Meeting Jesus: Nicodemus

 

Meeting Jesus: Nicodemus
A Message on John 3:1-17
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Aug. 11, 2019
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

John 3:1-17 (NRSV)

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus 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. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that 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.

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I want to let you know that I’m uncomfortable today. See this shirt and this tie? I’m uncomfortable about them. I’m not really sure that they match. And I’m not wearing a blazer or a jacket, so I’m uncomfortable in that way as well, even though it’s August in Texas and hot enough that I shouldn’t be worried about it.

Now I want to make you uncomfortable. So what I want you to do is to sit somewhere other than where you normally sit. I’m serious. Get up and move to someplace else in the sanctuary. It can’t be the same pew, and it can’t be the pew in front of you or the pew behind you. It has to be a significantly different spot from where you normally sit. Go on, I’ll wait.

(Pause)

How many of you are mad at me? Like really, really mad? How many of your feel uncomfortable sitting somewhere different? If so, good. That’s the idea.

Today as we continue our sermon series “Meeting Jesus,” we are going to talk about being uncomfortable and examine someone who felt very uncomfortable in meeting Jesus: Nicodemus.

As you sit there uncomfortably I want to tell you about a situation I found myself in that made me uncomfortable.

It happened in 1984. I had just graduated from East Texas State University with a bachelor’s degree double-majoring in journalism and photography and was looking for a good job in that field. I had several prospects, including a job as a photographer for the Plainview Daily Herald waaaaaay up in the panhandle of Texas. (If you’ve ever been to Plainview you know that it is appropriately named.)

The called me (there was no Internet back then) and made travel arrangements for me to fly out to Plainview and interview for the job. So early one morning I packed up my photography portfolio and newspaper clippings and got on a Southwest Airlines flight in Dallas bound for Lubbock.

The newspaper office told me they would have someone meet me at the airport to give me a ride to the newspaper office. The plane lands, I walk off the plane with my suit and tie on and carrying my portfolio.

A man walks up to me, shakes hands, and says, “How was your flight?”

“Fine,” I reply. “So are you the person that is going to give me a ride to the office?”

“Yes,” he said. “My car is right outside.”

Well, I was kinda liking this. We get in his car, which is a nice car, by the way, and start driving west from the airport. I notice that we pass under I-27. While we didn’t have Google Maps back in the day we did have Rand McNally Road Atlases and I was pretty sure that to get to Plainview I-27 was the road you took. So I asked him, “Uh, didn’t we just pass the road that goes to the office?”

The man replies, “Yes, but we’re going to the job site first and then to the office.”

This puzzles me. Job site? What’s he talking about? So after a while I get up the nerve to ask. “What job site are you talking about?”

“The job site for the new building you are designing.”

“Uh, I’m not designing a building.”

“Aren’t you an architect?”

“No! I’m a newspaper reporter and photographer and am here for a job interview with the Plainview newspaper!”

Awwwwwwkkkkkkkwwwwwwaaaaarrrrrrddddddd.

Yep, you guessed it. He picked up the wrong guy from the airport. And I got in a car with the wrong guy.

I don’t know who was more embarrassed, him or me, but it was very, very uncomfortable. He turned the car around and drove back to the airport. Even though it was only a few miles, it seemed like forever.

When we got there a reporter from the Plainview newspaper was on the phone saying, “He didn’t get off the plane,” and an architect, who was dressed much nicer than I was, was looking around for someone who was supposed to pick him up.

Things got straightened out and the interview went well (I turned down the job and took one in Stephenville) but it was a very, very uncomfortable situation.

The scripture we read today from the Gospel of John tells of another uncomfortable situation. Nicodemus goes to see Jesus at night and is confused by Jesus metaphorical language.

Now it may not seem to be that uncomfortable to us but we have to remember who–and what–Nicodemus was.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and also a member of the Sanhedrien. The Pharisees were the top religious experts in the Jewish community and as such were the top strata of society at the time. Like the other religious leaders, the Sadducees, they wore the best clothes, ate the best food, lived in the nicest houses, etc. People moved out of the way when they walked down the street.

The Sanhedrien were a group of religious leaders that served as a tribunal to hear not only religious but also legal cases (the religion and law were the same back then, with the exception of Roman laws forced onto the people from the Romans who ruled the area.).

So Nicodemus, to use East Texas terminology, was a “big wig.” He was SOMEBODY!

Much is made of the fact that Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night, painting him as somewhat cowardly that he didn’t do so during the daytime. I believe that is somewhat justified, but I also think that ol’ Nicky needs to be given credit just for going, period. As far as we know none of the other Pharisees sought out Jesus to try to understand who he was and what he was teaching.

It really was remarkable that Nicodemus sought out Jesus. Most of the Pharisees had their heels dug in the Mosaic law and the status quo. They knew the law, what was right and what was wrong, and didn’t need some 33-year-old nobody from Nazareth, who was not a Pharisee, a Sadducee, or even a scribe, walking around and stirring up the people with all sorts of nonsense.

But Nicodemus was different. He knew there was something special about Jesus. I credit to the Holy Spirit giving him a “gut feeling” that Jesus was indeed holy and sent from God.

So for Nicodemus to even make the effort to talk to Jesus, even if it was a night, was proof that Nicodemus was stepping way out of his comfort zone into a situation in which he had to be very uncomfortable.

And when he meets with Jesus he fails to pick up on Jesus metaphorical language. Jesus tells him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus responds in a very literal way, which is to be expected from a Pharisee: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Then Jesus explains: “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.”

This had to be uncharted territory for Nicodemus the Pharisee. There was nothing like this in the Mosaic laws. It was way out of his comfort zone.

Now it is important to note in reading this scripture about Jesus and Nicodemus that this isn’t the end of the story. Nicodemus appears two more times in the Gospel of John. One happens in the seventh chapter where he comes to Jesus defense by pointing out to his fellow members of the Sanhedrin that they can’t rush to judge Jesus because the law requires that a person be given the opportunity to be heard before being judged. That had to be uncomfortable for him.

The second time occurs after the crucifixion of Jesus where Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea hastily prepare Jesus’ body for burial. His contact with a dead body would have made him “unclean” meaning he couldn’t go to the temple the next day, the Sabbath, and would have to go through extensive steps to once again be declared “clean.” It would have been uncomfortable and publicly humiliating for a Pharisee to be “unclean.”

Meeting Jesus has quite an impact on Nicodemus, moving him out of his comfort zone and into the world of being a follower of Jesus Christ.

The same is true for us today. Following Jesus pretty much guarantees that we will experience situations that make us uncomfortable.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to us, but often times we are reluctant to leave our comfort zone to follow Jesus. We proclaim that we are Christian, but there is an asterisk with a footnote attached to our name. We are willing to follow Jesus as long as it doesn’t threaten our comfort level.

I know about that because that is the way I used to be. I felt a calling to ministry but refused to answer because it would require me to get out of my comfort zone. I grew up in the Methodist church and knew that Methodist preachers didn’t make very much money and got moved a lot. Besides that they lived life like they were in a fishbowl where the whole world could see that they were doing and were all up in their business.

I was comfortable. I had a job I loved with good benefits and making okay money, a nice house that overlooked a park in a nice neighborhood. I had a good family, good friends, and good health. Life was good. Life was comfortable. I didn’t want any of that to change.

There is a word used primarily in science that describes my life at that time: homeostasis. An article in Scientific American describes it this way: “Homeostasis, from the Greek words for “same” and “steady,” refers to any process that living things use to actively maintain fairly stable conditions necessary for survival.”

As humans we like our lives to be that way. We like comfortable. We like things being the same and find comfort in routine and sameness.

As Andew Peterson points out in one of his songs, “I’m shackled by the comfort of my couch.”

But is that the way we are to live a Christians? Are we to be Pharisees that worship the status quo and resist Jesus’ call to uncomfortable places? Are we shackled by the comfort of our pew?

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book before he was executed by the Nazis in World War II. The book, The Cost of Discipleship, talks of cheap grace and costly grace. Bonhoeffer points out

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

He goes on to say, “Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”

If you are following Jesus and in doing so do not find yourself in uncomfortable situations, then maybe you really aren’t following Jesus after all.

Jesus calls us to the uncomfortable places, but that’s alright! That’s how our faith grows. It’s not in the safety and comfort inside our homes, offices, and churches, but Jesus calls us outside our comfort zones to share the gospel with those who haven’t heard it or haven’t experienced it. He wants us to leave the 99 sheep who already know him and go in search of the one sheep that is lost.

So my challenge to you this week is to be uncomfortable. Be like Nicodemus, willing to go outside of his comfort zone in order to follow Jesus.

Talk to people you normally wouldn’t talk to. Take some faith chances, knowing that some of them might fail but also knowing that some of them might not! Step out in faith not knowing what the result will be, but trusting in Jesus that you will be planting seeds that will germinate, grow, and bear fruit.

Now it won’t be easy. It will make you feel uncomfortable, but that’s okay? It’s supposed to be! It’s not on the mountain tops, the times were everything is great, that our faith grows, but it’s in the valleys, those times of challenge and uncomfortableness, that it grows.

Oh, and if you ever have someone pick you up at the airport, make sure they are the right person before getting in the car with them.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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