Sermon 10 February 2019

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

10th February 2019

ENCOUNTERING JESUS: NICODEMUS, John 3.1-16, (edited)

Revd Andrew Anderson MA BD (Visiting Preacher)

Listen Here: https://soundcloud.com/user-942286720/sermon-10-february-2019

 

I want this morning, and for the next two Sundays, to look at three different encounters that people had with Jesus, three different occasions when people met with or encountered Jesus in such a way as made a profound and lasting impact upon them.

 

I want to take these encounters with Jesus from John’s Gospel, because John records in a rather different way from the other Gospel writers how people met with and reacted to Jesus. The first one that we will look at today is Nicodemus, who comes to meet Jesus at night. Next week we will look at the Samaritan woman at the well. The week after that we will look at the invalid man at the pool at Bethesda.

 

As we look at these three different Bible stories, I hope we will all be encouraged to see how we, in our own faithful encounter with Jesus as our Saviour and Lord can be changed: we can know him better, we can love him more, and we can follow him more faithfully.

 

But, first, before we turn to Nicodemus, can I ask you this?

 

Who has been the person who has most influenced you in your life?

 

Some time ago the very popular monthly magazine Readers’ Digest ran for a number of years a series of articles under the heading “The most remarkable person I have ever met.” Every month readers were invited to send in short accounts of the most remarkable person that they considered that they had ever met.

 

The answers were very varied: of course, parents, a mother or a father, were cited; or another family member, or a friend, or a neighbour, or a teacher. Sometimes it was someone from the church. But running through all the varied responses was this common theme: from time to time we can and do meet people who make a life-changing impact upon us, and for good. We don’t forget them. We’re deeply grateful to them.

 

Let’s now turn to Nicodemus. In the first two verses of chapter 3 John beautifully and succinctly sets the scene for us.

 

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, that is, he was a member of a small, select group of men, who gave their lives to fulfilling in every detail all the rules and regulations of the Jewish law. The Pharisees were highly religious and devout, but, as we know from all the gospels, it was a group particularly hostile to Jesus.

 

Nicodemus was also a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, which put him amongst the influential Jewish aristocracy. At the end of John’s gospel we learn that Nicodemus was one of the two men who go to claim the body of the crucified Jesus to prepare it for burial with a quantity of expensive spices. From this we can deduce that Nicodemus was also probably wealthy.

 

There are two particular features of the story that I find striking. First, we’re told Nicodemus comes to see Jesus “at night.”

 

Some commentators suggest that Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night because that was the best time of the day to have a discussion with Jesus, when all the busy demands of the day were passed. Maybe. But I’m inclined to agree with other commentators who suggest that Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night because that gave him some degree of secrecy. This was a furtive and somewhat confidential meeting. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the religious leader, the wealthy aristocrat, was curious, he was attracted to Jesus and wanted to see him, but privately, “at night”, because he was worried what others might think.

 

We can be a bit like that. We can be anxious about what others will say if we confess that we are attracted to Jesus.

 

Now, mercifully, we don’t face as Christians the persecution that other Christians face in other parts of the world, but we can still be worried what our family, what our friends, what our colleagues, what our neighbours will think if they know we are believers, that we go to church, that we want to follow Jesus as his disciples. My friends, are we always quite open about our Christian faith to others? Or do we keep quiet because we are worried what others will think, or say?

 

So Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night.

 

The second thing to say about Nicodemus is this. He addresses Jesus as “Rabbi”, a respectful and honoured title for any teacher, and he confesses that he believes Jesus to be a teacher sent from God, whose authority is well attested by his miracles.

 

Nicodemus clearly finds Jesus especially attractive. He sees in him a remarkable teacher, and an extraordinary healer. And indeed Jesus is both of those things, and as such continues to attract us. He is a teacher, whose teaching has never been bettered, and whose divine compassion and kindness and power are seen in his miracles. For these reasons Jesus remains very attractive.

 

Nicodemus is attracted to Jesus as a teacher, and a healer. But he does not yet see Jesus as a Saviour. And Jesus is our Saviour!

 

Twice in the opening chapter of John‘s gospel John the Baptist is recorded as witnessing to Jesus in these words: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” John goes on to give nearly half his gospel to the events surrounding the saving death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. The teacher and healer is also Saviour, and Nicodemus had yet to learn that. Perhaps some of us have still to learn that also, and to see what it means to say that Jesus is the Saviour of the world.

 

And so to the most remarkable feature of this encounter of Nicodemus with Jesus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be, in this most significant and memorable phrase, “born again.”

 

“Born again,” or we could also say, “born from above.” This is a difficult phrase. Sometimes we come across somebody who uses these words in an insensitive or confrontational way, that can often be counter-productive. They say to someone, “Brother, sister, have you been born again?” But that should not stop us from seeing that there is a profound truth here, and it comes from the lips of Jesus himself. He says, it is Jesus who says, we must be “born again”, and we must take this with the utmost seriousness. Let me say two things about it.

 

First, this idea of being born again is a deeply biblical idea.

 

Think of that very dramatic passage in the prophet Ezekiel, where the prophet has this vision of a valley full of dry bones, and how the Lord brings them to new life. (Ezekiel 37.9,10). Peter, in his First Letter, says (1 Pe t1.23), “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God.”  And John himself says, in the prologue to his gospel, so often read at Christmas time, that we must be “born of God” (John 1.12,13).

 

Secondly, it is a very radical idea. Jesus is teaching Nicodemus, and he is teaching us, that being born again implies a profound change and life-transforming experience. He’s not talking about making a little progress here, or making a little progress there, Jesus is talking about being born again, a new start, a new beginning, radically new. “Regeneration” is the word that the theologians use.

 

But how? How can we change like this?

 

We look around at our world, we look in at ourselves, and we see the desperate need for new people to solve the old problems, and bring in the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, in all its glory with its peace, justice and kindness.  Yes, we must be born again, but how? We can’t do it ourselves.

 

The world around us is a sinful and a broken place. Yes, of course, there are lots of good things, and we rejoice in them, and we try and see that these good things of life are given to and shared with all. But we know from what we see in the news, and what we learn in social media, that our nation and our world, face real problems: suspicion and conflict, greed and corruption, violence. Look in upon ourselves and we see our own sin and wrongdoing, our selfishness, our prejudices, our weaknesses. And we ask, how can we change?

 

We need a Saviour! We see the world in all it sinfulness, and we know we need a Saviour. God comes to us in Jesus. Consider those precious words from our passage (3.16), perhaps the most famous words in the whole of the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life“

 

God does not want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance. Our part is to believe, to have faith, faith that the Gospel is real and true, that through it we can meet with, we can encounter Jesus, personally, for ourselves, as we read his word, and as we pray to him, and listen to him, and as we see him at work in his Church and in the world.

 

Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus that night changed him, and changed him profoundly. There are two further references to him in John’s gospel. When Jesus’ preaching in the Jerusalem Temple provokes the open hostility of the Pharisees it is Nicodemus who now has the courage to stand up, and defend him openly. He’s not acting in secret now! And, as I’ve already said, he is one of the two men who go to claim the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. Nothing furtive or confidential here.  Nicodemus is a changed man!

 

I want to finish with this.

 

We ask, how can our encounter, how can our meeting with Jesus change us, and change our world for the better?

 

Jesus gives us the answer with the picture of wind. We know about wind. We know we can’t see it, and we don’t know where it comes from, or where it goes to, but we can see wind at work, and we know how powerful it can be.

 

The Hebrew and Greek words for wind, or breath, are the same words as for the Spirit. We need to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promises to give to us. We need to open our lives, our hearts, our minds, all we are to him. He will guide us, he will point us to the truth, he will point us to Jesus, and he will empower us and equip us to follow Jesus, and establish his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

 

I love the prayer of Saint Augustine, who famously encountered Jesus: “Lord, change the world, and begin with me.”

 

Amen.

 

Andrew Anderson

Oxford, February 2019

1850 words