Second Sunday in Lent
Romans 4:1-8, 13-17
So Abram went, as Yahweh had told him.
It was a voice out of the blue. Abram grew up under the religious practices of Ur. He worshipped the gods and goddesses of Ancient Mesopotamia. He followed his father to Harran, whose people worshipped the same gods by different names. They worshipped the gods of the sun, moon and other created things. Out of that faith, Abram heard a voice and though it was different from anything he knew, he believed. He was an old man at the time, seventy-five. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Abram believed and he did as God told him. His faith is credited to him as righteousness.
We often think that Paul was referring to Abraham’s faith when he took his son Isaac to the altar of sacrifice. That was certainly the most painful act of obedience a father can do. Yet, Abraham’s whole life was changed when he believed that strange voice that came to him out of the blue. Would you decide to leave everything you know behind to follow God into the unknown?
We like to believe that we would do so, especially those of us who have been actively living our faith for a long time. Yet, I suspect most of us would be a bit more like Nicodemus. We would want to believe, but our uncertainty would keep us from doing so in a public way. There was something about Jesus that intrigued Nicodemus; something he heard impacted him. He wanted to know more, but he wasn’t willing to take a risk. So, he went to Jesus at night, in the dark.
We hear about Nicodemus three times in the book of John. Today’s Gospel lesson is the first time. In the second story from John 7, the chief priests and the Pharisees were concerned about the way Jesus was speaking in the Temple and they sent officers to arrest Him. His words were believed by some and rejected by others. Even the officers were divided. They went back to the chief priests and Pharisees without Him and when question said, “No man ever spoke like this man!” The leaders wondered if the officers had even been led astray. Nicodemus stepped up and said, “Does our law judge a man, unless it first hears from him personally and knows what he does?” They called Nicodemus foolish. “Are you also from Galilee? Search, and see that no prophet has arisen out of Galilee.”
In that story, Nicodemus does not confess faith in Jesus. He doesn’t even claim that he believes Him. He does, however, act as an advocate. It isn’t fair to condemn a man on the word of witnesses alone. He simply wanted the leaders to hear Jesus and judge for themselves.
Finally, Nicodemus makes one last appearance. In John 19, after Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathaea sought permission to take down the body and have it entombed. Nicodemus also went and took a large amount of myrrh and aloes for preparing the body.
Each time Nicodemus is mentioned, John notes that this was the man who first went to Jesus at night. Had Nicodemus found the light? Did he believe? Did he ever truly confess his faith in Jesus? He never does so in words, but he seems to do so in action. We are left wondering about his faith. In time, Nicodemus is made a saint. This is an apocryphal gospel attributed to him. It is likely that he believed, but we can’t know for sure without a public confession.
There was a time when this distinction became very important. Things were difficult for Christians in the middle ages. English history shows the church is dominated between Catholic and Protestant for many years. The same is true in other places around Europe. Unfortunately, those who followed the other religion often risked severe punishment. Many martyrs were made in those days. At the time, a disparaging term came into use, thought to have been introduced by John Calvin. It was the term “Nicodemite” which referred to someone who is suspected of misrepresenting their actual religious beliefs by exhibiting false appearances and concealing true beliefs. Calvin considered his lack of public confession and act of duplicity and originally referred to hidden Protestants in a Catholic environment, but was later used in opposite cases.
So, are you a Nicodemite? Are you one who believes but you would rather not take the risk by making too public a confession of your faith? Do you seek Jesus in the dark, or perhaps on Sunday morning, but keep Him hidden from the rest of your life? Do you suggest that your neighbors think twice before condemning faith, while never really admitting to it? Do you quietly serve Jesus in the background while never really being seen as an active, faithful disciple? I think a great many of us can say “Yes” to these questions. Perhaps you are as troubled by them as I am. Do I really have to wear my faith on my sleeve to be a faithful Christian?
I think the question here is not so much about being blatant with our faith, but rather whether or not we are willing to take the risk of revealing ourselves as believers. It is easy to stand for Christ in church or in our families, but do we do so in our jobs? Do we risk rejection by our neighbors by being a witness to the Gospel in our conversations? Do we believe with our mouths as much as we believe in our hearts?
I think we identify with Nicodemus in another way. He was a learned man of God, likely quite wealthy and well positioned. He was part of the Sanhedrin, a respected member of the ruling class. Jesus intrigued him, so he went to listen to more of what He had to say. But His words didn’t make any sense. They were so different than what he knew. Jesus was talking about something that didn’t exist in his religious convictions. We listen to Jesus’ words and we wonder how Nicodemus could have such doubts. He was standing in the presence of the Savior! How could he not believe? Should he have been like Abram?
The lectionary often gives us this type of comparisons. Last week it was between Adam and Jesus. This week it is between Abraham and Nicodemus. We want to believe we are more like Jesus, but in reality we are just like Adam. We think we are good, but we will never be sinless like Jesus. We want to be faithful like Abraham, but most of us are more like Nicodemus. We believe, but we aren’t quite ready to walk away from everything we know into the unknown.
The confidence with which Abram entered into his journey required seeing the world through the eyes of faith. Abraham saw things differently and he left his old life to follow God into something new. Paul writes, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness.” He was not blessed because he was doing the right things or because he was obeying the right laws. Abram was blessed because he believed God and followed His voice. Abraham was made the father of many nations by the one in whom He believed. The God of Abraham, the God in whom we also believe, brought a nation out of one man who walked in faith.
As we turn back to the Gospel narrative about Nicodemus, we can see that there must have been a similar seed of faith or flicker of the Spirit in the heart of this Pharisee. It is easy for us to get caught up in seeing the negative aspects of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus. He came at night, he questioned Jesus’ words. Yet, Nicodemus did not come asking questions or testing Jesus, he came because he had seen something that he wanted to understand.
Nicodemus said, “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.” This is a confession of faith, however shallow it might be. There was something there in Nicodemus’ heart and he went on a journey. It was a frightful pilgrimage because he was going into the unknown. This is a journey that leads to life, a journey we all travel.
God’s promises were misunderstood by Jesus’ time. Instead of trusting in God, the people trusted in their own righteousness. They believed that they deserved the blessings they received from God. They boasted of their relationship with God based on who they were and what they did. They believed that they were right with God because they could point to a blood relationship with Abraham, but they lost touch with the reality of God’s word and grace.
Nicodemus knew there was something to what Jesus was preaching, but he didn’t understand it. He knew Jesus came from God, but he didn’t have the heart connection. His faith was still in himself, his family ties and his position. He confessed faith in Jesus, but Jesus knew that it was not complete, that it was upside down and backwards thinking.
Jesus answered his confession, “Most certainly, I tell you, unless one is born anew, he can’t see God’s Kingdom.” Jesus was talking about faith. He was telling Nicodemus that his earthly birth and that faith had nothing to do with the ties that bind us to the earth. You have to be born again, in heart and in spirit.
The conversation continued as Jesus tried to explain the deeper things of God. He told Nicodemus about new birth and about the anointing of the Spirit of God, but he couldn’t see these things beyond the thinking that had been conditioned by his religious and cultural point of view. To him, birth happens once and righteousness comes from the law. He knew Jesus came from God but he couldn’t understand the deeper purposes of His life and His future death. Jesus pointed to the cross in this passage, telling this Pharisee that He would be lifted up in death to bring life for those who believe. It is no wonder that Nicodemus was confused; this was a very radical revelation for the Jews.
Yet, that very story of Moses lifting the serpent should have helped Nicodemus understand. He would have been very familiar of the story of Israel in the desert. They had sinned against God by not trusting Him, and He sent the snakes into the camp. Many died. When the people cried out to Moses, God told him to make a bronze serpent and place it where everyone in the camp could see. They were to look at it when they were bitten and they would be healed. God did not remove the snakes from the camp, but gave them a way to be saved. He did not take away the sin of this world, but gave us Jesus so we would be saved. When we fail, we need only look up at Jesus and we’ll be healed. We are not blessed with salvation, heaven or eternal life because of what we do or who we are. We are blessed because we have been born from above, thanks to Jesus.
This is still a radical revelation for many people. We still believe that we’ll get the blessing of God based on our works, our attitude and our qualifications. When we say, “She (or he) deserves to be blessed,” we are thinking from the same frame of reference as those Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. We speak of our loved ones deserving heaven because we know they lived good lives and did the right things. We pray for our neighbors to be blessed because they are good people. We thank God for graciously rewarding our good works but do not understand that we are seeing God’s grace from the wrong point of view. God doesn’t bless us because we have been a blessing. We are blessed so that we’ll be a blessing to others.
God didn’t send Jesus because we deserve to be saved; the reality is quite the contrary. God gave us Jesus because He loves us. Because we’ve been blessed by the saving grace of Christ’s blood, we are also been given to the world so that others will know Him and be saved. It is tempting to think that we deserve heaven, especially if we have done something extraordinary. But Jesus is calling us to look at it differently. We have been promised eternity in heaven not because we deserve it but so that we’ll live lives of thanksgiving and praise to God, blessing others with acts that come from faith. We get to go to heaven because we trust in God’s word and His promises, faithfully living in the reality of His faithfulness.
We don’t know the whole story of Nicodemus. It is possible that he became a bold witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ although it is more likely that he remained a Nicodemite since his story is silent after taking the myrrh and aloe to the tomb. There are not even any myths or legends surrounding his life and death.
It is enough to believe in your heart. God is faithful even when we are not bold or passionate about Jesus. Yet, as we walk our Lenten journey, we have to ask ourselves if we are willing to take the risk of openly following Jesus. Are we willing to allow Jesus to turn our upside down and backwards thinking right? Will we stay in the dark or let our light shine? We have been blessed to be a blessing, and the best way to be a blessing is to be a witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Jesus we follow during our Lenten journey this year presents us with some incredible things to believe. Last week we were encouraged to trust God’s word above everything. This week we are faced with the question of the depth of our faith and our willingness to take risk. In the next few weeks we’ll hear the stories of the women at the well, the man born blind and Lazarus. Jesus will show us that He knows our hearts, that He can heal us and that He can raise us from the dead. In all these stories, Jesus was not just providing healing for the outside, but a new life in their hearts.
Our text for today includes John 3:16, one of the most beloved words of God and it is easy for us to focus on it. Anyone who has ever seen a football game on television has seen signs raised above the crowds beseeching people to believe in God. Though they may not be able to quote the verse word-for-word, even non-Christians know what it says. It is the foundation of our faith. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” I’ve known pastors who have inserted this verse into many of their sermons even when it is not part of the passages for the day because it means so much to them.
This is a favorite passage because it shows both God’s gospel and man’s response. God loves and if we believe, we will not die. Yet, John 3:16 should not be taken without the next verse. “For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him...” We like to think of God in terms of love, and love He is. However, it is not love that saves us. Love is the reason why we are saved, but it is not our salvation. Forgiveness saves us.
There is a painting that shows Jesus on the outside of a closed door with no handle. He’s knocking, and wants us to let him in. Many people have interpreted that to mean that we should open the door, invite Jesus inside, and make Him a part of our life. However, the scripture on which is based, Revelation 3, is written to the people who are already Christians. It is a message to the Church at Laodicea, whose people have forgotten their first love. We can only invite Jesus into our hearts because He is already there. He snuck in by the back door, and when we heard the knocking (or the voice) He whispered, “Trust. Answer. Everything’s good.” That’s what happened with Abram. God was already there, so when he heard the voice, he trusted, answered. And in the end, everything was good.
Nicodemus knew there was something to what Jesus was preaching, but he didn’t understand it. He knew Jesus came from God, but he didn’t have the heart connection. He still believed in himself, his family ties and his position. He confessed that he knew Jesus was who He said He was, but Jesus knew that his thinking was upside down and backwards. I think that in some way we are all a little like Nicodemus. We know that Jesus is from God, but we have a hard time truly understanding. We still think we can open the door and that we deserve God’s blessing because of our works. Jesus calls us to a life turned upside down where we trust Him enough to believe what He has said and to risk everything to go into the unknown.
The psalmist understood the fears of the journey and the assurance found in God’s grace. “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.” The question is answered with the assurance that God will keep his going out and coming in from this time on forevermore. Such a promise would give anyone the confidence to go forth into the unknown. Somehow Abram must have had such assurance, a seed of faith or a flicker of the Spirit. He could journey forward with confidence if he knew that the God who was leading him into the unknown could guard and protect him through every difficulty.
The psalmist writes, “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” Abraham left behind a world where the people thought the gods of the sun and moon could destroy a human being just because they felt like it. What a great promise! Trust in God gives us the assurance that the gods of this world have no power over our lives. “Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.” Our God will walk with us on our journey.
Abram didn’t know anything about God. He followed a different religion which worshipped a multitude of gods they thought would meet their daily needs. He heard a voice that told him to pack up his entire life, leave everything he knew and loved behind to travel to a place he did not know. The voice promised Abram that his name would be so great, that he would be so blessed, and that everyone would be dealt with, good and bad, according to their relationship with Abram.
If you heard a voice like this, what would you do? In today’s modern age, everyone around you would say you were crazy. They might even lock you up. We don’t know how Abram’s family and friends reacted; perhaps they threatened to do the same thing. It didn’t matter to Abram. He packed up his life and he went into the wilderness following a voice that he trusted. It took faith to leave the past behind and go into the world chasing after a promise. Abram was righteous from the very beginning. He had a right relationship with God from the moment he heard his voice. Abram’s righteousness did not come from his work; he was righteous because he believed. Through it all, God was faithful to His promises.
From where does our help come? Jesus calls us to look at the world through the eyes of faith, to trust that God has done exactly what He promised to do. It comes from the God who loves us and who has given His own Son to save us from our own failures. It comes not because we deserve it but because God has promised and is faithful. So, during this Lenten journey, let us be transformed by the journey, trusting in God and His amazing grace. We may feel more like Nicodemus than Abram, but we need not hide in the dark. God calls us out of the world we know away from the gods that have no power. Hear God’s voice and follow Him wherever He may lead, for it is there that you will be the blessing His has blessed you to be.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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