Liberal GraceYear A Revised Common Lectionary
2nd Sunday in Lent Year B Revised Common Lectionary
Today, we are looking at the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night. As you listen to the Word, I encourage you to think about who would visit Jesus at night and why a person would want to visit Jesus as night.
John 3:1-17 (CEV) There was a man named Nicodemus who was a Pharisee and a Jewish leader. 2One night he went to Jesus and said, "Sir, we know that God has sent you to teach us. You could not work these miracles, unless God were with you."
3Jesus replied, "I tell you for certain that you must be born from above before you can see God's kingdom!" 4Nicodemus asked, "How can a grown man ever be born a second time?"
5Jesus answered: I tell you for certain that before you can get into God's kingdom, you must be born not only by water, but by the Spirit. 6Humans give life to their children. Yet only God's Spirit can change you into a child of God. 7Don't be surprised when I say that you must be born from above. 8Only God's Spirit gives new life. The Spirit is like the wind that blows wherever it wants to. You can hear the wind, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going.
9"How can this be?" Nicodemus asked.
10Jesus replied: How can you be a teacher of Israel and not know these things?
11I tell you for certain that we know what we are talking about because we have seen it ourselves. But none of you will accept what we say. 12If you don't believe when I talk to you about things on earth, how can you possibly believe if I talk to you about things in heaven?
13No one has gone up to heaven except the Son of Man, who came down from there. 14And the Son of Man must be lifted up, just as that metal snake was lifted up by Moses in the desert.
15Then everyone who has faith in the Son of Man will have eternal life. 16God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die. 17God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them!.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a spiritual ruler, a member of the Sanhedrin.1 Verse 10 in the King James Version has Jesus describing Nicodemus as a “master of Israel.” Your Bible might translate this as teacher. That is a very literal translation from Greek.2
We know Nicodemus was wealthy. When Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus purchased myrrh and aloes. The poor could not afford to do that.3 There is some thought Nicodemus was from a very distinguished Jewish family.4
Some people within Judaism felt the Law of God contained everything necessary for living a good life. They concluded that in the Law one could find regulations for almost everything that could ever happen. As a result, some Jewish people took the broad principles of Biblical law and tried to apply those to every single imaginable event that could happen in a person’s life. William Barclay comments that this resulted in the creation of many rules and regulations. The principles of the law were turned “into the legalism of by-laws and regulations.”5
Tying a knot on Sabbath could be a sin. There were times when it was a sin and when it was not a sin. A knot that could be tied with one hand was legal on the Sabbath, but a knot that required two hands to tie was usually not legal. But there were exceptions.6
To give a contemporary example of this, a Jewish friend of mine tells me it is not breaking the Sabbath to drive to church. What is breaking the law is to start your car, because there is a spark in the engine. When there is a spark, you have started a fire and starting a fire on Sabbath is wrong, because that is work.
I have been told that in more conservative synagogues, people may drive to part of the way to the congregation, park their cars out of sight and walk the rest of the way to synagogue. That way few people know the Sabbath law was broken by driving to church.
Why did Nicodemus choose to visit Jesus at night? There are many reasons why Nicodemus might have chosen to visit Jesus at night. William Barclay outlines two of those reasons. Nicodemus might have been very cautious about studying with Jesus. Studying the Bible at night, when things are more quiet is a Jewish approach.7
Nicodemus was from the religious establishment. Jesus was not from the establishment. I suspect Nicodemus was afraid. I do not think he could afford to be discovered, to be found out studying with Jesus, a teacher who had a radical approach to the law and to approach God. The good news is that even those who are afraid to be seen in the company of radical Christianity can find God grace and can experience the treasurers of God.
Nicodemus might have wanted to protect his position or his reputation. The night visit might have been due to his not wanting to associate with the people who were Jesus’ disciples and followers.8 Those attitudes are not the attitudes of those who are born again.9 Those who are born again are “liberated from many things that paralyze others.”10
Like Nicodemus, many gay, lesbian and trans Christians paid Jesus a visit at night. They paid Jesus a night visit when they quietly sneaked out for an evening service at a local queer church or watched a queer internet church service. Nicodemus was not visiting Jesus at night for exactly the same reason, but he came to better understand God's grace as a result of his visit. And he shares that in common with the many queer people who visited a queer church for a Sunday evening service and learned something wonderful about God's grace too.
Jesus knew what Nicodemus needed to learn. Nicodemus was not needing to learn more about being religious. He had that down pat. What he really needed was to be changed inside.11 So Jesus taught Nicodemus wonderful truths of grace.
The Pharisees honored the law. Probably nobody was more devoted to the law than the Pharisees. What we saw in the meeting was a bipolar spiritual meeting. A pharisee, one who may have spent years defining things as sin that the Bible does not call sin, meets the King of Grace, Jesus. Within Jewish thought, Nicodemus was the conservative and Jesus was the liberal. Here we see the God’s liberal grace in human flesh teaching a conservative what is required to be part of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus says that to be part of the heavenly, a person must be born again. In Greek, that means a person must be born from above.12 The birth that brings us into the Kingdom comes from God. Heaven is a gift from God. This is a gift the law cannot understand or deliver.
The idea of being born again was not new within Judaism. A new convert to Judaism was considered to have been newborn child, a brand new person. In fact, the sins the new convert committed before the convert became Jewish were gone, because the new convert “was a different person.”13
Yet Nicodemus seems surprised. He replies, "How can this be?" Nicodemus might have been surprised because Jesus is telling a Jewish man that he must be born again.14 Telling a Gentile to be born again is something Nicodemus might have understood immediately. But telling a Jew to be born again. And telling a law-observant, Jewish leader to be born again. Well, that was different!
Jesus explains His mission, His passion. He explains that the Son must be lifted up from the earth. And just like those who looked up to the snake in the wilderness received life, those who look to the Son crucified find eternal life.
The message to look to Jesus is powerful. That message remains strong hundreds of years after Jesus explained it to Nicodemus. One night a teenager who felt miserable was caught in a powerful snow storm. He found a little warmth and protection from the storm in a church.
The pastor was away. A simple lay person, like me, was preaching. The lay person’s message was “Look to Me, and be ye saved.” The lay person did something I do not think anybody should do. He pointed at the teenager and said, “Young man, you look very miserable. Young man, look to Jesus Christ.” The teenager looked to Jesus that night. His name, Charles Spurgeon.15
To those who do not know much about the 19th century English church might not know who Spurgeon was. He was probably England’s best known preacher of the last half of the 1800s. Before there were powerful electronic public address systems, Spurgeon often preached to crowds of more than 10,000 people!16
There are several things we can learn from this passage.
We need to be very careful when we read the Bible to ensure we do not create a bunch of laws, a bunch of don’ts where they are not present in the Word. The laws of God are not as hard to keep as the laws of humans. We are not to put our own words, words of condemnation in God’s mouth.
We are in the season of lent. To many people, lent is about giving up things for God. The hardship of giving things up is what they associate with lent. Hardship and suffering become lent to them.
Some are enduring hardships. They are hurting. Aching people are around us every day. These people may feel like their entire life is lent, just ongoing hardships. In the dark evenings, in the night of hurt, of hopelessness, God speaks assurance.
Tonight, Jesus is looking out over this congregation. And Jesus sees you. You've just come in from a walk in a powerful spiritual snow storm. The snow storms of rejection and condemnation served up in churches across this land has you looking pretty miserable. The voice of Jesus can be heard calling out to you - to God's gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-identified and queer children, “Look to Me, and be ye saved.” By looking to Jesus Christ, we are saved from the freezing cold of rejection we've felt. Our hearts and souls are warmed by the wonderful fireplace of God's grace. The fireplace is roaring, the room is warm, you are dry. You are home. You are safe in Jesus arms. You do not have to go out into the cold, wet snow storm ever again.