March 12, 2017 Second Sunday in Lent John 3: 1-17
Dear God, Please go with us into the study of your word, written by your friend John. Help us to hear a fresh word from this familiar story. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
What He Saw
This past Christmas season, for some reason, one of our neighbors mounted a holiday-themed scarecrow to his mailbox.
Every morning on my way to work, I topped the hill and saw this human-shaped figure at the edge of the street. My brain told me to slam on the brakes.
Fortunately, my reflexes are not that great. So before I actually slammed on the brakes, my brain issued a correction: Never mind. It’s that stupid scarecrow.
This went on for weeks. There wasn’t a single day that my brain didn’t startle as I topped that hill. Because I had driven up that hill for 29 years and seen only a mailbox.
Now there was a figure, and some part of me thought he was going to step in front of my car.
I am fascinated by how we see, how our brains process what we are seeing. How our brains process what we are seeing in light of previous experiences, previous things seen.
I am convinced that lots of times we see what we are expecting to see.
One of the odder manifestations of this came during my early months here. When I arrived at Triune in 2005, I had never seen homelessness before, certainly not close up. And suddenly, I was spending 40, 50 hours a week, with people who slept in the woods, in abandoned buildings, under bridges.
When I’d go home at night and turn on the TV, there was a split second when I was surprised to see people who lived in houses. Surprised to see people who worked in offices. Surprised to see people who hopped in fancy cars and drove to restaurants.
It was just a split second, but it was real and disconcerting. When I turned on the TV, I expected to see homelessness because that was where my mind was. And instead, I saw the bright, Crayola-colored world of television comedy.
Our Scripture passage today deals with a man who is coming to see Jesus for the first time. And you can tell from their dialogue that everything this man thought he’d seen before was turned upside down.
We read this story on the second Sunday of Lent because this man is interwoven into Jesus’s story all through our Lenten season. He pops up at key moments in the life and death of Jesus. He’s the Forrest Gump of John’s gospel.
His name is Nicodemus.
Please turn in your Bibles to John 3: 1-17, and let’s read about the first time that Nicodemus met Jesus. Notice we are only in chapter 3 of John’s gospel. This is early in the story.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘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.’
3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
4Nicodemus 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?’
5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The 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.’
9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 ‘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.
17 ‘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.’ ”
As I said, John tells us this story about the Pharisee Nicodemus early in his gospel. In fact, it comes right after Jesus drove the animal sellers and moneychangers out of the temple with a whip.
Apparently, already, many people liked what they were seeing, and believed in Jesus.
That worried the Pharisees. So right on the heels of the clash with religious authorities in the temple comes this story about one of them, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night.
That “by night” is important. Back in his prologue, John spoke extensively of the light that came into the world. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Yet, the world also “did not know him.”
So Nicodemus was of the night. He couldn’t see in the dark. He didn’t yet know the light that was Jesus.
We live in a suburban neighborhood, so we have lots of neighbors in front and to the sides, including holiday scarecrow man. But behind us, there is a thick patch of woods, then a Duke Power easement. You cannot remotely see another house through there.
When we built our house, we were surrounded by neighbors in their 30s, as we were. The man next door traveled, often leaving his young wife at home alone. Her inky back yard and the inkier woods scared her. So they asked us if we’d split the cost of having Duke Power install a light pole at the back corner between our two yards. We said sure.
It’s kind of strange to see that pole among all the trees back there. But I have loved it. There’s a nice warm light that glows at the edge of those woods on the darkest nights.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John uses one of the all-time great metaphors to introduce the all-time greatest story ever told.
Nicodemus had seen the signs Jesus performed: Changing water into wine is the one we know about at this point in John’s gospel. Apparently, something was stirring in this Pharisee’s heart, and so he said to Jesus at their secret nighttime meeting, “… no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Then there ensued a conversation on two levels, a technique common to John. Nicodemus was talking literally on one level, while Jesus and the reader are on another.
The conversation gave Jesus a chance to speak of being born from above or being born again, language that we use to this day. We speak of the rebirth of baptism. We speak of being born-again Christians.
Some interpreters believe that John was using Nicodemus as a straw man like the straight man of a comedy team. Dean Martin to Jerry Lewis. Dan Rowan to Dick Martin. Dick Smothers to Tommy Smothers.
These interpreters contend that Nicodemus’s questions allowed Jesus to articulate theology.
For instance, Jesus referred to the time that Moses’ “lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.” That comes from a strange little story in the Old Testament book of Numbers.
The people of Israel were complaining against God and Moses about being in the wilderness. God got tired of their whining and sent snakes to bite them. Many of them died from poisonous snake bites.
So the people went to Moses and admitted they had sinned against God. They asked Moses to intercede. At the Lord’s bidding, Moses crafted a bronze serpent and set it high upon a pole. Whoever looked at it would be healed of his snake bite.
John seems to be linking that story to the idea of looking upon Jesus lifted onto a cross. Nicodemus – and everyone else – could look upon the cross and be healed.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus said, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
And then he explained the purpose of being lifted up on that cross: “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.”
Those are important words. That is important theology. That’s John 3:16, the heart of our gospel.
Florida Gator quarterback Tim Tebow painted it on his face.
Rainbow Man wears it on his T-shirt.
In-N-Out Burgers printed it on the bottom of their ice cream cups.
Stone Cold Steve Austin adapted it as Austin 3:16, though I’m not real clear about his point.
But I don’t think Nicodemus is in this gospel just to give Jesus someone to talk to, just to provide a straw man. I think he was in Jesus’s presence one night to have his life changed. And that’s why we meet him twice more – so we can see the change.
Nicodemus makes his second appearance in chapter 7, as the Pharisees and chief priests and temple police argue about arresting Jesus.
Nicodemus tries to calm them down.
“Our law,” he says, “does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (John 7: 51)The other Pharisees roundly deride him for his statement.
And then we meet him a third time after Jesus’ death. Joseph of Arimathea, who was also a fearful, secret disciple of Jesus, asked Pilate for Jesus’s crucified body. Nicodemus was right there with him, bringing the myrrh and aloes needed for burial. The two men took the body, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in the tomb.
Nicodemus is a recurring character from the beginning of John’s gospel to its end. Something happened in that first meeting with Jesus to bring him back again and again.
Nicodemus saw something on meeting Jesus that he never forgot. Forever after, he couldn’t quite escape the pull of the Savior.
All because of something he saw that didn’t quite fit with where he started.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee whose buddies were enraged by Jesus, who were plotting to kill Jesus. But he saw something, something, that didn’t gel with their view.
A man stopped me in our parking lot recently. He got out of his car, and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” I said, “I’m sorry, no.”
He gave me his name and it did faintly ring a bell. And he said that he stopped by to tell David Gay and me thank you. He’d been on the street many years before, and now he had a job and a home and a car. He’d also had gastric bypass surgery and lost 100 pounds, which may explain why I didn’t recognize him.
“And he said, ‘You invited me to sing during worship. You saw something in me.’ ”
You saw something in me.
That’s the crux of what Nicodemus did. He saw something in Jesus that didn’t mesh with his world view of Pharisaic Judaism.
That’s the crux of what we try to do, isn’t it? To see something in someone that they can’t see. To see something that perhaps no one has seen before. To see what someone can become rather than what she is.
What prevents us from seeing accurately? What prevents us from seeing deeply? We all know we can look at the very same thing and have different reactions.
A beef-lover looks at a sizzling steak and thinks, “Supper!” A vegetarian looks at the same steak and sees fat and animal abuse and ecological disaster.
A healthy woman looks at a photo of an elderly man and thinks, “Grandfather.” An abuse victim looks at the same photo and thinks, “Lost childhood.”
Vince looks at his new Sports Illustrated and thinks, “Ah, good reading.”
I look and say, “Let me know if there’s a sermon in there.”
Our challenge, I think, is to see this story of Jesus with fresh eyes, with un-jaundiced eyes, with eyes that attempt, for awhile at least, to set aside everything we’ve seen before.
A Pharisee came to Jesus under cover of night, recognizing, if only faintly, that his fellow Pharisees might be wrong about what they were seeing.
“No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” he said.
And Jesus told him about being born again, meaning, Throw out what you think you have seen, what you think you know. Enter the kingdom of God as a newborn baby by looking upon the Son of Man on a cross.
I think Nicodemus saw and understood.
And in the end, he gently removed his Savior’s body from that cross.