I’m preaching from the Lectionary this week at my second church, and am following the Gospel reading.
Who was the only Irishman in the Bible?
Sorry! I blame Graham Kendrick. I once heard him tell that joke at a concert.
Here, in John chapter three, Nicodemus makes his entry into the story of Jesus. We know that near the end of our reading we hear possibly the most famous verse in the entire Bible:
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. (Verse 16)
And so we assume this is a story about whether and how people to come to faith. Which I think is about right. I’m not about to spring any surprises on you in that respect today. So let’s plunge into this familiar text and see what we learn about the journey of faith. However long we have been Christians, I pray we appreciate the elements of true Christian faith more deeply as we reflect on this passage.
Firstly, we observe that Nicodemus ‘came to Jesus by night’ (verse 2). Now you may think that’s just a casual memory of their meeting, preserved for us by John from whoever learned that fact. But in John’s Gospel there is symbolism behind a lot of the literal details. For example, after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus tells people he is the Bread of Life.
And when it comes to ‘the night’, we can be sure John uses this both literally and symbolically. A classic example would be when Judas Iscariot leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus: John then says, ‘And it was night.’ You realise he doesn’t just mean the time of day, it is spiritually dark when Judas goes off.
What I want to suggest is this: that when Nicodemus arrives ‘by night’, it is also spiritually dark. Not in the sense of betrayal; rather, this is a man who is ‘in the dark’ spiritually about Jesus. He comes in utter sincerity to enquire of Jesus. When he opens by saying, ‘Rabbi, 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’ (verse 2), there is no reason to suppose he is anything other than a seeker after truth.
We see this from the way Jesus responds, He does not write him off or call him a hypocrite. Instead, he explains spiritual truth to him, about the need to be ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’. But when Nicodemus just doesn’t understand – he says, ‘How can these things be?’ (verse 9) – Jesus replies, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ (verse 10) Clearly, Jesus perceives him to be ‘in the dark’. Truly, he has come ‘by night’. Nicodemus, teacher of Israel’s faith, is in spiritual darkness.
Is he so unlike some of the people in our churches? I think of the church steward who prayed with me before a Good Friday morning service, in which he referred to the Cross of Christ as a disaster. I wouldn’t have minded if he were referring to a sorrow that our sins led to Christ dying for us, but he seemed to think the whole thing was a mistake. Surely that steward came ‘by night’.
But whichever other people I think of, the person I most think of as having come ‘by night’ is myself. Growing up in a Christian home – in fact, my sister worked out that she and I were fifth generation, same congregation – I picked up all the wrong signals about what Christian faith was. I heard people asked whether they were Christians, and their reply was, ‘I’m trying to be a Christian.’ It all depended on them, and their efforts. No wonder that I, the keen mathematician, I expressed my understanding of Christianity in terms of an equation: Christianity equals believing in God plus doing good things. I was completely confused when a teenage Baptist friend took me to a youth event at his church and someone greeted me, saying, ‘Am I shaking hands with a born-again Christian?’ I hadn’t heard that language, but assuming I was a Christian, I offered my hand. I could see my friend Andy looking on with doubt.
Finally, it was the confirmation service, specifically the promises and professions of faith, in the old Methodist Service Book that brought me up short. The first question asked whether I repented of my sins. The second asked me whether I put my trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. And the third question – only after the question of faith and trust – asked me whether I would obey Christ and serve him in the world.
So because of my own experience, I am never surprised to meet people in our churches who come ‘by night’, who think they know Jesus and faith, but don’t. Let’s all make sure this morning that we’re not in the dark.
All this mention of being ‘born again’ leads me into the second element to consider about Nicodemus. That second element is the prominence Jesus gives to the Holy Spirit. We talk generally about God, and we refer to Jesus, but Jesus himself draws attention to the work of the Spirit in bringing us to new birth:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (Verse 5)
Here’s the point: while we are right to emphasise the importance of personal decisions to follow Christ and our free will to decide whether to do so or not, it still remains the fact that none of that would be possible unless the Holy Spirit had not already been working in our lives to reveal Jesus Christ and his Gospel to us.
That fact has a number of implications for us. One is that it takes the pressure off us in our witness for Christ. Sometimes we think that we have to get our witness just right for him, answering every question and doubt that our friends have. We don’t. Instead, we discharge our responsibility to be a witness to Christ in word and deed, but we rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to our friends. We do what we can, as obediently as we can, but then we leave it and pray.
Another implication is that the prime rôle of the Holy Spirit punctures our pride. We cannot claim that by our cleverness or good deeds we worked out the importance of responding to Jesus Christ. Of course, the fact of needing the Cross should do this, but when we realise that we cannot come to Christ unaided, then we can only respond and live humbly. Our pride must go. It is another reminder that we are completely dependent upon the grace of God in order to know his love and walk in his ways. The superiority complex that some outside the Church detect in us is something we have to leave behind, because we could not find faith without the Holy Spirit.
One other implication: Jesus says something else about the centrality of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of faith. In verse 8 he says,
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
You expect him to continue something like this: ‘So it is with the Spirit.’ But he says something else instead:
So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (Italics mine)
The sovereign, unpredictable work of the Spirit is taken for granted. But it initiates us into a life of openness to where the wind of the Spirit blows us. Any notion of safety, predictability or comfort comes into question when the Holy Spirit leads your life. Yet that is what many of us settle for. But the Holy Spirit not only takes the initiative in making Christ known to us and keeping us humble, the Spirit then takes us on a wild journey of faith. The life of faith is one where Jesus says, ‘Follow me,’ and we don’t know where that will lead. I venture to suggest that churches which implement things like five-year visions and targets have very little sense of the blustery gale of the Spirit.
Some of the Celtic saints took this very literally. They set out in their coracles on the open sea, deciding they would trust that wherever the wind blew them, that was where God wanted them to go. We may not take things as literally as that, but the challenge is there: are we willing to let the wind of the Spirit blow us to new places in the life of faith, following Jesus?
But where is the Holy Spirit taking us in leading us out of darkness on the wild journey of faith? The answer comes in the third and final reflection. Our journey out of the night takes us on a strange journey to an unexpected place. It takes us to somewhere that Jesus, the Son of Man, will be lifted up (verse 14). Now ‘lifting up’ sounds like an exalted place, it perhaps sounds like a throne for a king. And in one sense it is.
But ‘lifted up’ is more of that symbolic language in John. There is more to it than meets the eye. Later in the Gospel, in chapter twelve, we discover that John uses it to indicate a place where Jesus was physically lifted from the ground. The Cross. This is the central location for the journey of faith.
For one thing, we see this in the fact that this is where God brings us to faith through Christ. It is when he is lifted up ‘that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (verse 15). We have already noticed how our need of the Spirit’s work makes us humbly dependent upon God’s grace: here is further evidence. We rely on the fact that God gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life (verse 16). Any message that downplays God’s reconciliation of us through the Cross of Christ is not the Christian message.
But the Spirit blows us to a strange place. A place of suffering and rejection. Yet here, in the plans of God, we find forgiveness, healing and acceptance. Here is where God pledges his commitment to us, and where we commit ourselves to him in response to his self-giving love in Christ.
But the eternal life promised there is not merely a ticket for heaven. In John’s Gospel, eternal life doesn’t wait. It starts now. When Jesus prays in chapter seventeen, he says, ‘Eternal life is knowing you’ (my italics). So if the Cross gives us eternal life, it shapes our ‘now’ as well as our future. The gift of eternal life is not only received through the death of Christ, the Cross also gives shape to the relationship of eternal life with God that we have since begun. That life of eternity is one marked by dying – we die to ourselves by rejecting self-indulgence to put Christ and others first, and we are willing to pay the price of following Jesus in a society where it is not and never will be popular.
This, then, in summary, is the life of faith. It is the call out of darkness to follow the wind of the Spirit who leads us to Christ and then on the wild journey of faith that is based on the Cross, where we find forgiveness and the shape of our new, eternal life.
But whatever happened to Nicodemus? He shows up twice more in John’s Gospel. In chapter seven, he defends Jesus against the criticisms his fellow Pharisees levelled. That was a brave thing to do. In chapter nineteen, he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, the secret disciple who asks Pilate to give him the body of Jesus. Nicodemus helps with anointing the body for burial. Again, what would the other Pharisees have thought of him?
For me, these hints point towards the thought that while Nicodemus may have been in the dark when he met Jesus in chapter three, ultimately he was willing to live the life of faith.
Our question is whether we will.