Sermon: Lent 2 Year A* March 8, 2020
The Rev. Eileen Weglarz
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Few things are more revealing about people than the way they share themselves in conversation. Our Scripture lesson today provides one of the most profound encounters Jesus had with a person and the deep conversation they shared. The person is Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Jew, a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin.
The Sanhedrin was one of the most important bodies in Judaism. It was a counsel of 70 men, with the High Priest as its chairman. The members came from the priesthood, the scribes, other elders among the aristocracy, and some Pharisees. The body was usually dominated by priests, which was called the Sadducee party. But the Pharisees were represented, and Nicodemus was a Pharisee.
Normally, we think negatively about the Pharisees, but that’s because we know them in the distortion of their cause. Actually, to be a Pharisee was to be a part of a movement, a separatist movement, committed to preserving and keeping the Law. The movement began at the time of the Syrian occupation of Judah, about two hundred years before Christ, and became the principal, spiritual and intellectual force in Judaism following the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.
The Pharisee movement was not bad in intention or design. The problem was that, over time, like many religious people, the Pharisees became proud and self-righteous. They became hypocritical and scornfully contentious toward ordinary people. They were a kind of religious elite.
It was obvious that Nicodemus was an important Pharisee because he had been named as a member of the Sanhedrin. Along with others in the movement, he was serious about ethical ideas, about keeping the Law, and about knowing the will of God. He had a deep concern for truth.
Because of this deep concern and position he held as a Pharisee and as a member of the Sanhedrin, it is highly probable that this was not the first encounter Nicodemus had with Jesus.
Holocaust survivor and writer Alexander White could well be right when he suggested that Nicodemus was one of the most honored of the deputation teams sent out by the temple authorities to examine John the Baptist’s preaching, and to report to the temple about this new movement. It was there that Nicodemus began to feel the nudging of the Spirit, his unsettled soul, the gnawing conviction that something was lacking in his life. He not only heard John’s preaching; he no doubt heard the rumors that John was the Messiah. He may have even questioned John about it and heard John’s response: “No, I’m not the Messiah; the Messiah is coming after me, he is mightier than I, in fact, I am not even worthy to unlatch his sandals. I baptize you with water unto repentance, but he that is coming after me is mightier than I; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
It may have been that Nicodemus was there when Jesus came for his own baptism, and heard John say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Whatever the case, there must have been other occasions when Nicodemus tried to find out more about Jesus, maybe when he talked with him. And one can imagine that he had known many hours of soul-struggle, sleepless nights as he wrestled with the truth of what John the Baptist was saying about Jesus, what he had heard Jesus Himself say, and what he saw Jesus doing.
There are those who say disparaging words about Nicodemus going to Jesus by night. That’s not really a cause for condemnation. The wonder is that Nicodemus, with his background, aristocrat that he was, a leader of one of the most dedicated and powerful renewal movements of Judaism, that from that kind of economic and religious station in life, he would seek Jesus at all - that he would go out to this wondering prophet who had been the carpenter of Nazareth and seek to talk to him about the state of his soul.
The bottom line is that here was a deeply religious man, a seeker of truth, now sorely concerned because he was certain that something was lacking in his life, and though still puzzled about it, was plagued with the conviction that Jesus had the answer.
And isn’t that the beginning point? Isn’t that the place to which we must come before we can be ministered to? Isn’t that a prerequisite to salvation--knowing that something is missing, that despite all our religious activity, all our seeking for truth, all our effort at being and doing good, deep down inside, we are without peace. And we feel like lost children seeking our way home.
That was Nicodemus, feeling his way through the darkness of night to get to where Jesus was staying. Struggling through the darkness of his soul to find the life and light that the law and all his efforts at being religious had not yet given him.
Now, here he is in the room with Jesus—the counselor of counselors. He who knew what was in the heart of the healer of souls. And Jesus won’t let him off the hook. Jesus won’t even let him talk philosophically, won’t let him pursue who Jesus is. Nicodemus tries: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these things that you do, unless Jesus is with him.”
Here is an indication that there have been other contacts. Otherwise, why would Jesus strike so quickly and speak so pointedly to the issue. Jesus was always a sensitive listener, always rubbed his hand gently upon the mind and soul of another person to see precisely what was going on in that person’s life. Yet in this particular situation, it is as though he was saying, “Nicodemus, it’s time for decision and action. You’ve played around long enough. You’re a brilliant man. You heard John’s call to repentance, which is also my call. You know by now that my baptism is not just the baptism of repentance; it is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. So get it straight Nicodemus, “You must be born again from above.”
Now, to the heart of the message. Many are turned off by hyper-evangelicals over the phrase “born-again Christian.’ Sometimes our labels may be pure in intention but our intentions may be woefully inadequate in communicating truth. I heard a story recently, which vividly illustrates this truth. A man wanted to express appreciation for his friend who was expanding his business and moving to a new location. So the fellow decided to send some flowers and a note of “best wishes” on the day of the open house. He instructed the florist to use his judgment and send an appropriate floral arrangement and message.
The florist responded, “Don’t worry. I’ll say the right thing and send the right flowers.” The day of the open house came and the fellow went. He was surprised when his friend greeted him coldly at the door and glared at him angrily. He didn’t understand. He began to look around and see if the florist had come through. Stuck over in the corner, he found a funeral wreath with the inscription, “Rest in peace” and his name was on it. Then he understood his friend’s anger. He called the florist to cuss him out. “What kind of joke do you think this is? You sent a funeral wreath to my best friend on the happiest occasion of his life. What do you mean, “Rest in peace?”
“Oh my goodness,” said the florist. “You think you’ve got problems! Somewhere in this town there is a funeral in progress with a large banner on a floral offering which says, “Best wishes in your new location.”
Intentions alone are never fully adequate. While you may be turned off by “born-again type language,” don’t hide behind it and turn off to the truth. That’s the language and truth of the New Testament. The phrase “born again, or a more accurate translation from the Greek would be born again from above, goes back to Jesus. The idea of “new birth” runs throughout the New Testament.
Peter speaks of the God who has begotten us to a living hope (I Peter 1:3) He talks about being born-again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible (Peter 1:22, 23) James speaks of God begetting us with the word of truth (James 1: 18) Those words “begotten, begetting, being born again from corruptible seed”—all have to do with birth and rebirth. The letter from Titus speaks of the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5).
Sometimes this same idea is spoken of as death followed by a resurrection or a re-creation. That’s the favorite language of Paul. He speaks of the Christian dying with Christ and rising to new life. (Romans 6:1-11) Paul refers to those who are new Christians as “babes in Christ” (I Corinthians 3:1,2) You remember his most vivid word from I Corinthians 5:17: “If any person be in Christ, he or she is a new creation, the old has passed away, behold the new is come.”
It’s the same all through the New Testament. The idea of rebirth, being born again, recreation, is the prominent symbol. And we unabashedly speak of it in the language of baptism.
With that in mind, we realize that Nicodemus’s question is still the crucial one. You would have asked the same question as I would have, and as we continue to ask it. How can this be so, how can one be born again? What does that mean?
One, it means that we don’t do it; God does it. That s what Jesus said to Nicodemus: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit...The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (vs. 6, 8).
Realizing this, a second point becomes clear. Jesus’ call to us and our primary response is that of repentance. That’s the way Mark described Jesus’ ministry. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the gospel.” Or shall we say, the good news... (Mark 1:14—15).
What does all that mean? Jesus answers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”
This is a deep truth. When Jesus takes possession of our lives, the sins of the past are forgiven. That’s glorious good news. And then we are baptized, for the ritual cleansing and as a witness to what God has done in our lives. But Jesus says we must be baptized with the Spirit as well. The Spirit is not only the symbol; it is the actual reality of power. Again, when Jesus takes possession of our lives, it is not only that the past is forgiven.
If that were the only thing that happened to us we might go on again and again and never break the cycle of sinfulness in our lives. But when we’re born again, when we give our lives to Christ, there enters into our lives a power which enables us to be, what we within our own power could never be, and to do what we within our own power could never do.
This is the message that brought salvation to Nicodemus, a true seeker of faith and truth. And it is still over 2,000 years later the message that saves every single human being who comes to Jesus and lets Jesus come into his or her life and transform it. And if you ever had a doubt or concern that you have not given Jesus your life, there is no better time than Lent to make this commitment. All one has to do is pray and ask, and it will be done. Thanks be to God!
*Resource: ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., Collected Sermons, by Maxie Dunnam