Nicodemus has been hooked by Jesus. He’s been watching him, listening to him, wondering about him. Nic has also heard all kinds of criticism about him from his colleagues – the Pharisees. (I hope you don’t mind me calling him Nic – he has come to seem quite real to me, and Nic just seems too formal for someone I have gotten to know quite well from a spiritual point of view.)
Like the rest of the Pharisees (who were the spiritual leaders of the Jews in Jesus’ time) Nic keeps the Jewish law impeccably – not only the spirit of the law as given by Moses, not only the prescriptions in the book of Leviticus that go way beyond the Ten Commandments in detail and difficulty, but also all the intricate details of the laws that the scribes wrote as commentaries on the laws in Leviticus. Nic was a shining role model among the Pharisees.
And yet something about Jesus caught his attention and wouldn’t let it go. Jesus, who always seemed to be stretching the limits of the law, like healing people on the Sabbath when no work was to be done; Jesus, who liked sharing meals with the ritually impure; Jesus who liked offending the social mores of the day by sleeping on the road with his disciples having no fixed residence; Jesus who told stories that seemed to make outsiders seem more moral than the Pharisees, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
We can guess what might have intrigued Nic about Jesus. Maybe he had become a little discouraged or even bored with his job studying the commentaries on commentaries on commentaries about the law. Maybe he was longing for something more fulfilling in his life, something that would light a fire in his heart, not just be fodder for his brain. Maybe he deeply needed real spiritual friendship, the kind that Jesus offered to his disciples. In other words, maybe Nic is having a vocational crisis. Is he meant to be a Pharisee – or a follower of Jesus?
But it’s dangerous to admit this up front, or even to ask too many questions in public – and so he comes to Jesus at night when he is less likely to be noticed by his Pharisee colleagues. And you can hardly blame him. He’s exploring, questioning, maybe even hoping that this Jesus has something better to offer, that he might even be the Messiah. But he doesn’t know yet and so unlike the other disciples he’s more cautious -- he doesn’t want to burn his bridges until he knows more about this handsome, charismatic young prophet Jesus.
He says to Jesus, ‘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.”
With the title “Rabbi” or “teacher” Nic is acknowledging that Jesus has a certain personal and spiritual authority even though he does not have an official place in the establishment. But clearly he knows there is more to Jesus than being a talented Rabbi. He is trying to understand. Like Abram in our first reading from Genesis, he is responding to a call from God to leave the place where he lives – not literally, but in terms of his position and authority – and to go somewhere new, somewhere unknown. It is a spiritual journey Nic sets out on when he comes to see Jesus at night.
And what does Jesus say? “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nic takes this very literally, and asks Jesus how a person can possibly enter into the mother’s womb a second time and be born again.
Jesus responds by trying to explain that he is talking about a spiritual birth – a birth that comes from the Spirit. And he seems amazed that Nic doesn’t understand this. Jesus tries to help him by saying “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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
But this just seems more puzzling to Nic. “How can these things be?” he asks. Remember he is a Pharisee, a literalist, and he probably hasn’t had much practice in understanding metaphors. So he just doesn’t get it. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus asks. Well, we might feel the same way as Nic if we went to Jesus and he responded that way.
Nic, like ourselves sometimes, has to get the truth from his head to his heart, to know experientially that the Spirit of God cannot be controlled by us. We have no control over the wind, and even the most talented meteorologists can’t always predict where it’s going to go next. Likewise we have no idea how the Spirit might play in our lives, how God might use us, or what will happen if we respond to God’s call.
Abram couldn’t have predicted how the Spirit would blow through his life, nor could any of our ancestors in the faith, ancient or modern. People like Martin Luther King, like Gandhi, like Mother Teresa – all of them simply responded to God’s call to go on a journey. They blessed more people than the stars in heaven. But they couldn’t have known that ahead of time.
Nor can we. Nor could Jesus. The one thing we do know is that somehow, mysteriously, we have a part in the way God works out the divine purpose. The journey God calls each of us to is a road that leads to the working out of God’s plan, the Kingdom of God.
And that is summed up by gospel writer John. After we have listened to this conversation between Nic and Jesus, we are thrown back on the simple, glorious truth that “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Martin Luther called this short verse “the gospel in miniature.” And indeed, it sums up everything we know about God’s self-giving love, about Jesus’ faithfulness and obedience even to death, about the grace of forgiveness and new life that we receive from this gift of God’s love.
Abraham left his home to go out into a new, unknown world, and died of old age. Jesus followed God’s call for him even though it meant death at a young age. Nic became a follower of Jesus (at least we assume that because he brought Jesus’ expensive myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body after the crucifixion).
May we have the faith of Abraham, the courage of Nic, and the love of Jesus that allows us to say “yes” to whatever call God puts in our hearts. And may we never forget that God watches over our going out and our coming in, and will make us a blessing to all those whose lives we touch.