus.  But I do not think so.  We will talk later about what happens to Nicodemus, (we only hear of him in John, where he appears three times) but I think the evidence suggests that he was a genuinely troubled person that night, a sensitive seeker after truth, even if a furtive, secret one.

            In 2010, Connie and I went to the lovely Bavarian village of Oberammergau for The Passion Play, a six-hour production (with a two-hour intermission for dinner) that this exquisite little German town puts on for the world every ten years.  In their rendition, I was captivated by their treatment of Nicodemus.  All the members of the ruling class of Jerusalem, that is, members of the Sanhedrin, wore these costumes that made them look pompous and smug, like they not only had all the power, but also all the answers.  Tellingly, they all wore these huge turbans on their heads that flared upward and outward, giving them ridiculously big heads.  So Nicodemus is dressed just like them.  Yet from the opening scene, when he appears at Palm Sunday in the play, whenever Jesus comes into view, Nicodemus cannot take his eyes off of Him.  He follows Jesus wherever He goes, and once, when the chief priests and the Pharisees are ready to condemn Jesus for all kinds of reasons, not least that Jesus comes from Galilee and not, ironically, from Bethlehem, Nicodemus speaks up, asking, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”  It may not be a full-throated defense, but clearly Nicodemus offers a word in this John 7 scene on behalf of Jesus.

            So Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, seeking light, if you will, from Jesus.  Light and darkness are constant themes throughout John’s Gospel.  Jesus tells him, “Unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  So Nicodemus asks, “Can one enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”  Now the word Jesus uses here can be translated a few ways.  The Greek word is “anothen” (ἄνωθεν). It can mean born “from above,” or born “anew,” or born “again.”  The same word appears when the Temple curtain is torn in two, “from top to bottom.”  Nicodemus’ question sounds like a dumb one, taking what Jesus was saying figuratively in a literal way.  But I do not think Nicodemus is being obtuse or slow here at all.  I think he is stalling, because he understands only too well what Jesus is suggesting.  Nicodemus came hoping to find from Jesus some insights or some wisdom to help him be a better Pharisee, a better member of the ruling class.  But Jesus is suggesting that nothing short of a radical transformation will do.

            We are all a little like Nicodemus, or we can be.  When we find ourselves troubled, or in distress, and we seek help, we think we want to make some adjustments, maybe even change.  In fact, we want to remain the same, only we wish to feel better about it!  In the words of C.S. Lewis, we often “prefer a familiar captivity to an unfamiliar freedom.”

            Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, and to us, that we need more than a few minor adjustments!  We need to start all over again.  We need to be born “from above,” or born “anew.”  We need something only God can give to us, and to receive it, we need to divest ourselves of any notion that we have it all together.  Jesus is calling Nicodemus to let God transform his life – to admit that he has never had all the answers, and to open himself up to God as if he were a little child, maybe even a baby.

            So Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night, in search of some light, listens.  Jesus says, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  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 born of the Spirit.”  Jesus is saying that being born from above, or born again, is a Holy Spirit thing, and we never control the Spirit of God.  It is like the wind.  It blows freely, mysteriously, and we do not command or control it.

            Then Nicodemus offers his final words that night.  He asks a question.  “How can these things be?”  And Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  Jesus goes on to speak of Gospel truth to Nicodemus.  Luther called it “the Gospel in miniature.”  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”  But we never learn from John anything else that Nicodemus may have said that night.  “How can these things be?” is the last word in this passage that Nicodemus utters.

            I saw a painting last week done by Henri Matisse.  It was a portrait of a young man.  As I stood before it, I remembered again something Matisse once said.  “To look at something as if you’ve never seen it before requires the greatest of courage.”  Maybe that is something of what it means to be born again, or to be born from above.  To look at God as if you have never seen God or known God before – to let God show you afresh a glimpse of the kingdom, the rule and reign of God.  Maybe it means to be humble enough to learn, to open yourself to God’s gracious, forgiving, transforming Spirit.

            We do not know what happened to Nicodemus that night.  But Nicodemus does show up a third time in John’s Gospel.  He is present in John 3, in John 7, and last, in John 19.  He comes with Joseph of Arimathea, another “secret disciple” of Jesus, to Pontius Pilate, to claim the body of Jesus and to prepare it for a Jewish burial.  I like to think that this gentle seeker, this genuine searcher after God, finally came out of the darkness and into the light.  I pray to God that all of us will!


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