A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come for God.”
Nicodemus was a devout Jew, a Pharisee, and a member of the ruling council. He comes to Jesus, genuinely searching for the truth of God. Notice that he comes from the dark—the imagery is that he is in the dark, he does not know, so he comes to Jesus and is enlightened.
The Gospel lessons during Lent this year trace the traditional path of the catechumenate, or the course for preparation for baptism from the ancient church continuing through to today. Last week, Jesus focused us on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” and “worshiping the Lord and serving only him.” Today, Nicodemus comes from the dark to ask Jesus about the true teaching of God. And Jesus tells him how to experience the Kingdom of God. “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being begotten from above.”
One of the characteristics of the Gospel of John is that people who are talking with Jesus misunderstand him, often with comic results. This is the first instance. It’s sometimes difficult to pick up what’s happening if you don’t know the language because puns don’t usually translate that well from one language to another. There are two words in the Greek of this passage which have double meanings: “gennan” can mean “born” or “begotten” and “anOthen” can mean “from above” or “again.” A lot of translators miss the joke so they translate it to make sense of Nicodemus’ response: “born again” and that Nicodemus understands Jesus to be talking about going through the birth process in the flesh, coming out of one’s mother’s womb again. What Nicodemus does not know, but the readers of John’s Gospel do, is the prologue of the Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were begotten, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
In modern American English, we seldom use the word begotten, which refers to the father’s role in the development of a baby as opposed to the mother’s, so the ambiguity in Greek is also ambiguous for us. But we see that Nicodemus completely missed Jesus’ meaning. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the Kingdom of God is for those who are born from God, not from any markers of human descent at all. It is Jesus, the Son, the Word of God, that gives life and brings light out of darkness. We are born from God, even though we are only born once from the human perspective.
So we have Nicodemus approaching Jesus—and he doesn’t understand, even though he is educated and a religious leader. Jesus teaches Nicodemus and his teaching goes on past what we have read in today’s gospel lesson. Even in today’s lesson, the teaching is dense, packed with meaning. At one point Jesus compares God’s action in himself with something that Nicodemus would have recognized—when Moses lifted up poisonous serpents on poles so that the Israelites who had been poisoned would see them and be healed. Beholding Jesus brings healing to Nicodemus, to us and to the world.
Nicodemus is an archetype of the catechumen. He is initially in darkness, but he comes into the light of Jesus. Initially he is puzzled, he misunderstands and makes mistakes. And it takes time, the preparation, the conversion, the learning—they don’t happen in a single day or a single session. There is much to learn and to experience on the Christian journey.
Nicodemus appears twice more in the Gospel of John. In the seventh chapter, Jesus had been encountering opposition and there were plots against his life. Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” And the chief priests and Pharisees were talking with the temple police, “Why did you not arrest him.” And Nicodemus spoke up, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing does it?” Nicodemus was hearing Jesus, and seeing the Kingdom of God, yet he was still on his way.
Later in the Gospel, after Jesus’ crucifixion, when Joseph of Arimathea got Jesus body to put it in the tomb, Nicodemus also came and brought the mixture of spices, weighing a hundred pounds, to prepare the body for burial. Nicodemus had come from the dark, and had witnessed Jesus life. Being born from above was more involved than many might think. It was more difficult than re-entering a mother’s womb—he witnessed the death of the Lord of Life.
We move forward in the journey toward baptism. With Nicodemus, we learn. We learn of the Lord of Life, the love and mercy of God, and we learn of how very intertwined our life is with the world of human sin and pride. The reality of the death of the Messiah is essential in understanding the Word that was with God in the beginning, in being born from above as true children of the father. In Nicodemus we don’t see the resurrection…he does not know about that until after the last time we see him.
So in our story of Nicodemus we have the beginning of the journey toward baptism. The journey of Lent continues as our life and learning continues.
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God for ever and ever. Amen.