3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus 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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that 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.
How can these things be?
Today’s Gospel reading has all the trappings of a good mystery: An encounter late at night, an unlikely visitor who steps in from the darkness, engages in cryptic conversation, then returns from which he came. It appears our visitor has been sent, but by whom? For what purpose? Where does he go when he leaves?
Who is this visitor? We know that much: His name is Nicodemus. His purpose? That is for us to find out.
Solving the mystery will require a Shirlock Holmes approach. We will have a go at the clues, listen to the dialogue, and try to deduce something of meaning from this text.
But let’s start with who this visitor was because that is important. Like Jesus, Nicodemus was a rabbi, but an important rabbi. Most believe he was wealthy, educated, an intellectual. He likely had a pedigree, coming from a distinguished family. He is believed to have held a seat in the Jewish court — the “Sanhedrin.” He would have been qualified because he was, above all else, a pharisee. He belonged to the cherubah, an elite fellowship of Pharisees — one of 6,000 men who committed their lives to obeying every single statute of Jewish law.
Now, we are not talking just about the Mosaic law– the 10 Commandments. That would be a cakewalk! We are not even talking about the many principles set forth in the Torah. (For light reading, try the book of Leviticus — the Levite Laws.) No Nicodemus and his very observant Pharisee brothers vowed to keep all the laws — including the hundreds of minor rules and regulations that governed every conceivable situation in life. This body of additional laws was called the Mishnah.
Let me give you a few examples, in the Torah, specifically the Book of Exodus 31: 15, God said that the Israelites, upon punishment of death, were to “remember the Sabbath to keep it holy, and that on the Sabbath no work should be done, either by a man or his servants or his animals. That seems straight-forward enough, after all work is work. But later generations of Jews felt it necessary to define “work” –which activities are work and which are not — and they added twenty-four work-defining chapters to the Mishnah. Their descendents felt it necessary to further explain the Sabbath rules and, in the Jerusalem Talmud, this section on the Sabbath ran 64 ½ columns!
So what were these rules about work? Well, tying a knot on the Sabbath was work — and therefore strictly forbidden. But in defining knots, it appears that some were okay but not others. The knots of camel drivers and sailors were sinful. Likewise, a man could not tie a knot to let down a bucket into a well. But other knots that could be tied or untied with one hand were perfectly legal. A woman was permitted to tie the strings of her cap or girdle, or the laces of her shoes. Therefore, if a man needed to draw water on the Sabbath, he could tie the bucket to his woman’s girdle and let it down into the well, because a knot in a girdle was quite okay.
In Jeremiah 17, the law reads “Take heed to yourselves and bear no burden on the Sabbath day.” Jewish scribes, of course, were obliged to define “burden”; such a matter could not be left to chance. They defined burden as to be “food amounting to the weight of a dried fig” or “enough milk for one swallow.” It further had to be settled whether a woman could wear a brooch (Was that a burden?), or a man could wear a wooden leg (How about that?). Could a mother legally lift her infant on the Sabbath? Could an old man wear his dentures?
Do you get the picture? Our night time visitor had spent his hours, days, his whole lifetime satisfying every jot and tittle of the law. And it could only have been possible because he had convinced himself that rule-keeping was the way to God. Additionally, Nicodemus was a legalist. He stood on right behavior. And he was not alone. This was what it was to be a faithful Jew in Jesus’ day.
And while we are on the subject of the law, Nicodemus’s position on the Sanhedrin would have required that he interpret the law. The job put him in the position of examining and judging anyone suspected of being a false prophet. Nicodemus knew the Torah, knew the Mishnah, knew the Talmud. He knew his stuff.
But back to our mystery, Nicodemus is creeping about in the dark streets of Jerusalem heading to where Jesus is lodging. He raps at the door and enters a dim and smoky room. The two rabbis — Christ and Nicodemus– exchange greetings, then sit down to talk. Nicodemus leads with what some call praise and others flattery: “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.” Now I take Nicodemus’s words to be sincere. In essence, he says, “We are aware of your miracles, your signs, and we believe you have God’s power.” By “we,” he must mean his fellow pharisees. He isn’t questioning the credibility of the miracles, he isn’t saying they haven’t happened. He has come to inquire, not argue.
And, being a cautious man, he has come alone — either the Sanhedrin has put him up to it, or he has summoned the courage to go ask the questions that are consuming him. For Nicodemus to overcome his prejudices and his upbringing to take this risk is not just commendable; it is miraculous: To be seen with the controversial Jesus could cost him his life! Why did he come at night? He either believed it to be the best time to catch Jesus in repose, or he wanted the safety and privacy of darkness.
So, here’s my paraphrase of the conversation between the two rabbis:
Nic: Jesus: Are you doing these miracles by the power of God?
Jesus: Yes, I was born again, from above, and everyone who trusts in God’s power is born again, from above.
Nic: How can old people like me be born again?
Jesus: You were born the first time in the flesh. To know God, you need to be born of water and spirit.
Nic: But I can’t follow this at all.
Jesus: You are thinking too hard. Do you understand how the wind works or where it comes from?
Jesus: Yet, it blows and you feel it and hear it.
Jesus: So it is with the Spirit of God. It cannot be explained or controlled. It simply is.
Nic: I want to have this Spirit, but it is impossible because I do not know how it works.
Jesus: You, of all people, are a teacher. You pharisees speak of your new converts as like “newborn children.” It is the same concept. To be born of the spirit is to become a new child of God, to live in the light, to experience the Kingdom.
But the thinker, the legalist, the pharisee cannot suspend his logic, cannot make the leap of faith. He makes his goodbyes and retreats into darkness. And there he remains for several chapters until re-emerging into the light at a critical time! But more on that later.
So, as Shirlock might have asked Watson, “My dear chap, was our nighttime visitor an obstinate coward or a brave inquirer? Is he to be abjured or admired?”
“ I think,” says Watson, he was a man of his time trying to reconcile his brain with his heart. He couldn’t make a leap of faith because he insisted on some logical explanation; he wanted to know ‘how these things could be.’”
“Quite right,” says Sherlock, “And he hoped that Jesus would provide the answers. Explain the physics of his miracles, explain the secret behind his power. He simply needed a reasonable explanation.” Which is exactly what Christ could not/would not provide. –Or, conversely, what Nicodemus could not/would not hear.
But Nicodemus was not a “bad guy.” Nicodemus was us. At some point in our lives — perhaps even now– his question is our question. We, too, want eternal life. We want to see and know God. We want the assurance of abundant joy. But Christ’s requirement to be “born again” and to “believe” in the Son of Man pitches us up against some tough terminology.
For mainline protestants, being “born again” evokes images of the charismatic movement of the ‘70s, of speaking in unknown languages and dancing “in the spirit.” It implies an emotionalism and worship style that is alien to many of us. And the word “belief” is likewise frought with connotations. In our everyday parlance, the word believe is wrongly used when what we mean is think or agree: I believe in global warming — I accept the factual evidence ; I believe in the abominable snowman — I judge the evidence to be true; I believe that such and such is the best course of action. I think it is the best choice.
When it comes to matters of theology, intellectual “beliefs” vary. Most of us would be hard pressed to rationally defend all the planks of our Apostles’ Creed. “I don’t believe in virgin birth,” one might say. I believe in some of the miracles but not all.” “I have come to believe that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah.” Etc. Etc. The implication is always that the speaker has weighed the evidence, thought and thought and thought, and formed a rational opinion –which is the very practice that keeps Nicodemus in the dark!
For this reason, I prefer to speak of trust. I trust God. I trust Jesus. I trust the teachings of Christ. Unlike belief, trust doesn’t require that I understand and accept all the facts. Trust is not about the evidence; it is about credibility. It is less about the WHAT of our faith and all about the WHO. The Holy Spirit enables us to understand that God is trustworthy; he loves us despite our weaknesses and shortcomings. We can sleep at night because we trust a God who neither slumbers nor sleeps. Through the Spirit’s intercession, we trust that Jesus will not let us down. We can take risks for the Kingdom knowing that he’s got our back. We do not fear death because we trust Christ’s promise: “ Everyone who believes in me shall not perish but have eternal life.” Although we may sometimes question this or that facet of our faith, when we turn off the lights whom do we trust? When we need strength and comfort to whom do we pray?
Nicodemus wasn’t quite there yet. He was still hung up on the details — the WHAT, WHERE and HOW of Christ’s miracles. He wasn’t ready to trust the author of those signs — yet!
And that’s not surprising. It generally takes far more than one encounter to trust Christ. What about you? Perhaps, before you became a disciple, you attended a Bible study, or took a World Religions course. Maybe you accompanied a friend to church or happened onto a Christian broadcast. There was the Christian Band you liked, then that little devotional book landed on your coffee table. One little encounter after another, always ending with you stepping back out into the darkness UNTIL the moment of trust when everything changed. You stopped trying to figure it all out, got out of the way, and let it happen.
When we enter this place of worship, we don’t check our brains at the door: God loves it when we read, study, search, and even question his Word and will. But at some point, the psalmist got it right: Man says “Show me and I’ll trust you.” God says, “Trust me and I’ll show you.” Nicodemus will come to trust God, and that is our goal, as well. AMEN.