Signpost for 12th March 2017, 2nd Sunday in Lent: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17.
Jesus really “got to” Nicodemus, didn’t he? We have in John’s Gospel (he is not mentioned in the others) the portrait of a learned, cultured, important man, who approaches Jesus by night, not so much asking questions as acknowledging him as “Rabbi” and stating it was obvious that he (Jesus) was a teacher who had come from God “because nobody can do the signs that you do apart from the presence of God”. Not literally a question, but inviting a confidence. It is widely held that Nicodemus came “by night” because he was afraid of the reaction of his brother Pharisees. This is no doubt partly true and is understandable, but it was also a prudent move, a cautious way to begin an enquiry into an enigma, to say nothing of the more prosaic motive of getting Jesus more or less on his own, away from the crowds that thronged him by day. I wonder how he knew where to find him.
Jesus treated him with respect and gentle humour, but the challenge he offered was more than Nicodemus could cope with, or even understand. And so it remains today. The term “born again” has been interpreted in many ways, the scariest being that unless you can quote a time and date for the moment you were slain in the Spirit you are not a Christian at all. Where this leaves Nicodemus is unclear, but he comes into the story again in Chapter 7 where, still fulfilling his role as a member of the Jews’ governing body, he decisively reminds his brother Pharisees that in their frantic determination to rein Jesus in they are in grave danger of breaking the very Law that it is their life and joy and being to uphold. At the end of Chapter 19 his growing love for Jesus is revealed as he provides an overabundance of spices and perfumes to assist a likeminded Pharisee, Joseph of Aramathea, to bury Jesus. Can it be that faithfulness and service are indeed acceptable to God? After all, some have proved that the high emotion of a conversion experience is a wonderful gift that is sometimes not granted and cannot be contrived.
The Gospel passage contains the best-known, best-loved verse in the whole Bible. Volumes have been preached and written about John 3:16, and far be it from me to add anything, except perhaps to introduce a lighter note. Some of us at Christ Church have taken up N.T. (Tom) Wright, a former Bishop of Durham, a most erudite present day theologian, author and captivating speaker (try googling his Pepperdine Lectures!). He gleefully tells of his encounter with an unpleasant Immigration Officer at an American airport who demanded of him, “Well, if you are a Bishop tell me what John 3:16 says”. Tom responded in the original Greek.