A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on March 20, 2011.
– Defining Moments –
Psalm 121:1-8; John 3:1-17
Images. John’s gospel is filled with images. Light and darkness... and water. Don’t forget his affinity for water, which we’ll consider, if you’ll forgive the pun, in more depth next week.
It is John’s gospel that finds Jesus speaking of himself in terms of “I AM,” a message that would have been unmistakable to the Hebrew people. It was, after all, the name by which God identified himself to Moses during the burning bush experience. Borrowing from this image of God, in the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I AM WHO I AM,” and he says it repeatedly, “I am the bread of life, I am the door of the sheep, I am the good shepherd... the true vine... the resurrection... the way, the truth, and the life.”
There are different kinds of images, of course. So let’s try and establish in our collective mind’s eye this morning the image of Jerusalem at night. Whatever illumination there is in the city is provided by burning lamps. You can see them glow softly and warmly through the open windows of the homes.
It is no surprise that John is the only New Testament gospel that conveys the story we read a few moments ago. His gospel is different from the other three in many ways, if for no other reason than he is so dependent on telling Jesus’ story with images. And that brings us to Jerusalem at night.
Nighttime and burning lamps create shadows. Shadows are useful for giving us images of how it is in the city after the sun has gone down.
One of the classes we started last Sunday night is on photography. I’ve been taking pictures for many years, but I’m still trying to learn how to do it better. One thing I’ve discovered is that shadows are a photographer’s friend, if they’re placed appropriately. They create dimension and depth to a picture, preventing the image from being too stark, or flat, or too bright. That’s why you take your best pictures either at sunrise or sunset.
Shadows can also be dark and menacing. Sometimes, shadows are good for hiding one’s self if one does not want to be seen.
Out of the shadow of the darkness of night, and into the soft light of the room where Jesus is staying, comes this man named Nicodemus. John identifies him immediately... a Pharisee, we are told, a leader of the Jews. That’s all. But then again, that’s really quite enough. To be a leader of the Jews meant he was no doubt wealthy, for it was largely wealth – along with certain other abilities, of course – that qualified men as leaders in that day. And Nicodemus is obviously intrigued by the young Nazarene who has come to visit his city, to upset the apple cart, to confront the religious status quo.
Already, as John tells the story, Jesus has entered the temple and turned over the tables of the money changers. He makes a whip of cords and drives all of them out of the place, declaring that they had made his Father’s house a marketplace. Who knows? Nicodemus may have been there to see it with his own eyes. Or, it could be that he had heard about it. Word spreads quickly about the young Nazarene and the ruckus he has stirred up down at the temple. Maybe Nicodemus secretly admires the young man for his gumption. Perhaps Jesus did what Nicodemus has been wanting to do for a long time and hasn’t mustered up the courage to do it.
Regardless, Nicodemus sees the possibility of real violence ahead, and being the leader that he is, he has become convinced that he is the one to head it off at the pass. Is Jesus a true prophet? If so, Nicodemus wants to know him better. It would be good for them to be on the same side. Or is he just a troublemaker? If that’s closer to the truth, Nicodemus needs to know that too, for he is a leader of the Jews and an important part of such leadership is determining what is true and what isn’t.
It’s time for a talk. Somebody needs to do it, and whether Nicodemus has been appointed by the group he represents or he has come of his own accord, we do not know. Maybe John, in telling this story, isn’t aware of his motive either. Or maybe it’s just not important to the point he’s trying to make, or at least the way he chooses to tell the story. Regardless, in an obvious attempt not to be seen by others, Nicodemus, this Pharisee, this leader of the Jews, has paid a secret visit to the young rabbi from Galilee.
Nicodemus is sympathetic to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Is he buttering Jesus up, setting him up for the kill? Patronizing Jesus to get him off-guard? No, there is little doubt the Pharisee is sincere. “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Has he shared this same opinion with his fellow Pharisees? Probably not. Being out in the open, up-front with one’s beliefs, could get you in trouble in those days. Come to think of it, it still does, especially in that part of the world.
Are you familiar with the name Shahbaz Bhatti? Probably not. He was the Pakistani Minister of Minorities, the last remaining Christian in the Pakistani cabinet. Notice I said was. He was murdered on Wednesday, March 2, outside his home because he had defended a Christian farm laborer who had been sentenced to death for what the extremist Muslims called blasphemy. “We’ve been attacked many, many times in our history,” another Pakistani Christian said, “but now we have been orphaned. Who will speak up for us now?”1
Not Nicodemus, to be sure. He’s too busy guarding his secret. And his secret is that he is intrigued by Jesus of Nazareth. He may be mystified about him too, but I think he is largely intrigued.
I hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable, but then again, maybe it should. One biblical commentator has said that if there is any character from the Bible who “can be regarded as representative of twenty-first-century church members, it might be Nicodemus.”2 He is a sympathetic character, to be sure, as well as successful and self-confident. That’s an interesting combination, isn’t it? He’s a leader, as we’ve already mentioned, but also spiritually open and curious. He is rational in his thinking – maybe too rational – and is willing to approach Jesus, if not from the shadows of night. Nicodemus is committed, to a certain extent, but is not willing to go public, either with his admiration for Jesus or his obvious interest in him.
So he comes to Jesus at night, sliding in from the shadows the darkness provides, talking to Jesus in secret. Nicodemus just isn’t ready for Jesus to make a real change in his life.3 Not yet, at least. Not yet.
Does that sound all too familiar? We do tend to compartmentalize our lives, don’t we? Another class we started last Sunday was on computing. If you know anything about computers, you are aware that you can create folders in which you save your various files. We do the same thing with our lives. There’s a folder for work, one for family, perhaps another for hobbies or pursuits. We may be involved in the community through service organizations or other groups filled with people who share our interests. There’s a folder for that (There may be an app for that too, but right now we’re talking about folders!). Think about the folders you have created, how you have divided your activities into certain areas.
There’s one for church, for faith. It does have its place, after all. But we can’t really afford to let it invade these other interests we have. We can’t let our faith be in all the folders of our lives, can we? So we keep our faith in its place... give it a little time here and there, keep it out of the public eye, keep it in its place, in the folder where it belongs. Does that sound familiar?
There’s nothing really wrong with giving your faith a portion of your life. That’s more than most folk do, right? The question is, is it big enough?
In attempting to answer that question – that is, if you attempt to answer it – go back to the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. I have a tendency to want to know those things that John doesn’t tell us in his story, or at least to conjecture about them. It may seem a bit strange to you, but sometimes I find more in what the Bible doesn’t tell us than it what it does say. In other words, I like to read between the lines. For example, was this just a one-on-one conversation between these two men? Did they go off privately to talk alone, or were the disciples present to listen in on what they had to say to one another?
This is the way I imagine it. When Nicodemus is let in through the door, he sees the disciples of Jesus standing there in the room. He’s just as uncomfortable in their presence as they are in his. He’s dressed in the fine robes of a Jewish nobleman while they have on the simple garb of common fishermen and other lowly professions. They’re curious as to why he has come, night or day, and he can’t help but wonder why the Nazarene has chosen to surround himself with such... well, such riffraff.
Then, in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus lays out for him the image – remember, John loves images – of those who would come to God by being born again. And Nicodemus, dressed in his fine robes and wearing the uniform of religious aristocracy, has no clue what Jesus is talking about.
See the contrast... the contrast between this learned Pharisee and the common men with which Jesus has surrounded himself. What does that tell you? It says to me that when it comes to committing ourselves to Jesus, it has less to do with theological knowledge, or even our desire to be faithful, than it does with God’s mysterious grace. God just throws grace around, and those who would receive it – whether they wear fine robes or work clothes – are the ones whose lives are eternally changed by it.
Do you think that Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, Thomas and Levi know any more about being born again than does Nicodemus? Of course not. Nor do they know any more about it than do you or I. Then what do they know? They know that one day Jesus of Nazareth came to them and said, “Follow me,” and that is exactly what they did. It wasn’t an act of commitment on their part as much as it was God’s act of grace toward them.
God sometimes has the strangest way of recruiting people. They’re just going about their regular routine, thinking about what they’re going to have for lunch or worrying about how they’re going to pay the bills, and God sneaks up on them and smacks them on the side of the head with his grace. Out of the blue, no explanation, God just does what God wants to do.
That’s not to say the disciples of Jesus didn’t give up something – a great deal, in fact – to respond to Jesus’ call. But it is to say that Jesus made the first move. Jesus always makes the first move, and when he does so in our direction, it is then up to us as to how we are going to respond.
And that may just be the biggest problem of all when it comes to Nicodemus. This encounter with Jesus just ends. There is no altar call as far as we know. Even reading between the lines doesn’t give us an indication as to whether Nicodemus committed himself to Jesus. In fact, there’s no sign that Jesus asked him to.
John does tell us later that Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea – another wealthy and influential leader of the Jews – was responsible for providing Jesus a grave and a decent burial. But whether that was due to his commitment to Jesus or just his feeling sorry for him, we do not know. He was obviously sympathetic to the young Nazarene, not only for his efforts at confronting the religious establishment, but also for his inglorious end. But did he consider himself a disciple? Did he give himself fully to Jesus as Lord? Probably not.
So where does this bring us? To the uncomfortable reality that there is a bit of Nicodemus in all of us. When we’re hesitant to respond fully to Jesus’ offer of grace, when we compartmentalize our faith, keep it in a separate folder, reserve it for such a little piece of our precious time, when we are shy about sharing our faith with others or confront that which is an enemy to the gospel... we behave like Nicodemus.
But still, grace is always the final word, isn’t it? At least we hope it is; and the word of grace is this... while there may be a bit of Nicodemus in all of us, we can thank God there is a bit of Jesus in us too. And that, when all is said and done, is what will make the difference. Will it make the difference in you?
Our prayer, O Lord, as bold as it may be, is that as we journey in faith there would be more of Jesus in us than Nicodemus. If that is to be so, it too would be an act of grace on your part. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Omar Waraich, “Another Christian Martyred in Pakistan,” Time.com.
2Deborah J. Kapp, Feasting On the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), p. 68.