Happy Belated Valentine’s Day!
I wanted to start off today and tell you about my brother. Stefan picture I asked my mom for a recent photo of him and she sent me this. I think its alarmingly appropriate for Valentine’s day.
Now my brother, Stefan is eleven years old. This year was the first Valentine’s day for him that actually kind of meant something beyond sharing candy at school. My brother is helplessly in love. In fact, last time I saw him, he told me that this new love interest of his, Shayla, had become his girlfriend.
“Wow that’s a big deal Stefan. Does Shayla, like being your girlfriend?” I asked him.
“Well, she doesn’t really know she’s my girlfriend, but she is.”
Turns out Stefan has really only ever said one or two nervous words to this mysterious blonde who shares a math class with him. But man, to him, that is love. Not to me though. Love takes time. Love is a relationship. A journey. I can give anybody flowers on February 14, but when I give flowers to Brittany, my fiancée, it means something more. I could pick out her favorite flowers and colors and buy her favorite candy and meet her at her work, because I know her. And I have no problem showing that. She made me steak for dinner on Valentines… she knows me too.
I wanted to look at a love story in the bible today, though you probably have never thought of it as one before. This isn’t the story of romantic love, but something deeper. This is love story between a lost creature and a redeeming creator. It’s a story of the unconditional love of Christ, and the fallable love of humanity. I’ll be doing something a little different with this story, as, like our relationships, this one takes time to develop. In the gospel of John we meet a man named Nicodemus and he pops up three times in the story. In between his apperances all kinds of things happen to Jesus and his disciples. So I’ll be telling his story in three parts, with different parts of the service happening in between. Turn with me to John 3. Starting in Verse 1. I’m standing here at this door, because the first encounter occurs at a meeting after dark.
3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b] 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] 8 The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, 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 a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. The Pharisees are those guys who are always fighting with Jesus and trying to get him in trouble. And he was a LEADER of the Jews. That’s the like equivalent to being on our city council and all our church committees combined. Nicodemus was a powerful man. We also know that Jesus tends to run into trouble with the people Nicodemus associates with. He comes to Jesus at night, you know, when it’s best to be sneaky, and he seeks him out. He desires audience with Jesus – someone who his peers want nothing to do with, and he certainly doesn’t want them to know. And asks a question: “Rabbi, 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.” Nicodemus respects Jesus, and knows he’s from God… but still doesn’t understand who he is.
So Jesus tries to explain his whole teaching by saying, to see the kingdom of God, one must be born from “Above.” The greek word used here for ‘above.’ also means again. Some translations say ‘again’ and some say ‘above.’ Most, choose in between the two to try and make it clear. But Jesus’ word aren’t clear. Still, Nicodemus doesn’t even consider the possibility of Jesus meaning “above” over “again.” He quickly points out how silly it is to be physically born again. I was 8 pounds when I was born. I am just a tad bit more than 8 pounds now. You can’t just be a newborn again – Jodi –who’s due date it today! Will tell you, birthing the baby once is quite enough. And he’s right, in his way of thinking. But totally wrong about what Jesus is trying to say. So Jesus tries another metaphor – Water and Spirit. Sure water is a physical word – in their culture water was often associate with physical birth too, but spirit … clearly Jesus is talking about something, well, spiritual. But the greek word for spirit – pneuma – could mean wind too. So Nicodemus misses it again. His own preconceived definition of terms and misconceptions are bound too tightly to be understood.
I relate to Nicodemus here, I really do. The more I grow and learn in my faith, the more I see that when I think I have Jesus or religion all figured out, I’m a off. And it’s hard to shake whatever your experience with pain or the church has done how you think about God. The history of the church and those claiming Christ isn’t particularly gleaming all the time. It’s hard not to come to Jesus without everything the culture around us has told us.
So Jesus rebukes him. Aren’t you a teacher and you don’t understand?? Ouch. And then he gives a lesson best summed up by the verse you probably know by heart. His discussion to Nicodemus gives us the most quoted verse of our faith: For God so loved the world he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him won’t perish. That’s the simple and yet complex statement of faith we have our kids memorize. You can’t compact the gospel any more tightly than that. So what happens next?? Does Nicodemus jump for joy and finally get it and leave everything to follow Christ. Aha! The truth has come! What happens? Well, I don’t know. Silence. The story moves on and the Nicodemus episode is over. Relationships can take time.
So as you read John, you are cruising through and Jesus is doing all these super sweet miracles and teachings. And we get to chapter three, and there in passing, in our friend Nicodemus. If the gospel of John was a TV show like LOST at this point in the story we would need that guy with the raspy voice to say “Previously, on John” and fill us in with what has been happening. Turn with me to chapter 7 verse 45. Right before we pick up the story, Jesus was in a dialog with the crowd about who he was. The crowd comes to realize that Jesus is the son of God, and the temple police are amazed by him too. but the Jewish leaders are not convinced
45 Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why did you not arrest him?” 46 The police answered, “Never has anyone spoken like this!” 47 Then the Pharisees replied, “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? 48 Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?49 But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.” 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus[q] before, and who was one of them, asked, 51 “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” 52 They replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”
Here’s Nicodemus. Obviously, he still has his role with the Pharisees, so whatever happened to him back in chapter 3 hasn’t seemed to change his life too drastically. The Pharisees basically say: “these simple people may believe him, but none of us smarter, wiser, more influential people do. We are the ones that matter.” Here you want Nicodemus to stand up and shout: “I believe him! And I’m a leader!” But that’s not quite what happens. When his peers attack Jesus, Nicodemus simply asks them to have a trail for Jesus before they convict him. This is basic human rights: Before you condemn someone, you at least hear their case. We see he isn’t ready to side with Jesus, but he wants to at least let Jesus defend himself. John reminds us that Nicodemus is the one that visited Jesus, and he is the one that stands against the Pharisees. Well, you would think they would at least take Nicodemus ‘ point into consideration, but instead, they hurl insults at him. Can’t attack the argument? Attack the arguer. In the boil of their unreasonable anger, they say a prophet can’t come from Galiee (even though 2 Kings specifically says Jonah is from there).
When I was a freshman high school I had a crush on a girl. Now this girl was just the sweetest, smartest, 9th grader around. But she wasn’t one of the cool kids. I wanted to be her boyfriend. I mean, in 9th grade you gotta start thinking about your future, right? But I didn’t want to be dating an uncool girl. So she became my “Secret girlfriend.” We would chat on AOL instant messenger and go to each others houses. When we where hanging out, we had a great time. But at school, I kept my distance. No acknowledgment.
I feel terrible about this to this day. I was jerk.
When we see how Nicodemus and Jesus so far in both chapter 3 and 7, I wonder if his relationship to him is similar to mine was with my secret girlfriend. Jesus is Rabbi and teacher when his friends aren’t around. But not so in public. Yet, I think John includes this passing mention of Nicodemus, to remind us – the story it isn’t over. It’s as if he’s saying “I know I left you hanging with that Nicodemus thing back at the end of Chapter 3, but I haven’t forget. He still exists. And he is at least a little different now than the other Pharisees.
As I was laying out this message, I thought of how we have mentions of birth in chapter 3, and now Nicodemus is standing up to his peers – albeit shakily. My cousin Zoe is 9 months old. It’s taken every day of those 9 months to go from being born to standing, and even now, she can’t do it by herself. Eventually she will walk and run and, most likely, get into all kinds of trouble too. But now she is just trying to stand.
And then more silence from John on Nicodemus. Jesus’s ministry continues and now, as we turn to take the elements of the table, and know what comes next in the story: The death of Christ, remember Nicodemus – what was going with him during all that.
Just come up and read:
“38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”
Never has “After these things,” meant more. After these things, the death of Christ – The brutal killing of the lamb – yeah, after those things, Joseph comes to bury the body and he has some help. Nicodemus. Remember, he’s the one who came at night. Carrying spices that weigh 100roman pounds. 100 roman pounds translates to about 75 of ours. That’s not something to be glossed over. Remember the path Jesus took He starts right in town with Pilate, and then they have him take his cross to Golgotha. Jews can’t be around dead bodies, so there this place isn’t right in the city. He had to walk a little ways. And Nicodemus did too. Carrying all those spices. Remember, Nicodemus, the one who came at night all the way back in chapter three. He was the one Jesus told about being born. Remember, in chapter 7, when he stands up to his Pharisees – Timid Nicodemus, just learning about birth and trying to stand. 12 chapters later: he walks. And he bears a heavy load.
So why 75 pounds of spices? What’s the significance? Everything. You see, that huge use of excess wasn’t just normal burial customs. In the Hebrew Bible, we only see that amount of spice being used to bury a king. Nicodemus, once afraid to even be seen talking to Jesus, walks straight through town in front of everyone. Lugging what acts as a sign that says “Jesus is King.”
I did bring my fiancée flowers on Valentines day. If you ever have bought flowers in say, May, and then bought flowers around February 14, you know there is a little bit of a price difference. And what good are flowers? They die. Fast. And you can’t change your oil with flowers. You can’t eat them or learn from them. They are just fleeting pretty things. You know why we love flowers? Because they are fleeting and beautiful. Practicality isn’t the issue at hand when you love someone. Is it a waste of money to buy flowers for my fiancée at triple price on Valentines day? Not at all. I love her, so I do things that show it. I wanted to just meet her in the parking lot of her work to give her my gift, but she wanted me to come inside. Having me hand her flowers in front of everyone around her mattered to her. It made it more special. There is nothing secret about our relationship. Nothing secret about how I feel about her.
I don’t know where you are with your walk with Christ. Maybe you are in chapter 3 – skeptical and not understanding this whole Jesus thing. Maybe you are chapter 7 – you know Jesus, and he has changed you, but you don’t look all that different. Maybe you love Christ, but no one sees it. You love to spend time with him in solitude, but where is the PDA? Having a secret relationship, well that’s not much of a relationship at all. Or maybe you are chapter 19. Lugging through town a sign that says I love Jesus. Does the way you live, look like Nicodemus, taking care of the soon to be risen Lord? Nicodemus buries Jesus as a King, and he rises from the grave his savior.
My brother Stefan thinks he has a girlfriend, but she has no idea he even likes her. Jesus and everyone else knew EXACTLY how Nicodemus felt about him, as he walked to cross with 70 pounds of spices.
What does your relationship with Jesus, look like to everyone else? What do your coworkers, friends, and the people that follow you on twitter know? What does your relationship to Jesus look like to him?