Isaiah 56:1-8, John 3:1-15
February 14, 2016
As I said last week, we’ve been thinking about “Things seen and unseen.” Those words come from II Corinthians 4:18. “We look, not to the things that are seen, but to the things thar are unseen. For the things that are seen are temporary, but the thing that are unseen are eternal.”
We’ve been thinking about how we live in two worlds, the physical world and the spiritual world. And we’ve said that the spiritual world is the one that’s hardest to see. With that in mind, we’ve been thinking about Jesus, and how he desperately tried to get his people to see beyond the physical world, and to see the spiritual. (That word “desperately” is the word I’m using for this. And I think it’s a good one!)
Well, here we are in Lent. This is the first Sunday. And by the way is it “in” Lent or “of” Lent? It’s “in,” because the Sundays are not part “of” Lent, right? So we’re in Lent. And what better time of the year to think about the “spiritual realm,” about the “things unseen.” And here today, we have this wonderful story that brings all of that to life!
This is the story of Nicodemus. And I think Nicodemus is one of the most interesting characters in the Gospel story. He is a member of the religious council. He’s a Pharisee. And he meets Jesus here, and at the end of the story. He’s the one who would bring the “burial spices” so Jesus’ body could be properly prepared.
In this story, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. And as we look at this story, it seems that he’s trying to “figure things out” about Jesus. When I look at this story, the first thing I have to wonder is “Why?” Why did he come to see Jesus. And of course many people have wondered that over the centuries. Certainly those in the religious leadership were trying to “figure things out,” too. Who was this Jesus? Was he legit? Or was he just another in a long succession of charlatans and false teachers, who it was their job to weed out!! We can’t forget that! The religious leaders of Israel were the “keepers of the faith!” That was an important part of what they did!
As a “religious leader” myself, I know it’s easy to get caught up in that! Sometimes we look at people and say, “Hey, they don’t believe the right things!” or “They have the wrong theology!” or “Those people are taking things out of context.” or “What are those people teaching the children?” Seriously, I sometimes hear myself saying those kinds of things. And to a certain extent, that’s important! When I hear someone make a statement that is “problematic” – according to my training – I hear myself wanting to correct them, or to disprove or even silence certain statements they’re making! And I sometimes wonder how different I am from these guys in the Bible!
So, was Nicodemus there that night because he was sent by the others? “You go, Nicodemus. You can figure this guy out!” Or was he there because he heard the council talking about Jesus, and he wanted to find out for himself? Or had he heard about Jesus, or even heard him speak, and he wanted to find out about him for his own benefit? I wonder which it was.
So, Nicodemus comes and he meets with Jesus, and he starts out saying, “Rabbi…” A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how Jesus had no actual rabbinical training, and that he wasn’t formally “ordained” by any council that we know of, however that would have happened. I mentioned how there were times when they called him “rabbi,” but probably in a cynical manner. “Rabbi, (maybe with air quotes) your “disciples” aren’t doing things properly.”
Well, this time I think it was more respectful. Nicodemus saw that something was special about this man. He “had to have come from God,” he said, because “No one could do the ‘signs’ that he did, unless God is with him.” That was a tough one for the Pharisees! They couldn’t deny Jesus’ miracles! Some of them even came to the conclusion that Jesus must have had come from the devil, since he could do miracles, but he wasn’t “from God!” Or so they thought.
And by the way, notice that Nicodemus started that sentence in the plural. “We know that you are a teacher come from God…” So, I think we have to assume that meant the religious leaders. That means, if Nicodemus wasn’t sent specifically by the other Pharisees, he was at least there because he had heard their discussions and concerns about this man.”
So he meets with Jesus, and you gotta love the way this “discussion” plays out! It starts with that statement of Nicodemus. But it becomes very interesting right away, because Jesus’ response seems almost disconnected. It’s like he didn’t even hear Nicodemus, or he didn’t want to acknowledged his statement. He jumps right in with “You must be born anew if you want to see the kingdom of heaven.” But, if you think about it, even though that statement doesn’t seem to go with the first statement, it still makes perfect sense to us, doesn’t it? It’s part of our “theology.” That’s what you have to remember. Even if we don’t consider ourselves part of what we might call, the “Born Again crowd,” we still understand this. It’s part of what we believe. We must be “born anew” if we are to “see the kingdom of heaven.”
Well, to Nicodemus, that seems to make no sense. “What are you talking about, Jesus?” He was focused in on the “birth” part of the statement. And that did make no sense! “That’s physically impossible, Jesus!” His statement even seems to have a hint of sarcasm in it, doesn’t it? Maybe he was “put off” by Jesus’ response. Maybe he was caught off guard, thinking the conversation should have gone a different direction. Maybe he was just after some kind of “confirmation” of who he thought Jesus was. That’s all!
Again, we know what Jesus was meant. We know he meant “new life in the Spirit.” Jesus is trying to get this man to see the spiritual. And even more than that, he was talking about what we need to focus our lives on. That’s what he was implying here with the term “born of.” He goes on to say, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” We might paraphrase that this way. “That which is focused on the worldly is worldly, and that which is focused on the spiritual is spiritual.” That helps, doesn’t it? “That which is focused on the worldly is worldly, and that which is focused on the spiritual is spiritual.”
Well, that’s right up our alley, as far as our Lenten theme is concerned. “Things seen and unseen.” And remember that it’s not a matter of one or the other. The worldly and the spiritual are not mutually exclusive. It’s more a matter of not letting the one overshadow the other.” Jesus is saying what we’ve been saying. Don’t let the he worldly drown out the spiritual. Because it will! Instead, “seek out,” “look to,” that which is unseen. Look to the “spiritual.”
As I’ve said, what better time to do that than Lent?! Lent is the best time – though it’s certainly not the only time – but it’s the best time to look to the spiritual, to “look to the things unseen.” It is the best time to set aside our total attention on things of this world, and to seek to know better the things of heaven. It is the best time for us to “figure those things out” about Jesus – or at least to make an attempt.
So, I invite you to do that. And in that vein, let me close with these words, which were part of the “Invitation to Observe a Lenten Discipline.” We used these words at the Ash Wednesday service.
“I invite you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to observe a Holy Lent, by self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting, by practicing works of love, and by reading and reflecting on God’s Holy Word. Let us begin our Lenten journey by… seeking the forgiveness and new life that is promised to us in Christ Jesus.”
Do those things. Seek to know what Nicodemus was seeking to know. Seek to know who Jesus was and is, but on his terms. See how we must indeed focus on the spiritual, if we’re going to understand Jesus. And know that, if we don’t, the worldly concerns will surely drown out all else!
Eternal God, guide us in these days of Lent, that we might understand better your love for us in Christ Jesus, our lord. Help us, as he taught, to treasure things in heaven, and to know that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. May we come to know better who Jesus was and is, and more closely follow his ways, and rejoice in his spiritual kingdom. For we pray in his name, Amen.