March 5, 2023

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night He came at night. Throughout the Gospel of John, we find an emphasis on the contrast between light and dark. In the opening John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (1:5) For John these verses and images of light and darkness serve as metaphors for kingdom reality.

For John that light represents belief, while darkness represents unbelief. It’s pretty clear that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in a state of confusion and spiritual blindness, unable to understand what Jesus is trying to teach him as we hear more of the story. Nicodemus is completely in the dark literally and figuratively when it comes to grasping how God actually works.

It’s also clear that Nicodemus has been keeping an eye on Jesus. He has seen him teaching in the synagogues, and he recognizes that Jesus teaches with an authority he himself and other Pharisees would never dare to claim. Nicodemus has also seen the many miracles that Jesus has performed, some of them right in the temple itself. 

Some theologians think that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night in order to hold his conversation in secret. They see Nicodemus as unwilling to admit publicly that he is in contact with Jesus. Others claim that he may have only been trying to speak with Jesus when he had a better chance for quality time talking with him, after the crowds have left for the day. Whatever motivation caused Nicodemus to wait until darkness, his appearance at night is unusual enough that later, when Nicodemus re-enters the story, he is referred to as “the one who came to Jesus at night.”

and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; When Nicodemus arrives, he doesn’t waste time with chit chat. He cuts right to what’s been bothering him. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” and using this title tells us that Nicodemus thinks of himself and Jesus as equals when it comes to teaching and learning. There is no sarcasm in his using this title of respect.

for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” This doesn’t sound like a question, really, but it is. Nicodemus is asking Jesus to confirm what Nicodemus suspects, but can’t quite believe. He doesn’t come right out and ask, “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for someone else?” Nicodemus comes with his own set of convictions about what is real and true. Like we all do.

He has tried to fit his experience of Jesus into his own idea of how the world works, and how God works in it. He has put two and two together but it is not four anymore, and the only answer he can find is that Jesus must come from God. But it doesn’t fit with his assumptions, his tradition, his belief system.

Maybe Nicodemus had tried to keep his faith separate from the rest of his life. He followed the rules, he knew the Torah inside and out, but by compartmentalizing his faith, he had never let it change the way he lived his life. Maybe we are more like Nicodemus than we want to admit. How often do we get stuck in our own assumptions about God? How often does our own limited understanding prevent us from seeing God’s reality? Have you ever felt frustrated, like you just couldn’t figure out what God was trying to tell you? That’s where our friend Nicodemus found himself. Looking for a Messiah and amazing grace even if he didn’t know it.

Jesus answers a question Nicodemus doesn’t ask, but it’s the real question that needs answering: “How can I believe you are from God, when nothing you do matches what I think the Messiah is supposed to do and be?”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Now the Greek word translated “from above” can also mean “born anew” or “born again”. The confusion arises because Jesus may have meant one thing, while Nicodemus heard another. More likely though, Jesus meant all three things, but Nicodemus limited himself to hearing only “born again,” and he took it quite literally. He didn’t have ears to hear all three yet.

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Maybe Nicodemus is being deliberately dense. Maybe he was a bit insulted. Maybe he expected more. Maybe he understands Jesus as saying that all of the learning and studying of Torah that Nicodemus had done up to this point his entire life was – pointless. What he really needed to do was be born from above, born again, born anew.

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” So, Jesus spells it out for him. You’re doing okay on the flesh part – you just need to get going on the spirit part.”

This past Monday and Tuesday I was gathered with 60 clergy from across the TNWKY Conference to consider our future and Leading in a New Way. One of the things it reminded me of is why we are United Methodist and who we are as United Methodist. And that as United Methodists we have a particular method that differs from any other denominational or non-denominational churches. John Wesley our founder, Whose death we remembered this past week, had an approach to seeking God’s will that others have called the Quadrilateral

In case you’re a bit rusty on your Wesleyan Theology or don’t know about this here it is. Wesley explained that there are four ways we can listen and identify God’s will for us and find truth.  

First and foremost, we seek to know God’s will through God’s Word. Scripture. It is the foundation upon which everything is based. Nicodemus had this one down. He had memorized the entire first five books of the Bible the Pentateuch as a very young boy. By the time he was a teenager, Nicodemus had also memorized all the Psalms and the writings of the prophets. That was his training. If knowing God’s Word had been enough to please God,  Nicodemus would have been golden.

Wesley’s second focus was Tradition. By this, he did not mean habits that had lost their meaning that we just do because we have always done them, but the accumulated wisdom of previous generations, the understandings and practices that had stood the test of time. Here again, Nicodemus was steeped in tradition. He knew his rituals, and he knew what they meant. But Word and Tradition alone are not enough, according to Wesley, if we are to truly know God’s desire for us.

The third part of the Quadrilateral is Reason. Human beings are thinking creatures designed by God to be so, and we must apply our reason to the process of discerning God’s will for us. The robes and stoles we wear as United Methodist Clergy symbolize this part. Nicodemus was a scholar and a great thinker of his day. So far, he’s three for three.

But then we come to Wesley’s fourth quadrant: Experience. For John Wesley, the assurance of his own salvation had only come after years as an Anglican priest and through his own failures and faith of others around him. He was lost and one night amazing grace finally found him too. As the beginning of Romans was being read at a prayer meeting his heart was strangely warmed, and he suddenly knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he belonged to God.

This is where our friend Nicodemus gets stuck. Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel,  and yet you do not understand these things? Then Nicodemus disappears from the story until the end of chapter seven where he plays a big part in Jesus’ story in the last days of his life.

I mentioned last Sunday that the season of Lent developed as a time to prepare converts for baptism on Easter in the early church. I even spoke about the first question of our Baptismal covenant together as we considered the temptation Jesus experienced in the wilderness. Do you remember that question?

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Renounce, reject, repent  …  and this brings us to another question of the Baptismal Covenant:

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?  Nicodemus had to decide if he was willing to confess Jesus as his Savior and Lord, putting his whole trust in Christ’s grace. Nicodemus had to be born from above, born anew in the spirit. Jesus says, you have to be born of water and spirit. The wind blows where it will … that’s the way it is with people who have been born of the spirit Jesus says: you can’t see the spirit, but you can see its effect in their lives. You have never seen the wind…the wind this week…

An interesting thing happens at this point. Jesus turns to us, and says,  “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just 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.

And then we hear the most famous of verses about God’s amazing grace For God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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. 

The question we have to ask ourselves is how is our story like Nicodemus story? What keeps us in the dark? perhaps we have assumptions preventing us from renouncing, rejecting, repenting of our own way, in order to confess and accept Jesus as Savior and Lord and truly be born anew of the Spirit and trusting in his grace alone?

And what about Nicodemus? Did he finally see the light? Did he eventually experience a spiritual birth? I think so. Maybe in the same way John Newton “was blind, but now I see.” Was it at the foot of the cross, with Joseph of Arimathea, taking down Jesus’ broken body and preparing it for burial? Sometimes, the process of claiming Jesus as Lord and Savior is not a single step but takes a while like it did for John Wesley. 

So, what is your response?  Are you ready to make him Lord of your entire life? Are you ready to step out of the darkness of your own limitations, and into the light of God’s love and saving and amazing grace for you? For God loved you in this way: he gave his only Son, that if you believe in him, you will not perish but you will have eternal life.

This is the amazing grace found by Nicodemus, Newton, Wesley, and us.