I am always intrigued by Nicodemus and this undercover conversation that he seeks with Jesus. Why did he seek Jesus out? Why at night? What did he expect? What was he looking for just a debate about an issue or a conversation about theories of life and God? He got more …
Whatever the case, this conversation quickly changes from an intellectual chat to a confusing personal encounter with Jesus.
Nicodemus, the well-respected and well-trained teacher of the community is himself being taught something he struggles to grasp. He is moved from head-belief – to heart -faith. It is unsettling!
But it is so simple!
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
What could be more simple than believing the most famous bible reference in history?
Being a Christian would be so simple if we would simply believe this statement by Jesus about himself, if by ‘believing’ you mean simply giving your intellectual agreement to this statement Jesus speaks. But ‘believing’ must be something way more.
We see Nicodemus struggling with ‘belief’.
4 ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked.
5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit
9 ‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked.
10 ‘You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and do you not understand these things?
Jesus’ disturbance goes on. He chooses to describe himself as that serpent sculpture on a post that Moses lifted up in the wilderness (John 3:14, see Numbers 21:9).
In the story from Numbers, God sent poisonous serpents into the Israelite camp as punishment for the people doubting God. When the people repented, God told Moses to fashion a serpent out of bronze and lift it on a pole, so that anyone bitten by a serpent could look upon this serpent and live. In the same way that the serpent was lifted on a pole, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:15).
For John, that word “lift up” (hypsoo) is big. It has two meanings. It means to literally be lifted up high. It also means “exalt”. Jesus says here that he will be physically lifted up into the air on a cross. In that moment of what seems death, disaster and defeat, he will actually be exalted by the Father for eternity (see also John 8:28, and John 12:32).
Just as the Israelites were called to look upon the very thing that brought death in order to receive life, so we are asked to look upon Jesus’ “lifting up” in his humiliating crucifixion and receive it as God’s plan to exalt Jesus and give life to the world.
So hard to believe!
So, what does Jesus means when he says;
“ … whoever believes in him shall not die but have life
It must be more than just a head knowledge nod of agreement about a theory or an argument or idea. Nicodemus, finds this supposed ‘Good News’ confusing news (John 3:10).
Why? Because it demands everything of him. This belief is not for the armchair critic, it is for the soldier in the trenches or the leader in the decision. Jesus is demanding that Nicodemus let go of all that he has accomplished and understood — let go and become like a newborn, ready to receive the world on completely new terms – Jesus’ terms, not his own.
This very good news of life is not hard to receive because it is bad or because it is hard to understand in your head, it is hard to receive because it asks everything of all of you. It requires more than your brains. It asks you to trust with your heart.
It is like visiting a friend. You chat for a while and then conversation stops being about the footy and the family and the house to very serious questions and issues and problems. You know if you engage in that conversation with your friend, it will cost you. You will be implicated. You will be involved. You will be compelled to engage in their issues and serve them in love.
What have you come here for today? Looking for pep talk on being Christian or an answer to a curiosity or because it is what you do? It might start there, as it did for Nicodemus, but Jesus does not leave it there. He is after transformation of your whole self.
Friends, this is an account of an encounter with Jesus that left an intelligent and accomplished man scratching his head in bewilderment as he went back out into the darkness.
This is a story about how any one of us might reject the light offered to us because of the way it exposes what is dark in us.
“….light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. (John 3:19–20
Jesus exposed Nicodemus’ darkness of mind and heart.
So, to “believe” this Good News requires more than a head knowledge agreement it requires trust for one’s very life. To “trust in” Jesus is not simply to believe something about what happened long ago, but also to let our own lives be transformed by the Jesus we encounter today in his word.
Jesus has indeed been lifted up for your life. When you cannot stand in a holy God’s presence because of your own darkness, guilt, doubt and fear of failure or being found out, Jesus is raised up high above you in light-filled love for you to take all your fears and doubts and failures. His tree of death is your tree of life now.
Trusting that Jesus is the one lifted up for you on that cross and exalted above everything else and everyone else in your life is Jesus’ call on you today.
Trusting him means at least three things:
- It means withholding our ultimate loyalty and trust from other things that ask us to pledge our allegiance.
- Remembering that he was publicly executed as an enemy of society, we must be honest with ourselves about the subtle ways we are complicit in and benefit from community beliefs.
- The “lifting up” of Jesus on a Roman cross places before us the question of who we will serve. Nicodemus is being asked to give up loyalty to his school, his training, his colleagues, his standing and his safety among the elites of his community. So to, us.
- Trusting this Jesus means noticing that the new life Jesus offers is especially difficult for the religiously accomplished.
- We are called to repent of the ways our self-satisfied religiosity becomes a barrier to receiving the new the new things Jesus offers and asks of us.
- The “lifting up” of Jesus is a stumbling block for those either obsessed with decorum and conformity to tradition, or desperately clinging on to what once was in their tradition.
- This is so hard for Nicodemus and for us long-term Christians. We get used to the way we do things. We get used to our status and our place in the church. We get used to the story so much so that we struggle to let Jesus write a new one with us and through us.
- Trusting Jesus means confronting the inconvenient truth that God’s purposes for us are not always the same as our own common-sense values of happiness, health, and safety.
- The “lifting up” of Jesus on that cross shows us that the true life God has promised us is not the life that we can secure for ourselves through self-interest and caution.
Nicodemus is being asked to throw caution to the wind of the Spirit and Word and head toward being transformed; being re-born into a new relationship of transforming love with the God whom he thought he knew.
Same for you.