This sermon is part six of a summer sermon series titled “Average Joe with an Extraordinary Sermon preached at First United Methodist Church in Sweeny Texas on July 23, 2017.
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.
“This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God” (John 3:1-21, Common English Bible.
I am not a lot different from you. Sure, we live in different times in history. But, I spent much of my life, just like you, trying to figure out the meaning of life. I wanted to know why I am here. Yes, I am a lot like you.
I was part of the religious establishment. I came from a well known and honored family. People knew who I was. My family was a respected and so was I. I also was a Pharisee. The word Pharisee means “separated one.” My life consisted mostly of separating myself from the general population. I also worked hard to obey the law to the letter. Well, I worked at obeying the letter of the law as much as humanly possible anyway.
I was well educated for my day. I had resources. I knew people. And, people looked up to me.
You are also like me in that we are all also drawn mysteriously toward Jesus. Something in Jesus makes us want to understand him. I had a curiosity when it came to Jesus. I was somehow drawn to Jesus. We are all mysteriously drawn to this man who is called the Messiah. We all are here at this place to worship because of this man called Jesus, son of Joseph, Son of God.
This mysterious figure of Jesus has an attraction, a draw on our hearts that none of us can fully explain. I was drawn to Jesus, but I was also confused by Jesus.
My friend John, son of Zebedee wrote in his account of Jesus’ life, “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night…” John was trying to be cute there. Actually, I wish I had been the one to say it. When I went to Jesus, it was dark, it was nighttime. But, that really isn’t what John was talking about. It was the nighttime of my life. It was before I saw the light of day in Jesus Christ. And, for me, it was truly a dark time. I had much. I had most everything I could have wanted but my life was not whole. It was not fulfilled. I was not satisfied. That is why I came to Jesus. I knew there had to be more.
John was right about it being during the nighttime of my life but there were also a lot of reasons to go see Jesus at night. I knew what my fellow Pharisees thought about Jesus. Though I knew I had to go, I was afraid to go during the day. I knew there would be consequences for my actions if I was discovered. Additionally, the Rabbis of my day taught that it was better to study the Law at night when a person has fewer distractions. During the day there were always a lot of people around Jesus. I wanted to have this conversation with him and the best hope I had for us to not be interrupted was for us to talk at night, in the dark.
As Jesus and I talked I really started to wonder why I was having this talk with him at all. I really didn’t understand anything Jesus was saying. We never quite connected. I used my intellect, education, values, morals, and culture to try to understand. I tried, really I tried, but I still missed Jesus’ point. I was starting to see, and I would learn it even better over the years to come that Jesus embodied the ways of God that were, by definition unconventional ways for my time. They are unconventional ways for your time too.
Jesus’ ways have always been unconventional. It’s difficult for establishment people like us to connect. It is not impossible but it is difficult to connect with Jesus. Jesus used ways of teaching that were both direct, lay it all on the line, but at the same time cryptic.
Remember Jesus words, “If someone hits you on the right cheek, turn and offer the left?” That is not a conventional way to approach a disagreement. Jesus had unusual ways of seeing many things in the world, responses to aggression included. It’s pretty obvious most of us don’t respond in the same way. It’s hard to connect with Jesus because he teaches differently than the way our minds think. We want to follow our natural inclinations.
Jesus was also the one who said, “You’ve heard the saying, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, ‘love your enemy.’” That is not how we humans think. It defies our culture. It defies our logic. Treat your enemy just like your friend? That’s crazy talk. And, if we are faithful, it is also really hard. That is a difficult teaching and we have a tough time living it out in the real world. But, make no mistake, Jesus was serious in what he said. If you think Jesus’ teachings are simple and easy and that anyone could follow them, I might not be the first, but I would say, you need to sit down and do some serious study of what Jesus says in your Bible.
As Jesus and I talked in the dark that night he started talking about the need to be born again. Over the centuries a lot of people thought I was trying to take Jesus literally when I asked, “So am I to come from my mother’s womb a second time?” I wasn’t. I was well aware you can’t have a physical second birth. I was more asking the question like, “So this birth can’t be a second physical birth, what then?”
I feel certain most all of you have been asked at some point, “Are you born again?” The question carries the implication that being born again is something we choose to do, something we decide. Our physical birth had nothing to do with something of our own decision. To be reborn means to be born again, the parallel is birth. The image is about how we came to life. Life is not a decision, it’s a gift. It isn’t our decision to be born, nor do we accept birth. Life is a gift, a wonderful gift of God, of God’s grace and love that is beyond our human ability to understand.
Now, to be reborn? Being reborn is a choice. It is a choice to accept something else, something more God gives to us through Jesus. Yes, that is a gift too, but the choice to accept is up to us.
Standing there in the dark that night, that was something I learned. I also learned that God loves us enough to send his Son and that if we believe, we will have eternal life.
I can’t say to you I accepted the gift that night. I did not. When I left my clandestine meeting with Jesus, I just like the word clandestine, I had all kinds of things rattling around in my head. I was also saying to myself, “Nicodemus, you have got to give some serious thought to what this man has to say.”
And I did give it thought. Something kept pulling me back to what this man Jesus had to say. I now know that something to be what your founder, John Wesley would come to call prevenient grace. Before I was able to understand all these things, God was calling me. God calls you in the same way.
When I left Jesus that night it was by no means the end of my story. The other Pharisees, particularly those who served on the Sanhedrin with me grew to fear Jesus and the power he was gaining with the people more every day. They were afraid of losing their position and they were afraid he would stir up more trouble with the Romans. If the Romans cracked down on religion because of what Jesus was doing it would threaten the way of life for Pharisees in general and the Sanhedrin in particular. They couldn’t let that happen.
When the Sanhedrin felt something had to happen, something had to change in what Jesus was saying and doing, they started to plot against him.
I still wasn’t exactly sure where I stood with Jesus or what I thought of him but I also knew I didn’t want to see the council do him wrong. The law promised him a fair hearing. I wanted to make sure he got that fair hearing. After all, we are the Pharisees. We are the ones who lived by the letter of the law and this was the letter of the law.
When I brought this concern to the other members of the council they responded by saying, “You are not from Galilee too, are you? Look it up and you will see that the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee.” I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now. What does me, or Jesus being from Galilee has to do with seeing that we follow the law and that Jesus gets a fair hearing?
The response to this was, instead of a hearing they went out to question Jesus. Their intent was to trap him by asking him questions. They brought a woman to him caught in adultery. They said Moses gave permission to stone the woman. Then they asked what he thought.
It really wasn’t much of a hearing and I was very disappointed with the council. I thought it was pretty funny when Jesus bent down and started to write in the sand with his finger. Then he tells them “Whoever hasn’t committed a sin, let him cast the first stone.” He continued is writing in the sand and all the Pharisees and keepers of the law walked away. No, it wasn’t much of a hearing but Jesus’ response was more than effective. I was impressed.
Though Jesus won the day that day, it wouldn’t always be the case. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and keepers of the law were a determined bunch. Once they got something like discrediting or worse with Jesus, they were like an old dog with a bone. They were not going to let it go. They were determined to get Jesus or to die trying.
Well, someone did die in the trying. But this time, it wouldn’t be the Pharisees that died. This time it would be Jesus. To their credit, after Jesus was arrested, they did give him a hearing. How fair it was is open to debate. In the end, they handed Jesus over to the Romans who, at the insistence of our leaders, executed the man. Though I didn’t leave the Pharisees or the Sanhedrin, by this point I was totally disillusioned.
I also wasn’t alone. My friend Joseph, a Pharisee from Arimathea was also troubled by what he was seeing from our fellow Pharisees.
Seeing Jesus on that cross bothered Joseph and me deeply. We both knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. We wanted to do something to help but at this point, there really wasn’t much we could do. We waited.
After Jesus died, Joseph approached Pilate, asking for and receiving permission to remove Jesus’ body from his cross. I went along to help. We removed the body and put it in a new tomb workers had recently finished carving out for Joseph. It was the place where Joseph himself would be buried one day. For now, it was the tomb for Jesus alone. As for me, I bought seventy-five pounds of aloe and myrrh as well as the leaves and other items we Jews traditionally use in burial.
Under normal circumstances, we would use a much smaller amount, perhaps a tenth that much. Jesus was not your normal burial. I wanted to make sure he was treated as we would bury a king.
Though we had to rush, we were able to complete, at least to the extent necessary for the day, Jesus’ burial. Others would come back after the Sabbath to finish the needed work. At least that was the plan. When the women went back to the tomb on the first day of the week, they found the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body was no longer there. They and the disciples learned Jesus had risen.
Joseph and I had our doubts at first. We went and found the disciples and questioned them extensively, not as Pharisees but as Jews seeking the truth. When we left, as hard as it might be to believe, I was convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead. Being a secret disciple, Joseph already believed but he wanted to hear the story of how it happened.
Over the next few days and weeks, I started distancing myself more and more from the other Pharisees. I spent more time with Joseph and the other disciples. Eventually, I came to believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Peter and John baptized me.
Following my baptism, both Joseph and I were brought before the council. We were forcibly removed from its membership and stripped of the title Pharisee. We were ridiculed and then beaten. The remaining council members called what we did apostasy. They said we had abandoned the faith.
We were chased from the temple and then from Jerusalem itself. We ended up at the home of Joseph’s friend Gamaliel. I would enjoy Gamaliel’s hospitality for the rest of my earthly life. Here I spent my days telling anyone who would listen that I was born again and that they must be born again too.
I also became a writer. I wrote my own account of Jesus’ life. Though it is not in your Bible, I have always been rather proud of writing my own account of the one true Messiah, a man who made a difference in me.
I had always been a sculptor. I particularly enjoyed carving. It was a way I had always diverted my mind and removed myself from the rigors of the day. After arriving at Gamaliel’s home, I continued to carve. I was attempting to carve the figure of Jesus on the cross. I had carved it many times and each time I threw the work away. I was unable to capture the beauty I what Jesus did on the cross, the image I had in my mind. One day, after yet another failed effort, I threw my tools aside and fell upon my bed and went to sleep, leaving the half finished work undone. When I awoke the piece was finished and it was beautiful. Angels had come during the night and finished the work. I awoke just in time to see them as they departed. The crucifix was perfect. It is still preserved in Lucca, a city in the Tuscany region of Italy, though unfortunately, all you can see is a copy.
I know I was privileged to live in a time where I could have first-hand knowledge of the Messiah. I will never forget the first time we met. Jesus was so patient as I tried to learn what he had to offer. I don’t remember everything from that night we met. What I do remember is Jesus saying I must be born again. I was born again. Are you?
The other thing I remember is some very special and treasured words. They were words that for the rest of my days gave me comfort and hope in a life to come. Jesus said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Nicodemus was right. You must be born again. We all must have that spiritual rebirth. That rebirth makes those words of Jesus, John 3:16-17 real. That rebirth makes them come alive. God loves you so much he gave Jesus and if you believe in him you will not perish but you will have eternal life. Those words are a hope that can save the world.