John 3:1-17

In the series “Heart-to-Heart Talks”

Back in the last century, the Chevy Nova was a relatively successful American car for many years. Encouraged by sales in the U.S., Chevy began to market the Nova throughout the world. Unfortunately, the Nova did not sell well in Mexico and other Latin American countries. The company ordered more ads and stepped up marketing efforts, but sales remained stagnant. Sales directors were baffled. The car had sold well in the American market; why wasn’t it selling now? When they discovered the answer, it was rather embarrassing: In Spanish, Nova means “no go,” and customers didn’t want to buy a car that wouldn’t go.[1] 

Earlier in our service today we heard the heart-to-heart talk between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. It is an interesting scene in contrasts and failure to understand.

Nicodemus was what our society today might call one of the “rich and famous.”  He held a high and respected position in Jewish society. He was highly educated – probably went to the best rabbinic schools. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling council of 71 elders, scribes and religious scholars, a sort of “supreme court” with final authority on all religious and political matters.  He was a Pharisee, religious leaders who tried to live a holy life according to God’s Law and to oral tradition. He was probably successful and wealthy. Why he came to speak to Jesus is unclear.  Was he attracted by what he had seen or heard about Jesus?  Was he curious about Jesus, or was he bothered by Jesus? Did he come to warn Jesus to cease and desist? Why this VIP of Jerusalem society came to meet Jesus is something of a mystery.

On the other hand, is Jesus, a nobody from Nazareth in the hills of Galilee. He was gaining fame for the signs he was doing, most notably, his disruptive actions in the Temple. As Passover neared, Jesus visited the Temple and was appalled by the situation. Merchants sold cattle, sheep and doves within the Temple courts – all necessary for pilgrims to offer sacrifices. But the merchants were taking advantage of the situation, gouging worshipers with inflated prices thanks to their monopoly on the market. Meanwhile, moneychangers were ripping people off while performing the necessary service to exchange Roman money used to business in the culture for Jewish Temple currency – the only kind accepted in the offerings to God at the Temple treasury.  All of this was sanctioned by the Temple leaders, who lined their pockets with their cut of the ill-gotten gain.

Jesus saw what was happening, and in his righteous anger, he made a whip out of cords and drove the animals and vendors out of the Temple, overturning the moneychangers’ booths. “Take these things out of here,” he shouted. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” (John 2:13-20) Other Gospels put accusing words in Jesus’ mouth – “You have turned God’s house of prayer into a den of thieves.” (Matt 21:13).

Was Jesus a prophet or just a rabble rouser? Was he insane or was there actually something important and special about him and his message?

That’s probably a big part of the reason he came to have a conversation with Jesus at night. In Jewish practice of the time, night was regarded as the best and most appropriate time for deep theological and scripture study. So, at one level, meeting with Jesus at night was the opportune time to enter a deep discussion with him.

But Nicodemus had a reputation to protect. He had the status associated with his position as a leader of the Jewish people and as a religious scholar. Meeting with Jesus – this radical from Nazareth who performed signs and who also disrupted the Temple and its economic racket – openly in the daylight could have meant loss of respect, position, power, and perhaps even of life.

So, he met with Jesus at night, secretly. I think the Gospel writer John is signaling even more by reporting on this nighttime conversation. Throughout his Gospel, John employs a variety of contrasts; for example, Spirit vs. flesh, truth vs. lies, life vs. death, and light vs. darkness.  Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, that is, a time of darkness. In John 1:5, John wrote, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend (or understand) it.” Nicodemus came to Jesus thinking he was enlightened about Jesus and the things of God, but he is quickly shown to be in the dark in his discussion with Jesus.

Nicodemus was used to having control of everything in his life and world.  He came to Jesus on his terms and launched the conversation in the direction he wanted it to go.  He began with what he thought he knew. “Rabbi,” he said, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2).  Nicodemus set out to establish himself and his credential from the start of the conversation.  He knows what’s going on; he knows what’s up with Jesus; he gets Jesus.  Maybe he expected Jesus to commend his knowledge and his perceptive ability. He might have been fishing for a compliment from Jesus.

But Jesus didn’t respond to Nicodemus’ statement about who he understands him to be. Instead, Jesus pushed him further. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” (John 3:3).  Actually, the word Jesus used in Greek, and its underlying Hebrew word, have multiple meanings, specifically, “again,” “anew,” and “from above.” So, Jesus said, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” or “born anew” or “born from above.” Jesus used this word to challenge Nicodemus to a deeper understanding of God’s work in the world.  Nicodemus would have been familiar with the idea of God as king, but this idea of being born “again/anew/from above” invites him to stretch his thinking about God and to see Jesus as more than a God-sent teacher and worker of miracles.

“No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  That was all well and good, said Nicodemus, but just how were you supposed to pull it off? How do you get born again when some days it’s a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning?  He even turned a bit sarcastic. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?” (John 3:4). 

His focus on the biological and physical meaning of Jesus’ words show that Nicodemus hasn’t grasped Jesus’ move into the spiritual realm.  But his naïve questions opened the opportunity for Jesus to teach about the nature of the Spirit and the need to be born spiritually to participate in God’s kingdom.

Maybe the wind stirred around them as they talked, or a gust of wind blew by at that moment. “You must be born from above. The wind blows where it chooses; you hear it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. It’s the same with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8).  It’s not something you do or did, Jesus told Nicodemus. The wind of the Spirit does it; God does it.

“How can these things be?” Nicodemus responded. The man who began his conversation with Jesus declaring confidently all that he knew was now confused and confounded by Jesus’ words.

But Jesus wasn’t finished. He continued by revealing the message of God’s immense love and God’s gracious offer of eternal life for everyone – even Nicodemus. “For God so loved the world (including Nicodemus) that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

For mysterious reasons, Nicodemus risked his reputation, his standing in the community, his power and authority, his wealth, his knowledge of God, and even his own identity to meet with Jesus under cover of the darkness of night. In so doing, he discovered the night of his own condition – his lack of really comprehending God’s nature and his own place before God.

Jesus invites us to have a heart-to-heart talk, and even more, a heart-to-heart relationship with him. What are we willing to risk in order to truly know him and to grow deeper in faith and in love with him?  Would we risk our reputation with our family, friends and coworkers, being labeled a “religious fanatic” because of our commitment?  Would our confident, self-assured persona be challenged by the One who sees through our masks to perceive our hearts?  Would we discover that all our knowledge, good works and our pious practices have been self-serving and insufficient, compared to the grace God gives us? Would we find ourselves humbled because we can’t understand the love extended to us and the life offered us as gifts from God through the Son Jesus? Would we risk the safety and comfort our way of thinking, being and acting in the world to be born again from above into a lifestyle blown by the wind of the Spirit?

“For God so loved the world – you and me – that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish by may have eternal life.”

Nicodemus’ “hush-hush” conversation was not the end, but a beginning on his faith journey. He left confused, but clues in John’s Gospel give us more of the story. In John 7:50-51, while the Sanhedrin is ready to condemn Jesus, Nicodemus speaks up for him, asking them to give Jesus a hearing as required by Law. He is at least open to ensuring Jesus gets a fair trial.

Then in John 19:38-42, after Jesus’ death on the cross, Nicodemus and another member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, who is described as “a disciple of Jesus,” prepared and buried Jesus’ body in Joseph’s own tomb. In fact, Nicodemus brought about 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus body – a costly and extravagant amount, far more than was needed, an amount worthy of royalty. Though he met Jesus in darkness, in broad daylight, Nicodemus acknowledged his relationship to Jesus by tending his body and giving him a respectable burial.

Nicodemus risked everything to come to Jesus with his questions, and even though he didn’t understand the answers, he continued to seek and to follow. In the end, he came to know and to experience the love of God for himself, to believe in Jesus Christ, and to receive the gift of eternal life. 

Following Jesus may call us to risk much – but, as Nicodemus discovered, there is so much more to gain. May you know Jesus heart-to-heart and live for him even today.  Let’s pray.

[1] James Emery White, Rethinking the Church (Baker, 1998), 38.

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