Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Nicodemus
When I was little, the small country church I went to in Westernville had a big emphasis in Sunday School on memorizing Bible verses. Every week we’d spend some time going over verses, and in the older classes, we’d actually get 5 cents for every verse we could memorize. I was certainly inspired by promise of such riches, and could memorize quite a lot of verses! Today we don’t focus so much on memorizing verses, which has some pros and cons – a single verse taken out of context doesn’t always do you much good, and in fact, can lead you to wrong conclusions when you don’t know the rest of what’s happened in a passage. Remember, just last week we read about Satan quoting scripture verses to Jesus, which didn’t mean a lot to Jesus taken out of context. Well, you may not know many Bible verses by heart, but if you know any, John 3:16 is probably on your list. You might even know it in the way you learned it as a child – in the King James Version. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Yet, even though we know that verse so well, here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about – do you know the context? How do we hear these words? What happens before and after they’re said?
Today, we’re listening in on an encounter between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, an interpreter and scholar of the Law of Moses. And not just a Pharisee, but Nicodemus was a leader among the Pharisees. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was kind of a Supreme Court, a group of high-ranking judges. So, Nicodemus is a person of some stature in the community. John’s gospel tells us that Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night.” John uses themes of light and dark a lot in his gospel, so the time of day here is significant. Nicodemus perhaps doesn’t want anyone to know what he is doing. Jesus and the Pharisees were often at odds with each other over how to interpret and implement the words of scripture, and increasingly, leaders among the Pharisees view Jesus as a threat. Nicodemus wants to talk to Jesus himself, but he’s not ready to be out in the open about it.
Nicodemus address Jesus as a teacher, a sign of respecting his authority. “Rabbi,” he says, “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.” Nicodemus’s admissions are significant. He and his colleagues know who Jesus is, he says. They believe he is from God. They’ve seen evidence in the signs Jesus has done that have convinced them that Jesus is from God. Nicodemus doesn’t ask Jesus any questions, but Jesus responds as if he had nonetheless. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus says. Nicodemus and other leaders might recognize that Jesus is from God, has God’s presence with him, but that’s not the same as experiencing the kingdom of God, God’s reign, God’s vision for the earth coming to fruition, which is the focus of Jesus’ ministry. Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying though. He takes his words too literally “How can someone be born after growing old?” he asks. “Can someone enter their mother’s womb again to be born anew?” He doesn’t get what Jesus is saying. So Jesus elaborates, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” He continues, saying: Don’t be astonished that I said that you have to be born from above. The Spirit is like the wind: you don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but you hear it, and feel it moving. The Spirit works in the same way. That’s what it means to be born from above, born of water and Spirit. Nicodemus still doesn’t understand. “How can these things be?” he wonders. In turn, Jesus wonders that one who is meant to be a teacher and interpreter of the law can’t understand what he’s saying. Jesus concludes, “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.”
So, what’s this Jesus mentions about Moses lifting up the serpent? His words are strange if you don’t know the context. Jesus is talking about something we can find in the book of Numbers, chapter 21, this story of the bronze serpent. The Israelites were still wandering in the desert, on their forty year journey to the Promised Land. They were complaining again to God and Moses about food and water. This is something that happens repeatedly on their journey from slavery to freedom. These passages are known as the “murmurings,” although I wonder if “mutterings” would be a more apt description. The Israelites are on their way to the land God has promised, and they’re on their way from a terrible life of slavery and oppression. God has been coming through on every promise God has made to them. And yet, whenever things get difficult, they complain, muttering and murmuring about their plight.
This particular time when they start complaining, poisonous snakes are sent among the people. The snakes would bite the people, and the people would die. The people understood these snakes to be a punishment on them from God. So finally, they come to Moses and confess their sinfulness, and ask Moses for help. Moses prays for the people, and he hears God’s voice, telling him to create a serpent out of bronze that would be fixed to a pole. The passage concludes, “Whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” I find this story kind of bizarre. Making a bronze snake seems like a strange solution, a strange cure for these snake bites. But this strange sequence of events makes them look their fear and sin and mutterings right in the face. The snake has become a symbol of their turning away from God, and they have to look that right in the face in order to experience healing. The Israelites need to believe and trust in their relationship with God and God’s promises to them, and as they look their sin in the face, they experience reconciliation and life.
That brings us back to Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus says, “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.” In the Greek, the word “lifted up” is actually the same as the word “crucified.” Just as the Israelites looked their sin in the face in order to live, so too we look at Jesus, face to face, raised up in offering his life for ours, and so too we look our sin in the face, our turning away from God, that we might live. And that’s what Jesus wants for us: that we might live, that we might have eternal life – that we might live completely in God’s kingdom, that we might experience God’s vision for us in all its fullness, that we might be born anew in the full potential that God wants for us and for our world. Nicodemus knows that Jesus is a teacher, and knows that he’s from God, that God’s presence is in Jesus. But does he “get” the heart of what Jesus is trying to tell him?
I was always a good student throughout school. I wasn’t always a vegan, or even vegetarian, but even still, I didn’t want to take biology and dissect animals, and so in tenth grade, when most of my peers were taking biology, I signed up for physics. Most of the rest of the tenth graders who chose the physics over biology wanted to become engineers and were trying to get a jump start on the classes they’d need so they could get an AP physics class in before we graduated. For me, physics was the most math-centric, something I liked, so I thought I would enjoy it. Indeed, I did get good grades in physics, mostly because of the math. Math always made sense to me. You follow rule one and rule two and you get the right answer. At one point, my teacher even called my parents to suggest to them that I should consider a career in the sciences. But I knew better. Yes, I could get the right answers because I could memorize the formulas and I could apply the formula in the right situation to get the right answer. But physics made me feel in a way that I hadn’t in any other class that I really didn’t understand the why of what we were talking about. I could get the right answer, but I didn’t really understand why thing work like they do. The concepts didn’t really make sense to me. And even if I didn’t understand the concepts, I did know that really being a scientist would mean knowing more than how to get the right answer.
Sometimes, when it comes to our journey of discipleship, we can get hung up on believing and knowing in ways that miss the mark a bit. We can believe an awful lot of things about Jesus, about God, about the Bible, about faith. We can know a lot of things about Jesus. We could recite some creeds, or share some facts, or affirm, “I believe Jesus is my Savior.” Those things are important and have their place, just like knowing the formula is important in physics. But it won’t get you very far if that’s all you have. We need to shift our focus from “believing in Jesus” to “believing Jesus,” from “knowing about Jesus” to “knowing Jesus.” Nicodemus knew about Jesus. But he hadn’t yet come to know Jesus. He was a scholar, and yet his faith was immature, because his life hadn’t yet been transformed by his relationship with God, by his encounter with Jesus. I think of him, and then I think of the disciples: they weren’t scholars. They didn’t know what Nicodemus did. But they knew Jesus, and they left everything to follow him.
Nicodemus sort of fades out from this encounter with Jesus. We don’t how Nicodemus responds, at least immediately, to what he hears from Jesus. Clearly Jesus’ words have overwhelmed him, and the scriptures record no response. What we do see in the gospels is Nicodemus appearing later – first when the Pharisees are urging action against Jesus, and Nicodemus reminds them that the law doesn’t condemn people without giving them a trial first. And then, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. So we know that Nicodemus doesn’t immediately drop his nets, so to speak, to follow Jesus. But it seems like something might be sinking in by degrees. I hope eventually Nicodemus let himself know Jesus, and know new, transforming life in the Spirit, in God’s kingdom.
What about us, friends? What conversations do we bring to Jesus by night? What do we see in Jesus, as he is raised up, and we look at him face to face? And what does Jesus see in us? I pray that we will let Jesus draw is into the light, that we might not just know about him, but know him, and be known by him, as our lives become new creations, transformed by God’s love. Amen.