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Sermon: Jesus and Nicodemus

Date Preached: Sunday March 22nd 2009 - Mothering Sunday

Bible Reference: John Chapter 3, Verses 14 - 21

Snakes! – Yuk! – snakes on a plane (if you’ve seen the recent movie). The legendary lightening strikes of the cobra or black mamba; deceitful Ka in the jungle book; Voldemort in the Harry Potter books – and even the dangerous adder in the British Isles…. From the serpent in the Garden of Eden onwards the figure of the snake has haunted human imagination from time immemorial. And yet in many cultures, the serpent is seen as positive and powerful – dangerous, yes, but not necessarily bad. I had Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance when I was living in the United States and the company’s symbol was a serpent entwined around a pole – a sign of healing. And this is the picture we have in our gospel reading today that looks back to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness (we’ve had the story read to us). God gave Moses a remedy for all those suffering deadly snake bites. Anyone who looked at the serpent on the pole would live. Now we need to recall that Jesus has been talking to Nicodemus about the new birth. Nicodemus was a learnèd, pious teacher – a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin – & probably very different from the type of Pharisee that liked making a show of his religion. He was obviously generally impressed by what Jesus was teaching and was drawn to him – although cautiously so, because he made sure he only came to see him at night – just to avoid giving any impression that he intended to become a committed disciple.

Like many devout Jews of the time Nicodemus was longing for God’s kingdom to come – and (here’s the thing)  he would have assumed that he would have had the right to enjoy God’s blessings automatically by virtue of belonging to the Jewish race – God’s special people – and also as a reward for his devotion to religious tradition – his piety. But he couldn’t have been more wrong! (If you remember) Jesus cut away from under his feet all grounds for self-satisfaction. You can imagine Jesus saying “Nicodemus – listen up no-one can experience the reign of God, no matter what his or her race – or degree of religious piety – apart from the experience of new birth. I don’t care how religious you’ve been; how many years you’ve been coming to the synagogue; how many of your ancestors were pillars of the community; you need forgiving too  - and you need the new life that only I can give”!

And for all his theological learning, poor old Nicodemus hads’t a clue what Jesus is on about. He fails to understand that Jesus is talking about a spiritual rebirth and so takes him literally. He doesn’t ‘get it’ (as they say these days) – and (do you know) – neither do we sometimes. Although Jesus is talking about mysterious things, the effects are undeniable. Like the wind blowing: one day a gentle calm breeze which is refreshing and cooling; the next like the fierce gales we often have to suffer.

Of course Nicodemus ought to have known better. His study of Scripture should have told him that God always intended to give people a new heart and put a right spirit within them (you can read that in Ezekiel and Jeremiah). And now it’s actually coming to pass, poor old Nicodemus can’t see it. This idea of experiencing a new birth, of course, reveals something about Jesus himself as the One to bring about this new state of affairs. Perhaps Nicodemus failed to understand that humankind had indeed been smitten by a deadly disease – and the only cure is to look at the Son of Man dying on the cross, and find life through believing in him. Somehow all the evil that was and is in the world, deep-rooted within us all, was allowed to take out its full force on Jesus. He was literally made rotten for us – this one who never sinned. When we look at him hanging on the cross – or ‘lifted up’ as John says here and several times later in his gospel, what we are looking at is the result of the filthiness that has messed all our lives up and got us completely stuck. And yet we see (amazingly) what God has done about it; in the cross we see what God’s love looks like; and the dramatic way he’s gone about rescuing us.

As the Bishop of Durham says: “The crucifixion wasn’t a messy accident; it was God letting the worst happen to someone else. The cross is at the heart of John’s amazing new picture of who God is…The cross is the ultimate ladder set up between heaven and earth; (the bridge between God and us). If you ask the question how much does God want us to experience this new life filled with his Spirit, do you know what the answer is? The cross.

John the evangelist begins to explain how God has chosen to reveal just how much he loves us sinners by giving his precious Son to pay the penalty for all the things we’ve done wrong. If only we’ll trust him – and let go of all the stuff we think makes us good – the ‘look-at-me’ stuff that we make sure others notice; the ‘I never miss a service’ stuff that sometimes gets us looking down our noses at those who don’t manage to make it.

It’s precisely because evil lurks deep within each and every one of us, that we have to involve ourselves in the process. This healing isn’t going to happen automatically. The human condition is that we all fall short of God’s standards. So it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if we compare ourselves with others. It’s like the pass mark of an exam being 50%. 3% - fail; 49% - way better in comparative terms, but – still a fail! So it’s not about trying harder to be good – you might as well try and teach a snake to sing.

It’s humbling for Nicodemus to have to be told this; after all he’s a respected and senior teacher in good standing in his community. And it’s humbling for you and I to hear it too. But if we want to understand the kingdom of God – and Jesus the King – the way God is joining earth and heaven together, we must listen to his Son – and walk with him on the road he is now to take.

Nicodemus gets another mention in chapter 7 of John where he shows more courage this time – protesting that Jesus should be given a fair hearing. And then there’s just one final reference in John 19 where he’s the one who is said to have brought a lavish gift of spices to anoint Jesus body after his crucifixion.  So we can reasonably infer that something went on in his heart that changed him from his unwillingness to be recognized – to being a card-carrying, nailing-colours-to-the-mast disciple.   I pray as we walk together with Jesus through this Lent it’ll be a time when we know we’re spiritually alive – and if we’re conscious we’re not – then to receive his Spirit into our lives to be born from above as we look on the One who’s been lifted up.

So as we move to our baptism today here’s a powerful sign of water and washing away all that’s wrong - it’s a sign and seal of something new that’s happens - new birth. It symbolizes the decision of Martin and Ashley to introduce Tommy into the family of the church – and gives us a chance to welcome him, with the prayer that as he grows up to make his own decision he’ll decide that following Jesus is the way to true life.


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