Sunday, March 20, 2011

2nd Sunday of Lent - March 20, 2011

I’d like to tell you the tale of Nicodemus this morning, or the first part of it anyways.  It’s a sad account, though you might not guess it.  It’s sad, not so much because of what was said, for these words are among the most beloved in all the world, but because of the words that weren’t said.  Like so many conversations that matter in our lives, it only takes a few words to make all the difference.

Let’s start by taking a look at the end of John chapter two, the verses right before our gospel lesson.  Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover festival.  This is near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and he is making quite a splash.  He has been teaching and preaching and performing “signs.”  It doesn’t tell us exactly what those signs were, but likely they were healings and exorcisms.  And he is butting up against the religious authorities, not least because he threw all the moneychangers out of the temple and caused a ruckus, but also because some people are seeing these signs and are starting to believe in him on the basis of the signs.  People are beginning to believe in him based on some signs that he has performed.  They see with their eyes some miracles and they make the judgment with their heads, “Wow, this guy can heal the sick; he must be somebody special.” 

Now Jesus isn’t a big fan of this kind of belief.  It seems that “belief” that is based on signs does not meet with his approval.  This is what it says, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover festival, many believed in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.  But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”  Belief of the eyes, belief that comes from people making judgments based on evidence, belief that is produced by the self does not meet the approval of Jesus.

Now Nicodemus enters the story.  Actually, he’s already been in it.  He’s one of those folks we’ve just been talking about.  So let’s hear that last passage again.  “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.  But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.  Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus......”

The gospel writer is telling us something about who Nicodemus is.  He is a “man.”  He is a man like the ones we’ve just spoken about.  He is a man who sees things in terms of signs and then thinks that he can understand, thinks that he can make proper judgments.  But no, we have been told that Jesus sees what is in the heart of such men.  And it doesn’t sound good.  This conclusion is reinforced by another bit of information that we are given.  Nicodemus arrives in the dark.  Does this mean that he comes at nighttime?  Yes, but it’s a double meaning.  Nicodemus arrives without understanding.  Nicodemus has seen the signs that Jesus has performed and he thinks he understands and can make judgments, but he cannot; he is in the dark. 

And that is what makes his first words almost humorous if they weren’t so sad.  This blind man among blind men comes to Jesus and says as confident as you like, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Wrong.  Nicodemus knows no such thing.

Jesus interrupts him and changes the subject immediately.  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  What?  Nicodemus has come to Jesus to talk about what Jesus is doing and by whose authority he is doing it.  Jesus ignores that and starts talking about Nicodemus, and what he must do.  “You must be born from above.” he says.  Other translations put it, “You must be born again.”  Either way, Jesus is getting at the same thing.  Instead of being put on the spot by Nicodemus, he is putting Nicodemus on the spot.  Nicodemus and the others who “believed” in Jesus thought that they were capable of judging the situation, “We see the signs, therefore, according to our judgment, you must be......”  They don’t have a clue and Jesus know this very well.  And so he begins to attack this presumption. 

He attacks the presumption by demanding the impossible.  “You must be born again.”  He may as well have asked Nicodemus to fly like a chickadee or grow a horn on his head.  It is an impossible demand.  Nicodemus is absolutely befuddled by it.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  We can laugh at this ridiculous question if we like, but Nicodemus has it mostly right.  “How is the impossible supposed to be possible?”  Good question.

Jesus answers by adding another measure of the impossible, “You must be born of water and Spirit.”  This is more of the same.  Jesus is pointing to what must happen; But how?  How in the world is Nicodemus supposed to be born of water and Spirit?  He doesn’t even get the chance to ask another question or think it over, because Jesus just plows ahead, attacking poor Nicodemus.  “The wind blows where it chooses,” Jesus says, “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.”  The wind, the Spirit is totally out of Nicodemus’ control.  It blows where it chooses to blow, it doesn’t ask his permission or even consult him.  The Spirit has free will.  Nicodemus does not.

At this point, you might say that Nicodemus is blown away.  He asks weakly, “How can these things be?”  Jesus responds, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”  Jesus knows very well that Nicodemus cannot, CANNOT, understand these things.  Not by himself.  Not by his own wisdom.  Not because he saw some signs.  ........  The problem is that Nicodemus thinks that he can understand.  The problem is that Nicodemus thinks that he can believe for himself.  But he cannot.  He cannot conjure up belief within himself.

Jesus continues with just six words more.  “No one has ascended into heaven......” he says.  And this is the bad news cherry on top of the bad news Sundae.  There is no hope.  No one has ascended into heaven.  All your best efforts, Nicodemus, fall short.  You cannot know by yourself.  You cannot believe by yourself.  All of your attempts are worth exactly squat.  Zero.  Zilch........   Nicodemus doesn’t say a word.

Jesus finishes his sentence and dawn breaks.  “No one has ascended into heaven EXCEPT THE ONE WHO DESCENDED FROM HEAVEN, the Son of Man.”  There is, in fact, ONE.  There is ONE who is able.  And so here is the beginning of hope.  Here is the beginning of the gospel.  Because God has sent Jesus to be among us.  None have ascended, but God has descended.  He has become a man.  And still Nicodemus is silent.

Jesus continues, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up........”  The good news starts with God becoming a man, a mere servant.  Now the good news continues with that man being nailed to a cross.  Jesus continues, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  We’re almost there.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life!” 

But wait.  Wait a second.  There is something wrong here.  “Whosoever believes?”  Jesus has been putting Nicodemus through the wringer, telling him, in effect, that he cannot do what is necessary, that he cannot understand, that he cannot create his own faith.  And at the end of all of that, at just the moment we would expect for Jesus to speak words of comfort directly to Nicodemus, instead he makes a beautiful, poetic generalization.  And what’s more, there is a condition.  The very thing that Nicodemus cannot produce, faith,  is the thing that is required. What is a man like Nicodemus to do? 

And there again, as always, is the problem.  There is nothing to be done.  Nicodemus isn’t capable of doing what is required.  He is entirely at the mercy of  Jesus. 

And here is why I find this story to be sad.  And here is where I want just a few more words.  I want to hear Jesus say, “Nicodemus, God loves you.  Your sins are forgiven.  You cannot produce your own faith, but I give you mine.”  But we don’t hear it.  We don’t know what was said. 

And so I want to make absolutely sure that you hear those words. 
Not just the words that condemn,
nor words that leave you wondering,
but words from outside of you that create faith within you. 
"For God so loved you, that he gave his only son, so that you should not perish, but have eternal life.”

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