In the Name of Jesus
Dear Redeemed in Christ:
Nicodemus was a nice enough guy. Educated, schooled in the best rabbinic institutions, he had climbed his way up to be one of the elite, a member of the Sanhedrin, those seventy priests and scribes who made up the ruling council in Jerusalem and governed Jerusalem and all of Judea, subject only to the Roman governor Pilate. Nicodemus had earned the honor of his fellow councilmen, and was the model Israelite not only before the council, but before his fellow citizens of Jerusalem. He had made it to the top. He enjoyed celebrity status. Favored by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and admired by all who saw him on the streets of Jerusalem. Nicodemus: outstanding citizen and example of everything best in an obedient son of Israel. If anyone had an impressive list of the good they had done for God and their neighbor, it was Nicodemus.
But not everything was rosy on the inside for this man who's behavior was beyond reproach. He had recently seen with his very eyes and heard with his very ears something that was more and more disturbing to his scholarly mind and dedicated heart: the dawning of salvation through the advent of that wild man John the Baptist and his incessant cry that the Kingdom of God had finally come with the appearance of this strange carpenter's son from somewhere up in Galilee.
Nicodemus was intrigued and bewildered by the manner of Jesus' behavior: the miracles he freely performed and the authority that he claimed — all despite his quiet demeanor and unimpressive looks and far from charismatic personality.
Nicodemus didn't get quivers in his liver when he finally saw and hear this Jesus for himself. What he did receive was a strange, unexpected sense that something was going on here that defied his — and the Jerusalem council's — expectations, something that convicted him and seemed to put into question all the good he thought was racking up — for God, for God's people, for — ultimately — himself.
"What to do?" haunted this man Nicodemus until, one restless night, he could take it no longer. He would go to Jesus under the cover of darkness and see if this self-proclaimed man of God was actually the real thing — or a self-seeking impostor and trouble-maker like his fellow councilmen had argued.
The Word of Christ was doing his work on Nicodemus, as it continues to do in our hearts and minds as well. And with some recognition that everything was not as it should be when it came to Nicodemus' salvation, he approached Jesus with a strange mix of hesitation and expectation.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint John, the Third Chapter:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (John 3:1-13 ESV)
Nicodemus' heart and mind were suddenly reeling. Jesus' reply to his opening complements had gone in a completely unexpected direction. Instead of giving a few pointers on how to behave a little more pious, Jesus was revealing the complete inability of fallen human flesh and blood to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus was calling for a entirely new birth of water and the Spirit. And he was calling for faith that put its trust solely on the working of God through water and Word and Spirit — independent of any fallen human understanding behind the why and the where and the how.
That's the one thing that had been left out of the equation during Nicodemus' theological training. That's the one thing the world will never get. That's the one thing the Sanhedrin would never accept: salvation by grace through faith in the sacrifice of God's one and only Son. A plan that ran in the face of all human wisdom and logic. A plan of redemption that gave no credit to any human work not a fruit, a product, of water and the Word and the Spirit of God from above.
Jesus' words seem harsh because, as we are re-learning in the midweek Lenten services this year, God must first kill with his Word before he can make alive. The Word from Heaven must first condemn all attempts by fallen, sinful people to to ascend into heaven on the merit of their own good works. For the Spirit of God has not come to rehabilitate the old nature through some program of spiritual chin-ups and jumping jacks. The Spirit of God has come to take our old nature and drown it.
This is the "earthly thing" Jesus is clearly revealing to Nicodemus — and through him to you and me. Our own best efforts are useless. Our good works — necessary as they are in this life — don't do anything before Almighty God, who sees our depraved hearts and the sin-stained fruit it can't help but produce. Nothing we can do as fallen and helpless children of our first fallen and helpless parents can get us out of the dark night of our sin and the deadly consequences of that sin.
Despite all the talk these days about doing this or not doing that in order to be saved - only a new birth will suffice — a new birth by God in Christ and his Word through the Holy Spirit.
As a teenager I wished everyday that I could have had a decision in who my parents and brothers and sister would be. Why didn't I get a vote in choosing not to suffer through the icy winters of Michigan while kids my age in Huntington Beach were walking around the mall in shorts and boogie boarding in March?
Well, because the gift of live is a gift. It is not chosen by us. It is not created by us or voted on. We didn't ask God to create the heavens and the earth in seven days or our body and soul, our family and neighbors and church. They were gifted upon us, in spite of the venemous disease of sin. Life and new life as an undeserved, unexpected, unexplained, unmeasurable, joyous gift descended from the Lord of heaven himself in the person and work of his Son.
God had a different plan than the children of Israel or the Sanhedrin or the spiritual elite could have even imagined. Deliverance won by thirty pieces of silver - the price of a slave. Redemption accomplished by the handing over of the Messiah into the clutches of evil men. The cup of salvation secured by Christ drinking to the dregs the cup of God's deadly wrath. Death defeated for all through the death of the Word of Life himself made flesh.
Jesus says as much as he reveals to Nicodemus,
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15 ESV)
God uses the earthly things of this world to redeem the world. God uses the flesh and bones of his Son made flesh to glorify our bodies and rescue our souls from the cold chill of the grave.
Christ delivers us from sin by becoming flesh of our flesh — by becoming sin for us.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:16-21 ESV)
Our old nature wants salvation to come in a very different way: through some ecstatic emotional experience or the handling of poisonous snakes or a new regiment of spiritual principles. Our sinful nature wants salvation to show up at the door through some "discipline of Lent" in which we re-dedicate ourselves to being nicer Christians and more lovable people before God.
But the verbs of Lent — the verbs of redemption — are never to be centered on what we "give up" or give to God. That's why the season of Lent must be re-interpreted (or just plain ignored) by by those that will not allow Jesus himself to "do the verbs" of salvation.
Handed over, lead away, poured out, offered up.
These are the proper verbs of Lent because they put the spotlight on the object of saving faith: our Lord Christ and his work in our place.
When Nicodemus came to see Jesus, it was in the darkness of not knowing — not believing — that Jesus had come to reveal himself as someone very different than some great rabbi who can channel divine spirits. Nicodemus is the stand-in for our own fallen nature as he investigates not only who Jesus really is but what has he come to do — what has he come to accomplish and win.
And Jesus' reply to the questions of Nicodemus: It is necessary that the Son of Man be lifted up, as the bronze serpent was lifted up in the wilderness.
To shame all fallen human understanding. To condemn all human attempts of constructing a ladder to heaven out of our own good works.
To allow only faith — God-gifted faith — to believe that the greatest and clearest revelation of God's wrath unleashed upon sin is — at the same time — the greatest and clearest revelation of God's boundless grace and mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation for Nicodemus. For Caiaphas and Pilate. For the betrayer Judas. For those we find it so difficult to forgive and care for.
Jesus lifted up — for even you. Amen