Text: John 3:1-17 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
Nicodemus Visits Jesus
3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew,[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’[d] 8 The wind[e] blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicode′mus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man.[f] 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”[g]
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
The elderly man crept furtively through the dark and quiet streets, keeping to the shadows, avoiding lighted areas, hiding in doorways when he heard people nearby. He was sweating from anxiety; the palms of his hands felt clammy. His breath came out in ragged gasps from his unaccustomed exertions. More than once, he thought about just turning around and going home, but no – he was on a mission. He had questions which needed answers, and this was the only chance he had to get them.
At last, he stood before a door. Behind that door was the man who would hopefully give him the answers he sought. He raised a trembling hand…knock, knock, knock…
The door creaked open, and before him stood that young rabbi from Nazareth. The older man identified himself, and was ushered inside…
This is how that historic encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus might have happened. Nicodemus was extremely careful that fateful night, and took extraordinary measures to make sure he was not observed. As a member of the Sanhedrin, the group composed of seventy members which was the supreme court of all Jews throughout the world, Nicodemus was very important, and – more to the point – very well known. On the other hand, Jesus was seen by many as just some itinerant preacher from the back country, and one who had been stirring up people with odd ideas about God. It simply wouldn’t do for Nicodemus to be seen fraternizing with him. But Nicodemus obviously thought it was worth the risk to visit Jesus and hear his message from him directly. So off he went, skulking in the shadows, until he came to Jesus’ door.
Just what was it that compelled Nicodemus to do what he did? One clue is what he says to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”
The first thing to note here is that Nicodemus was already convinced that this Jesus was a person nobody had ever seen before, and the second thing is that he was apparently not the only person among the movers and shakers to think that – “we know…”. We.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee – we are familiar with them, or at least we think we do. The Pharisees were that group of Jews who tried to live according to the regulations of the Law. The Law had originally consisted of great, broad, noble principles, and it was left to the people to work out how to follow these principles. But over the course of the centuries, the scribes had taken these broad ideas and refined them, and refined them, and refined them some more, until there were thousands of regulations which were meant to cover every conceivable situation that might arise in daily life. I don’t know how they even remembered them all, much less followed them. But they did their best. Following all those rules and regulations was meant to bring them closer to God.
And yet, for all his learning, Nicodemus knew that there was something missing. He, and presumably the others who were included in his use of the pronoun “we” had discovered that following all those regulations had the opposite effect than what was intended. Checking the rules off of his daily list did not plug the hole in his soul. He was desperate. He was out of answers. All he had was questions. So it must have seemed like the answer to his prayers when he heard that that Nazarene, Jesus, was in town and was showing people a new way to think about God. He had to pay that man a visit.
But once Nicodemus is finally in Jesus’ presence, the initial conversation right away gets off on the wrong foot. As soon as Nicodemus tells him that he and others know that Jesus is a teacher come from God, Jesus replies with “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew,[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus throwing curveballs just like that one at his listeners. That is particularly true in John’s Gospel. The inquirer – in this case, Nicodemus – says something; Jesus answers with a statement that is hard to understand; the inquirer does in fact misunderstand it, then Jesus answers with another statement that’s even more difficult to understand. Finally, there follow a discourse and an explanation. John uses this method so we can see people thinking thinks out for themselves, and so that we might do the same.
So, after Jesus makes that famous statement that unless people are born anew, they can’t enter the kingdom of God, Nicodemus sputters, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” That is obviously absurd, but it gives Jesus the opportunity to really get to his point: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
The Rev. Roy Almquist says this on this subject – “Jesus said: no one can belong to the Kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus clearly misunderstands Jesus and takes his words literally. He asks how a person can enter his mother’s womb a second time. Nicodemus will disappear from sight rather quickly, but confusion over what it means to be born again remains. We must remember that being born again is not something that any of us can accomplish; it is not an issue of intellectual achievement or personal attainment. It is something that God must effect in our lives. The simple fact is that we do not make a decision for Christ … God, through Christ, has made a decision for us.”
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he could check items off his list of rules until Doomsday, but he would be no closer to achieving that peace of mind he sought than when he started. The deep desire that Nicodemus and the Pharisees had, the same deep desire that all of us have, is really this: Where is God in my life?
Clearly Nicodemus had not found God in his life, despite his faithful, almost neurotic, adherence to the Law. Today, too, so many people also have that inner ache, that yearning to feel God’s presence in their lives; and they do whatever they can to get that feeling. They might have a momentary sense of achievement, but before too long, the feeling passes, and they’re left to try to get that feeling back.
That is, and will always be, a losing proposition, because we are not in charge. God is in control, not us. What Jesus wished for Nicodemus, and what he wishes for all of us, is a transformation in our lives, a transformation of our spirits, a transformation of our total beings. We can’t create that transformation; we can only accept it. The first step in doing so is simple faith.
Pastor Almquist goes on to say: “Jesus told Nicodemus that faith is a mystery. Like the wind, faith comes but we cannot see it coming. It is neither a human achievement, nor an intellectual accomplishment. It is a gift from God for Christ’s sake. Faith is like healing. When a doctor treats a person, the patient does not have to understand human anatomy or medical technology in order to be cured. Faith is like that. We do not have to understand, we only have to align ourselves with God in order to have our lives transformed.”
At the end of the day, faith, the Spirit, that transformation that overtakes us when we least expect it – all of it is a gift from the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Let us all pray that we might be drawn ever more deeply into that fellowship of those who dare believe in Jesus. Let us accept that transformative power of the Holy Spirit!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
 Almquist, Roy, “The Man Who Came By Night,” sermon preached at the Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA, March 20th, 2011