Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
March 18, 2018
Text: John 3:21, O.T.: Numbers 21:4-9, N.T.: John 3:14-21
Nicodemus came to Jesus by stealth. The Pharisee of the Sanhedrin Council approached Jesus under the cloak of darkness. His meeting was to be a secret.
Nicodemus had no need to be secretive. He had status across Judea as a legal scholar. He was renown throughout Jerusalem. He had nothing to fear.
Yet Nicodemus approached Jesus in the night.
In many ways Nicodemus was like a United States Supreme Court justice who is known for his or her legal authority. Supreme Court justices’ power to mold public life gives them independence and respect. They’re modern high priests whose decisions are beyond reproach. They attract government leaders’ attention and have an academic network that further elevates their prominence.
Judea’s Sanhedrin had academic achievement and political power. They were not clergy of a small congregation that is marginalized in a secular society. The Pharisees represented the voice of the common people among the Sanhedrin in interpreting Jewish law. Nicodemus had political allies. He had public support that sheltered him from the peoples’ criticism. He and his colleagues determined what was legally correct, not the people they led.
So why did Nicodemus come to Jesus in the dark?
Nicodemus was intrigued about what he had heard. He needed to hear Jesus for himself. He had heard about Jesus’ teachings. Perhaps Jesus was a great rabbi. Maybe stories about Jesus’ miracle at Cana had made their way to Jerusalem and captured Nicodemus’ interest.
But it was more likely the great ruckus Jesus made on the Temple Mount before Passover that attracted Nicodemus’ attention. Nicodemus had heard Jesus challenged the illicit money-making scheme of the Temple priests who took a cut from the sale of sacrificial animals. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was critical of the Sadducees financially benefitting from the money-changing in the Temple’s outer courtyard. He might have admired Jesus for His hutzpah.
But that wasn’t the only thing Jesus had done that caught Nicodemus’ attention. Jesus had the audacity to challenge the Sadducees’ defense of the Temple! Nicodemus wondered whether Jesus shared his contempt for the Sadducees. The Sadducees had made political alliances with Herod and the Romans that undermined Jewish law. If Jesus really said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” He sounded like someone Nicodemus could admire. Wow! Who makes such an audacious claim!
Whatever Nicodemus’ motives were, he hid under darkness when he came to Jesus. Nicodemus had secret questions about Jesus’ mission. The powerful voice of the people in the interpretation of Jewish law was puzzled. “We know you’re a teacher come from God; no one can do the signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Nicodemus wondered whether God’s hand might be in Jesus’ work. But he was uncertain about the point of it all.
What’s the point of Jesus’ teaching? What’s the purpose of turning water into wine? What’s Jesus’ motive for cleansing the Temple courtyard of the money-changers? What’s behind Jesus’ ridiculous claim to raise up a destroyed Temple in three days?
These were logical questions to ask. They were legal questions to ask. They were also religious issues to ask about how to worship God.
Nicodemus resembled many today who question the motive of Christians. Why are Christians calling us to be converted? Why do they challenge the very things in life that I think are so necessary for my happiness?
They have the audacity to say Jesus can lift us up from our current life to a greater life! Why do I need to be lifted up? I’m happy with life the way it is!
What’s the purpose of it all? What end does it serve? Can you shed some light on the strange things you do who call yourselves Christians?
There are even church members who question why some of us believe we need to convince people to change their lives. They’ve become convinced by opponents like the Sadducees that the Temple of their lives is just fine the way it is. They’re not interested in changing anything about how they live, what they do, or how their life can be improved by God.
They’re not committed to giving light in the night-time of life.
Critics of Jesus can affect a congregation’s focus on Jesus’ mission. They plant uncertainty among Christians about the point of it all. In the darkness of the night when the Temple of our national life stands erect, people doubt, complain, chastise, and dismiss the Church’s mission – Jesus’ purpose.
Their criticism affects us as Jesus’ followers.
When someone as public and powerful as the Sadducees criticize Jesus’ mission Jesus’ followers’ immediate reaction is to retreat from His mission. Isn’t that what Peter, Andrew, James, Simon the Zealot, and certainly Judas did?
Not Jesus. He did not retreat from His mission.
The Great Master rose up and looked Nicodemus in the eye. Jesus believed in His mission. The Temple of the law in the darkness of peoples’ lives needed changing. He would lift them up in three days! It was why He was sent to earth.
Even more, He believed in the authenticity behind Nicodemus’ question. Nicodemus was keeping his questions in the dark a secret. But at least he was asking, and he deserved answers to his curiosity.
Jesus understood Nicodemus came in the night not simply to keep secret his encounter with Jesus. Nicodemus came in the night because He sensed light emanating from Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ work, Jesus’ mission in a world of darkness. Nicodemus was coming from the world of darkness into the Light.
Jesus understood Nicodemus saw in Jesus someone who went far beyond Nicodemus’ success. Jesus possessed gifts no teacher of the law could muster. Jesus knew what legal students cannot learn, and Sanhedrin cannot adjudicate. Jesus offered light amid the failure of the Temple’s darkness to give real hope.
For as much as Nicodemus had accomplished, and the wisdom in his legal interpretations, he sensed his work was not bringing light into the world. Judaism was a minor nation that wasn’t offering light in the darkness of peoples’ lives.
Neither was the Roman Empire with its centurions and governors. Its Senate and philosophical reasoning were not giving people hope. There was no light living under Roman justice. The same darkness that left the Jewish people restless following Moses’ law was even more wide-spread under Roman law.
Nicodemus detected a sincerity of intent, and authenticity of concern for the people in Jesus. Jesus was a light shining in a culture of darkness.
Jesus was remarkable for His penetrating honesty, His genuine humility, and His enormous capacity to lift people from darkness into a vision of new life. Jesus was like the sun, illuminating the darkness in Mosaic and Roman law. Nicodemus wanted to see the light he had heard was emanating from Jesus. He wanted to live in the light. He wanted the future offered by Jesus’ light.
Darkness is a biblical metaphor for Satan’s domain. Jesus is betrayed by Judas Iscariot who makes his arrangements with the Sanhedrin in the night. Jesus is arrested by the Romans in the Garden of Gethsemane in the night. Jesus’ trial begins in the night. When Jesus is crucified upon the cross, darkness covers the land, according to the biblical accounts. Jesus is buried as night falls. Night and its darkness is the realm of worldly fear of death and bondage to Satan.
Nicodemus was escaping the darkness. He was grasping that his role as a Pharisee was not freeing the people from life’s darkness. Interpreting the law wasn’t saving people. It wasn’t saving them from judgment or from Satan.
He wanted light that shines in the darkness. He desired to find hope in despite night-time’s shadows of fear, to receive love regardless of the darkness of injustice, to experience peace despite the darkened hatred in human hearts.
Jesus knew that Nicodemus was coming to the Light.
This is what so many of us forget who have been going to church for so long. We represent Jesus Christ’s light in a dark land. Every friendly conversation with a visitor, the kind words we choose, the sincere compassion we show, the intentionality of love we offer by staying in contact after Sunday – shows Jesus’ light. We are shining God’s glory upon the darkness of a world that simply thinks obeying the law is all the world needs to be saved from Satan’s power.
It may be Sunday morning, but people are coming from the darkness of the Temple of their lives without Jesus into the light of Jesus Christ’s sanctuary. They either experience further darkness in their interaction with us, or they receive Christ’s light. They are coming from the world’s darkness to receive Christ’s light. We are meant by Christ to shine His light.
Each day people will come from the world’s darkness toward Jesus’ light if they hear about His light in a congregation. Congregations earn reputations, for darkness or light, by how they interact with the people walking about them in darkness. People are inspired by congregations where Christian love leads church members to go the extra mile with a man like Nicodemus, or a woman like Mary Magdalene, who were yearning for the light of Jesus Christ.
We build our reputation by giving the light of Jesus Christ to this community around us. We don’t build a reputation of being Christ’s light in a world of darkness by observing the tradition of the law or by paying taxes as good citizens. We don’t build a reputation of being Christ’s light in a world of darkness by being successful business men or women. Being loyal employees doesn’t give people Christ’s light. Neither does being leaders in government.
Our reputation as having Jesus Christ’s light doesn’t come from a past reputation for status or wealth. Our reputation as Christ’s light isn’t in having the largest and oldest Temple in the center of the borough in which to worship God.
Our reputation in the Borough of Bellevue comes from whether or not we are the light of Jesus Christ in this community. We inspire faith, hope, and love when we are optimistic about Jesus Christ’s mission to bring people into Christ’s light through our commitment to disciple-making.
We douse the flame of Christ’s light when those who are coming to Christ’s light discover our unwillingness to be or make new people in Jesus Christ.
Nicodemus was trying to escape the legalism, controversy, and criticism that tainted the Sadducees and Pharisees’ reputation in the community. Nicodemus wanted an alternative to Judea’s darkness in which he was engulfed as a member of the Sanhedrin.
Nicodemus was taking a risk coming to the light. It wasn’t the risk of being seen wanting hope. It was the risk of disappointment.
Nicodemus was risking disappointment that Jesus wasn’t what he was. Nicodemus was risking disappointment that Jesus was not offering a new life by which to thank God! The Temple wasn’t giving that, nor was Herod or Pilate.
Jesus didn’t disappoint Nicodemus. Jesus led Nicodemus closer to the light.
Jesus’ light wasn’t preserving past decisions regarding the nation’s law. Jesus’ light offered a new way of living. Be reborn; give up everything to follow Jesus, even a Temple that had been the center of national life for generations.
We must not disappoint those who are coming to us for the light of Christ. Jesus charges us to lead them closer to His light, out of the darkness in American life. Don’t disappoint the people. Most of all, don’t disappoint Jesus Christ!
There are people coming from the darkness of life’s disappointment to receive Christ’s light. They are coming frustrated by oppositional political parties, arrogant government leaders, and controversy over justice in federal courts. They are coming upset with women and children abused by the powerful and mighty. They are coming concerned for school safety, an opioide epidemic ravaging youth, and lack of government leadership to bring change. They are coming to stop violence and sexuality’s intoxication from defining who they are as God’s creation.
When people realize intelligence and success in this life isn’t enough to overcome the night-time surrounding them, they admit their current way of life is futile. They’re ready to come to Jesus Christ’s light.
We cannot disappoint. Give Jesus’ light to them! It’s why they’re here. Amen.