March 18, 2014
The Original Nic at Night
The Original Nic at Night
Someone once asked a young woman, “What is the difference between my religion and yours?” She responded, “They are actually quite close. In fact, only two letters separate our beliefs. Your religion is spelled, ‘D-O; DO.’ Mine is spelled: ‘D-O-N-E; DONE.’”
“How do you spell religion?” That very question confronted and confused Nicodemus. He ought to have known the answer – he was a leader in the church, and not just any leader, he was a Pharisee. That title may mean little to us, but it was significant in Jesus’ day.The Pharisees were the ultimate in people committed to their religion.They had, for example, many rules dictating acceptable behavior on the Sabbath. Because God prohibited work on the Sabbath, they carefully measured their food so as to only carry what weighed less than a dried fig. They prohibited poor women from picking grains of wheat and eating them, for that required the “work” of harvesting and“threshing.” Their acts of devotion may seem ridiculous to us, but we surely must be impressed by the seriousness with which they
practiced their faith.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee; but he was not only a Pharisee; he was also (verse 1): “a ruler of the Jews.” This refers to the Sanhedrin, the 70 men who governed the Jews under the ultimate authority of the Roman Empire. They had “wide-ranging powers in civil, criminal, and religious matters.” As an example, they could both arrest andconduct trials. So Nicodemus was no fool; he was both well educated and sophisticated. Therefore, we should not be surprised that Jesus’ conversation with him overflows with subtle reasoning, complex scriptural allusions and deep spiritual truths. For the rest of us, we may feel we have fallen into the deep end of a theological pool! But in spite of the depth of the spiritual water, do not despair. There is plenty of plain truth to grab onto while we enjoy splashing around in the deep end.The main theme of the gospel of John is marked clearly by repetition. It is a favorite teaching method of Jesus; and it is a favorite writing tool for John. In this case the main point is: “You must be born again.” Verse 3: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” He repeats himself verse 7: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
“Born again” – when Jimmy Carter, the President of the United States of America, said that he was “born again,” the evangelicals knew they were in tall cotton. They got to say “One of us” was in the big house. Jim Jones, the acclaimed leader of the Peoples Temple cult whose members committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana claimed to be born again. In 1980 Forbes magazine described “Born again Companies.” An Los Angeles Times article reported on a football player who made a career comeback, “The Steeler Who Was Born Again.” And even the singer Madonna says that, “When my daughter was born, I was born-again.” In spite of the misuse and abuse of the phrase, Jesus first spoke it, and we will take the risk of seeking to learn from it today. We Must Be Born Again Because of the Nature of the Kingdom of God (John 3.1-3). Nicodemus is a conflicted fellow. He is not sure what to think about Jesus. He has seen “these signs” (verse 2) and he is clearly impressed. We do not know if he was personally at the wedding at Cana (recorded in chapter two), where Jesus changed the water into wine, but he has surely heard of that miracle. And this verse makes it clear that Nicodemus has seen other miracles himself. So he concludes that Jesus must be from God.
Additionally, Nicodemus admits that Jesus is a teacher and he calls him Rabbi. This is a complement; Nicodemus, the older and wiser rabbi is “graciously” treating Jesus as a peer, as a man to be honored. We would not go so far as to say that Nicodemus is “buttering up” Jesus, but he is certainly speaking of him and to him with some respect. At the same time, he visits Jesus under cover of night. And he tells Jesus what, “We know….” There is a old saying, “Who is this ‘we’ you keep talking about? Do you have a mouse in your pocket?” Who is the “we” Nic? It’s just you and Jesus speaking.
Good friends who want to be identified with the Rabbi do not come by night. They also need not imply there are others standing behind them, unseen. Nicodemus has not yet made a decision about Jesus. To put his subtle speech and behavior into more clear talk, he is saying: “Jesus, some friends and I have been talking and some of us are impressed with you. We are considering ‘casting our lot’ with you, joining your team, being on your side. We are thinking about choosing you to be the next great leader of Israel. What do you think about that?” Nicodemus has criteria by which he is measuring potential leaders and possible Messiahs, and he is “complementing” Jesus by telling him that he made it through the first round of interviews. In some ways it sounds like Nicodemus is looking for a pastor in the Presbyterian Church.
“Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” How about that for a cryptic answer? What does that mean? It is actually pretty straightforward. Here it is: the kingdom of God is not that kind of kingdom. You know what Nicodemus is thinking about. You see it in the NCAA. Every coach knows that if he can get the great recruit, the team will go all the way. The coach is qualified; the support staff is ready; the professors have already placed passing grades on the exams. All that is needed is the One. We even have a name for them related to kingdoms – the one person who makes all of the difference for a team or franchise – the “dynasty maker.” What is a dynasty, but rulers of a kingdom from a certain family who make their influence felt over several generations? Nicodemus is recruiting!
And Jesus will have none of it! “It is not that kind of kingdom. You ‘see’ princes born of women. My kingdom is not about your choosing me to be your King; it is about God choosing you to be his daughter or son.” Do not ask Jesus if he is ready to be the leader; ask yourself if are you ready for the King? Have you been born again?
Nicodemus could see – he could see the great things that would happen if Jesus were on the throne. But Jesus responds
“What you see is not my kingdom.” The Kingdom of God is not about a great group of men banding together to change the world. It is about a great God sending a savior to redeem the world. Sometimes in the church people think, “Would it not be great if such-and-such a superstar were to become a committed Christian?” It’s not that kind of Kingdom! It is not about the right people to make a dynasty.
There is one other lesson for church leadership that I ought to mention before we continue – feeble beginnings may turn out fine believers. Nicodemus’ start was not good. He is afraid of his friends and unsure of the Savior. But after this encounter with Jesus,Nicodemus defends Jesus before the Jewish leaders and he helps prepare Jesus’ body for his burial. He comes to faith and is a committed follower.
J. C. Ryle, the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool states, “We must not set down a man as having no grace, because his first steps towards God are timid and wavering, and the first movements of his soul are uncertain, hesitating, and stamped with much imperfection…. Like our Lord, let us take inquirers by the hand, and deal with them gently and lovingly. In everything there must be a beginning. It is not those who make the most flaming profession of faith at first who endure the longest and prove the most steadfast.”
It has been said that the history of religion is the account of mankind’s attempts to climb back to God. At one time we were close to God. After God made the first two people, Adam and Eve, they walked in fellowship together and God delighted in God’s children just as they delighted in God. But then something went terribly wrong. We call it “The Fall,” because humankind fell away from God. Where love once reigned, there was now animosity. Fear drove out trust. Rebellion replaced obedience. No longer was mankind innocent; we had “fallen” from that high and lofty place into the muck and mire of sin. Our hearts were now set against God. We no longer enjoyed having God tell us what to do; we want to do it our way. So religion attempts to answer the question, “How does one get back to God?” Some sacrifice themselves in a holy war. Others strive to obey the law. Some fast and take vows of poverty. Others pray specific prayers or attend the right church or eat and drink the holy sacrament.
Nicodemus understands the problem. He is part of a religion that has based everything on being better than someone else. He has spent his entire life climbing a ladder in an effort to get back to God. He is near the top – he just needs the final rung to be supplied by theMessiah. “I have done everything to please God; all I need to know is what is that one last good thing I must do to reach the Kingdom?” And Jesus says, “Your ladder is leaning on the wall of hell. No one ascends to heaven; I have come down. Remember when a swarm of biting serpents plagued Israelites when they were roaming in the desert and they were dying by the thousands? How were they saved? Moses made a bronze image of the serpent, lifted it on a pole and all who looked up were healed.” Now you know why that strange event occurred in the life of Israel? It prophesized of a Savior who would be lifted up on the cross, so that all who look to him might be saved, born again, cleansed from their sin.
An Arabian Chicken Little story tells of a young Arab who was traveling along a road on his donkey when he came upon a small, fuzzy object lying in the road. He dismounted to look more closely and found a sparrow lying on its back with its scrawny legs thrust skyward. At first he thought it was dead, but closer investigation proved the bird to be very much alive. The young man asked the sparrow if he was all right. The sparrow replied, “Yes.”
“Then what are you doing on your back with your legs pointed up toward the sky?” The sparrow responded that he had heard a rumor that the sky was falling, so he was holding his legs up to support it. The Arab replied: “You surely don’t think you are going to hold it up with those two scrawny legs, do you?” The sparrow, after a very solemn look, replied: “One does the best one can.”
Jesus is saying to the Nicodemus in every one of us, “You don’t think you are going to climb the ladder to heaven on those two scrawny legs, do you?” “I’m doing the best I can,” is not the answer. Instead, climb down from the ladder of your own efforts, and look to the God who has come down that we might be lifted up. All other paths to salvation are spelled D-O; DO. Jesus alone offers one that is: “D-O-N-E; DONE.”
How can these things be? That was Nicodemus’ question. They can be – they must be, because the Savior who came down has been lifted up. It is not your work to do; it is his, which has been done, for you, for me, for the world. Amen.