TITLE: The Night Visitor SCRIPTURE: John 3:14-21
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Shhhhhh. There's something about the darkness. Under the cover of night, couples kiss, and children cozy up to their parents, and the pace of life slows when the sun goes down. But under the cover of darkness, others things happen, too. Burglars burglarize, and vandals vandalize, and things do go "bump" in the night. How many of you can recall your dad telling you countless times "Be home before midnight; nothing good happens after midnight."
I suppose he was right. When I think back to all the pranks I pulled as a teenager, none of it happened in the light of day. But when darkness came, when our deeds couldn't be seen; it was then that we did the things we should never have done.
But there are exceptions to every rule, and the two stories I am about to tell you will respectfully refute that credo that dad may have shared with you.
The first story took place about 15 years ago, when a pastor was serving Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Salem, Oregon. He says, It was a rough time for me; some staff conflicts had erupted, our church was experiencing growing pains, and I was even second-guessing my own call to ministry. In short, I was miserable. Then one spring night, sometime between midnight and six AM, under the cover of darkness, someone came into our yard and planted Primroses along both sides of our sidewalk; dozens of them; pink and yellow and purple and white, the first signs of spring after a long and painful winter. It was a gift from a loving parishioner, and a reminder that, even in darkness, there is some light.
The second story happened in Jerusalem, some 2000 years before the Primroses were planted. The public ministry of Jesus was just getting off the ground, but already he was causing quite a stir among the people. He had just turned the water into wine at a wedding reception; that was the first of his many miracles. And he had already tipped over the tables of the moneychangers that I told you about last week. And now, while he is visiting the holy city of Jerusalem, a man comes to him under the cover of darkness to ask Jesus a question. But it was not just "any man." It was Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and a member of the Jewish religious and civil court called the Sanhedrin. If the Pharisees can be compared to today's "religious right" then the Sanhedrin was The Moral Majority. They created and enforced the religious rules, and punished people for breaking them. They split hairs, and at the same time, bent the rules to accommodate their own hypocritical lives. And God help those who got in their way, because their persecution could be brutal. And Jesus got in their way. In fact, as we make our way toward Good Friday and the reason why Jesus had do die, it ultimately boils down to the fact that Jesus got in the way of the religious right of his day, and they didn't like it.
So it was Nicodemus, a leader of these rigid Pharisees who came to Jesus at night, so that no one would see him, because Nicodemus was curious about Jesus. I said a moment ago that he had a question for Jesus, but that's not right; he had a statement for Jesus. "Rabbi (or ‘teacher'), we know that you come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him." That was a huge comment; huge, because first of all, Nicodemus said "we." Apparently Nicodemus was not alone in his curiosity; apparently, other Pharisees spoke in whispered voices late at night about the impact Jesus was having. But it was also apparent that they considered the possibility that Jesus was God's Son. By day, they argued and attacked and condemned and ridiculed every action of Jesus, but by night, wondered if he just might be the Messiah.
The conversation progressed rapidly. Jesus telling Nicodemus that he must be born again, Nicodemus wondering how he could possibly crawl into his mother's womb and be born a second time. Jesus saying that a person must have both a physical birth and a spiritual birth, Nicodemus not comprehending how this could possibly be. And finally, Jesus is astonished that Nicodemus, who is supposed to be an expert at these things does not grasp the most elementary of religious truths.
And then Jesus offers Nicodemus the greatest gift that he would ever receive, when he said these words:
"For God so loved the world
that he gave his only son,
so that whoever believes in him will not die,
but will live forever."
All his life, Nicodemus perceived God to be a harsh judge; a demanding task-master who must be appeased with animal sacrifices, and perfect obedience, and rules, and rules, and more rules. But in this late night conversation, for the first time in his life, God is described as one who loves, and forgives, and welcomes sinners home. And it changed Nicodemus' life forever.
You may be interested to know that we only find his name two more times in the whole of the bible. Once, while the Sanhedrin is meeting, Nicodemus says that they must not be too quick to judge Jesus. What a risk that was, standing up for Jesus in front of his peers. And then again, on Good Friday, when he and another secret follower named Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus' body down from the cross, embalm him in spices, and lovingly lay him in a tomb. Nicodemus risked his status, his reputation, and his very life, all because of that conversation one night in darkness.
Ellen Edwards Kennedy wrote the following -- whether about herself or about a character in one of her books I do not know:
When I became a Christian, I began to look at a particular young woman with scorn. I felt little but contempt for her as I thought of her quick temper, her selfishness, her spiteful gossiping, and the way she took her loving family for granted. Any time she was mentioned, I could think of very little good to say. But one day as I was leafing through an old picture album filled with photos of her. Jesus spoke to my spirit and told me, "I have always loved her, despite her sins, and I have forgiven her. I want you to forgive and love her too."
As I gazed at the young face in the pictures, my heart was filled with compassion for the girl. Along the way in searching for life's meaning, she had made many mistakes. God gave me a gentle love for her and the ability to forgive her. That moment of healing when I decided to forgive and love her also gave me a new strength and a new freedom to love others as never before…because the woman in the pictures was me.
So now, here we sit, in relative darkness on a Sunday morning in March, some 2000 years later. I wonder if Jesus would have the same conversation with us. There are some in this place today who have grown up in the church. For decades you have been present every week at Sunday worship; you've sung in the choir, taught Sunday school and been a confirmation mentor. You've served on councils, boards and committees; you've attended bible studies, prayer meetings, and healing services. In short, you have done it all. And yet, there may be some in this place today who, like Nicodemus, have never grasped the most elementary truth of the gospel. So you have questions today: How can God love a sinner like me? What DO I have to do to gain eternal life? What about when I doubt; will God reject me when my faith goes south?
I stand before you as a fellow sinner, one who has struggled with those very same questions. But as your pastor, I am called to speak on God's behalf, and this is God's message to you today:
For God so loved YOU that he gave his only son
so that you who believe may not die
but have eternal life.
Much of what we need to know about God and Jesus and our sinfulness is captured in that single verse. Martin Luther called this verse "the gospel in miniature." The four verbs in that verse make the message simpler yet:
We have life
End of story
Where are the rules? Where are the strict laws that demand obedience? Where is the condemnation for the times we mess up? Where are the legalistic requirements that the religious right of every age seem to create so that they can determine who's in and who's out? None of it's there; not for Nicodemus, not for me, and not for you. Only the free gift of grace, and all that is required is that be believe it.
I remember a night, so long ago now, when I was, like Nicodemus, confronted with this simple truth. All of the stuff of my life weighed me down terribly; the guilt, the shame, the fear of failure. And yet my hope was clinging to the possibility that Jesus words were true. And people, they are true!
We have life
Beginning of the story -- James reminds us that faith without works is dead.
Shhhh. There's something about the darkness. The pace of life slows when the sun goes down, so that we might consider the most important truths of life. And you who have spend your lifetimes in church; I refuse to assume that you have grasped this truth, so before the lights return, I will remind you one more time:
For God so loved YOU that he gave his only son
so that if you believe, you will have eternal life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.