Nicodemus is the man who stands in as a father-figure to Jesus after Jesus dies on the cross. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, is the one who claims the body of the hopes, dreams, and future of those who believe. He’s the one who has the body wrapped up, cared for, and placed in a tomb that the son of a carpenter never could’ve afforded, but that a ruling class Pharisee would’ve had in store for him at the end of his life.
Nicodemus is the one who honors Jesus in his death with the honor of a teacher, a rabbi, and an honored MVP.
But before Nicodemus was that guy, he was a fifth string running back. The kind of guy my dad called a “get back,” as in whenever that guy left the bench, the coach yelled, “get back here!” Nicodemus wasn’t “getting in the game.” He wasn’t engaged, but by his level of knowledge and probably some family status, he was a member of the Jewish ruling class, the Pharisees.
Now, Pharisees have invaded even Sunday School: a four-year-old was telling about the Bible story she heard in her Sunday school class. It was the story of Jesus healing the blind man. When she got to the part where the Pharisees questioned the healed man, she said, “Oh boy, were those ferris wheels jealous of Jesus!”
The Pharisees knew the Scriptural rules backward, forward, and upside down. They were empowered by their knowledge, by their ability to interpret the Scriptures in a way that made them right and made others wrong, by their education and stature that only they could achieve because they controlled who else would learn to read and communicate. They told everyone else what to do to be right with God, and made it about the doing, the work, the sacrifice. They made it a paint-by-numbers process that didn’t really save anyone, but kept them treading water.
It was scientific and grace free and ineffective.
Still, Nicodemus was different. He knew that there was something to this Jesus guy, and early on in John, he came to Jesus at night. Nicodemus is one of the top dogs; he’s THE MAN, and has all of the power a native could ask for as a member of an occupied nation. Yet he comes slinking up to this traveling rebel-rouser, this teacher of God who is unaccepted by the rest of the ruling class of religious leaders to ask him some questions.
That kind of sounds like Nicodemus is a little chicken doesn’t it? He knows that Jesus has something to share but he’s too afraid to be caught talking to an outcast, an outsider, and “unapproved” teacher.
And then he opens his mouth and he says, “WE know that you are a teacher from God.” Suddenly, we recognize that Nicodemus might be chicken but he’s the bravest of the chickens. He’s the one who’s unwilling to be caught during the day but willing to go in the middle of the night.
So there are people who want to know but don’t want to get caught and so they don’t seek at all.
And there are people who want to know but don’t want to expose their desire to know so they find another way.
Do you know anyone in either category? Do you know people who are convinced that this Jesus guy was onto something but they’re afraid, for whatever reason, to admit that maybe they should come to church or maybe they should check out Bible study or maybe when their family doesn’t agree, that somehow, they’re supposed to be here?
Maybe you’re related to someone like that. Maybe that someone is you.
The thing is, Nicodemus goes. And he claims that God is with Jesus because otherwise, Jesus wouldn’t be able to do what he does. We don’t exactly know where this is on the timeline of Jesus three-year-ministry, but we know Nicodemus has to have seen and heard some pretty cool stuff about Jesus.
Which, of course, in true Jesus fashion, he neither confirms or denies. But he cuts right to the root of Nicodemus’ problem and tells him: no one can be part of God’s plan without being born again.
Now, fundamentally, we know that you can’t actually be born twice. You can’t climb back into your mother’s womb. That’s some physics and biology combined (I passed both, but am an expert at neither). So, Jesus wasn’t talking literally, even though Nicodemus’ brain still hasn’t caught up to Jesus speed and terminology.
Jesus comes back to the higher, deeper meaning: you have to be baptized, spiritually and physically, to be part of the kingdom of God. Just to clarify: I don’t believe you don’t get “in” to heaven if you die believing in Jesus but no one sprinkled or immersed you. But to Nicodemus, Jesus knew that baptism was a sign of repentance, of turning away from who you were and what you did and turning to what God wanted for your life.
Jesus might as well have said: you can’t be with God until you repent. You can sacrifice all of the chickens and sheep you want but if your heart doesn’t change, you can’t be right in God’s eyes.
You can go to church. You can memorize the whole Bible. You can give all of the money you have. You can do all the mission trips available. But if you don’t actually turn away from the things that are holding you back, if you don’t actually grow to love others more than yourself, all of the stuff you do is just busy work. You’re still failing.
Nicodemus still “argues,” and I don’t mean that in a bad way. He’s still trying to get it. But Jesus basically teases him, he asks how anyone else is going to understand if a guy with the Jewish PhD doesn’t get it. And if Nicodemus doesn’t understand repentance, which John the Baptist has been screaming about in the desert for years, then how is he going to get salvation? Because repentance to the Jews was not getting blasted while salvation through Jesus was about receiving so much more.
So Jesus breaks it down in a way that some crazed Raiders fan gets it, or at least thinks he does, at every football game: John 3:16 For 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.
Yay! Yee-haw! Right? Of course, we’ve oversimplified this today, but Jesus was explaining, per John’s narrative, that God loved the world (which we’re often taught is so corrupted and evil that it has to blow up at the end of time to make God happy) that he sent his son. That God “gave” his son as a gift so that there would not be perishing but eternal life.
All well and good, and perfectly lovely. Absolutely one of the “nicest,” safest, most universally smiled upon verses in the whole Bible. But just like everything else, it gets prooftexted, it gets used by those who want to read what they want to, into something else.
It’s like we read “perish” and some people go, “ohhhhh” and start pointing fingers, thinking about all the people who are going to perish! But that’s not what it says there.
John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (Emphasis mine. I’ve always wanted to say that!…)
The writer of John goes out of his way to specifically say that Jesus was not sent to condemn the world. Granted, the world stood condemned because of the law, because who can’t not break the law? (No one.) The world already stood condemned. But for all the people, like Nicodemus, who had been raised in a climate where the rules were everything, John made sure that he included that Jesus said he wasn’t there to blast anyone, but to save the world.
The whole world. Read it again.
John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Just in case you think I’m going “soft” on the idea that Jesus’ purpose was one of salvation, let me be clear: I don’t think that salvation can be found anywhere but in the death and resurrection of God’s only son, Jesus Christ. I think that’s pretty clear from verse 18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
They’re not condemned because God is out to get them, but because of what the law says about sin and judgment throughout the Old Testament, Jesus is the only way they, we, can be made right.
The law says, you die because of this, and that, and this.
God sends Jesus to die on your behalf.
You believe, and suddenly, the law is playing second fiddle to grace.
That’s the beauty of John 3:16-17. But don’t miss the context.
Jesus says this to a man who comes seeking because he’s braver than his friends, because he knows Jesus is onto something, because he wants to have what Jesus does. Nicodemus comes searching for something and Jesus offers him salvation.
I don’t know where you are in your process. Are you passed worrying about what others think? Are you still struggling with the expectations of the legalistic roots of our Protestant faith? Are you fully engaged in Bible study and exploring the Scripture so that you can better understand the good news Jesus shared with Nicodemus?
Today, I encourage you to repent. To turn from the things that hold you back and lay claim to the salvation that Jesus offers you. Salvation from your sins, from yourself, from the dangerous “this is the one way to do it” theology of our churches.
John Wesley wrote this covenant renewal, and I leave it with you to consider:
I am no longer my own, but yours
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will,
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by you or laid aside by you,
Exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, oh glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
You are mine, and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant which we have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
This sermon is for January 5 at 11 a.m. at Blandford United Methodist Church.