Good morning, Nicodemus!!! Or is it Nicodema? How are each of you doing today? Welcome, one and all. Isn’t it great to live in a country with religious freedom, one in which we don’t need to scurry around in the dark of night to seek Jesus? Nicodemus was anxious to have a conversation with this phenomenal rabbi from Galilee, but he wasn’t able or willing to do it right out in front of everybody, was he?
Some speculate that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night out of fear of being labeled a follower of Jesus, opening himself up to criticism and even persecution or punishment from his colleagues on the Jewish ruling council. Indeed, a few chapters later in St. John’s gospel, there is a debate among the Pharisees about what to do after one of their plots to arrest Jesus has failed.
When Nicodemus points out the Pharisees’ hypocrisy in not following the law in condemning Jesus for not following the law, he’s verbally attacked for it.
Another theory is that Nicodemus was, at that point in his relationship to Jesus, an “agent provocateur” sent by the council itself. The speculation was that he was to test Jesus, and see if he could trip him up into saying something false so that he could be discredited, or even arrested and punished. It’s clear from Nicodemus’ own words that he is not speaking for himself alone, because he says, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Obviously, his intent is to communicate that it isn’t him alone who holds this opinion, and Nicodemus wants Jesus to believe that whoever sent him as their representative holds Jesus in high regard. Whether it’s a trick or not, we can’t say.
We could even speculate that Nicodemus, as a Pharisee—a teacher of the Law—wasn’t willing to confront Jesus with others around. The Jewish authorities had already confronted John the Baptist about what he was doing, and been put in their place. Jesus had already ransacked the tables of the temple merchants and moneychangers. He had been performing miraculous signs, teaching with authority, and silencing his critics. Perhaps Nicodemus wasn’t going to put himself in a position to be publicly humiliated with a withering barrage of scripture quotations from this Galilean.
But let’s cling to our catechism understanding of the 8th Commandment here, and give Nicodemus the benefit of the doubt. In the absence of clear evidence that the man was up to something sneaky, or that he was too embarrassed or too fearful to speak with Jesus out in the open in the daylight, perhaps we should “speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” After all, we have a lot in common with him, don’t we?
Confronted with the same evidence as he, without the advantage of the entire Holy Scriptures at our disposal, would we have done any better? Most people in our own day and age, even with the testimony of the Spirit in the entire Bible, still view Jesus as just a holy, inspired man given special powers by God to teach and do some miracles, if they believe that much about him, or believe that he lived at all.
Notice, if you will, how Nicodemus gets the dialogue started. He doesn’t ask an explicit question, does he? He makes two statements, each offering a conclusion: First, that Jesus is a teacher, one who has come from God. Second, that the miracles Jesus has been performing could only be done if God were with him. But buried, not too deeply, within those statements are some unstated questions: “If you’re a teacher and a miracle worker sent by God, Jesus, just who are you?” And the fundamental Lutheran question, “What does this mean?”
Jesus’ reply is no less difficult to de-code, is it? In a sense, he tells his visitor, “I know what it is you’re looking for, Nicodemus. You want to know if this means what John the Baptist has been saying, that the kingdom of God is at hand. Well, if you want to know that, Nicodemus, and—more importantly—if you want to know how to get into it, here’s what’s needed just to see it: You must be born again.”
Poor Nicodemus. Pharisee or not, he’s such a literal fundamentalist. He hears the words, “born again,” and immediately concludes that this must be a natural, physical re-birth. At the core, he’s challenged by his limited viewpoint of what life is. Of what life can be. Or, maybe he’s just mocking and goading Jesus because he’s really out to entrap Jesus in his words. Oh, wait; that’s right. We were going to give Nicodemus a chance, weren’t we?
Then Jesus ups the ante a bit. “Not only must you be born again to see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus. In order to enter the kingdom of God, you have to be re-born in a certain way—by water and the Spirit.” Jesus goes on to describe the distinction between the fleshly and the spiritual, and who is more qualified to give such a description that he who is both human and divine, the one conceived of the Spirit and born of the Virgin?
Then he informs Nicodemus that this rebirth isn’t something obvious and visible. It’s like the wind: coming and going, here and there. There’s evidence of its presence, there are effects upon all it touches, but it can’t be grasped or seen in itself. That’s how it will be for believers, Jesus says—those born of the Spirit. You will know they were touched by the Spirit; you will know that they were affected by the Spirit. But you won’t be able to see it working, only its effects.
It’s here that we find Nicodemus, teetering between doubt and faith. He falls partway in between Zechariah’s skeptical, “How can I be sure of this?” at the angel’s announcement of his son John’s coming, and Mary’s trusting curiosity, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” at the angel’s announcement of the Savior. Nicodemus’ response is, “How can these things be?” This is the plea of a man struggling to understand when confronted with a reality that runs counter to much of what he has come to know and believe.
But again, let’s cut Nicodemus some slack, shall we? The fact is: We’re full of questions on matters of faith, too, aren’t we? We’re human. We’re intellectually curious. We want to understand how things work, what things mean, why things happen. God gave us our reason and all of our senses, it’s true, and we’re to apply these gifts in service to Him and our neighbor. Rightly used, they bring glory to God and support to our fellow man.
But it’s our incessant need to comprehend all there is to know, and to control all that is around us, that led Adam and Eve to seek knowledge where God had intended innocence. And ever since then, our race has had an unquenchable desire to be like God. We not only want to be “knowing good and evil,” we want to know and control all things. And when we think we know a little, we want to theorize and hypothesize and string together our piddly little tidbits of knowledge to explain all sorts of things about matter and space and time and life. In doing so, we often arrive at conclusions that don’t reconcile with what the author and creator of them all has revealed to us about them.
And when we overstep our bounds, when we let our minds overshadow our souls, Jesus has something to say to us: Take a step back, Nicodemuses. Open your ears and your hearts, as well as your minds, Nicodemas. We may think we know and understand a great deal—and perhaps we do, on a human scale.
Compared to others in the world or to those who lived without the accumulated discoveries from which our contemporary civilization benefits, we certainly do live in an Information Age. But spiritually, we’re no closer to fully and truly comprehending what God has in store for us than were our ancestors of the Bronze Age, Iron Age, or Industrial Age.
Thanks be to God, though, that the mysteries of the ages have been revealed to us. Jesus has spoken of what he knows, and the Spirit has spoken of what he would have us know, and to us have come the testimony of a cloud of witnesses—testifying to the light, that through Jesus we might all believe. The one who comes down from heaven was raised up—not first to heaven, but upon the tree of the cross. There, not only might all men be drawn to him, but also the poisons of their sins, might be drawn out of them, too, and place on him. He is the antidote to the fiery serpent’s deadly venom, and his cure works not because we understand it, but because we believe.
It’s OK to wonder like Nicodemus about the “Hows” and the “Whys” of God’s plan of salvation now and then. He’s given us a great capacity to wonder, and to explore, and to investigate. But don’t let your intellect interfere with your faith. Don’t let your reason lead you into doubt, or your mind and body serve themselves instead of your soul, neighbor, or your Savior.
The “Hows” and “Whys” of salvation are both answered for us in those familiar verses that come near the end of today’s Gospel lesson: “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.” In those words—not even 50 words—we have both the reason and the means for the salvation God gives us in Christ Jesus.
God so loved the world. Not just, “God loved the world so much,” arms spread wide, in the quantitative sense. But also, God loved the world in this particular way. God loved the world in this specific manner. He loved it by showing that nothing, not even the necessity of the death of his own beloved Son, would stand in the way of reconciling sinners to himself. Nothing: Not your sin, not your doubts, not your weakness of faith, not your shortcomings of knowledge, or power, or integrity, or strength, or popularity, would he allow to separate you from his eternal love.
The “Why” is the reason: His love for you and all people. His desire to share that love with you, now and forever. Jesus came that you might not be condemned, but granted new life in the re-birth of water and the Spirit. In spite of your sinful nature, your sinful thoughts, your sinful words, and your sinful actions, he loves you as he loves his own Son, and he wants you to share in his Son’s righteousness, fellowship, and glory.
The “How” is the means: The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Conveyed to you in his Word, his baptism, his absolution, and his Supper. Made yours through the gift of faith, by grace, for the sake of the blood of Jesus. God so loved the world, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Amen.