The Second Sunday in Lent
Pastor George Pejakovich
John 3:1-17

NIGHT HAD FALLEN AND THE STREETS WERE EMPTY. THE DOORS WERE ALL CLOSED AND THE WINDOWS SHUTTERED. THERE WAS LITTLE LIGHT TO SEE BY, OR TO BE SEEN. HE SLIPPED THROUGH THE SHADOWS AND MADE HIS WAY FROM JERUSALEM TO WHERE JESUS WAS STAYING, PROBABLY AT BETHANY, A TWENTY MINUTE WALK. HIS NAME WAS NICODEMUS, AND HE WAS AN IMPORTANT MAN, A PHARISEE AND A MEMBER OF THE RULING COUNCIL OF THE SANHEDRIN. YOU MIGHT THINK IT ODD THAT HE HAD A GREEK NAME, WHICH MEANT “VICTORY OF THE PEOPLE,” BUT IT WAS MOST LIKELY AN ADOPTED NAME FOR DEALING WITH THE ROMANS WHO HAD TROUBLE WITH HEBREW NAMES. WE DON’T REALLY KNOW WHY HE CAME TO JESUS; IT COULD HAVE BEEN ON HIS OWN, OR AS A MEMBER OF THE COUNCIL. IN EITHER EVENT, HE CAME AT NIGHT TO KEEP THE MEETING FROM BEING PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE. HE CAME THREE DAYS AFTER JESUS HAD OVERTURNED THE TABLES OF THE MONEY CHANGERS IN THE TEMPLE, AND HE, OR THE COUNCIL, WANTED TO KNOW WHAT JESUS MEANT BY WHAT HE WAS DOING AND TEACHING DURING THE PASSOVER FESTIVAL.

THAT HE CAME AT NIGHT IS HIGHLY SYMBOLIC IN THE GOSPEL OF JOHN. JOHN BEGAN HIS GOSPEL BY TELLING US EXACTLY WHO JESUS WAS; “IN HIM WAS LIFE, AND THE LIFE WAS THE LIGHT OF HUMANKIND. THE LIGHT SHOWN IN THE DARKNESS, BUT THE DARKNESS COULD NOT COMPREHEND IT.” NOTHING GOOD HAPPENS IN THE DARKNESS OF THE NIGHT, AND NICODEMUS’ NIGHT VISIT TELLS US IMMEDIATELY THAT UNDERSTANDING WILL NOT FOLLOW. IF THAT WAS ALL JOHN HAD TO TELL US ABOUT THIS NIGHT VISIT, THE STORY OF NICODEMUS MIGHT SERVE NO PURPOSE OTHER THAN AS A MEANS OF PRESENTING THE MOST WELL KNOWN AND IMPORTANT SAYINGS OF JESUS; BUT AS PAUL HARVEY USED TO SAY, “NOW, FOR THE REST OF THE STORY.”

NICODEMUS BEGINS WITH GREAT RESPECT. HE CALLS JESUS, RABBI; GIVING HIM THE TITLE OF TEACHER. HE TELLS JESUS THAT, “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.” IT IS HARD TO SAY IF THIS IS TRUTH OR SARCASM IN THE MIND OF NICODEMUS; IF HE IS SAYING WHAT HE BELIEVES, OR WHAT THE COUNCIL HAS HIM SAY TO HEAR HOW JESUS WILL RESPOND. EITHER WAY, HE SPEAKS THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH UNWITTINGLY. JESUS HAS COME FROM GOD, AND IS THE VERY PRESENCE OF GOD; BUT NICODEMUS IS IN THE DARK AND NICODEMUS CAN NOT SEE. THIS IS WHY JESUS RESPONDS WITH. “VERY TRULY, I TELL YOU, NO ONE CAN SEE THE KINGDOM OF GOD WITHOUT BEING BORN FROM ABOVE.”

THE WORD, ANOTHEN, CAN MEAN BOTH AGAIN AND ABOVE. NICODEMUS ASSUMES THE WORD MEANS AGAIN, AS DID THE TRANSLATORS OF THE KING JAMES BIBLE, AND SEEMS TO SCOFF AT THE IDEA OF RETURNING TO HIS MOTHER’S WOMB TO BE BORN A SECOND TIME. SOME SCHOLARS SEE THIS AS A TECHNIQUE OF RABBINICAL ARGUMENT; FIRST DISMISSING THE MOST ABSURD IDEA TO GET TO THE REAL MEANING. JESUS DID NOT SEE IT THAT WAY, AND HAMMERED HOME THE POINT ABOUT THE REBIRTH FROM ABOVE BY THE HOLY SPIRIT. LIKE THE WIND, JESUS SAID, NO ONE KNOWS WHEN THE SPIRIT WILL DESCEND FROM ABOVE AND YOU WILL BE REBORN NOT OF THE FLESH BUT OF THE SPIRIT. TO THIS, NICODEMUS REPLIED, “HOW CAN THESE THINGS BE?”

AS A TEACHER OF ISRAEL, NICODEMUS SHOULD HAVE KNOWN ALL THIS, BUT HE WAS STILL IN THE DARK. SO JESUS TOLD HIM THE WHOLE STORY OF HOW HE HAS DESCENDED FROM HEAVEN TO BE LIFTED UP AS THE SAVIOR OF THE WORLD. “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.” NOT JUST TO INTELLECTUALLY AFFIRM THAT HE IS GOD’S ONLY SON, BUT TO TRUST IN HIM WITH ALL YOUR BEING. IT WAS DARK, AND LATE, AND NICODEMUS COULD NOT SEE, SO HE WENT HOME; BUT, AGAIN, THAT’S NOT THE END OF THE STORY.

THE STORY OF NICODEMUS IN JOHN’S GOSPEL IS THE STORY OF THE WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT IN HIM TO BRING ABOUT THE NEW BIRTH FROM ABOVE. HE PONDERED WHAT JESUS HAD SAID TO HIM, AND SAW WHAT JESUS WAS DOING, AND THE SPIRIT WORKED IN HIS HEART. IN THE SEVENTH CHAPTER OF JOHN, WHEN THE SANHEDRIN SPEAK NEGATIVELY OF JESUS AND PLAN TO GET RID OF HIM, IT IS NICODEMUS, THE ONE WHO CAME TO JESUS BY NIGHT AS JOHN REMINDS US, WHO SPEAKS UP FOR JESUS AND DEFENDS HIM IN FRONT OF HIS PEERS. HE RISKS HIS PERSONAL REPUTATION AND POSITION FOR THE SAKE OF JESUS. FROM A SKEPTIC IN THE NIGHT, HE HAS BECOME A DEFENDER IN THE LIGHT OF DAY.

WHEN JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED, AND ALL OF HIS DISCIPLES EXCEPT FOR JOHN HAD ABANDONED HIM, NICODEMUS WAS THERE FOR JESUS. IN THE NINETEENTH CHAPTER, JOHN TELLS US HOW NICODEMUS JOINS UP WITH HIS FRIEND AND FELLOW BELIEVER TO TAKE JESUS’ BODY DOWN FROM THE CROSS AND GIVE UP THEIR WEALTH FOR THEIR LORD AND KING. JOSEPH GAVE UP HIS OWN TOMB, WILLING TO BE BURIED IN A SHALLOW GRAVE SO THAT JESUS COULD BE GIVEN THE RESPECT HE DESERVED. NICODEMUS BROUGHT A MIXTURE OF MYRRH AND ALOES TO EMBALM THE BODY OF JESUS, ABOUT A 100 POUNDS. THIS WOULD HAVE COST HIM THE EQUIVALENT OF TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS. AS POPE BENEDICT XVI OBSERVED IN HIS BOOK, JESUS OF NAZARETH: HOLY WEEK, “THE QUANTITY OF THE BALM IS EXTRAORDINARY AND EXCEEDS ALL NORMAL PROPORTIONS. THIS IS A ROYAL BURIAL.” IN THE LAST LIGHT OF THAT TERRIBLE DAY, BEFORE NIGHT CAN FALL, NICODEMUS SHOWS HIS LOVE, HONOR, AND RESPECT FOR HIS LORD AND KING. THE TEACHER OF ISRAEL HAS BECOME A DISCIPLE OF THE CHRIST OF GOD.

WHEN A CATERPILLAR, PROMPTED BY NATURE, SEALS ITSELF IN ITS COCOON, IT HAS HIDDEN IN ITS BODY ITS FUTURE WINGS. IN THE COCOON, EVERYTHING ELSE DISSOLVES COMPLETELY, SO THAT, WHEN IT BREAKS OUT, IT IS A NEW CREATURE WHO’S WINGS ARE GLORIOUS IN THE LIGHT. SO TOO IT IS WITH US WHEN THE SPIRIT OF GOD, WHICH WE HAVE RECEIVED IN OUR BAPTISM, PROMPTS US OUT OF THE DARKNESS INTO THE LIGHT OF CHRIST. WE ARE REBORN FROM ABOVE AS A NEW CREATION; A CHILD OF THE HEAVENLY FATHER WITH THE GLORY OF THE RISEN CHRIST IN OUR LIVES FOR ALL TO SEE. THIS MAY HAPPEN SUDDENLY, OR OVER TIME; NONE CAN SAY HOW AND WHEN THE HOLY SPIRIT, LIKE THE WIND, WILL MOVE US TO THE LIGHT. THE STORY OF NICODEMUS IS OUR STORY; THE STORY OF ALL WHO HAVE GONE FROM NIGHT INTO DAY BY BEING REBORN FROM ABOVE. THAT IS THE END OF THE STORY, AND THE BEGINNING OF A WHOLE NEW STORY. AMEN

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