On the way. We’re anxious to be on the way, but then we’re not entirely sure which way it is we are to be on? Where are we headed and how will we know we’re following the right route? There’s no electronic voice assuring us that our route guidance will begin once we’ve backed out of the driveway. However, we have some voices in today’s texts which we may find helpful. Isaiah says of the wilderness, stretched out between Babylon and Jerusalem, “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaims that “God travels wonderful ways with human beings…” John the Baptist wants to know if he and his followers should journey with Jesus or wait for another guide.
NICODEMUS HAD HEARD ENOUGH about what Jesus was up to in Jerusalem to make him think he ought to pay him a visit and find out more. On the other hand, as a VIP with a big theological reputation to uphold, he decided it might be just as well to pay it at night. Better to be at least fairly safe than to be sorry, he thought, so he waited till he thought his neighbors were all asleep.
So Nicodemus was fairly safe, and, at least at the start of their nocturnal interview, Jesus was fairly patient. What the whole thing boiled down to, Jesus told him, was that unless you got born again, you might as well give up.
That was all very well, Nicodemus said, but just how were you supposed to pull a thing like that off? How especially were you supposed to pull it off if you were pushing sixty-five? How did you get born again when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning? He even got a little sarcastic. Could one “enter a second time into the mother’s womb?” he asked (John 3:4), when it was all one could do to enter a taxi without the driver’s coming around to give him a shove from behind?
The older I get, the more I understand the time-worn adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It is not at all uncommon for us to get set in our ways the longer we’re around. Older, single people like myself face those facts when we stop to think what it would be like to live with someone else, to let another person into our space, our rituals and routines, our habits and patterns. It would be so hard to change. There are moments when we just look in the mirror and say, “Let life go on the way we know.” It’s easier to follow the familiar than to face changing life-styles.
Am I wrong about that? For those of us who have been around for awhile the prospect of change often feels like more than we can handle, especially if we’ve grown comfortable with familiar routines. Don’t ask me to do this differently. Don’t expect me to learn the latest. Don’t rock the boat. How many of us feel challenged, if not overwhelmed, by the latest technology and the proliferation of information? I know I’ve barely touched the surface of what my computer, my smart phone, my tablet can do. It’s embarrassing to admit. Sometimes we long for a slower, gentler time when we could read books printed on paper and talk to one another face to face. Sometimes change just seems overwhelming.
I think something like that occurs in this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. When Jesus talks of new birth, Nicodemus protests, “Not when I’m old. It’s too much, all that you are asking me to take in, to understand, to practice.” I love this story. It is among my favorite Bible stories, and not just because it contains John 3:16, that Bible verse-slogan that we learned in Sunday School so long ago that promises to hold the gospel in a “nutshell.” I love it for the characters and the interaction. Today, and for the next several weeks, through Easter, we will consider a collection of stories in which Jesus shares profound truth with complex and fascinating human characters. The first is Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is part of the 1% in the Jerusalem of his time. It appears that he is a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, and comes from one of those wealthy families who held power and influence over the Jewish people as well as with the Roman occupiers. Already we know that he is not altogether an insider because he is named as a member of the Pharisaic party. At this time the Sadducean party holds sway over the temple and dominates religious practice. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus is something of a reformer, in spite of his wealth and power. He is said to be a scholar, a learned teacher.
What I see in Nicodemus is a hungry heart. I think he is one of those people whom Jesus blesses because they hunger and thirst for righteousness. As an old man, encumbered with all the trappings of family and office, there is still something in him that desires to know God better and to walk God’s way more faithfully. He is a seeker after truth. As my friend Phil Jenks notes, “Unlike most other Pharisees, who were cocksure they were right and Jesus was wrong, Nicodemus continued to nurse his doubts” (Philip E. Jenks, “Nicodemus, the Doubter,” The Little Scroll, March 15, 2014, portchester.patch.com). Nicodemus wonders and when he hears about this peasant rabbi from Galilee, about the signs and teaching and healing, he wonders all the more if there might be something here to satisfy his hunger.
Now Nicodemus is no radical. He knows there is risk, even danger in being seen with Jesus. The rumblings and plots against Jesus have already been hatched. But Nicodemus is curious enough to be drawn to this new teacher in hopes he has something to say that will touch the old man in the depths of his wondering. So, he comes to Jesus under cover of night. It’s a secret meeting. Jesus grants a private audience to this closeted seeker and proceeds to share with him some of the deep truth of the good news.
It all begins respectfully enough. Nicodemus confesses that he sees Jesus as one sent by God. This would be heresy to claim in his usual circles but here in the silence of their midnight encounter, he blurts out his faith stance, “I want to believe. Help my unbelief.” The conversation unfolds in such a way that Jesus is really hard on the old man. Is Nicodemus dense or just resistant in his responses? “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” “How can these things be?”
Jesus seems rather impatient when he scolds the old man. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” It feels like a sarcastic response. What is Jesus sensing in Nicodemus that he is so hard on him? In one way, we’ll never know this side of glory. At this point, Nicodemus disappears from the story as Jesus continues to teach. Does the old man take his wounded pride and leave in a huff? Does he sit and listen as Jesus holds forth? Do they continue in conversation? We just don’t know for certain, which leaves us dangerously free to speculate.
I think a big piece of what’s going on here is that Jesus senses Nicodemus’s ambivalence to change and challenges him hard. There is some of this “Not when I’m old” on the part of Nicodemus and Jesus is saying, “Why not? You are still learned, wise and powerful. You could make a tremendous difference if you walked God’s way with me.” But Nicodemus is just not sure he’s ready to go that far. Perhaps, it’s that his spirit is willing but his flesh is weak. He has a lot to lose if he follows Jesus. So, Jesus confronts him with the truth and leaves it with the “teacher of Israel” to decide for himself.
I also love Frederick Buechner’s somewhat irreverent take on the text, ‘”Maybe Nicodemus had six honorary doctorates and half a column in Who’s Who,’ Jesus said, ‘but if he couldn’t see something as plain as the nose on his face, he’d better go back to kindergarten.’” Here’s the good news that Nicodemus gets to grasp or not, according to Buechner, “Jesus said, ‘I’m telling you God’s so in love with this world that he’s sent me down, so if you don’t believe your own eyes, then maybe you’ll believe mine, maybe you’ll believe me, maybe you won’t come sneaking around scared half to death in the dark anymore, but will come to, come clean, come to life’” (Frederick Buechner, “Weekly Sermon Illustrations: Nicodemus, May 17, 2012,” frederickbuechner.com).
Come to life – what a gift, what a challenge! Surely not when I’m old. Yes, even then. There is always more light, more life, more love to embrace. Buechner’s next lines are beautifully, movingly speculative. He says of the old teacher of Israel, “What impressed Nicodemus even more than [Jesus’] speech was the quickening of his own breathing and the pounding of his own heart. He hadn’t felt like that since his first kiss, since the time his first child was born.”
Maybe it’s true, maybe not, but imagine how you might feel in the shoes of Nicodemus. Living beyond your wounded pride at being scolded by this young, rural rabbi, you hear these amazing words of eternal life and they ring true in ways you have never heard or even imagined before. Jesus gifts you with the way to love and life – God’s love, abundant and eternal life. How would you “come to, come clean, come to life”?
Another friend, Carl Gregg, has written that the word “so” in “God so loved the world” does not mean God loved the world “so much,” as we often interpret it. Rather, he says, the word in Greek means “in this way.” So, Jesus is saying “God loved the world in this way…” (Carl Gregg, “John 3:16 – The Rest of the Story, March 18, 2012,” patheos.com). This is how God loved the world; this is the way God loved the world… One way to look at it is that God sent God’s only child to show the way. When all the arguments of law and prophet, of scripture and tradition, of icon and idol, had failed to convince God’s people, God came in person to proclaim the good news and lead us into God’s commonwealth. Remember, this is this same John who begins his gospel, “…the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Before I close, let me quote a passage from one more friend, Meg Hess. Listen to her challenge to the old teacher as if she was speaking to you. She writes, “Confusion is the unintended consequence of your curiosity, Nicodemus, but don’t stop there. Think about it: if you are born again, then you must grow up again. Think about your life, Nicodemus. What would you do differently if you had half the chance? How would you grow up differently? How would you re-edit the narrative of your life? As you enter more deeply into your puzzlement, Nicodemus, you’ll find that Jesus is inviting you to be curious about your life, and to rethink your assumptions with an altered perspective. You are challenged not only to conduct an autopsy on your past, but to look to the future through the eyes of redemptive possibility. How might your life be different if you were born again? How would your life be altered if you truly believed, from the beginning, that God loves you with a sacrificial love?” (Margaret B. Hess, “A Curious Man,” The Christian Century, May 14, 1997, p. 475).
To see the future through the eyes of redemptive possibility. To believe truly that God loves you with sacrificial love. Open your eyes, Nicodemus. Even more, open your mind, your heart, your life. Here is the truth before you in the flesh. Don’t you see, understand, feel, know the living truth when you encounter it? Yes, I know you’re old. Yes, I know change is challenging. Yes, I know you are comfortable and set in your ways. But remember that hunger in your heart, that deep desire for more, that longing for right living, led by the very Spirit of the Holy. Here it is. What do you say? I believe you can teach an old dog new tricks. Or if that’s too glib for you, I do believe you can teach an old teacher new truths. Yes, Nicodemus even when you’re old. Amen.