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Grace Episcopal Church

Sheboygan, Wisconsin

The Second Sunday in Lent (A)

Genesis 12.1-4a                    Psalm 121                  Romans 4.1-5, 13-17                                     John 3.1-17

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night …”  What do we know about Nicodemus, other than what we are told in John's Gospel?  He's not mentioned by the other evangelists.  John mentions him three times, first describing him in this passage as a leader.  Nicodemus reappears later, when the Temple authorities have sent police to arrest Jesus.  Then he acts as a leader in the council, defending Jesus by questioning how He can be condemned without a fair hearing.  Finally, Nicodemus appears at the end of the passion narrative, when he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus.  All that we know about Nicodemus testifies to him being a leader in the community, a man of authority, so why does he come to Jesus by night?

Maybe it’s because he is powerful and respected, because he is a leader, and as a leader he’s just a little bit worried about control.  Maybe he’s concerned about what he can do to make sure that when he first meets Jesus, this man he describes as a “teacher who has come from God,”  he can retain options and have what we would now call “plausible deniability”. 

What does Jesus say?  He talks to Nicodemus about new birth, about birth in the Spirit.  Let’s think a little bit about this exchange.  Here’s Nicodemus, a man who in our day and age would be the type who in any town would be a public leader.  Maybe he’d be the banker who is active in the Chamber of Commerce, or the lawyer who is known as a fund-raiser for the hospital.  Maybe he’d be the best-known pediatrician, or the woman who owns and runs the best-known store on Main Street.  Maybe he'd be the principal of the high school, or the pastor of the biggest congregation in town.  Whatever identity Nicodemus would have in our day, he would have the role of leader, and so he would have a role in which he is used to being consulted, used to doing things by the rules, and used to letting other people know how the system works.

We can have sympathy for Nicodemus, because of the way in which this rational, safe man struggled to try to fit Jesus into the system of his day.  Jesus in effect told him to not worry about the rational, not to worry about figuring things out, but to let the Spirit lead.  He spoke of new birth, birth in the Spirit, saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet do not understand this?”  Jesus talked about new birth–not a rational, safe, expected thing –and Nicodemus just didn’t quite getit.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”  Jesus talked about a power beyond any human system.  Jesus told Nicodemus that he could not be safe, and wait and see, but that he had to be born of the Spirit.  That is far more revolutionary than the passages where Jesus tells His disciples that they must turn their backs on the world and be hated, that they must turn their backs even on their families to take up their crosses and follow Him.  It is revolutionary because it says that as disciples we participate in God’s work–there is no spectator’s gallery.  It’s revolutionary because it means that it is most often our own agendas which get in the way of wherever the Spirit would lead us.

Most of us go through this life worrying about what we can do to make things better.  There is nothing wrong with thinking and saying that we have to take responsibility, that we have to do what we can to help others.  Indeed, we are commanded by our Lord to help, Jesus reminding us in the Gospel of Matthew, “As you did to the least of these, my brethren, so you did unto me.”  But, in reaching out to do God’s work remember always that it is His work, not ours.  He has the plan.  He is in control.  We may think we are in control.  We may think that if we do and plan better, if we use the gifts that God has given us, then we can control where we will end up in this life, but God knows and reminds us that just as we don’t know where the winds comes from or where it goes, we can but open ourselves to the Spirit, to allow the Spirit to lead us according to His plan.

God participates in us whether we want Him to or not, and it is up to us to choose how we respond to Him.  We can marvel at His majesty, and think of the Father, the creator, when we stare at the night sky or look at a new-born child.  We can be struck by His love for us, and think of the Son, when we witness selfless love, or when we see the need for love in one who is in want.  And we can feel the Spirit’s presence when we see someone who does take up a cross to follow Jesus.  What Jesus said to Nicodemus was:  Don’t try to be safe.  Don’t try to be in control.  Let the Spirit lead, and the God who creates will also be the God who redeems.

In the Gospel passage today we hear the phrase which is probably the most famous in the Bible:  “For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Quite apart from telling us the depth of God’s love for us, these words also say that God does not do things by halves.  God doesn’t “test the waters” but plunges in, and reaches out to us to plunge in with Him.  God doesn’t want just our reason, however much we can approach Him through the gift of reason.  God doesn’t want just our emotion, however deeply felt.  He wants all of us:  reason and emotion, heart and mind, the complete person whom He has created to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him.

The Gospel of John tells us that when Jesus was put on trial before Caiaphas, Nicodemus tried to defend Him, and as a good lawyer made cogent arguments under the law to say why Jesus should not be condemned.  These passages tell us both about the development of Nicodemus as a disciple, and a lot about the divisions within the Jewish hierarchy over how to deal with Jesus.  These passages tell us about the development of individual belief and the fact that the Messiah was denied and condemned not by any monolithic national will, but by the human divisions of human struggles for power.

St. John tells us that  when Jesus died, safe, careful, respectable Nicodemus became less safe, and came with Joseph of Arimathea–himself a “respected member of the council”–to remove Jesus’ body and prepare Him for burial.  John tells us that these safe, respected men took Jesus’ body and anointed Him, and wrapped Him in linen and buried Him; that they anointed and buried an executed criminal on the very eve of Passover.  Consider how these men, and the women with them, must have hurried to do what they had to do before the Passover, when to touch a corpse would mean defilement.  Consider their courage in breaking with the council of elders to provide this burial, and in going to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body.  Consider their courage in going to take down the body of this same Jesus who was lifted up that very day before the multitude which cried out, “Crucify him!”  These were not safe actions.  The safe thing to do would have been to wait and see, to not risk condemnation.  The respectable action would have been to consult the other members of the council.  What Nicodemus and Joseph did was neither safe or respectable, but was action taken out of love by those led by the Spirit.  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son,

and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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