I don’t know how many of you know how our scriptures are chosen…but we follow what is called the Common Lectionary. Along with the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians and some Methodists and Congregational churches, we follow a 3 year cycle of readings that is very close to the Roman Catholic Lectionary. So that means, if you went to some other Lutheran or Episcopalian or Presbyterian or Catholic church today, there’s a good chance you’d hear the same Scriptures read. Since we have a 3 year cycle, the first year follows the Gospel of Matthew, the second follows Mark and the third follows Luke. So…what happened to John, you ask? Well, John’s stories get spread out throughout all three…but it’s Matthew that has to make way for him this year throughout the season of Lent and Easter. That’s what we’re in right now. Throughout Lent, John’s stories of Jesus’ life-changing encounters with people of all stripes take center stage.
This morning, it is Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee…which meant he belonged to that sect within Judaism that believed that the strictest observation of the traditions and laws were the only way to be ‘righteous’ before God. Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy were their books. And like the good lawyer types they were — they had expanded those laws and written bylaws and clauses and clarified all the circumstances for the ways they should be fulfilled. And Nicodemus..well, he was a leader among the Pharisees…an expert in the law. So basically, he’s a religious lawyer who held a seat on their supreme court. And he goes to see Jesus.
Now, the religious leaders are all aware of Jesus by now…all too aware, in fact. Because, just before we read about Nicodemus in John’s gospel, John had told his readers how Jesus had gone into the temple in Jerusalem with a whip and chased out all the sheep and cattle being sold for sacrifice, poured out the money that had been collected by the money changers on the floor… (because going into the temple was like going into a foreign country…you had to exchange your money for “temple” money to give as an offering… so it was pure and not “unrighteous mammon”…one of the Pharisees’ bylaws, I’m sure) …so he drove out the livestock, dumped out the money…and then Jesus had proceeded to turn over their tables, claiming he was protecting his “father’s house”. So trust me, there wasn’t a religious leader in Jerusalem who didn’t know about Jesus by now. And who hadn’t subsequently heard tales about the other things Jesus had done…turning water into wine, and other “signs”. You can probably imagine how popular he was already in their eyes.
And Nicodemus goes to see him. But, notice, he avoids the light of day when everyone will see him, and he visits Jesus at night. It seems he doesn’t necessarily want his peers to know that he has gone into enemy territory. But he goes anyway, probably because he’s curious. He wants to know more about Jesus and maybe engage in an intellectual debate. You see, his whole life is based on doing the right things, and he really is convinced he’s got things right about God…but still, he’s a scholar…and he’s always wanting to learn…to test his truths…to make sure he understands things clearly. So he’s willing to give Jesus a listen. He begins by acknowledging Jesus as a teacher …a rabbi…and acknowledging that the signs he does seem to indicate that God is with him. He’s giving Jesus an opening to tell him more about himself…to explain who he is.
But Jesus…Jesus doesn’t engage Nicodemus in an academic conversation. No…he starts talking about being “born from above” so you can see the kingdom of God…and poor Nicodemus is just lost. To his fine legal mind …this is just crazy talk. Nicodemus knows the facts of life, after all. So it seems to him that Jesus is just spouting some ethereal new age mumbo jumbo…and Nicodemus is not interested. He wants information. Scholarly arguments. He wants this conversation to stay in reality. But Jesus …Jesus wants Nicodemus to open up his eyes and be born into a whole new reality…that is so much bigger than the one he understands.
You see, Jesus isn’t interested in Nicodemus’ laws and religious order for this small sect of Jews… instead, it turns out he is interested in saving God’s whole cosmos…that’s the word here, actually. God did not send the Son into the cosmos to condemn it…but that the cosmos might be saved through him. The cosmos – everything that exists – all creation…all people…all living things…the air and the earth and wind and the fire. Nicodemus wants reality…but he lives in a reality that is too small…he thinks of himself only as a part of his small family… a child born of one mother in one corner of the world among a select group of people. And so, Jesus invites Nicodemus to be born again…to enter into God’s womb…and be born instead…as a child of God, born into eternity…connected to all creation…and filled with the Spirit of God that is free to blow us in any direction.
Nicodemus comes to see Jesus…with his own agenda. But Jesus invites Nicodemus into a whole new life. And I wonder if that isn’t the way it works for us, too?
Sometimes, we come to Jesus with our own agenda. And sometimes it’s probably not that different from Nicodemus’. We’re curious. We want to understand. We want to make sure we get things “right” with God. But instead of telling us how to “get right with God”…Jesus invites us to be born of God. To see God as our mother, to draw close to God’s heart and be born into the love of God that is oh, so intimate…yet infinite and cosmic and vast. We may think we want intellectual stimulation…but God wraps us in love and companionship and blows the breath of life into us…making us children of God…connecting us by water and spirit to the whole creation. That is how we are saved, after all. That is how we begin to live the lives God intended for us. We come to see Jesus…and we end up changed.
We don’t know what Nicodemus did after leaving Jesus that night…but he does appear twice more in John’s gospel. And it seems that his encounter with Jesus changed him. Because, when the other Jewish leaders wanted Jesus arrested, Nicodemus is the only one who speaks up, to point out that their own laws demand he be given a hearing first, before he is condemned. I wonder, if perhaps, since he was changed by listening to Jesus…he hopes they might be as well. And then, after Jesus has been killed, Nicodemus shows up again with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe …a fortune in burial spices… to wrap in Jesus’ burial cloths before he is placed in the tomb. Yes, knowing Jesus clearly had a deep impact on Nicodemus’ life.
Spending time with Jesus will do that, it seems. Even to a keen religious legal authority. And it will do it to us. Spending time with Jesus …coming together, worshiping, praying, reading the Scriptures…opens us up to the Spirit that blows in all creation…throughout the cosmos…and blows us in ways we cannot see. And that…that will change us. But it will also give us life. Life that has no end …infinite life…. eternal life. And maybe that’s not such a bad reality to live in, after all. Amen.