Nicodemus

Good morning.  Welcome to Journey Church.  My name is Phil Human and I’m a pastor here at Journey and as always, it’s a pleasure to speak with you today about Jesus.  This Sunday Journey celebrates it’s ninth birthday.  Nine years ago today we met at Thomas Elementary School and launched Journey Church.  And many of you were there.  We had about 165 people at our first services and now we usually see a little more than 500 here on a Sunday.  And the only reason that matters is because there are human beings – not numbers.  And we love to see people learning about Jesus and growing in their faith.

We started this church to help people who might be just starting their spiritual journey, or perhaps restarting it after a break.  As well as for people who love to be around those kinds of people.  And so for those of you who are here for the first time today, I’m especially glad you are here and hope you walk away with something helpful and something to challenge you.

Today we continue our study in the book of John, which is one of the four books in the bible that describe the life and times of Jesus Christ.  The Bible, though it is one book, is comprised of 66 smaller books.  They are arranged by category, so there’s a bunch of history books, and then some poetry books, like Psalms and Proverbs, and then there are books about prophets who prophesied in the OT, and then in the New Testament, which starts with the birth of Jesus, the first four books are called Gospels.  The word Gospel means Good news.

John was written by Jesus best friend, John, at the end of his long life.  John was the only one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus that died a natural death.  All the others, besides Judas, were martyred for their belief that Jesus really did die, and really was buried, and really did come back to life.  And so the question that all skeptics must ask is, why would they die unless it was true.  Why die for a lie?  They sealed their testimony with their own blood.

Here is John though, an old man, and he sits down to write his account of the life of Jesus, and it sounds and feels quite a bit different than the other’s who had written before him.  Matthew, Mark and Luke.

John, we learned in previous weeks, was the most outspoken about matters of theology.  He has tremendous amount of teaching about Jesus, but he is also a wonderful story teller.  And so he weaves theology and narrative storytelling together, and this morning we will read one of those times when the two come beautifully together into one gorgeous tapestry of truth.

John Chapter 3:  Says…  There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”

You know what, I like this guy Nicodemus.  I respect him for a lot of reasons.

For one thing – finally, we see someone who recognizes a miracle when he sees it!  He was willing to see God’s hand behind the miraculous.  He sees Jesus performing miracles and realizes that God must be behind this incredible thing he is seeing.

That, by the way, was the purpose of the miracles.  Jesus told himself this himself in John 5:36 – Jesus says that the miracles he is doing prove that God sent him.  They validate his claims.  And so here we see one guy, Nicodemus, who recognizes that hey – Jesus did a miraculous thing – maybe God’s behind it.

Now someone might ask – if Jesus performed miracles then in order to help people believe in him, then why doesn’t he perform miracles today to accomplish the same thing.

And my response is simply – that he most certainly is performing miracles today, BUT that today, just as then, miracles rarely work to persuade people to rethink their beliefs.

I’ve been reading through Exodus recently, about Moses whom God sends to Pharaoh with a message to “Let my people – the Israelites go!”  And Moses says – how will Pharaoh believe that I am your messenger.  God says – I will give you these signs.  Stick your hand in your coat and when you bring it out it will be leprous.  And when you put it back in it will be cured.  And then here’s a staff and when you throw it on the ground – it will turn into a snake.    Did it work?  No!

Was Pharaoh convinced when Moses turned water into blood in the Nile?  Nope.  Neither were the court advisers.  And here’s Jesus, miracle after miracle and most people are unmoved by them.

It’s no different today.  Miracles rarely work.  I’m like, rain!  Water is just falling out of the sky?  Oh that’s just a cloud.  I’m like, corn!  I mean we bury a seed and six months later none of us are starving!  Is there nothing miraculous about any of that?  Ever watch Planet Earth 2 on Netflix?  Watch it!  Miracle after miracle.

I saw my children be born.  I’m like, I saw my daughter be born – and people are like, “I know, nature, right?”.  Nature?!  I just saw a living human being come out of another living human being, and she grows up to be a little like me and a little like Jody and a lot like another completely unique and beautiful human being….

I know these aren’t technically miraculous because they are things that normally happen.  But shouldn’t they at least cause us to ask – perhaps there really is a God?

How much more should true miracles that Jesus performed should have made people believe – but they rarely did.

I find it commendable that Nicodemus was willing to see God’s hand behind the incredible.  Behind the miraculous.   And they moved him toward God.

Secondly, I respect Nicodemus because he was willing to ask himself a very hard question that few are willing to ask.    He was willing to ask himself, “What if I’ve got it wrong?”   He was actually willing to allow his pre-conceptions about God be challenged.  He was movable.  And most people aren’t.  Most people, especially today, only want their opinions about God to be validated and respected but rarely are people willing to allow their beliefs to be challenged.

And I respect Nicodemus for his willingness to ask himself, “What if I’ve got it wrong?”  What if what I’m hearing from Jesus is true, and I’ve been barking up the wrong tree?

Which, by the way, is why I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone in here who is listening to this and asking yourself the same question.  And you might not yet have decided if Jesus is right and therefore, you need to change the way you think about reality itself… and that’s okay.  That’s where Nicodemus is right now in this story.  He is investigating Jesus.  He is finding out more before he makes the call.

And we don’t need to give Nicodemus a hard time about the fact that he is investigating Jesus after dark, after hours, when maybe his people would call him out for it.  Listen, he is part of a tight knit religious community.  And it’s not a small thing to make a decision that might place you outside the family.

It’s not easy to say to your Mormon family, “Maybe we’ve got this wrong.”  Or your Muslim family, “Maybe we’ve got this wrong?”   or your family of atheists, that, maybe we’ve got this wrong.

It’s incredibly difficult and painful and incredibly courageous to investigate Jesus, especially if investigating him puts your social constructions at stake.

Heck there’s some of you who have come from one generation after another who attended a certain kind of Lutheran church or Methodist church or catholic church, and your own family thinks you are part of a cult sitting in a gym, right?  And you’re inside the same belief system.  You believe the same things, and you get grief, some of you.

So here’s Nicodemus, and yes, he’s investigating Jesus on the down low, checking him out and he deserves credit for that.  And – if I may add one more thing here.

What is perhaps most encouraging of all is that Nicodemus is a Pharisee!  The pharisees were the religious big wigs, incredibly moral people.  They were the people other people went to for answers about the Bible.   They were supposed to have the answers, not ask the questions.  But here’s Nicodemus.  respected.  Learned.  Wealthy.  Prestigious.  Powerful.  Moral beyond measure.  And he is talking to Jesus who is about to put him on the same playing field as all of humanity.

See we often give a lot of time and attention to the moral disasters in the bible – the woman caught in adultery, and Zaccheus the thieving tax collector, and even the Samaritan woman in the next chapter that we will look at next week…

But the good news is that the gospel message is even able to break through to perhaps the hardest people to reach on the face of the earth – moral, self righteous people.  People who rarely do wrong.  Religious people are often the least likely to see their need for a rescuing.

And many people are still in trapped in this idea that so long as they never do anything wrong, God treats them like a teachers pet.  If you don’t do anything wrong God’s going to give you a pat on the head.  Rub you behind your ears.  That there’s a special treat for them in life.

Which is why some people are completely befuddled, and their life goes off the rails as soon as something bad happens in their life, they ask God, what have I done wrong?  Haven’t I been a good boy?  And they haven’t caught on yet that we are living in a broken world of pain and that our solace comes from knowing that no matter what happens God will be with us and promises to use our pain for good somehow in this world.

So praise the Lord, the good news of Jesus applies even to goodie two shoes.  IN chapter 3 we see Jesus with the goodie two shoes.  The guy who seems to have it all together.  A man of wealth and power and prestige.   And in chapter four we see Jesus talking to the bad girl in town, the person who’s life seems to be unraveling.  A person with a bad reputation, isolated and lonely.

And both of them, as well as you and I, are placed on an equal playing field.  We all need Jesus.  Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

I remember when I first started going to church someone asked me what kind of Christian I was.  I had no idea what they meant.  They were like, are you lutheran, presbyterian, catholic?  What are you?  I didn’t know.  I went to a church kind of like this one.  And so I asked a friend.  And he said, We’re born again christians.  Really?  I think I like the name Catholic better.  Born again Christian sounds like I’m in some kind of cult or something.  Maybe some of you bristled at that term too, and you’re like, what?  I gotta get out of here!

And I never used that term – I just told people I christian – like the kind on the bible.  And I’m happy to say, all these years later, that I was right.

See, the truth is that it doesn’t matter what church you go to, Jesus says that unless you are born again, you don’t have any part of His kingdom.  Unless is categorical, right?  Unless you are born again, there is no kind of christianity.

So “Born again” Christian shouldn’t refer to a brand of Christianity, it refers to everyone who claims to follow Jesus – and notice how firmly Jesus instructs Nicodemus – three different times, he tells Nicodemus you must be born again.

So if Jesus isn’t commanding him to join a brand of christianity, what does he mean?

Nicodemus asks the same thing“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”

Now I respect that Nicodemus actually believed it when someone told him there’s no such thing as a dumb question, but…  I mean, this is a dumb question.  Obviously, Jesus isn’t talking about a physical rebirth.  But Jesus is kinder than me and doesn’t call him out on it, instead he kindly responds…

Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ 

So what’s Jesus saying?  It’s one thing to be born.  It’s another thing to be spiritually born.  There is a difference.  No one is born a Christian.  I don’t care if you were baptized as an infant.  I don’t care if you went to church every Sunday of your life.  Remember, Jesus is talking to a man who attended Synagogue probably every day.

Jesus:  It’s not enough.  It’s not about jumping through the religious hoops, earning attaboy’s from God.  What does Jesus want?  He wants us to come to a place in our life where we realize our need for him.  That we need him.  He wants us to come to the place in our life where we think highly enough of him to trust him with the governance of our day to day lives.

That’s faith.  Faith is trust in action.  Faith is thinking highly enough of Jesus to trust him with our very lives.  When we come to that point in our life, then we have crossed the line of faith, and it’s like being born again.

Everything changes.  We see reality itself differently.  We see and recognize that, since God is for us, we need not fret about anything.  We no longer need to grasp, and fight and claw our way to whatever we think the top is.

If God loves me like Jesus tells me he does, then I can take all the slogans this life offers, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”  “Look out for numero Uno.”  Eat or be eaten.  Survival of the fittest.  I deserve a break today.  I can take all the slogans that reflect life as if I have to be the captain of my destiny – and I can open the trash can lid and dump all of them into the trash.  Like cleaning your dish after dinner – scrape all of it into the garbage and clean the plate and presto – everything is new again.  Clean plate.  Clean slate!

And I get to live today, and tomorrow, knowing, that the Lord is my shepherd.  I lack nothing.  He is in charge of restoring my soul.  He leads me – sometimes to green pastures and still waters, and yes, sometimes he leads me through dark valleys.  But no matter what – I fear nothing.  I fear no evil, I fear nothing.  Because Thou art with me.

Do you see, how coming to an understanding of this basic premise changes everything about how we live our lives? It is like restarting life – it’s a second birth.

Jesus came that we might receive that kind of life.  He came to free us from the terror of thinking that it’s me versus the world.  And lead us into a kingdom where we need not fend for ourselves.

So here is Nicodemus.  Jesus, I’m wealthy, smart, powerful.  I’m good, religious, dutiful.  I am religiously faithful – respected.  And Jesus says the only thing that counts is whether or not you trust me with all of those things.  Hand them over.  Let me show you a new life.

And in John 4 we see a woman who says, Jesus I am disgraced, embarassed.  Used and abused.  My reputation is in shatters, I have tried so hard to be loved and to love and I keep coming up empty, and Jesus says to her, the only thing that matters is whether you are willing to hand all of those things over to me.  Let me show you a new life.

 “How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked.  In reply, Jesus is going to allude to a very weird story in the book of Numbers, chapter 21.  And it’s a story about the nation of Israel, after they are freed from slavery in Egypt, they are on a long journey in the desert, and the people begin to grumble and complain and they begin to speak out against Moses and God too.

So the Lord sent poisonous snakes into the camp and many were bitten and many were dying.

Now someone might ask, why would God do such a thing?  And the answer is, because God saw that the poison in their soul was far worse than the venom in their body.  The venom in their soul was far more dangerous and far more destructive – it, if left unchecked, could really kill them.

Numbers 21 says that the people realized they were sinning and asked God to forgive them and to heal them, and God told Moses to do a very unusual thing.  He told Moses to make a replica of one of the snakes out of bronze and put it up on a pole.  And anyone who was bitten – in order to be healed from their sickness – all they had to do, was look at the pole with the snake and be healed.

So why would Jesus compare himself to a bronze snake?  Because the people who looked to the pole knew they were dying, unless God intervened and saved them.  They knew they were in trouble apart from God.  And God healed them just by looking to it.

Jesus – not long after saying this to Nicodemus, hung on a pole.  And all who look to him, even today, even right now, are healed.  He took the venomous sin that coursed through our souls upon himself.  He died on that pole that we might be saved.

As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.

And then, these immortal words from John 3:16.

16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 

Any Nicodemus’ in the room today?  You’re willing to become a follower of Jesus?  You’ve examined his claims and decided to follow him?

What happens to Nicodemus?  He becomes a follower of Jesus.  In chapter 7 he defends Jesus – and in chapter 19 he is the one who bought 75 pounds of burial oils to wrap up the body of Jesus and place Jesus in the tomb.  When the others had fled – he lays his cards on the table.  He buries Jesus and treats him with respect.

In a moment I am going to close our sermon time with a prayer – and then the band will come back for two more songs before we close the service.  If you would like someone to pray with you or for you during either of these last two songs, just slip out and head to the back corner – underneath that basket our prayer partners will pray a 30 second prayer for you and then you can rejoin those who are singing.

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