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                     of Almelund, Minnesota

         

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Nic at Night!

Pastor Marla Amborn

Immanuel Lutheran Church

January 28, 2018

John 3:1-21

 

I like Nicodemus. He is a guy who many of us can probably relate to. He faithfully attended worship and genuinely sought to do God’s will. He was active in his faith community, taking leadership roles. All his life, faith had been important to him. He lived as a faithful person and upstanding member of the community.

 

But there was young rabbi in town who was shaking things up. He did amazing things, healing people and doing signs that pointed to God. The crowds were flocking to him. He said things that raised lots of questions, that threatened traditions Nicodemus held so dear. It was disorienting. The rules he thought he understood didn’t seem to be working like they had in the past. Things were changing, and he didn’t know what to make of it all.

 

He’d like to just ignore Jesus, like many of his peers were doing. He’d like to dismiss him as a false prophet. But there was something about him that seemed genuine that piqued his interest. What if he really was from God? Who but a man of God could do such amazing things? He had to find out.

 

So, he went to visit Jesus at night. He didn’t want to be too public about it. In a small town people talk. Best not to get the grapevine going. This was a private thing, just between him and Jesus.

 

He started out by laying it on the line. "Rabbi, we know that 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." Then Jesus responds by telling him the craziest things – that he needed to be “born from above,” whatever that means. He talked about being born of water and of the spirit, and of the wind blowing where it will.

 

Nicodemus was understandably confused. “How can these things be?” he asked.

Then Jesus put him on the spot “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

 

Jesus goes on to explain it to him. He launches in to an Old Testament Bible study reminding Nicodemus that at the time of Moses the serpent was lifted up on a pole so that when the Israelites looked at the pole they might live. He compares the Son of Man to that serpent, who would be lifted up on a pole so that people might have eternal life. It seemed as if he is talking about himself.  But how could that be? How confusing this must have been!

 

Jesus could see his confusion, and then he spoke the words that have come to be known as the “Gospel in a Nutshell.” John 3:16(Let’s say it all together) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish                      but may have eternal life.” And then he continued "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

 

What a lesson Nicodemus got that night! What a powerful message of pure grace! God loved the world, the whole world, everyone in the world. God wants all his people to have eternal life. It isn’t about keeping every law on the book. It isn’t all about what we do as people of faith. It is about God’s work of mercy and grace. It is about the Holy Spirit giving us all the faith to believe. It is about God sending his Son to save the world so that we might have eternal life.

 

That’s not what Nicodemus had been hearing preached at the synagogue. That’s not what he had read in the Torah. That’s not how he understood what it meant                                        to be a faithful Jew. He had memorized the Torah. He knew not only the 10 Commandments, but all of the 613 Laws on the books, and he worked hard to follow every one of them. Now this Jesus tells him that it’s not all about the laws. it’s about love. It’s about forgiveness. He says that God is not seeking to condemn people but that God is acting in love and mercy, giving eternal life, a gift of grace! That’s a lot to take in!

 

Then Jesus launched into this thing about light and darkness, and people hiding their sins under the cover of darkness needing to come out into the light.

 

How was Nicodemus to take this? It was night. It was dark. Was Jesus implying something about him coming at night?

 

That’s where our scripture for today ends. The gospel story leaves us hanging,  wondering what happened to Nicodemus after this nighttime meeting with Jesus. Did it change him? Did he find the courage to come out of the darkness and into the light?

 

More importantly, what does this story have to say to us?

 

Like Nicodemus, we are faithful people. We gather regularly for worship. For most of us, faith has been part of our lives for all of our life. We want to live as faithful people. We want do what is right. But we have some questions too.

 

One of the big questions raised by this passage has to do with what it means to be “born again.” The NRSV translation we read this morning speaks of being “born from above” which is a perfectly legitimate way to translate it. The King James Version uses the phrase “born again” which is where that “born again Christian” idea comes from. Whether you say “born again” or “born from above” he is talking about a spiritual birth. It is a time when the Holy Spirit begins the work of bringing you to faith.

 

Have you ever had a well-meaning person ask you if you were born again? I recall such a discussion when I was a young girl. When I told the person that I was baptized they didn’t seem to think that was good enough. They were looking for a conversion experience. They wanted to know a date when I made a decision to accept Jesus as my personal savior. The fact that I had been baptized when I was just a couple of weeks old wasn’t good enough for them, even though I had been going to church and living as a person of faith ever since.

 

These kinds of discussions can be unsettling. It helps to recognize that God works in lots of ways. A person certainly can have a conversion experience as way of coming to faith – like Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road. But that doesn’t negate baptism as a very powerful way God brings people to faith. In the Bible there are examples of whole families getting baptized, being brought into the faith through baptism. Jesus commanded us to teach and baptize and make disciples. Don’t ever let someone try to tell you your baptism isn’t enough. Don’t ever let someone make you feel like you are not a true Christian if you can’t give a date of conversion.

 

In our scripture for today Jesus speaks of the Spirit, comparing it to a wind that blows where it wills. You can’t control the Holy Spirit any more than you can control the wind. The Holy Spirit won’t be confined to our narrow categories. The Holy Spirit doesn’t play by our rules. The Holy Spirit does what it wills. The Holy Spirit brings people to faith in multiple ways.

 

As Jesus shared that famous passage which we know as John 3:16, that also disrupted Nicodemus’s way of understanding what it means to worship God. The Jews believed they were a chosen people – set apart for special blessing and relationship with God. John 3:16 tells us God loved the whole world so much that he sent his son so that all may be saved. That takes away the exclusive claim on God that Nicodemus and members of his temple would have understood. It also takes away the system of earning your own salvation through following the Law. How unsettling that would be if that is the religion you grew up with!

 

We are also in a time when the rules we have known are changing. Church is not supported by society in the way it once was. We long for the good old days when everyone came to church on Sunday because that was the thing to do.

 

This is God’s church and God promises to renew his church in every age. As the Holy Spirit is blowing wherever it will, the winds are changing the way we do church. We may see it as a loss, like those 1st Century Jews probably saw it as a loss when people went to follow Jesus. But God is in control. It will work out alright. We need to continue to be faithful, as we seek to recognize new ways God is at work among us.

 

That story of Nicodemus teaches us about God’s love at work in our lives. Nicodemus’s first encounter was marked by confusion – not understanding what Jesus was saying. But over time, Jesus’ message sunk into his heart and soul as the Holy Spirit renewed his faith.

 

There are two other references to Nicodemus later in John’s gospel. At the end of chapter 7 the Pharisees are plotting to bring Jesus to trial and Nicodemus speaks up for Jesus advocating for a fair trial. And then at the end of chapter 19, after Jesus has been crucified, Joseph of Arimathea provides a tomb for Jesus’ body and Nicodemus brings 100 pounds of embalming herbs to give Jesus an honorable burial.

 

Nicodemus stepped out of the darkness and into the light. No more hiding his relationship with Jesus, even though he put himself at some risk letting people know he followed Jesus.

 

Like Nicodemus, God works in our hearts and minds to answer our sincere questions of faith. As with Nicodemus, the Spirit works in our souls bringing us to faith and helping us grow deeper in our relationship with God, trusting him more and more. And through it we will come to know and love the God who first loved us, who sent his son so that the whole world, including each of us, might be saved.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen!