Sermon notes 03-08-20 Coming to the Light

[John 3:1] Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. [2] This man came to Jesus 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 again 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. [7] Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ [8] The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
[9] Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” [10] Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? [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 except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. [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.
[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 did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [18] Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. [19] And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. [20] For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. [21] But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” [ESV]

The story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night— or Nick at Nite as some like to call it—is the first of several stories from John’s Gospel that we will consider together over these next few weeks as we journey through the season of Lent. Each of the stories we study will be about an encounter that Jesus has with a different person. We find as we study these encounters between Jesus and different people that Jesus has the ability to speak intimately and directly to each one’s deepest need, while at the same time revealing something important about himself, about who he is, and why God sent him. In his encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus reveals that he is the light sent by God to save us from our darkness and show us the way to eternal life. The story of Nicodemus is the story of a man who seeks the light of Jesus … under cover of darkness. And I think we can all see a bit of ourselves in Nicodemus.

The contrast between light and darkness is one of the major themes in John’s Gospel. We read these familiar words about Christ at the very beginning of John’s Gospel: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. …The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Then in our passage today John quotes Jesus speaking these words: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light.”

Jesus is of course speaking of himself when he refers to the light that has come into the world. In John’s Gospel, light represents believing in Jesus, and darkness represents not believing in him. Nicodemus seems to be caught somewhere between belief and unbelief, between light and darkness. Maybe you have been caught in that same place yourself.

Let’s consider for a moment what we know about this man Nicodemus. Nicodemus lived 2000 years ago, but he is not really very different from many people in the world today; maybe even not so very different from you and me. We know from the story that Nicodemus is a man of considerable status. He is very successful, a religious leader of the Jews. He would have been admired and respected; he would more than likely have been quite wealthy. In other words, he had a lot to lose.

Nicodemus was a member of the Pharisees, who were largely resentful of and opposed to Jesus. But there is something about Jesus that arouses Nicodemus’s curiosity, something he can’t ignore, something that keeps Nicodemus awake at night. Nicodemus is bold enough to approach Jesus directly with his spiritual questions … but not so bold as to do it publicly, in the light of day.

So Nicodemus arranges for his personal encounter with Jesus to take place in the middle of the night when he can attempt to satisfy his curiosity in secret.
It is evident that Nicodemus has some degree of faith or belief in Jesus. He says to Jesus, ‘you have to be from God or you couldn’t do what you are doing.’ But Nicodemus wants to keep his beliefs about Jesus separate from the rest of his life. It is simply not socially acceptable for a Pharisee to acknowledge his faith in Jesus in the light of day. Nicodemus knows that if were to publicly profess faith in Jesus, it would change his life. And Nicodemus is simply not ready for his faith in Jesus to change his life.

I wonder, do you know anyone like that? I am guessing that each of us knows people who have faith or at least an interest in Jesus, but they keep their faith hidden, separated from their work and their social circles. Faith is something they exercise only in a non-public way, under cover of darkness, so to speak. It is certainly not something they will allow to change their lives.

That is how it seems to be with Nicodemus. But we ought not to think badly of Nicodemus. After all, he is very much like us in many ways. And furthermore, of all the Pharisees Jesus encounters in the Gospels, Nicodemus is the most sympathetic toward Jesus. This particular story leaves us hanging in regard to the outcome of Nicodemus, John does not tell us how Nicodemus responds to his encounter with Jesus. But we find that Nicodemus shows up two more times in John’s Gospel. In 7:52, when the other Pharisees are ready to condemn Jesus, Nicodemus says, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” Nicodemus is making a case for the Pharisees to treat Jesus fairly, yet we know of course in the end they do not; they see to it that he is put to death. After the death of Jesus, Nicodemus appears one more time in John 19:39 to help Joseph of Arimathea give Jesus a proper burial. John writes, “Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came …bringing spices for his burial.” It seems in each case that Nicodemus is a sympathizer or even a supporter of Jesus… but always somewhat secretively and very cautiously.

In our story today, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because he perceives that Jesus is the light sent by God, but Nicodemus is not ready for what Jesus tells him. Jesus tells him he must be born again. Nicodemus seems to take Jesus literally. He says, how do you expect a man to enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born? Jesus tells him, unless you are born of water and the Spirit you will not see the kingdom of God that you are seeking.
Then Jesus uses the analogy of the wind to describe the work of the Spirit. He tells Nicodemus, you do not know where the wind comes from, how it is formed or where it will blow. You hear it but you can’t see it. But you can see its effects. Jesus says, it is the same way with the work of the Spirit. You don’t see it; you can’t tell where it comes from or where it will do its work, but you can surely see its effects.

We know from our own experience that we can see the effects of the Spirit in the church and in the lives of people who are receptive to the leading of the Spirit. But Nicodemus still doesn’t get it, and he says, “How can these things be?” Jesus uses the opportunity to take Nicodemus to task just a little bit, saying to him, shouldn’t a teacher of Israel understand these things? Being a Pharisee, Nicodemus should have known from the Old Testament, especially in the book of Ezekiel, that God promises to give his people a new heart and a new spirit (Ez. 36:26), and he gives life even to dead, dry bones (Ez. 37). So Nicodemus should understand the concept of being born again into a new life. But Nicodemus is apparently not quite ready for that kind of a change in his life.
Nicodemus sought an encounter with Jesus—he went looking for some light—but he was confronted with the truth that belief in the true light meant that he could not continue living the same old way. Belief in Jesus meant that Nicodemus had to give up his old life and begin a new one, as if he were born again. And that was a problem for him, as it is for many.

The concept of being born again was of course not troubling only for Nicodemus. The term “born again” or “born-again Christian” is one that many people today find problematic. It can be used to label or to judge. To non-Christians it comes across as a kind of code language. It is sometimes used even by Christians in a negative way, to classify the level of one’s faith or relationship with Christ, and to designate those who are in or who are out, as if we have the ability to know or to decide who is in and who is out, who is ‘born again’ and who is not.

Like Nicodemus, I used to find the term “born again” disturbing and even irritating, for many of the reasons I just mentioned. I was like Nicodemus in not understanding what it meant, and for a long time I suspected that it didn’t really mean anything. Even after becoming a Christian, I did not like using the term “born-again” to describe my experience, but I realized later it really did describe what happened to me when I came to the light of Christ. I would like to briefly share my experience with you, in hopes that it might help you see the term born-again in a different way.

I surrendered my life to Christ when I was in my early thirties. And when I say surrender, I mean that quite literally—I gave up control of my life, gave up running from the Lord, which I had been doing for many years. At that time of my surrender I was newly divorced, living by myself in Chapel Hill, my kids were living with me only part-time, I was three states away from most of the rest of my family, I had very few friends outside my family, I was in a job that I found unfulfilling—in short, my life was in a mess … and I knew it was largely because of choices I had made while trying to live life my way.
So I told the Lord, I give up; I’m tired of all the darkness in my life; I don’t want to be in control of my life anymore, I want you to be in control of my life from now on. I turned from darkness to the light; I asked God for forgiveness, and I truly felt the assurance that I had received it. I felt that my sins had been washed away and that a real change had taken place in me.

But very shortly thereafter, as I recall it was just a couple of days, I remember driving alone in my car, and I was thinking about what had happened to me and what it meant. I believed that the sins of my past were forgiven, but I was trying to figure out how things were supposed to be different for me now. I was still divorced, still living apart from my kids and family, still in a job I didn’t like—so what was the difference?
And the answer immediately came to me. My situation was the same, but the way I was able to respond to it now was not the same. It was as if a new person was living in my body and responding to my circumstances. In fact, it seemed to me that Jesus himself had taken up residence inside of me, and he was giving me the ability and the power to live my life in a totally new way—as if I were given a new life. That power inside me was the Holy Spirit, and that new life was spiritual rebirth. Years later as I looked back on my experience, I finally came to realize that the term “born again” really did perfectly describe what happened to me back when I surrendered my life to Christ.

Even though it is a term that has been misused and abused, Jesus says, we must be born again…by water and the Spirit. What does that mean, to be born again, by water and the Spirit? Well, think about what we use water for, besides drinking. It is primarily used for cleansing, for washing. Water in the sense of being born again is for cleansing us from the sins of our pasts. But without the Spirit we will merely repeat the same mistakes over and over. The Spirit gives us the power to live in newness of life. So, Jesus says, we have to be born of water and the Spirit.
Friends, when we surrender our lives to Christ, we are washed clean from our past –that’s the water—and we are given power to resist sin and evil and live as if we have a new life. That power comes from the Spirit. This is what is means to be born by water and the Spirit: cleansed from our pasts, empowered for the future.

Jesus says we must be born again to see the kingdom of God. But it is never forced upon us. We can still choose to remain in darkness, to cling to those things in life that we are not willing to surrender. We can so choose… but friends, there is no future in that choice. Eternal life is promised only to those who believe in God’s Son. And belief is not something we do only in the dark.

Lent is an ideal time to come to the light, to give up our works of darkness once and for all and be reconciled to God. God, in his great love for us, sent his only Son Jesus Christ to show us the way. Christ is the true light who has come into the world. No matter what our situation, he wants to take up residence in our hearts. He came so that we can be washed clean of our pasts and receive the power to begin living in newness of life today. If you haven’t received his light, his cleansing, his power to live a new life, you can do it today. All you need to do is come to the light of Jesus, and believe. Thanks be to God.