Only one thing matters – and that’s a new start

Peter Seal, 12 March 2017

1 Kings 9: 1–9; John 3: 1–17

I wonder how Lent is going for you. It’s worth reminding ourselves that our goal is Easter Sunday morning. The purpose of Lent is to prepare ourselves for the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Lent groups, acts of self-discipline, a bit more praying, and studying the Bible are a few constructive ways of being ready for Easter alleluias.

The Tuesday evening Lent course got off to a great start. The focus was on God. Twenty-eight of us spent a fascinating time exploring the theme ‘Knowing God – who is “God”?’ I think everyone there, however long they have been a Christian, would tell you that they gained a new insight into what God is like. Julia Mourant, who led the evening, suggested that during his 40 days in the desert Jesus was exploring, discovering and remembering what God is like. (If you’re able to come this Tuesday you would be very welcome.)

There’s a New Testament personality who can help us today. His name: Nicodemus. He features prominently in today’s gospel – one of three appearances in St John’s Gospel; Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t mention him. You’ll recognise this passage, which comes towards the end of St John’s Gospel, in chapter 19, after the crucifixion.

Pilate was approached by Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, but a secret disciple for fear of the Jews, who asked to be allowed to remove the body of Jesus. Pilate gave the permission; so Joseph came and took the body away. He was joined by Nicodemus (the man who had first visited Jesus by night), who brought with him a mixture of myrrh and aloes, more than half a hundredweight. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen cloth according to Jewish burial customs. Now at the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, not yet used for burial. There, because the tomb was near at hand and it was the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, they laid Jesus.

All this began for Nicodemus when he came to Jesus by night. The venue was Jerusalem and it’s possible they met in the Garden of Gethsemane. This was Jesus’ regular meeting place with his disciples, on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city. Nicodemus comes ‘by night’ because he doesn’t want his visit to be known about – he is, we’re told, a leader of the Jews, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin.

The conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders is already well known, so Nicodemus is being quite brave. He comes, as it were, to test the waters. He’s heard about the ‘signs’ Jesus has been performing – for example, the miracle at Cana in Galilee. Nicodemus is impressed, and for the right reasons – not just because the signs are exciting, but because Nicodemus sees them as speaking of God: of God’s meaning; of God’s purpose; of what God is like.

Nicodemus, the highly placed ecclesiastic, was typically both cautious and diplomatic. Characteristically, but also understandably, Nicodemus is unwilling to commit himself and openly to lend his support to Jesus. This would have cost him dear – probably his place on the council, or even his position as a Pharisee.

In Jesus and Nicodemus we have the meeting of two very different personalities. Nicodemus was an excellent party supporter: loyal, intelligent, well mannered and presentable, diplomatic and politically correct. Jesus, from today’s gospel, is presented quite differently: he’s not very interested in diplomacy, he’s seeking neither to gain nor to retain power – he probably wouldn’t want to be elected anyway. It’s not surprising, then, that their conversation that night goes as it does.

Early on Jesus cuts Nicodemus short – he sweeps a compliment aside and strikes at the root of Nicodemus’ problem. He says, as it were, ‘If you’re looking for the kingdom that belongs to God, only one thing matters – and that’s a new start. Truly, truly I say to you – you must be born anew, or again, or from above. New birth can only come from above, i.e. from God. It is not something people can do for themselves.’

Jesus tries to explain what this means. New birth, new life could only be gained through baptism, followed by discipleship with Jesus, in company with others who were also experiencing the stirring of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, Jesus explains, is like the desert wind, a powerful unseen force; you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. (On Tuesday evening one person described the Holy Spirit as an ‘unruly fire’. Some found this alarming; others found it exciting.)

Nicodemus has come to Jesus because he genuinely sees in his actions something of the activity of God. But he comes by night because he wants, as it were, to ‘have his cake and eat it’. He comes rather smugly, offering approval and support. But he wants to hold on to his position as a leader of the Jews until he is clear which is the winning side. [This rings all sorts of political bells.]

However, the luxury of sitting on the side lines and hedging your bets is not one that Jesus offers. Jesus is offering Nicodemus a choice to enter the real world – the one that God created through the Word made flesh. Suddenly, Jesus stops teasing and spells it out. There is only one way to find out what God is like and what his purposes are – and that is to commit yourself to the Son of Man, the one whose lifting up on the cross is to be the true sign of just how much God loves the world. Nicodemus cannot go home pretending to be baffled by what Jesus has said. He has to decide.

The luxury of sitting on the side lines and hedging your bets is not one that Jesus offers … There is only one way to find out what God is like and what his purposes are – and that is to commit yourself to the Son of Man, the one whose lifting up on the cross is to be the true sign of just how much God loves the world.

We are no different from Nicodemus – we too have to decide … to be more deeply committed, or not.

As we prepare for Good Friday and Easter we can perhaps do no better than to keep alongside Nicodemus. In our imagination we can try and picture how his life unfolded.

And we can in a curious way look forward to Good Friday – until, with Nicodemus, we stand at the foot of the cross. There’s a marked contrast between Nicodemus’ first night-time secret meeting with Jesus and the brightness of daylight where everyone could see Nicodemus and what he was doing.

In conclusion: with Nicodemus we are challenged to be open to others about what we believe, and to have the courage with him, as it were, to open our arms to receive our crucified Lord’s lifeless, dead body as it slides to the ground – a body now freed from the terrible iron that has pierced it.

Our hearts go out to those in our world who are undergoing their own cruel crucifixion. We ask, in some way, that we may be Nicodemus for them.