Sunday’s sermon: Seeing God’s Kingdom

Text used – John 3:1-21

  • The scene opens on a dark side street. One man stands there alone, apparently waiting patiently, but he’s soon joined by another man. The newcomer seems nervous and uneasy. He keeps looking furtively around like he’s afraid someone will see him with this patient stranger. There are no streetlights around, so the only light that illuminates this hidden meeting is the light cast by the moon above. One of the men comes with questions. The other comes with more answers than his companion even knows to seek.
    • Sounds like it could be the opening scene for all sorts of different blockbuster movies, doesn’t it?
      • International spy thriller … a lá James Bond or Jason Bourne
      • Explosive-packed action movie … a lá “Die Hard” or “Air Force One”
      • Strikingly similar scene toward the beginning of “Star Wars: Rogue One”
    • And yet it’s not a scene out of any such script. It’s a scene straight out of our Scripture reading this morning – the scene in which we meet Nicodemus. → Nicodemus = really interesting character in Jn’s gospel
      • Today’s passage = 1st of 3 appearance made by Nicodemus throughout the text
        • 2nd appearance (which we’ll read in a few weeks) = ch. 7 Nicodemus speaks up on Jesus’ behalf in the midst of some controversy after Jesus taught in the temple[1]
        • 3rd appearance = with Joseph of Arimathea at the tomb following Jesus’ death but before his resurrection It’s Nicodemus who brings the necessary items for ritual burial – the myrrh and the aloe, “nearly seventy-five pounds in all”[2] – to prepare Jesus’ body.
        • And it all begins with today’s encounter – this moment when Nicodemus seeks out this new and radical rabbi from Nazareth in the middle of the night.
  • Rev. Dr. Patrick Hartin (in Exploring the Spirituality of the Gospels): Jesus’ dialogues with many individuals lie at the heart of John’s gospel. In each encounter, Jesus challenges the individual to enter into a spiritual relationship with him. In illustrating these encounters, John shows the level of their faith relationship.[3]  As today’s encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is just such a dialogue and relationship – the first that we find in the gospel, in fact – let’s talk a little bit more about Nicodemus as a character this morning.
    • Only in Jn’s gospel that we meet Nicodemus at all isn’t mentioned or named in any of the other three gospels
    • Who Nicodemus was in society = given at the very beginning of today’s passage: There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader.[4]  These two titles – “Pharisee” and “Jewish leader” – may not seem like much to us, but they indicate that Nicodemus was a rather powerful person within the Jewish hierarchy.
      • Pharisee = experts in Jewish law scholars who knew and interpreted that law for the general population
      • “Jewish leader” = tells us Nicodemus was one of the Sanhedrin sort of like the Jewish Supreme Court at the time It was up to the members of the Sanhedrin to not only interpret the law but dole out judgments and appropriate punishments according to that law when it was broken. Ultimately, it is the Sanhedrin that will accuse and convict Jesus and demand that Pilate crucify him.
    • Who Nicodemus was as a person = two important insights that we get from today’s text
      • FIRST: Nicodemus was conflicted – text: [Nicodemus] came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”[5]
        • On one hand, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness
          • Can’t be seen
          • Can’t be recognized
          • Sure seems to indicate that he’s concerned about this meeting – that he’s worried about it
        • On the other hand, Nicodemus addresses Jesus with respect
          • Calls Jesus “Rabbi” (cultural and respectful way to address a learned teacher)
          • Also admits that “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God” pretty significant admission, partly because of Nicodemus’ role as a Pharisee and partly because of how early we are in Jesus’ ministry At this point in John’s recounting of Jesus’ ministry, not much significant has happened.
            • Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist
            • Jesus has called a few disciples[6]
            • Jesus has performed the miracle of changing water to wine at the wedding of Cana[7] (which we talked about a few weeks ago)
            • Jesus has overturned the tables of the merchants and money changers in the Temple[8] (which you read with Rev. Erica Schemper last week) passage that ends with a vague reference to “the miraculous signs” that the people in Jerusalem saw Jesus do[9]
            • That’s it! Being the omniscient observers that we are – the ones who already know the rest of the story, know the other miracles that are coming (including the ultimate miracle of Jesus’ own death and resurrection) – we know just how amazing Jesus is and the salvation that will come through him. But at this point, Nicodemus doesn’t know any of that yet. And still, here he is! Who Jesus is and what he has done has already been powerful enough for Nicodemus, the Pharisee and Sanhedrin member, to seek him out in the dead of night to learn more.
      • Leads us to 2nd insight we get from our text about Nicodemus personality: he is a curious man, a man who seeks answers
        • Initially comes to Jesus under the cover of night because he has questions – questions he knows only this rabbi sent from God can answer
        • Continues to question Jesus further every time Jesus gives him a new answer: “How is this possible, Jesus? How is this possible? How are all these things possible?” In these questions, we see the Pharisee in Nicodemus coming out. As far as we can tell, he’s not asking in any kind of challenging, contentious manner. But he’s been trained to understand even the smallest, most insignificant elements of the law – understand them inside and out so that he can interpret them for others. Like a lawyer, it is engrained in him to ask questions, not just from one angle, but from all angles so that he can best understand whatever problem or situation is in front of him.
          • Scholar (describing Nicodemus): [One who keeps] the rules but [knows] something is still missing.[10]
        • And in this way, are any of us so different from Nicodemus?
          • Probably one of the most relatable characters in the whole of Scripture for this reason In the course of this strange midnight encounter, Jesus tells Nicodemus some incredible things – things about needing to be born anew, about being born of water and the Spirit, about earthly things and heavenly things, about God’s own Son being sent into the world, about darkness and light, about truth … enough incredible things to fill a whole year’s worth of sermons! Things that we’re still wrestling with … still trying to understand … still unsure about … still asking questions about 2000 years later! So when Nicodemus asks Jesus over and over again, “Jesus, how is that possible?” we feel like we could be standing right behind him nodding and voicing our agreement. “Yeah, Jesus. How is that possible? Please … please … explain it to us. But in ways we can understand.” Because we are desperate to understand. Our hearts and our minds and our spirits are yearning to understand. Society is pushing us to understand – even to understand to the point of being able to “prove it.”
            • Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis (Lutheran pastor, author, chair of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul): Believing for the characters in the Fourth Gospel is a verb and is subject to all of the ambiguity, uncertainty, and indecisiveness of being human. Having an incarnate God necessitates an incarnational faith: believing is just as complicated as being human.[11]
  • And that’s the really hard and challenging part of today’s Scripture reading: John gives us all of Jesus’ flowery, theologically dense explanations … but it’s still not super clear, is it? Not as clear and concise as we’d like it to be, anyway.
    • Jn = challenging gospel to read and study and preach because it is so theologically entwined Remember, John was chronologically the last gospel written. It was written around the turn of the 1st nearly 70 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. There was a lot of doctrine and dogma that had developed within Christian circles by the time John was written, so there’s a lot to unpack even within this gospel.
    • That being said, there’s something that stuck out to me at the very beginning of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in today’s reading – something seemed to sort of shelter a lot of these theological ideas under one unifying theological umbrella: seeing God’s kingdom. – text: [Nicodemus] came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”[12]  From the outset, Jesus makes it clear to Nicodemus that The Point – the whole point of all of it: birth and baptism, ministry and miracles, teachings and trials – the whole point is seeing God’s kingdom.
      • Point of “being born anew” – text: Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.”[13]  Being born anew in the Spirit allows us to tune our hearts and our lives and our souls to the moving and working of God’s Holy Spirit in the world around us – those thin places where we feel God moving and see God’s kingdom shining through in the people and interactions around us.
      • Point of Jesus life and death to come – text: No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.[14] Jesus alluding to sort of obscure story out of Numbers in which God instructs Moses to mount a bronze image of a snake on a pole so that any Israelite who had been bitten by just such a snake in the wilderness could look upon the bronze serpent and be healed … Turning eyes to the One lifted up in order to be healed … to be saved … to be made whole. Resting our hearts and our hopes on the One lifted up reveals God’s kingdom in salvation and extraordinary grace.
      • And, of course, seeing God’s kingdom in love that familiar text that, while so many know it by heart, few remember that it’s part of Jesus’ secret nighttime conversation with a Pharisee who believes – text: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.[15]
  • Jesus knew that Nicodemus was a man seeking answers. But more than that, he was a man seeking Truth – the kind of Truth that would help him not only see the kingdom of God breaking through all around him but also embody that kingdom of God in the ways that matter most: through an openness to the Holy Spirit, through faith, and through God’s unending love and grace. Jesus gave Nicodemus all that he sought and more. Jesus opened his eyes before he even fully understood how and why they needed to be opened. So where is Jesus inviting you to open your eyes … to open your hearts … to open your faith and see God’s kingdom today? Amen.

[1] Jn 7:50-51.

[2] Jn 19:39.

[3] Patrick J. Hartin. Exploring the Spirituality of the Gospels. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011), 67.

[4] Jn 3:1.

[5] Jn 3:2.

[6] Jn 1:35-51.

[7] Jn 2:1-12.

[8] Jn 2:13-25.

[9] Jn 2:23.

[10] Brett Younger. “John 3:1-8 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – John, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 59.

[11] Karoline Lewis. “Second Sunday in Lent – John 3:1-17 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 73.

[12] Jn 3:2-3 (emphasis added).

[13] Jn 3:5-6.

[14] Jn 3:13-15.

[15] Jn 3:16-17.