Out of the Dark … Again? – Sermon on John 3:1-17

It had been a hectic week – people coming into town from all over, the crowds noisy and smelly in the streets. Everyone was eager to get the best piece of meat, the freshest karpas, the bitterest moror for the Passover meal. Then there had been that scene in the temple, with tables being thrown over and birds squawking and money rolling all over the place – no one knew what was happening. And all the yelling.  Oy vey.

There had been something about that scene that troubled Rabbi Nic in a way he couldn’t quite describe. Yes it was a mess, but there had been a sense of rightness about it all – no, that wasn’t the word. Righteousness was more like it. In the process of turning things upside down and making a huge mess, somehow, things seemed more right-side-up, even in the middle of all the flying feathers and scattered goods. Amid all the chaos, there was a fresh wind sweeping through the temple, blowing out the cobwebs. Rabbi Nic kept trying to make sense of the afternoon’s nonsense as he hurried home. He wanted to have a moment to collect his thoughts before the Passover meal began.

No matter how hard he tried, Rabbi Nic couldn’t keep his mind on the ceremony, with its questions and stories of God’s deliverance from Egypt. Twice, he lost his place, and his dear wife had to remind him to cover the unleavened bread before pouring the wine.

There was great comfort in reciting the familiar words, in hearing his youngest son ask the important question, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”

Then, it hit him. As they pronounced the blessing, he figured it out. “Baruch Adonai Elohim,” they chanted together. But this time, they added the words of Psalm 72, and everything became clear at once. Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel who alone does wondrous things. (Ps 72:18)

Rabbi Nic’s wife was surprised when he got up from the table and headed to the door. “Where are you going?” she asked. “It’s already dark outside! Where are you going in the middle of the night?” Rabbi Nic glanced over his shoulder and mumbled something about needing to answer a question, as he headed out into the night. His wife shook her head. “That’s what you get for marrying Israel’s greatest teacher,” she thought to herself. “Not even the Passover meal itself could keep him from studying Torah.”

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 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 who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“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. “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. 

Throughout the Gospel of John, we find an emphasis on the contrast between light and dark. In the opening prologue, which we read during the season of Christmas, John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (1:5) and a few verses later, “The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light.” (1:10).  These images of light and darkness serve as metaphors for kingdom reality.

In this case, it seems that light represents belief, while darkness represents unbelief. It’s pretty clear that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in a state of confusion and spiritual blindness, unable to grasp what Jesus is trying to teach him. Whether he’s being stubborn or simply misguided in his lack of understanding, Nicodemus is completely in the dark when it comes to comprehending how God actually works.

It’s also clear that Nicodemus has been keeping an eye on Jesus. He has seen him teaching in the synagogues, and he recognizes that Jesus teaches with an authority he himself would never dare to claim. Nicodemus has also seen the many miracles that Jesus has performed, some of them right in the temple itself. And that scene back in chapter two with the temple moneychangers must have been a pretty dramatic display of holy indignation.

Some theologians think that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night in order to hold his conversation in secret. They see Nicodemus as unwilling to admit publicly that he is in contact with Jesus. Others claim that he may have only been trying to speak with Jesus when he had a better chance to actually spend some time talking with him, after the crowds have left for the day. Whatever motivation caused Nicodemus to wait until darkness had fallen, his appearance at night is unusual enough that later, when Nicodemus re-enters the story, he is referred to as “the one who came to Jesus at night.”

When Nicodemus arrives, he doesn’t waste time with pleasantries. He cuts right to the thing that’s been bothering him. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” and this title tells us that Nicodemus thinks of himself and Jesus as equals when it comes to teaching and learning. Nicodemus does not treat Jesus as a subordinate, even though he is introduced as a great leader among the Jews. There is no irony in his use of this title of respect.

“You must come from God, because no one could do all the miraculous signs you do unless God is with him.” This doesn’t sound like a question, really, but it is. Nicodemus is asking Jesus to confirm what Nicodemus suspects, but can’t quite believe. He doesn’t come right out and ask, “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for someone else?” the way John the Baptist did, but the message is the same.

Nicodemus comes with his own set of convictions about what is real and true. He has tried to fit his experience of Jesus into his own idea of how the world works, and how God works in it. He has put two and two together, and the only answer he can find is that Jesus must come from God. But he apparently doesn’t like that answer very much. It doesn’t fit with his assumptions, his tradition, his belief system.

Maybe Nicodemus had tried to keep his faith separate from the rest of his life. He followed the rules, he knew the Torah inside and out, but by compartmentalizing his faith, he had never let it change the way he lived his life.

Maybe we are more like Nicodemus than we want to admit. How often do we get stuck in our own assumptions about God? How often does our own limited understanding prevent us from seeing God’s reality? Have you ever felt frustrated, like you just couldn’t figure out what God was trying to tell you? That’s where our friend Nicodemus found himself.

Jesus answers a question Nicodemus doesn’t ask, but it’s the real question that needs answering: “How can I believe you are from God, when nothing you do matches what I think the Messiah is supposed to do and be?”

Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above.” Now, we need to pause here for a moment and do a little Greek work. The word we see translated in the NRSV as “from above” can mean more than that, and other translations may read “born anew” or “born again” – they are all correct.  The Greek word, “anothen” carries all three meanings. The confusion arises because Jesus may have meant one thing, while Nicodemus heard another. More likely, Jesus meant all three things, but Nicodemus limited himself to hearing only “born again,” and he took it quite literally.

I’ve always wondered if Nicodemus is being deliberately dense at this point. Maybe he was a bit insulted. Maybe he understands that Jesus could have said, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above – and that means you don’t stand a chance, pal.” All of the learning and studying of Torah that Nicodemus had done up to this point was – pointless. What he really needed to do was be born from above, born again, born anew.

So Jesus spells it out for him. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit. You’re doing okay on the flesh part – you just need to get going on the spirit part.”

When the Confirmation Class meets this afternoon, we will explore John Wesley’s Quadrilateral approach to seeking God’s will. In case you’re a bit rusty on your Wesleyan Theology, let me give you the short refresher course.

Wesley explained that there are four ways we can hear and identify God’s will for us. First and most important, we seek to know God’s will through his Word. Nicodemus had this one down. He had memorized the entire first five books of the Bible as a very young boy. By the time he was a teenager, Nicodemus had also memorized all the Psalms and the writings of the prophets. If knowing God’s Word had been enough to please God, Nicodemus would have been in great shape.

Wesley’s second focus was Tradition. By this, he did not mean habits that had lost their meaning through repetition, but the accumulated wisdom of previous generations, the understandings and practices that had stood the test of time. Here again, Nicodemus was steeped in tradition. He knew his rituals, and he knew what they meant. But Word and Tradition are not enough, according to Wesley, if we are to truly know God’s desire for us.

The third corner of Wesley’s Quadrilateral is Reason. Human beings are thinking creatures, and we must apply our reason to the process of discerning God’s will for us. Nicodemus was a scholar and a great thinker of his day. So far, he’s three for three.

But then we come to Wesley’s fourth quadrant: Experience. For John Wesley, the assurance of his own salvation had only come after years as an Anglican priest, and many sermons of his own preached to others. As he heard another preacher speak one day, his heart was strangely warmed, and he suddenly knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he belonged to God, and his salvation was secure.

This is where our friend Nicodemus gets stuck. “How can these things be?” he asks Jesus, and then he disappears from the story until the end of chapter seven.

Last week, I mentioned that the season of Lent developed as a time to prepare for baptism on Easter. We heard the first two questions of the Baptismal Covenant, as we considered the temptation Jesus experienced in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. 

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Renounce, reject, repent, and accept … this brings us to the third question of the Baptismal Covenant:
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

Nicodemus had to decide if he was willing to confess Jesus as his Savior and Lord, putting his whole trust in Christ’s grace. Nicodemus had to be born from above, born anew in the spirit.

Jesus says, you have to be born of water and spirit. Next week, we will encounter a woman at a well, and Jesus will offer her living water. This week, the focus is on spiritual birth. The wind blows where it will … that’s the way it is with people who have been born of the spirit: you can’t see the spirit, but you can see its effect in their lives. Whatever is born of the flesh will eventually die and decay. Whatever is born of the spirit is spirit, and can never decay.

An interesting thing happens at this point. Jesus starts talking in plural terms. Jesus turns to us, and says, “If I tell you all of earthly things, like wind and water, and you don’t get it, how will you be able to grasp heavenly things, like spirit and rebirth? Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the son of Man must be lifted up, that all who believe on him may have eternal life.

For God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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 are we like Rabbi Nic? What keeps us in the dark, preventing us from renouncing, rejecting, repenting of our own way, in order to accept Jesus as Lord and be born anew of the Spirit? What assumptions do we hold onto, that prevent us from experiencing the heart-warming peace that comes with confessing Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, and trusting in his grace alone? How do we try to keep our faith hidden, or separated from the other parts of our lives?

Remember the rich young ruler who went away sorrowful because he had many possessions? We never know the end of his story, because the gospels never mention him again. But we do hear from Nicodemus again – twice. The first time, he defends Jesus to the other Pharisees and priests, asking the other leaders to give Jesus a fair trial. The last time we see him, he is at the foot of the cross, with Joseph of Arimathea, taking down Jesus’ broken body and preparing it for burial with an unusually large amount of spices.

Did he finally come into the light?
Did he eventually experience a spiritual birth?

I think so. I think Nicodemus shows us that sometimes we don’t get an Aldersgate experience. Sometimes, the process of claiming Jesus as Lord and Savior takes a while. Some of us can’t identify a single moment when we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that our salvation is secure, but we can claim Christ’s grace just as certainly as John Wesley did, and we confess Jesus as our Lord.

So, what is your response? Is Jesus calling you out of the darkness of your own limitations, into the light of his saving grace? Are you ready to make him Lord of your entire life, not just the part that you think of as “belonging to church”? Are you ready to step out of the darkness, and into the light of God’s love for you? For God loved you in this way: he gave his only Son, that if you believe in him, you will not perish but you will have eternal life.

It’s time to change the title of this sermon. Instead of “In the dark … again?” my prayer is that each of us would follow Jesus “Out of the dark, anew.” May it be so.  Amen.

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