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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

For All The Other Days You Are Called - 03/08/2020

I have talked before about how the story line of Nicodemus is one of my favorite parts of John’s Gospel.

I especially like it in terms of how it puts human flesh and experience on John’s use of the metaphor of light to show how people come to believe that Jesus is God’s greatest gift of love … that it is for the world; that it is not for condemnation, but eternal life.

Here in chapter 3, with Nicodemus and his experience of light, we have the introduction to this Pharisee. He is an elder in his community, well respected. He is high in the social hierarchy because of his expected and excellent adherence to the Law of Moses and the laws of the temple. He is well-educated and in fact, a rabbi, a teacher himself. He has grown and become seasoned in his experience as a priest and community leader. He has dealt with many setbacks, likely, and he has probably experienced success too. He has become practiced in his dance of upholding Jewish tradition under Roman occupation.

And “he came to Jesus by night.” We are quickly made to understand that Nicodemus is seeking out Jesus on the down-low.

In the cover of the night, Nicodemus and Jesus have a theological discussion that has a lot of meat on the bone … what it is to be born of the Spirit and what it might look like to give oneself over to that life … “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it come from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Jesus dives right into the deep end with Nicodemus, who must have felt blindsided, like he needed to gasp for air or like the earth was moving powerfully right below his feet. He had come to Jesus with a simple statement of his certainty: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

I’m not sure how Nicodemus imagined the conversation would go after that … he seems to be a man of compassion and empathy. Maybe he was there with the intention of placating Jesus with some words of honor and respect, followed by a tender-hearted urging to … maybe not challenge the Pharisees so much … to try to stay off the radar of the Romans … “because, listen Jesus, my colleagues have already put you on the blasphemy list; and the Romans, they just kill the Jews who get too loud and subversive.”

Maybe that’s where Nicodemus’ imagination went as he made his way, stealthily, to the place Jesus was staying that night …. Who can really know?

What we can know is that Jesus took the conversation immediately to Spirit and rebirth and water … theological ideas that may seem pretty common to us, but were very foreign to someone like Nicodemus.

I think he was caught off guard by what Jesus said. It would be like someone trying to convince a Lutheran that although we say God’s Grace comes to us freely and abundantly and only because that is what God desires for us, there are actually are a couple of things we must do first … a few works of righteousness and worthiness we must complete. If you want to see a Lutheran twitch, just say works-righteousness. That’s how strange this Spirit, water and rebirth talk would have been to our friend Nicodemus.

And of course Jesus doesn’t stop there. He isn’t kidding around at all with Nicodemus here. “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks.

And Jesus kind of clobbers him. He questions Nicodemus’ competence as a teacher of Israel and confronts him with the fact that the religious leaders refuse to see that Jesus is the Son of Humanity … the one they have been going on about for generations in their teachings, the God-promise of a Messiah that Nicodemus and the priests have been studying their whole lives is right there and they cannot … will not … see him.

And then Jesus introduces Nicodemus to what has become one of the most quoted scriptures of our American-Christian culture … “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” and, wait there’s more earth shattering stuff that too often gets left off … “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.” (3:16&17)

Like we struggle with the global and inclusive nature of Jesus’ salvation for the whole world in this teaching (not just us), Nicodemus would have struggled too. It would not have been easy for Nicodemus to comprehend, let alone embrace this idea that the Messiah wasn’t a BA warrior come to crush the oppressor … this idea the Messiah was coming for everyone, not just the faithful Jewish people, God’s chosen.

There is a lot of meat on this theology bone, and maybe that’s why Nicodemus does not seem to come into the light at all in this part of his story. He came by night and he left by night. Maybe it was just too much to handle that night.

The next time we meet Nicodemus is in Chapter 7. He did not come into the light when he met privately with Jesus, but their conversation must have been working within him anyway … Jesus’ words and the Spirit must have been stirring around in him somewhere. So 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)

Nicodemus is still not ready to come into the light of his growing belief that this young, gifted, challenging, charismatic rabbi is, very truly, very surprisingly, the Messiah. And so he retreats – back into the shadows – at even the slightest hint of challenge from the increasingly threatened and reactionary high priests and leaders.

You may remember the final time we see Nicodemus in this Gospel – and it is where he has stepped boldly into the full light of the day and his belief 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 courageously 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; to open the scriptures fully to the love and light of our creative and life-giving God.”

It think there must be a million ways we can find connection and parallel in this story … places where we see ourselves as children of God and followers of Jesus.

Parallels with how we too recoil from the full light of our belief, the hard truth and ridiculous grace (Props to Tauren Wells) we find in our Christian identities.

Connections to times we let fear win and send us retreating into the shadows when the Good News of Jesus for the world is forgotten or being corrupted.

Connection and parallel also with what it is to be out and sure in the light, in the full light, in full view of all who would see or hear our own God story.

Like our Psalmist today … I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth – who will not let my foot be moved, who will not slumber while keeping watch over me. (Ps 121.1-3, para)

With all that being said, with John’s metaphor of light and how our belief can grow and flourish – here, actually, is the line that keeps jumping out at me from this story this week … “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

I never noticed how specific Nicodemus’ question is here – he doesn’t ask this about children like Samuel and David; or young and middle-aged adults, like Jesus and many of his disciples. Nicodemus asks specifically about people probably like him, who identify as “old” – the ones who have been on the planet for a while … who have experienced more than a few of life’s trials and tribulations, comforts and triumphs. … our elders.

And so I want to offer up a couple of things about the particularity of Nicodemus’ question.

First of all, the character of Nicodemus, along with our story of an already very old Abram and Sarai, remind us that just because someone is old or comes from times and ways the world has perhaps outgrown, doesn’t mean God is done with them yet. It doesn’t mean that God does not call them into ministry for which they are particularly equipped, or challenge them to grow and evolve in their relationship with God and everyone else.

It made me think of a Charlie Brown cartoon that has stuck with me. It is set in a place you might find here, out at Pete’s Lake or something. Charlie Brown and Snoopy are sitting side-by-side on a dock, looking out at the lake, their backs to the reader. Charlie Brown says, “Some day, we will all die, Snoopy!” And Snoopy says, “True, but on all the other days we will not.”

I think Nicodemus’ question helps us remember, on all those other days we do not die, we are likely to be called by God, in our worshipping lives together, in our care for one another.

So how is God calling and challenging and stirring you? @ 8 or 18 or 88?

And finally, in regard to the particularity (I just like to say particularity.J) of Nicodemus’ question, I heard a commentator say something about how when Nicodemus finally came into the full light of the Messiah and his belief, it was too little and too late. While I understood where this person was coming from, I don’t think I really agree.

When Nicodemus came with his absurd amount of burial spices and ointments, it was too late to save Jesus. But it was not too late to save Nicodemus and that’s precisely why Jesus came to humankind in human, crucifi-able form.

It is precisely why, some 2,000 years later, we gather round font and table to see and hear and feel and taste and smell our salvation too. Nicodemus wasn’t in this story to save Jesus, after all. Rather, Jesus is the story that saves us – and it is never too little or too late. Amen.

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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