A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Text: John 3:1-21
Nicodemus was somebody. He was somebody important. He had power and reputation and wealth. He was a member of the religious, and, therefore, political elite in Israel. He was also a Pharisee, which meant he was one of that brotherhood (some might say “good ole’ boy network”) of 6000 men who pledged to live the law, to study the Torah, and to devote themselves to keeping every one of its rules throughout their lives. In a time and place where most people were achingly poor, the luxury of such a lifestyle must have been reserved for those with wealth.
As a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews, the Sanhedrin being a kind of Supreme Court or ruling council limited to 70 members, with jurisdiction over the religious practice of every Jew in the known world. Among its duties was the examination and prosecution of anyone suspected of being a false prophet. This meant, among other things, that Nicodemus lived in an uneasy alliance with the Romans who, while limiting the Sanhedrin’s powers, still allowed it to function as a means of keeping the peace.
History indicates that his was one of Israel’s most influential families of this period. When Jesus confronted him, he called him literally “that famous teacher in Israel.” His reputation for scholarship and wisdom preceded him. He was certainly not young, as witness his response to Jesus’ words about new birth. It is clear that he had been around, a wily survivor in a tense and potentially explosive environment.
In short, this man had it all – power, money connections, intelligence, respect. He had it made. For what more could one ask? Why would he, of all people, seek out this troublemaker from Galilee? Was he someone who, in spite of being part of the power structure, had retained enough contact with his own rebellious youth that he wanted to warn off this young upstart before he got into too much difficulty? Was there some attraction stirring in his old loins for this wild young man from the provinces with the piercing eyes and determined manner?
Perhaps he wanted to buy him off, to get him out of town before he stirred up too much trouble. After all, it was hard enough to keep peace with the hated Romans and still maintain a shred of their proud tradition. They didn’t need troublemakers from the back-country coming in and creating problems. They just couldn’t afford anyone stirring up the people. Hadn’t this fellow just created chaos in the temple by driving out the moneychangers and overturning the tables of the sellers of sacrificial animals – all of whom were just doing their jobs, trying to earn a living while providing loyal and lucrative sources of income for the religious leadership? If the Jewish leaders could not maintain order in their own temple, then the Romans would be forced to take action to do it for them.
In fantasy, I imagine the scene something like this. Nicodemus’s sleek black limousine rolls down a dark alley and stops at the back entrance of a seedy hotel. Clearly, he does not want to be seen on his midnight errand; nor does he want to soil his reputation or himself in such a setting. The chauffeur opens the door, some of his men slip from the car, fanning out through the hotel, making sure the passageways are clear, and then the great man himself emerges, moving deliberately and quietly through the musty corridors to the room of the young man. He orders his men to wait outside the room while he speaks to the man alone.
The room is dimly lit and the man sits cross-legged on the sagging bed. He does not rise but simply gestures for the great man to sit in the one broken chair in the corner of the tiny room, facing the bed. The window is open in hope that some breeze will stir to alleviate the stifling heat, heat infused with the unpleasant odors of the shabby hotel.
Nicodemus sits gingerly on the edge of the chair, quickly surveying his surroundings, fastidiously adjusting his tie, then staring at his manicured nails and the large, but tasteful, diamond ring on his finger, obviously uncomfortable in this unfamiliar setting, and at all costs avoiding the young man’s steady gaze, which he feels locked on him like a laser. At first, Jesus simply looks at his midnight visitor quizzically, wondering what Nicodemus could possibly want of him; then, having skimmed the surface trappings of this wealthy, powerful man, he turns his searching gaze to look deeply into Nicodemus’s soul. The mighty patriarch shifts uncomfortably, and finally speaks: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent by God;” – the recognition and respect come haltingly off his tongue – “no one could perform these signs of yours unless God was with him.”
The mystery of Nicodemus’s visit is suddenly unshrouded. He has not come to banish, to take advantage of, or even to admonish the young man. Perhaps those things were on his mind when he arranged this assignation, but now, face-to-face with Jesus, he confesses that he – and, actually, some of the other leaders as well – have heard and seen something in Jesus which has touched them.
It is clear to Jesus – this is a seeker, someone who, in spite of his wealth and wisdom and power, is still lost, unfulfilled, longing for something more in his life. Jesus issues Nicodemus one of those tantalizing and difficult challenges like the one he had issued to the rich young man whom he had urged to sell everything he had and follow him. He says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see God’s realm unless he or she is born again, from above.” Nicodemus looks at him in astonishment, his vaunted wisdom deserting him, as he makes a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words: “How can someone old be born again? Can I enter my mother’s womb a second time and be born?” (At this point, I can’t help but wonder whether, at some level, Nicodemus is toying with Jesus, because, like the rich young man, he has much to lose if he takes Jesus seriously.)
Jesus expands on what he means: “No one enters God’s realm without being born of water and spirit” – water referring to the baptism of John, the Baptizer, who, Nicodemus knew very well, had stirred up the whole country with his passionate calls for repentance and watery regeneration; spirit referring to Jesus’ own transforming power as the Word made flesh, as the beloved Christ-Child of God, in whom God is well pleased. In the face of this challenge to religious orthodoxy and the possibilities of being confronted by God in the flesh, Nicodemus is feeling increasingly uneasy. Suddenly, a night breeze flutters the tattered window shade and Jesus seizes the opportunity to move the conversation deeper into spiritual reality: “The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. This is how it is with everyone born of the spirit.”
Now Nicodemus’s defenses are really up, fear – and, perhaps, a glimmer of excitement and even hope – dance in his deteriorating eyes. “How can this be?” he sputters. Jesus shoots him a withering look and Nicodemus seems to wilt in the intensity of Jesus’ stare: “You, that great teacher of Israel and ignorant of such things?! If I give you clear, practical illustrations of great spiritual truth and you don’t understand, how will I ever be able to unfold for you the things of heaven?” Still, Jesus makes the effort: “Listen, no one has gone into heaven except the one who comes from heaven, and that one must be lifted up, in order that everyone who has faith may have eternal life.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Here I am, right in front of you, the Word made flesh, proclaiming and living the reign of God, in this time and place, by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, advocating for the poor, caring for the outcast, cleansing the temple, and calling the whole creation back into communion with its Creator. Open your eyes, man! Eternal life is here. It’s now. It’s available for the taking. God loves the world enough to give God’s only Child so that everyone who has faith in that Christ-Child will not perish but have this very eternal life.”
At this point the Gospel writer abandons the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, having made what use of it he has found necessary. So, we are not privileged to share the rest of the encounter between these two. From here on the Gospel writer is commenting on the truth which the story illustrates for him. He wants us to understand that God did not send the Christ-Child into the world to condemn the world. God is not about destruction. God, who above all is love, acts out of that love to draw all of creation back into that “mystic sweet communion” for which creation was intended.
As Henri Nouwen has written, “The great spiritual battle begins—and never ends—with the reclaiming of our chosenness. Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock-time—our brief chronological existence—but by One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity” (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved). The reclaiming of our chosenness, the recognition that we are loved, to be born again and again, into the life of God’s Beloved Community.
If there is judgment here, it is the kind of judgment Nicodemus must have felt sitting in Jesus’ presence, realizing that all his trappings of wealth and power, that all his faithfulness to the law and tradition, that even his wisdom could not save him from that feeling of emptiness, that sense of not having made the connection with God that compels one, living from the inside out, to devote one’s life to faithful acts of love. This is love that is lived out because I see that I have first been loved by God – God, who sends the Christ-Child, God’s only offspring, in the ultimate act of lingering love, intended to draw all creation back to Godself.
The light in those piercing, all-seeing eyes has come into the world. If we can give ourselves over to the burning light of love in those eyes, we can be healed, we can be saved. But sometimes, as we say in counseling, “it may get worse before it gets better.” Nicodemus is right in saying that being born again is not an easy thing. It may mean being born again and again and again. It may require acts of daily renewal. It will always cost something – especially for those of us who have a lot to lose, a lot to give up, in order to be able to follow Jesus, to commit our lives, not to living out the great laws of the tradition, but simply living out the law of love – love for God, love for neighbor, love for self. As Basil of Caesarea reminded the early church, “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help.”
It is much easier to turn away in search of some less demanding source of salvation, some other means of healing, some other way to wholeness which will offer better benefits, more security, and which we can control. The trouble is, the minute we turn away from the light of Jesus’ presence, our vision dims, things become less clear, our world becomes more confusing, the anxiety of being so responsible for our own lives increases, and living in hell becomes at least a part of our present reality. If we agree to follow Jesus, to accept God’s love, to walk in the light, we do not know where the Spirit will lead us, but we can trust that wherever that is, it will be where God intended us to be all along. The good news contained in this passage is that God, through the gift of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, has brought and continues to bring God’s people forth, into joy from sadness. Amen.