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Night School

A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., March 20, 2011.
John 3:1-12

I never was a fan of night school, but that’s understandable. I am a morning person and do my best work in the early hours of the day. My hat’s off to those who teach or go to school at night. Many of you put in some very long days and have to concentrate when I know you are tired.

I wonder if Jesus was tired the night Nicodemus knocked on his door. If he was, he probably never let Nicodemus know it. The opportunity to talk to a Pharisee and distinguished member of the Sanhedrin did not come every day and he was not about to let it slip away.

John is the only writer to share this story. I am certainly glad he did, though, because there are few stories in scripture that teach us more about faith and life than this one. As a matter of fact, I see this story as the premier model for faith development or spiritual formation. I don’t recall seeing this text this way before, but it became clear to me as I pondered it last week. In the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, we can discover ways to strengthen our own faith.

This is one of the most familiar stories in scripture and is widely known because of a phrase Nicodemus used, “born again.” This concept has been the focus of many sermons, Bible studies and even political campaigns. I find this interesting because, in all likelihood, Jesus told Nicodemus he needed to be “born from above,” yet Nicodemus interpreted what Jesus said as “being born again.” This discrepancy led to Nicodemus’ confusion and Jesus’ clarifying comments. I’ll get into this later, but let me give you an overview of the entire story.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, visited Jesus one night for the purpose of engaging him in a conversation. This was not unusual because rabbis often talked at night in the privacy of homes so they would not be distracted or interrupted.

I know much has been made of the fact that Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night and some have wondered if he did so out of fear of being seen by his colleagues. While we can never know for sure what his motives were, I am not inclined to think this was the reason. In John’s gospel, Jesus is seen often with the Pharisees and he openly dined with them on at least three occasions. John does not portray the Pharisees as adversaries of Jesus like the writers of the synoptic gospels. Instead, he treats them more sympathetically. It appears that Nicodemus came to Jesus after a day’s work as an inquirer with an open mind to have an in-depth conversation about life and faith.

It did not take long for Jesus to wade into deep water. He told Nicodemus that he could not see nor participate in the kingdom of God unless he was born from above. Nicodemus was terribly confused, thinking Jesus had said he must be born again from his mother’s womb and asked how this was possible.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above’ ” John 3:5-7.

As you would expect, this part of their dialogue has triggered a lot of discussion for generations. What did Jesus mean by telling Nicodemus, one of the most devout Jews in Jerusalem, he must be born from above in order to see and participate in the kingdom of God?

How can I condense two centuries of speculation into a concise explanation? It is a challenge, especially when I want to move on to other things in this text. Here’s my take on this, though.

To be a person of faith, live by kingdom values and love the world as God did, Nicodemus needed not only help from family and friends, but also God. He needed God to help him see what we commonly refer to as the ethic of love, which Jesus so clearly taught. He also needed God to help him live the life of a servant, which Jesus so faithfully modeled.

The reason he needed God’s help was because he would be tempted, as Jesus was, to become addicted to the old, self-serving ways of the religious establishment. He, too, would be inclined to pursue, above all else, wealth, power, control, comfort, pleasure and fame. Only with God’s help would he be able to serve rather than be served, give rather than take, heal rather than inflict wounds, liberate rather than bind and build bridges of goodwill and understanding rather than walls of intolerance and indifference.

Furthermore, what Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand was that God’s help was available to him and all people through the Spirit, which moved freely throughout the world. Anyone could be born from above: Jew or gentile, male or female, priest or shepherd. By God’s grace, everyone could have a close and vital relationship with this loving God who could transform their life. One’s birth did not dictate how close a person could get to God, as the design of the temple indicated. Everyone could get as close as they desired; God was and is this accessible.

I am convinced this was not the last conversation Jesus and Nicodemus had. In fact, I believe they became dear friends and Nicodemus was devastated when Jesus was crucified. Do you recall who helped Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body off the cross and prepare it for burial? Yes, it was Nicodemus.

How does this familiar story speak to us today? As I said earlier, for me it serves as a model for faith development. I see in this story some things a person must do in order to grow spiritually and come to a deeper understanding of life and faith. Let me share those things with you.

In order to grow spiritually, you must take faith seriously. Whatever you think about Nicodemus, you must admit he took his faith seriously. You don’t become a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin without making faith the focal point of your life.

Pharisees were trained in the finer points of the covenant faith of Israel and devoted their lives to obeying and preserving the Law of Moses. They hungered to expand their knowledge and understanding of the work of God in history and personal life.

Only seventy men, plus the High Priest, served on the Sanhedrin and Nicodemus was one of them. This honor and responsibility were reserved for those who were passionate about perpetuating Israel’s faith.

Nicodemus was also a highly respected teacher of the faith. As a matter of fact, Jesus knew about his superb teaching skills and mentioned it in our text. There is some indication he believed Nicodemus to be Israel’s leading scholar.

It is obvious Nicodemus took his faith seriously. How about you? Are you as serious about your faith as Nicodemus was? Do you yearn to know more about how God is working in the world and what your role in that work is? You need to if you are going to grow spiritually. It is the foundation upon which everything will be built.

To grow spiritually, you must also take your longings, struggles and doubts to someone who takes his or her faith seriously. I am convinced Nicodemus believed Jesus had a strong faith, which was one reason he went to talk to him.

Based upon his opening remarks, Nicodemus and many of his colleagues had a lot of confidence in Jesus. “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” John 3:2.

As I mentioned earlier, it appears Nicodemus came to Jesus, not as an enemy trying to trick him, but an inquirer whose mind was open to what he could learn from him. Perhaps this was why Jesus opened the door that night and invited Nicodemus in. He deeply appreciated anyone who took his or her faith seriously and found time to talk to that person, day or night.

To whom do you take your longings, doubts and struggles? Who is your spiritual mentor? Who helps you to understand the mysteries of life and faith?

All of us need people in our lives who will let us think out loud and voice our deepest longings, doubts and struggles. We also need a church that lets us do this, which Smoke Rise strives to be.

A few years ago when we drafted new mission statements and core values, we said we want to be a thinking, nurturing church, a safe place for people to ask questions, explore, learn and grow on their faith journey. This story was the basis of this decision because Jesus provided this kind of environment for Nicodemus. If you have been looking for this kind of church, I invite you to join us on this common journey of faith.

To grow spiritually, you need to get comfortable with questions. The dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus was filled with questions. Even Jesus asked one.

I believe authentic faith begins with questions. Who is God? Why am I here? What is important? What does God expect of me? Why do bad things happen to good people? What does it mean to be a person of faith? These are just a few of the many questions people of faith grapple with, as it should be.

For you see, faith involves more than we understand. Life is bigger than we are and so is God. Our quest to understand both should make us insatiably curious. As one of our Sunday school teachers recently said, “Faithfulness has more to do with the questions we ask than the answers we memorize.”

I know we look to our faith for answers and quite often find them, which is comforting and reassuring. However, the Christian faith also has a leavening influence and is meant to disturb and disrupt. An authentic faith will lead to questions, which result in a greater understanding of God, life and self.  Ask Nicodemus.

To grow spiritually, you must be a good listener, especially when hearing something new. We have a tendency to become defensive when we hear something for the first time and close our minds. This is counter-productive for the person who wants to grow spiritually.

Jesus introduced Nicodemus to some new concepts and ideas that evening, which led to several questions. To his credit, Nicodemus hung in there, which meant he left that conversation with some things to ponder, which no doubt kept him up the rest of the night.

To grow spiritually, you must be more concerned about making progress than having all the answers. Quite frankly, there will never be a time when all your questions will be answered. If Jesus died with an unanswered question on his lips, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” why do we think there will come a time when all our questions will be answered?

Spiritual growth is a process where we build upon what we learn. This is why Jesus said to Nicodemus, “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.” In essence, he was instructing Nicodemus to accept what he was telling him so he could add his own experiences to it.

This will require patience on our part and diligence. Spiritual growth is a lifelong journey of listening, reading, sharing and learning. The goal is to be faithful and grow by taking advantage of every opportunity to learn. You see why Jesus told Nicodemus he needed God’s help. We have a tendency to get frustrated and quit, which would undermine the whole process of faith development.

To grow spiritually, you must put your faith into practice. The reason Jesus attracted Nicodemus’ attention was because he modeled what he believed. His values, priorities and lifestyle appeared to be quite different from that of other rabbis Nicodemus knew, thus piquing Nicodemus’ interest.  

It is the living of our faith that strengthens our faith and enables us to be faithful ambassadors for Christ. It makes us better people and makes the world a better place to live for all people.

Do you think Nicodemus grew spiritually? Do you think he was born from above and let God help him make changes in his values, priorities and lifestyle? I want to believe he did and based upon his presence at Jesus’ crucifixion, I have to think he did.

What about you? Are you growing spiritually? Do you need to take your faith more seriously? Are you looking for a safe place to voice the longings of your heart and your questions? I invite you to join us at Smoke Rise on this journey of faith. We would love to have you join our conversation.