There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” Jesus answered, “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. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“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.
“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.” John 3:1-17
I don’t know how closely you were listening to the gospel story? But I do believe that this dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus is a very rich biblical moment. It says so much about us, and about God, and about our relationship with God. So let’s unpack it.
Nicodemus was truly a good man who, because of his timidity and yet in spite of this very same lack of courage, came to Jesus from out of the darkness and under the cover of night. He was a good man because, with utmost sincerity, he was both striving to keep the law and also to do the works of compassion and mercy that the law prescribed.
He was a man to whom we might easily apply the words of the prophet Micah. Nicodemus was a man who did justice, loved mercy and walked humbly with his God.
You begin the get the picture of this good man – Nicodemus. A man whom each of us could want, and be so satisfied to have, as a father, a grandfather, an uncle or a mentor. He was doing all he could do to be right with God, right with his neighbor, and presentable and acceptable to the Lord.
Nicodemus was a good man who lived from a place of integrity, but still and in spite of all, he was afraid. He was afraid to approach Jesus in the light of day. For Nicodemus was a Pharisee and as you know the Pharisees looked upon Jesus with distain and disgust. Nicodemus was afraid of what his fellow Pharisees would think if they found him sitting at the feet of Jesus.
Isn’t there a Nicodemus in each one of us? The good, but too often frightened persons, we know ourselves to be. And are we not all struggling with belief?
Nicodemus responded to the signs, wonders and miracles Jesus worked. These drew him to Jesus.
Some see signs and wonders, and maybe, have even seen miracles, and, on the basis of this evidence, they believe.
Some require signs and wonder and even demand miracles, that they might have the evidence upon which to base belief.
Some believe – however when bad things happen to good people, either in the wider world or within the smaller circle of their own lives, the signs seem too few, too small, or too impotent, and belief gets shaken. The ability to believe or, better yet, the will to persist in believing, gets lost. The present hour in which the poor, the socially vulnerable, the desperate, and the earth itself face renewed assault from those in power poses its own challenge to faith.
Sometimes belief can seem to be hanging on by bare threads. Where there appear to be no signs or wonders and any hint of the miraculous is absolutely obscured by the weight of their near desperation.
And then there are those who would believe but they want, as Nicodemus, to first understand. Asking again and again, “How can this be?” They want all their important questions answered as a precondition to faith. It can be so hard for many of us to learn that understanding is the fruit of faith rather than its source – the fruit of faith rather than its source. We do not understand in order to believe but rather we believe that we might more fully understand.
Like Nicodemus, has not Jesus has caught our own fascination? And He has caught our fascination either tenuously or ardently and maybe even fiercely. To this good man, fascinated by him, and to all of us fascinated by Him, Jesus poses this challenge. He says, “Nicodemus, break out of the box you are living in, let go of the limits of reality as you perceive reality, open your eyes to the deeper reality and to the deepest mysteries.”
“As you were born from a woman, now be born from above. As you were born of the flesh, now be born again of the spirit.”
“And how can I do this? How can anyone do this?” pleads Nicodemus. Now Nicodemus was flesh bound. His mind was flesh bound. Jesus says birth and Nicodemus can only think vaginal canal. “Can a man reenter his mother’s womb and be born again?” asks Nicodemus.
And Jesus says, “You certainly can be born again”. But not simply by faith as the world and the community of Israel have known faith, that is, faith based on signs, wonders and miracles.
“Rather you can only be born again specifically and pointedly by believing in me, by having faith in me.” Jesus puts it out there to Nicodemus. “Will you believe and have faith in me? This and only this surrender will enable you to be born from above, to be born of the spirit, to live in the light of the kingdom of God. Faith in me is your only way out of the deplorable box.”
Don’t look for more proof that you might believe. Rather believe in me and you will see as you have never seen before. You will see a new reality. You will see the most authentic reality there is to be seen. You will enter the divine presence and be so held and transformed by love, that pain and fear will no longer have any power over you at all.
We do not know if there is anything outside the box and the false sense of safety and security that it affords, for which to leave the box. We do not know except by virtue of God’s call as to Abraham and Christ’s invitation as to Nicodemus. We would stay were we are content or discontent as the case may be. The call and the invitation, be they to a promised land, as in the case of Abraham, or to a new reality, as in the case of the fullness of life offered by Jesus, are themselves a grace.
Nicodemus was fascinated but frightened, searching but not yet believing. He wanted intimacy with God but placed the limits of his own reality, or the limits of his own capacity to understand reality, between himself and that intimacy.
To all whom God has called out to a new place, the faith that alone will enable us to get there always involves “surrender”. And our surrender is to a God who requires a new kind of faith. But also to a God who has a new kind of faith in us – a God who believes so very much in our worth that He gave His only begotten Son, not to condemn us but that we might behold within our hearts just how much we are loved. In Jesus we behold the sign of signs, the wonder of wonders, the miracle of miracles.
When we behold the cross, those who have eyes to see will see the ineffable sign of contradiction – the wondrous and miraculous wood of the cross. They will see the cross for what it, indeed, is – the privileged altar of sacrificial love.
They will see the cross as the place where life eternal comes forth from obedient surrender unto even a shameful and ignominious death.
They will see the cross as the perfect paradox.
They will see the power of love made perfect in weakness. They will see the gift of undying Love in the face of killing hate.
The cross is, at once, the obstacle to faith for many and the most compelling reason to believe for a few. May we always choose to be numbered among the few, for the world needs those who do not live in fear.
Nicodemus came to believe and was thereby set free from his fear. Remember, at the dark and terrifying moment of crucifixion, when the rest had gone into hiding, it was Nicodemus who came before Pilate, with Joseph of Arimathea, to request the body of Jesus for burial.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
March 8, 2020