(No recording of this sermon is available.)
Texts: Genesis 12:1-4; John 3:1-12 (see also John 7:45-52; 19:38-42)
Over this past week, I have become absolutely enthralled by Nicodemus. Who was this pious old man who shows up in the middle of the night? What brought him out through those moonlit streets to Jesus’ door? The Pharisees are so often portrayed as the villains in John’s gospel, so what was it about Jesus that had so captured Nicodemus’ attention that he was willing to cross those enemy lines?
What were the questions that were guiding his inward journey, causing his feet to stumble through dark pathways, perhaps risking everything he had built his life around?
And maybe more importantly, what ever happens to Nicodemus in the end? Does he get it? Does he find what he is looking for? Does his inward journey ever connect with his outward journey? Does he ever experience the new birth Jesus tells him about?
Maybe the question I should be asking is, “Why am I so enthralled by Nicodemus?”
Nicodemus is a character that shows up only in John’s gospel, but he shows up three separate times, in this passage toward the beginning, another near the middle, and in a final scene toward the end of John. These three episodes give us just enough of a glimpse into Nicodemus’ journey to make me think that the writer of John is not just relying on a few stock characters and haphazardly peppering them here and there throughout the text. No, to me, there is something more to the story of Nicodemus.
And I think I am enthralled by him, because I see myself in that story. He stokes the fire of my imagination because his journey speaks to and perhaps reflects my own. In his fumbling through the dark, his confusion, his seeming indecision, and his desire for clear answers, I find my own story.
To me, Nicodemus is a sort of anti-hero for John’s gospel.
For those of you for whom the anti-hero is a new concept, the growing trend seems to be that normal heroes are too tidy; their lives too honorable and their heroic deeds too virtuous to be relatable. It might be fun and maybe even inspiring to hear about people who risk it all to rescue someone else or champion the noble cause without ever pausing to count the cost, but in the end there usually remains a distance between their story and ours.
But anti-heroes speak to us in a different way. In an article for Psychology Today, Eric Bender attempts to answer why we are drawn to anti-heroes. He writes, “It might be because their moral complexity more closely mirrors our own. They’re flawed. They’re still developing, learning, growing. And sometimes in the end, they trend toward heroism. We root for their redemption and wring our hands when they pay for their mistakes. They surprise us. They disappoint us. And they’re anything but predictable.”
It is probably far too generous to call Nicodemus an anti-hero since he only shows up a couple times, and I’m not sure anyone is really rooting for him. Maybe a better term would be anti-saint. Where the disciples in John’s gospel seem to follow Jesus at the drop of a hat, and (as our first scripture this morning seemed to allude) Abram uprooted his entire life to follow the voice of God without giving it much of a second thought, Nicodemus shows up three times and it’s never quite clear whether he makes a decision about following Jesus.
While he is considered a saint in Catholic tradition, this relies on a reading of scripture that is pretty generous to indecisive old Nick, but to be fair, they did make him the patron saint of funeral directors so it kind of evens out.
During the Reformation, the term Nicodemite was even coined as a way of belittling those who were unwilling to proclaim their true beliefs publicly when they clashed with the dominant, Catholic viewpoint. Ouch! Whether or not this moniker is a fair representation, it’s not quite the legacy Nicodemus or anyone would probably hope for themselves. Poor, fascinating, old Nicodemus.
So who was this closeted Christ follower, this hesitant anti-saint? And what does he have to say to us today? Let’s look at each of the three times Nicodemus shows up. Let’s hear his story, filling in the gaps where we must, and holding that story next to our own for awhile, allowing Nicodemus to be our partner along the path of our own inward journeys.
The first appearance is the passage read earlier. The author of John’s gospel uses symbolism quite freely and seems to be very careful about word choice, so the detail about this visit happening at night should not be missed. This is not the kind of meeting that Nicodemus would like to have broadcast in the light of day. A leader of the Jews reaching out to the man who only a couple verses before this was causing a ruckus in the temple courts might turn more than a few heads. A pharisee, a curator of the tradition praising this errant Galilean as “Rabbi”, as a teacher sent from God, is a crossing of borders that might not be understood, might not be appreciated by those who work so hard to maintain those borders.
It’s not clear what exactly is keeping Nicodemus up at night, causing him to venture out in search of Jesus. Perhaps not even Nicodemus himself has the words. Perhaps as he makes his way down dark alleys he rehearses what he will say, practicing words that always seem to fall short of the stirring in his spirit.
He arrives and they come tumbling out: “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.”
A raised eyebrow from Jesus as he looks over his visitor. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus is taken back. He hadn’t even asked a question. This is not how he saw this going.
What was that Jesus said about being born again? Born anew? Or was it from above? Shoot! Just say something, anything.
“How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
Really?! That’s what you come up with? Now he thinks you’re a fool who doesn’t understand metaphors.
This is definitely not how Nicodemus saw this going. Luckily Jesus goes on for awhile drawing the attention away. He talks more about this new birth he mentioned. Obviously not a literal birth. Nicodemus knew that. Jesus tries to clarify. Some of it makes sense. Some of it is obvious, or at least it sounds obvious, but Nicodemus has a sinking suspicion Jesus is using more metaphors even for the obvious stuff. He really wishes Jesus would just say what he means, tell him what he should do instead of speaking in riddles.
Water and flesh and birth...Wait, did Jesus just say something about the wind? Or did he mean spirit? Or breath? Blows where it may? He probably means wind, right? Oh no, now Jesus is just looking at me. Say something, anything. But something smart this time.
“How can these things be?”
Once again, Jesus attempts to clarify. He says some things that hit pretty close to home for Nicodemus, calling out his credentials as a teacher of Israel. Nicodemus absorbs it all. Jesus continues beyond the passage read this morning, making connections to Israel’s history and eventually getting to the well known “For God so loved” of John 3:16.
What is interesting to me is that Nicodemus seems to fade out of this narrative. He silently slips away with no response, no commentary on whether or not he understands, whether or not he is feeling the contractions of new birth. Unlike the story of the rich young ruler, we don’t get to know if Nicodemus walked away sad or if he just walked away.
I imagine Nicodemus slips away scratching his head, still unsure whether he was pulled out of bed by the stirring of the Spirit, or if he was actually just chasing the wind.
The second time we meet Nicodemus, some time has passed. The tension between Jesus and the Pharisees has continued to grow, reaching the point of outright hostility. Toward the end of chapter 7, the Pharisees send guards to arrest Jesus but they return empty handed and amazed by the way Jesus speaks. This infuriates the Pharisees and they tell the guards that they are foolish for being deceived by Jesus’ trickery. “Just look at us,” they say, “none of us have believed his lies.”
Enter our anti-hero, stage right.
Nicodemus senses his moment. He has had more time to mull over what Jesus said to him that night, more time to think through the metaphors and symbols, more time to wrestle with the birth pangs of his own inward journey.
“Look at us,” they say, “none of us have believed in Jesus.” It echoes in Nicodemus’ head for a moment. He is caught off guard.
Do I believe? Do I believe...enough? Is this moment worth the risk?
He clears his throat and all eyes turn to him. He takes a breath as he thinks of the wind.
“Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?”
Nicodemus exhales and looks down. For the briefest moment all is still.
Someone laughs contemptuously, “You are not from Galilee too, are you? Look it up and you will see that the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee.”
Nicodemus continues to look down, watching as his feet carry him timidly once again into the background. Their words hang in the air.
Maybe they are right. Or maybe that was enough.
Nicodemus doesn’t appear again until the very end of John’s gospel, even though the Pharisees always seem to be present wherever Jesus goes. Perhaps Nicodemus is part of that perennial spectre that haunts Jesus’ every move. Maybe he continues to speak up, gaining courage with each encounter. Maybe he silently remains on the sidelines. Maybe he has started to distance himself.
It is almost night when we meet Nicodemus again in Chapter 19, but this time the growing darkness feels different, heavier. There isn’t much time before Sabbath, so he and Joseph of Arimathea have to work quickly. They gather Jesus’ body, broken and bruised. They exchange very few words as they work, applying the spices and aloes with care.
As they dutifully wrap the linens around the body, Nicodemus looks down and mutters unbelievingly under his breath, How can these things be? His words lost on the wind.
The author of John includes the detail that Nicodemus brought 75 pounds worth of spices and aloes, an absurd amount. Many believe this shows the truth of Nicodemus’ devotion in these final hours, his wasteful offering perhaps mirroring that of the woman with the expensive ointment. A burial fit for a king.
Others suggest that the detail about the amount of spices is the author’s way of showing that even after all this, Nicodemus still doesn’t quite get it; the extravagant amount of burial spices revealing his inability to grasp the possibility of new life.
It’s in this twilight of uncertainty with the approaching Sabbath that we leave Nicodemus for the last time and he fades once more into the background.
And so I have to return to the question, “Why am I so fascinated by Nicodemus?”
Does this anti-saint have any wisdom to offer us?
I think what captures my imagination most is the way Nicodemus leaves us wondering. As he fades in and out of the larger narrative, he shows us that sometimes new birth is messy, sometimes it takes a really long time, sometimes we’re still left wondering at the end of the day whether we are following the Spirit or being tossed around by the wind.
Nicodemus could be the patron saint of the perpetual inward journey.
When I think about my own inward journey, I’ve come to realize that I am no longer at a place where matters of intellectual belief occupy most of my mental energy. There are plenty of worthwhile matters of theological importance to ponder and wrestle with, and I’m not saying I have all the answers. What does occupy my inward journey, however, are questions of call. Where is the Spirit blowing in my life, and am I willing to risk following it? Like Nicodemus, I can say to Jesus, “You are such a great teacher!” But when he immediately turns around and calls forth new life from me, I get scared.
For me, the inward journey of the labyrinth is scary because I am afraid of what I might find in the middle. I too easily avoid this journey because I’m afraid that it will ask things of me that I’m not sure I’m ready for, that following Jesus will mean sleepless nights, and speaking out when I don’t have the right words, and dressing the world’s wounds when I don’t know if I’ve brought the right supplies.
The inward journey is scary because it can leave us wondering if we are enough for the things to which we are being called.
But it is here that we must remind each other that the leviathans in our labyrinth are monsters of our own making, demons of guilt and shame that must be exorcised. At the center of this inward journey is love. It is love all the way down from beginning to end. The call to new birth is conceived in love and brought forth in love. It is love that draws us in and love that propels us forward.
As Jesus told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”
Sometimes we’re Abram and sometimes we’re Nicodemus. Sometimes our feet can’t seem to move quickly enough in heeding God’s call, and other times we spend years on the precipice before we can finally take that first step. Sometimes we are the heroes of our own story but other times our brokenness makes us feel as though we are only worthy of the sidelines of the story.
Either way, we are loved and this is what makes new life, eternal life possible. We cannot be shamed or guilted or scared into being born anew because it is only love that can conceive new life.
Nicodemus may be indecisive. He may let himself get swept up in the crowd. He may show up late to the party and when he does get there he might bring a really awkward gift. He may even be able to do better, to do more. But however he navigates the inward journey that he is on, it is only through love that he will be able to move toward new life. And the good news is that when it comes to love, God is an abundance.
And so my wish for us, my friends, is:
-That in all of our sleepless nights we would find Jesus reminding us that God so loves the world.
-That the Spirit would blow strongly in our lives, inviting us to new life in both big and small ways.
-And finally, that however we find this inward journey calling to us, that we would know that we are enough and that we are loved.