Have you ever been sitting in a restaurant when you find yourself beginning to pick up strains of the conversation at the next table? Perhaps it is just one word that catches your attention initially. Sometimes it gets to the point where that conversation ends up occupying more of your attention than the one at your own table and, trying not to be too obvious, you find yourself being drawn in and listening increasingly intently to it.
Throughout this season of Lent the Gospel readings give us the opportunity of listening in on six conversations with Jesus. We heard the first of them last week in the dialog between Jesus and the tempter—not the kind of conversation you are likely to hear in a restaurant, although you never know! This morning it is the famous interchange between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3.
John describes Nicodemus as a Pharisee. Sad to say, the Pharisees are in many ways the victims of bad press. By and large they were not the sourpusses, the spiritual killjoys, that they have sometimes been depicted to be. Simply put, and more than anything else, the Pharisees were people who sincerely desired to lead lives that were pleasing to God, that were consistent with his laws laid down in the Old Testament. They were moral, upright people. They were regular attenders in the synagogues. They were tithers. They would help little old ladies across the street (as long as it wasn’t a sabbath). In every respect they were model citizens—just the kind of people you would want to have as neighbors.
John further informs us that Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee, but that he was a religious leader, literally “a ruler of the Jews”. This suggests that he was actually a member of the Sanhedrin, a body that comprised within itself the highest legal, judicial and legislative authority among the Jews. He was one of a number of prominent and influential people who came to Jesus in the gospels, among them a centurion, a royal official, Lazarus of Bethany, the anonymous rich young ruler, Jairus the synagogue ruler, and Simon the Pharisee.
He came by night
John tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Now night and darkness are significant words in John’s gospel. In the opening chapter John has told us of Jesus, the eternal Word, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). Jesus proclaims of himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12). It was while it was still dark on the first Easter morning that Mary Magdalene, believing Jesus to be dead, went to his tomb (20:1). And perhaps most significantly of all, after Judas leaves the Passover supper in the upper room, John laconically remarks, “And it was night” (13:30).
So it was significant for John that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. And we need to ask ourselves, why? It may easily have been because the crowds that so regularly followed Jesus had dispersed. Things would definitely have been quieter and there would have been opportunity for a more in-depth conversation. It has been my experience that some of the most significant conversations in my life have taken place at night.
Yet I rather think there was a different reason that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night—and it was that he did not wish to be seen. To me this corresponds with Nicodemus as we meet him at two other points in John’s gospel. The first incident is in chapter 7. It is the Feast of Booths, or Succoth. Knowing that there are plots to do away with him, Jesus has gone to Jerusalem secretly, not even telling his brothers. Midway through the festival, however, he begins to teach in the Temple. Inevitably there is controversy over him but the Temple police hold back from arresting him. When the Pharisees criticize the police for their inaction, it is Nicodemus who 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?” And that, for the moment at least, seems to be the end of the matter.
The final time we meet with Nicodemus is towards the end of the gospel. Jesus has died on the cross and Joseph of Arimathea has petitioned Pontius Pilate for his body. Then John tells us, “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” I think it is significant that John chooses to identify Nicodemus as the one who came to Jesus by night, under cover of darkness. It seems to me that, while Nicodemus had sympathy for Jesus, he was one that always stood in the shadows. He was never quite willing to come out into the light.
I suppose there is a parallel with Peter at this point, in his threefold denial of Jesus as he warmed himself in the courtyard of the high priest. Yet Peter we hear from again. He is reconciled and restored. He is filled with the Holy Spirit. He later answers the high priest and the Sanhedrin, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Nicodemus himself may well have been there at the time when Peter spoke. Yet we never hear from him again. He simply slips into the shadows whence he came.
The tragedy is that down through the centuries to our present day there have been many Nicodemuses, men and women who respect Jesus, who admire him. Yet whether it is for fear or some other reason, they find themselves unable to step out into the light and identify with him. So it is that as the chapter unfolds that John comments (and I believe with a deep sense of sorrow), “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…”
Born from above
So it is that under the shadows and with no one around Nicodemus begins by expressing his admiration for Jesus. “Rabbi…,” and even to use the term rabbi to a man who had no formal training and was his junior in every way was to show enormous respect. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do unless God were with him.” To which Jesus gives the puzzling reply, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus’ words are literally, “Amen, amen, I say to you…” They carry a solemnity and an earnestness to them that the English cannot convey.
“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” What was it that prompted these enigmatic words? The answer is to be found in the way that John introduces Nicodemus to us in the first verse. Literally it goes like this: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus…” This is an odd way to describe someone in English, so most of our English translations have simplified it to something like what we see in our pew Bibles: “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus…” But it is an odd turn of phrase in Greek also; and John has chosen to use it specifically because of what he has just finished saying in the previous paragraph, which if you read it literally, goes, “Jesus did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.” Then he continues, “There was a man…”
What I can only conclude is that Jesus knew exactly what was going on in Nicodemus’ heart—and he chose to speak not to his words but directly to his heart. Remember that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. His whole life was dedicated to obedience to the Law. What Jesus was saying was, “Nicodemus, you have spent your entire life doing things for God. And tragically you have missed the point. It’s not about what you can do for God. It’s about what God wants to do in you.”
To see how focused Nicodemus was on doing things, you have only to look at his response: “Can one enter a second time into one’s mother’s womb and be born?” For him it was all about what he could do: his efforts, his hard work, his endeavors. And so Jesus drives the point home again. “Listen, Nicodemus, while I tell you another time: no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” As Tim Keller has put it, “I contributed nothing to my birth: I contribute nothing to my being born again.”
The Spirit blows
Jesus makes the same point again when he shifts from the mystery of birth to the mystery of the wind. “You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going.” In both Hebrew and Greek the same word can be used to mean “wind” or “spirit”. No one can control the wind. Here in Minnesota we are reminded of that at 1 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month. We cannot control the wind, but we can harness it. And we are reminded of that as we cross the prairie and see rows of enormous wind turbines. In 2012 wind turbines in this country generated 140 million megawatt-hours of electrical power.
What Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to was to allow the Holy Spirit to blow through his life—to allow the Spirit to do in him what, even with the strictest obedience, even with the most valiant of efforts, he could never achieve for himself. Later in the New Testament we meet with another Pharisee who did take to heart what Jesus taught. He wrote,
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus occupies a very special place in my own life as well. I first overheard it many years ago when I was a senior in high school. I had become involved in church and was trying to live a Christian life, but I always sensed that there was something missing. I had begun reading the New Testament and was several months into it when I arrived at this passage. When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, it was as though he were speaking to me: “In very truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” It was on reading those words that I knelt and asked Jesus Christ to come into my life—and he became a reality for me in a way that he had never been before.
Nicodemus never came out of the shadows. But thank God that you and I have the opportunity to let him do his work in us. “Truly, truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”