A Sermon on Nicodemus

Title: Nicodemus
Scripture: John 3:1-17
Delivered: Calvary Moravian Church, Allentown, PA; March 16, 2014

I am grateful that you all were willing to bear with me as I changed the Old Testament and Epistle lessons today. After reading and praying about the texts all week, the Old Testament lesson led me in such a different direction from the Gospel lesson about Nicodemus, so I decided to preach about Nicodemus solely.

Our story about Sarah’s skeptical laughter, and our teaching about there being a “time for every purpose under heaven” really enhanced my thinking about Nicodemus. I just hope that my sermon isn’t for the Byrds.

In Ecclesiastes, the author takes all of these messages about time, including the puzzling “a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones”, and points at the pivotal phrase: “God has put a sense of past and future into [our] minds, yet [we] cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

Spanning the length, width, and height of past and future is eternity: heaven. Heaven here, heaven there. The Eden that we were banished from, and the paradise that we are called to.

And in the dark of the night, Nicodemus, an upstanding Rabbi and Pharisee, steals away to Jesus, in order to ask about the mind of God. They have a conversation:

“Jesus, we know that you are a teacher from God.”
“Nicodemus, no one can see God’s kingdom without being born from above.”
“Jesus, how can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter the womb a second time?”
“Nicodemus, very truly, I tell you, no-one one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of both water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
And Nicodemus wondered, “How can these things be?”

How can these things be, indeed.

Two observations.

First: as people sitting here in flesh and blood, we are born of water. In our mothers wombs, we were nurtured in water. Or amniotic fluid, but those ancient people would have considered it water. And then, of course, our bodies are made up of many elements, the majority of which is H20; water. So here, Jesus is acknowledging that we must be born of the flesh.

But second: we must also, as well, be born of the Spirit. No one can enter the Kingdom of God, no one can even see or imagine the Kingdom of God, no one can see or imagine eternity without being born of the Spirit.

And so we think of that as being pretty exclusive. But I think that Jesus is almost making a very, very dry joke here. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in God 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.
Who among us has not pondered the mind of God, the center of Eternity? Who among us has not known a loved one to die, or pondered our own mortality? Here is Jesus somewhat cruel joke: who in this world has not pondered eternity? Were some of those people not Christian? Were some of those people not even “religious”? And so, are we not all born of the Spirit, even if we don’t accept that? Of course, we each make decisions on a daily basis to trust and obey God’s Spirit, to see the world through Spirit eyes, or to make decisions on daily basis to dwell in the long loneliness of being flesh-led.

Nicodemus came to visit Jesus in the dark of the night, searching and yearning for God’s mind. He wanted to know more, he wanted to live more fully, and more authentically. He wanted to know who this person was, this Jesus who was of God. And he left there, perplexed, and completely puzzled. “How can these things be?!”

Have you ever felt this way about things we have spoken of and acted upon, here in Church? Have you ever seen a televangelist, or a street preacher, and wondered “How can these things be?”

Have you ever witnessed Bill Nye the Science Guy, an engineer who has become a public face for science; and Ken Hamm, a Christian entrepreneur who founded the Creationist Museum, debate the merits of evolution vs. creationism, and wonder “How can these things be?”

I believe that Jesus and Nicodemus were having two completely different conversations. Nicodemus didn’t realize it; Jesus probably did. They were in the same room together, they were talking to one another, but they were having two completely different conversations.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Pharisees were teachers and legal scholars. Pharisees believed in Resurrection. Jesus could have been considered a Pharisee. The Pharisees were long expecting a Messiah, a Savior that would overthrow Rome, and retake Israel as a monarch. Jesus, of course, was not a King of the Flesh. Nicodemus knew that Jesus was up to something amazing, but he also knew that Jesus wasn’t doing what all the Pharisees believed he should be doing. And so, in the dark of the night, he visited Jesus to ask him some questions.

And Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ questions, with answers to questions that were never asked.

A few weeks ago, Bill Nye the Science Guy debated Ken Hamm, an advocate of Creationism, over the merits of Evolution. It was a public event, but thankfully, it was only broadcast on the internet, not on TV. I am thankful that it didn’t have a wider broadcast, because I am personally embarassed, for all Christians, that this spectacle even took place. I think that this ongoing debate is just like Nicodemus’ and Jesus’: in the room, talking together, but asking completely different sets of questions, and expecting the same answers.

Evolution is the well tested, well explained theory that describes how our world has changed over time. Numerous other helpful biological and physical theories are based upon Evolution. This is a matter of the flesh. Creationism is an attempt to use the Bible to explain the origins of the world. But the truths in the Bible are generally not fleshly ones, but are spiritual ones

My faith in the creative, redemptive, and sustaining God of eternity, the God of reusrrection, is not threatened by scientific research. Certainly neuroscience, which has sought to describe emotions as chemical reactions, has given me pause. But the scientific method is asking a certain set of questions, while the pondering of eternity in prayer, discernment, and journey, is completely different.

But, like Nicodemus, we seek answers to our questions.

Have you ever received bizarre news, and then laughed? I do this all of the time; sometimes its inappropriate, like “haha, we haven’t realized that bombing doesn’t solve problems?” It comes from my skepticism. We still rely on our fleshly way of questioning the world, when God has provided us with minds to ponder eternity.

Sarai, an elderly woman, who had gone through menopause years ago, learned that she would be pregnant. She laughed. “How absurd,” she though. Sarai expected answers to questions she was asking, like “How can I get pregnant at my advanced age?” Of course, she was impregnated with an answer to a question she had long stopped asking.

As a culture, we do value certain ways of seeing the world, over others. The Pew Forum, which is a well respected organization that collects information about religion and religiosity in North America, has long been documenting a decline in organized religion in the United States. It seems that, as a culture, we are becoming more secular.

As an educated, affluent culture, we broadly want answers to questions that we can use to control the environment, make money, and manage our time with. This is called empiricism. We want to document everything, and explain it in rational terms. Please don’t misunderstand me: I love my air conditioner, having blueberries year round, and trusting that, generally, medicine can solve many of my past, present, or future ailments. I was born an entire trimester too early!

We value this fleshly empiricism over spiritual intuition, because it is measurable and documented. And – this progress that we have achieved through empirical research is miraculous. BUT – this progress that we have made as a species could never have been achieved if we did not have a mind of eternity. And opposable thumbs. But mainly, a mind that seeks God, who is creative, who takes bad and makes good, who sustains us with inspiration and drive.

The Pew Forum that I spoke of earlier, that has documented a decline in religiosity of people, has also strongly noted that, people are indeed spiritual, people do pray and believe in God, in similar numbers to previous generations. This might call this “spiritual but not religious”. I have never really taken that phrase seriously, but maybe there is some redeeming to it.

A generation comes, and a generation goes, but God is eternal. As we mature, our relationship with God changes. When we are young, we ask simple questions, and expect simple answers. As we age, we wonder, “How can these things be?”. We will receive answers in due time, even if we never asked the question we wondered.

As a church, it is not our role to provide hard-and-fast answers to people’s heartfelt yearnings and questions. If we do that, surely we will rely on the flesh, and provide answers for questions we never asked. As church, it is our job to honestly engage with people, knowing and believing that God may provide answers throughout the course of eternity.

Let me leave you with this thought: Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark of the night, with serious questions that he wanted answers to. They were simple questions, but serious questions, nonetheless. He left Jesus, even more confused than he was before. But – it was Nicodemus who, in broad daylight, before the sabbath, helped Jesus off of the cross, and ensured that he had a proper burial, even as others had abandoned Jesus.