At the noon SLT service in the Cathedral on Trinity Sunday, we heard the story of Nicodemus and his visit to see Jesus at night. Nicodemus wanted to know more about Jesus and came away from the meeting with a lot to think about. In the end it seems that he became a disciple – a risky thing to do for a member of the Sanhedrin.
The readings were Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17.
Feeling like a thief in the night, Nicodemus walked from deep shadow to deep shadow through the narrow streets of Jerusalem. Bright patches of moonlight were too revealing. He didn’t want to be seen. What would people think if they looked out of their doors at this time of night? All decent people were in their homes with family and friends, catching up on news with visitors who had come for the feast of Passover. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, an important person, someone to be looked up to, a wise and respected teacher. It wouldn’t do for too many questions to be asked by people and especially by other members of the Sanhedrin.
Nicodemus’ wife thought he was mad, risking so much to visit a travelling rabbi from Galilee. Weren’t there enough great rabbis he could talk to and debate with in Jerusalem? Why this one? What was so special about him? But Nicodemus couldn’t rest. He’d been there when Jesus had stormed through the Temple, scattering the merchants and their animals in all directions, spilling coins for the alert to quickly pocket. Of course, most people had been indignant, well most people of any standing anyway. The ordinary people seemed to really like this Jesus of Nazareth. They seemed to sense that he understood and cared for them. Nicodemus had heard talk of healings taking place, but many of these simple folk were easily taken in. Charlatans turned up regularly, fleecing people of their money in exchange for bogus cures and medicines.
It was the evidence of his own eyes and ears which drove Nicodemus, not hearsay or marketplace chatter. He had seen the look in Jesus’ eyes, a blaze of anger but totally under control, driving his actions in a focused way, and with no evidence of fear of reprisals from the merchants. Jesus’ words had made even more impact. ‘Do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’ His Father? Who did he mean? The Temple was the house of the Lord God. Searching in his mind to make sense of this, Nicodemus had remembered Isaiah calling God Father, like a potter who made mankind. Malachi also mentioned God the Father, creator of all people. Somehow, Jesus seemed to mean something different, something more personal. And then when he was questioned, what kind of sign was that which he gave: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’. It sounded insane, spoken as it was in a temple that had taken a lifetime to build. Yet, he didn’t look insane. Jesus stood out as the sanest member of that company as the authorities questioned him in their anger.
Nicodemus had talked to his friend Joseph about this. Joseph too had watched and wondered. He too was attracted by the person of Jesus. They both thought God was with him in some special way. Jesus was not one of the many ‘Messiahs’ who kept springing up to sink without trace. Joseph knew that Nicodemus was out that night, and he eagerly awaited the result of his meeting with Jesus.
More than once Nicodemus thought to turn around and go home, to forget this ridiculous quest for answers, but he couldn’t do it. He had to understand. He found the house where Jesus was staying, knocked and was invited in. There was no turning back now. The house was busy but Nicodemus only paid attention to Jesus, and it seemed to him that Jesus only paid attention to him. Fear of being seen and news getting back to the Sanhedrin faded from Nicodemus’ mind as he struggled to form the questions he wanted to ask.
He didn’t get far in his asking. Jesus took the initiative, giving him answers to questions he didn’t know he was asking. ‘You must be born again to see the kingdom of God’. Seeing the kingdom was what so many of his friends wanted, it was what he wanted. Hadn’t the Jews longed for God to intervene, to restore Israel, to defeat their enemies and restore the rule of the House of David? But what did being born again mean? It seemed that Jesus had a habit of saying things that in others would have sounded insane, but somehow they were utterly sane when they fell from his lips. Nicodemus felt like a child again, struggling to understand his lessons, grappling with ideas too big for him, and yet longing to get to grips with it all, knowing how important it was to him. This Spirit Jesus talked about, was it the same as the spirit which God had given to his prophets in the past so that they could speak his word to the people? Hadn’t that spirit been lost with the last of the prophets? Yet here Jesus spoke of the Spirit as active in the world, active in individuals allowing them to see the kingdom of God by giving them some kind of new birth. The prophet Joel had spoken of the Spirit being poured out on all people as the end of time drew near. Hadn’t John the Baptiser said that someone would come who would baptise people in the Spirit, not just in water as he was doing? Was the end of time really near?
Before Nicodemus could process his thoughts, Jesus was talking about himself as having descended from heaven. How could that be? No man can come from heaven. Who was Jesus? And then another image came hard on the heels of the last: Jesus being lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness to bring the gift of eternal life to those who would believe in the Son of Man. Before he could even think that through, Nicodemus had his answer: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’. There was no doubt in Nicodemus’ mind that Jesus meant that he was the Son of God!
Nicodemus had no idea how he made it back home that night. His mind was reeling with ideas he could barely comprehend. He felt he’d seen God completely differently, God who had a Son, God whose Spirit was active in all who welcomed him. Welcome seemed to sum up what he had received from his encounter with Jesus. With the welcome came a challenge. Could he carry on as he was or did he have to change?
It was dark again. The last time Nicodemus had been this close to Jesus it had been dark but that darkness had been different, the shadows and light of a moonlit night. This darkness was unnatural, cold, frightening, at the wrong time, when it should have been full daylight. For three hours Nicodemus stood in that darkness and his heart was heavy. After his meeting with Jesus at night he had come to believe that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, as had Joseph of Arimathea. He’d kept it secret but he’d tried to use his influence to deflect the plans of the Sanhedrin to do away with Jesus. He knew they hoped to manage without a trial and he’d taken the risk of questioning that course of action, but to no avail. Eventually they had got their way and Jesus now hung on the cross. When Nicodemus had listened to Jesus talk about being lifted up, he hadn’t understood, but now it seemed very clear indeed. How this fitted with the promise of eternal life, he didn’t understand at all but he had no doubt that it did fit.
Suddenly Jesus cried out, ‘It is finished’. With that cry Nicodemus knew that something else was finished too. Jesus’ final words spoken at that amazing meeting came to him once more: ‘Whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.’ No longer would Nicodemus hide his faith. What he had not felt able to give while Jesus was alive – open support regardless of the consequences – he would give to Jesus now. With Joseph he set off to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus so that they could give Jesus a burial fit for the Son of God. Little did Nicodemus know then how short a time Jesus would remain wrapped in the linen and spices so lovingly provided by these two, once secret, disciples but that’s another story.