John 3:1-17 • March 20, 2011
Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen.
Wow – it’s been a crazy busy few weeks. Pastor Tim was visiting with a friend of his last week who is also serving as an interim pastor and he shared with this friend that between the two of us we have preached, presided, or participated at over 18 worship services in the past 14 days. Pastor Tim said that the call became very silent after he mentioned this, but his friend finally did say, “So, what are you guys doing in your free time?”
I’m glad this vocation doesn’t always move at this pace, but am also thankful for the many ways this vocation unfolds as we seek to live together as a community of faith. I am overwhelmed each day by the activities and experiences that I’m invited to participate in that take us literally from the very beginning of life to the very end of life.
I haven’t said it lately and I don’t get to say it enough, so I offer it today – thank you for inviting me and my family to be part your life and your journey of faith.
Over the next few weeks we will hear three separate encounters with Jesus from the gospel of John. Today, we hear from Jesus’ first encounter with Nicodemus, a leader in the religious community, who visits Jesus by night. What I hope we hear and see in the next few weeks is how these encounters with Jesus change who these people are.
Nicodemus is an inquiring mind with some really good questions. He understands religion and the processes that it takes to be considered religious in a community. His questions, however, seem to be searching for a deeper meaning than simply knowing all the correct answers to the questions he has or behaviors he must possess in order to be religious.
A few years ago, I was in the midst of a similar busy time in ministry as the one lately. I had an interesting phone call that I’ll never forget just minutes before I was to preach and preside at a funeral. It was an individual who didn’t identify themselves, but got right to the point of their call.
“Let me ask you something,” the caller said, “Are you a born again Christian?”
I’m never exactly sure how someone would like me to answer a question like that – especially when it is directed in somewhat of a mean spirited way. I chose not to answer in the way I thought about answering, instead I simply said, “Yes. Yes, I am. What about you?”
The caller then went into a flurry of questions very quickly that seemed to require my immediate answer on things that I don’t think a person is able to answer with quick easy rapid fire answers – like whether or not I prophesy in tongues regularly during worship. I answered no to that question; although I did share that there may be occasions during my preaching when some in the congregation may think that I’m preaching in a foreign language.
Finally the caller paused, and told me that I had no business being a pastor in a congregation if I’m not a “born again Christian,” which from their point of view, my status was, at best, questionable. I was going to thank them for their concern, but they hung up before I could offer that the thank you. I never did find out who that caller was.
There is a wonderful story of an old jazz club in New Orleans with a piano that is old and falling apart and just flat out doesn’t play well anymore. Jazz artists who play at this club constantly complain about this piano and wish that they could bring their own piano rather than have to play it.
Finally, after years of listening to the jazz musicians complain about the piano, the owner of the club decided to do something about it. He had the piano painted. It didn’t change the ability of the piano to play any better, but it did change the way it looked.
One of my favorite devotional writers, Henri Nouwen wrote a reflection about this text from John. Nouwen wrote, “I love Jesus but want to hold on to my own friends even when they do not lead me closer to Jesus. I love Jesus but want to hold on to my own independence even when that independence brings me no real freedom. I love Jesus but do not want to lose the respect of my professional colleagues, even though I know that their respect does not make me grow spiritually. I love Jesus but do not want to give up my writing plans, travel plans, and speaking plans, even when these plans are often more to my glory than to the glory of God. So I am like Nicodemus, who came by night, and said safe things about Jesus to his colleagues.” Even a great Christian leader like Henri Nouwen is sometimes content to paint the old piano.
I think there is an element of Nicodemus in all of us. It’s easier to cover things up with a fresh coat of paint and play it safe or think that every question we have about faith will have a quick and easy answer. It’s easier to keep Jesus at a distance, rather than growing deeper and deeper in relationship.
Nicodemus also appears in John 7 where he makes a somewhat half-hearted attempt at defending Jesus to his buddies, but at least he is trying, and again in John 19 where he helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial following the crucifixion. Nicodemus is different in John 19 than he is in John 3. I don’t think he ever stops asking questions or searching for who Jesus is. And by the time we get to John 19, Nicodemus seems to be less of a religious leader seeking to back Jesus into a corner and more of a broken human being, just like you and me, seeking to be a follower. Nicodemus may never have heard the last words in our reading today, although maybe he did based upon the placement of the quotation marks in the text. Whether that is the case, there is little doubt to me that he was changed during his encounters with Jesus and experienced these words first hand.
They are words that we need to hear again and again – “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. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
I know that every baptism I participate in or every time I’m invited into a family’s life as they experience and walk through the death of a loved one, I am changed. I know that every time I worship with a community who is gathered in the name of Jesus Christ or preside at the Lord’s Table during Holy Communion, I am changed. I know that every moment I spend with my daughters at figure skating Ice Shows like the one happening this weekend, or sit and visit with my wife after a long day, or give someone in my family or a close friend a call simply to talk, I am changed.
These daily encounters with Jesus change who we are as a children of God. They turn darkness into light. They change fear into hope, anger into peace, grief into joy. Am I born again? Yes – and again…and again…and again…
And I thank God for every question and conversation, for every event and activity, and for every healing touch or caring word that enables you and I to grow deeper in relationship with our Savior as we seek to walk by faith with each other as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Amen.