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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Following Nicodemus Thru Baptismal Waters - 03/12/2017

I love to track the story of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John. It takes place over three passages and today, we have the first before us.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee and I think we often dismiss the Pharisees out of hand as the bad guys in this story of our Messiah – as if they were one dimensional Darth Vaders or Voldemorts. But I think we may actually be able to relate to them Pharisees more than we realize.

The Pharisees were highly respected religious leaders who worked very hard – and often drove themselves and others a little crazy –in their efforts to keep the law. It was a law handed down by Moses and then studied and interpreted and argued and systematized among the Israelites over the next 1,500 years or so.

So when Jesus came along, the Pharisees felt very threatened. His signs and sermons challenged their proud adherence to the law, and the privilege and prestige they grew into in their roles as religious leaders to the Israelite Jews.  That is why we hear them question Jesus when it comes to the law – Why are you behaving like this, Jesus? You should know better than to heal people on the Sabbath, break bread and hang out with the wrong people, explain the law in these new ways that question tradition.

The Pharisees were God-fearing, devout, regularly worshiping people of God, just like so many of us. And they were wondering, fretting even: “Who is this new guy coming in and shaking everything up?”

Still some were curious, like Nicodemus. Here in Chapter 3, he comes to see Jesus in the night. He's drawn to him, but clearly not ready to be publicly associated with Jesus. He knows of the signs Jesus has been performing and he's drawn to this new light in the world because of them, and because of the way this itinerant Rabbi – from Galilee of all places – is opening up the scriptures. But Nicodemus is hesitant. He's asking his questions and trying to make sense of all this. “How can these things be?” he finally asks Jesus from the deep shadows of the darkness.

We too may find ourselves as Nicodemus does here –  so firmly footed in what we've always understood to be right and true in our religious identities. In those times we may really struggle to open that identity up – let it be expanded, challenged, maybe even changed as we grow in our study of scriptures and time spent listening for God's voice.

Nicodemus must have been wondering in part, how can it possibly be this simple? The Pharisee's had inherited mountains of legal interpretation, guidelines, and examples on how to keep God's law perfectly. This was a hard and honorable vocation to be called to – like any of us, they gave it their all. And now Jesus is saying we can inherit the kingdom of God through some esoteric birth in water and Spirit?

Nicodemus must have been overwhelmed trying to understand what Jesus was saying. But we come at this story from a different vantage point and we can see that Jesus is talking about our baptisms here. And even when it doesn't seem to make sense – seems to good to be true –  Jesus asks that we trust what he is saying. “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.” (3:7-8) And yet we certainly know that wind is still there, just as we know the mark of our baptism is always there.

It takes Nicodemus some time to begin processing Jesus' teachings, but they are taking hold in him. In Chapter 7, he  begins to speak out, begins to come out of the shadows. When his colleagues, the Pharisees, push forward aggressively to have Jesus arrested and shut up once and for all, Nicodemus speaks up. “'Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?' They replied, 'Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.'” (7:50-52) It's as if Nicodemus mustered just enough courage; it's as if his belief has grown just enough to step one foot into the light. He is simultaneously questioning the conduct of the Pharisees AND whether or not this could really be true – these things he's hearing and starting to believe about Jesus. That he is actually the one who can do something as simple and powerful as bringing God's people to salvation through baptismal waters and gifts of the Spirit – rather than mountains of law.

So Nicodemus tests this new faith, to see what will happen as he raises this question among his among his peers. They push back. They remain in the darkness and Nicodemus retreats back with them.

I see us in Nicodemus here too. Through our baptisms, we are promised eternal life with God through Christ even though we cannot fully live up to the law and we never will. We hear this all the time in the scriptures and hopefully in our places of worship, some of us from a very early age, and yet … we wonder. Are my sins really forgiven? Am I really good enough? Do I really deserve this? And then we retreat like Nicodemus back into the presumed safety of the shadows, forgetting that this doesn't have anything to do with “deserve,” – only Grace.

Finally in Chapter 19 Nicodemus will step into the full light of the day to help with the burial of Jesus. “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus in the night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds,”  (19:39) the story says.

In his decision to help take Jesus down from the cross and lay him in a tomb, Nicodemus is boldly proclaiming with his very presence:  “This man we take down from this cross and place in the tomb IS the Messiah. He IS God come to earth to walk among us, teach us, open the scriptures fully to the love and light of our creative and life-giving God.”

This story line of Nicodemus in John's gospel is a great dance through one person's faith life. And I see us here too.

Through our baptismal journeys we move from the dark secret of the night of our sin into the full-sun glory of our cleansed identities in Jesus. We say this clearly in our celebration of baptism. After one of us is bathed in waters in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, we pray, “We give you thanks, O God, that through water and the Holy Spirit you give your daughters and sons new birth, cleanse them from sin, and raise them to eternal life.”  Our baptisms are one step in a life-long faith journey and great dance in God's spirit – as unique to each of us as our finger prints.

The witness of our friend Nicodemus reminds us of some very important things. First of all, God understands that many of us come into our relationship with God, our baptismal identities, gradually, and that's OK. That actually is a dominant pattern in this gospel – people who come into the light of Christ in steps and over time.

Nicodemus, like so many of us, is a person of faith, but his full belief is held back by certainty in human philosophy and dogma that has come out of his religious community. But the Holy Spirit is working hard here – calling and moving even the Jewish leaders in John's community, and calling us as well.

Where do we allow and even strengthen human doctrine above God's law? Where do we prohibit Sabbath day healings, or refuse to beak bread with certain people in certain places? Where do we hold tightly to traditions only for the sake of those traditions?

This story also reminds us that once we muster the courage to come into the light and expose our sin and failings and blemishes – we aren’t shunned or ridiculed by God.

It's true, there maybe risk and pain in exposing our whole selves to this light. But when we do … when we dare to let the light fall on our sins and failings, places where we need to forgive or be forgiven, places that are too heavy for us to bear on our own, we find, actually, that we are quite safe and freed.  Because the abiding truth is that nothing can separate us from God's promise that through our baptisms in Christ, our sins are fully and wonderfully forgiven and we have already been chosen for life eternal in the Kingdom of God.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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