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Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Encountering Jesus: Nicodemus

Our summer series at church has been on encountering Jesus. It was my turn to preach on Sunday, so for those that are interested here is my talk. The passage was John 3 1:21...

We have been looking at People encountering Jesus. This week we see Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, coming to see Jesus at night.
Read passage: John 3:1-21
There is so much in this passage, one could talk for hours on the various things covered here, but we are looking at encountering Jesus and here is a man encountering Jesus. It’s interesting that the dictionary says that an encounter is a meeting, often unexpected, often brief. I always think an encounter is also something memorable, not just a meeting, but a happening that stays with you. All of which we could say about Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus. Nicodemus appears just 3 times in the bible and this is his first mention. But across these brief mentions we see how he is changed by his encounter with Christ.
So who is he? Obviously important enough to be mentioned but not enough o appear outside Johns gospel or mentioned more than a few times.
The passage tells us he is a member of the Jewish Ruling Council, The Sanhedrin. Which is basically a political and religious ruling body for the Jews, largely made up of the Pharisees and Saduccees. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, They were known for very strict adherence to and were hugely knowledgable on mosaic law. They believed in the coming of a messiah (unlike the sadducees)
Pharisees were mostly mentioned negatively in the bible! Often we see Jesus  berating them for their hypocrisy.
So often when pharisees are mentioned we automatically view them in a negative light and yet here is one of them coming to see Jesus and clearly being changed by what he finds. What we do know is that they believed in God and protected their religion vehemently. Some in more destructive ways than others. Nicodemus is not the only Pharisee to visit Jesus but he is the only one mentioned who seems to do so with humility and real curiosity, not just to try and catch him out.
So we don’t know much about Nicodemus for sure, there are various theories and accounts of what have been him, but according to the bible we just see him these 3 times.
For Nicodemus, part of his knowledge of scripture would be the expectation of a coming messiah. So is this actually what he suspects when he goes to see Jesus? There is so much unsaid here – for example why did he go at night ? Often people suggest it was because he did not want to be seen – for Pharisees external behaviour and appearance very important (Jesus picks them up on this…). For him to go and actually speak to Jesus in the way he does would have been a very big deal, when the council was so openly angry with Jesus. But Nicodemus clearly saw something in Jesus that they didn’t.  Some think this is cowardly coming at night but I think the opposite, that it would have taken great courage to come and visit him, at night or whenever.. But he knew there was something different about this man. He comes to Jesus. He doesn’t wait until he’s in the temple, or nearby, he actively chooses to go to him.  He treats him with respect, unlike the other times we see Pharisees talking to Jesus, He calls him Rabbi (teacher) he recognises something within this man. And of course he says: we know you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him’…
An aside: (interesting isn’t it how he says ‘we know..’ we – how is he referring to? Its clearly not the council! Were there others with him not mentioned? Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea who we see with him later? Or are there others who he represents..? anyway… we cannot know..
The thing about Nicodemus is that like so many, he is seeking something, seeking the messiah, that’s what his religion is all about, he is  seeking answers, and he recognises something in Jesus, but he’s not sure what that is, he can’t understand. And yet he humbles himself, this man, in a great position of power and influence in his community and in the council and comes to this stranger who has appeared almost from nowhere and made a big impression. He goes to him with all his questions.
In some ways he reminds me of me, if I’m not sure about something or I want to know more I seek out someone knowledgable and ask questions of them actually a pain in the backside I think sometimes! Get an answer and then ask more, or dispute it – and that’s exactly what Nicodemus wants I think. He’s not being difficult, or rude he just wants to know more!  He hears what Jesus says and doesn’t understand – he says ‘but how can that be..?!’ v9.
And in vs 10 – as Jesus points out, this is a man who should have all the answers, he is an expert in the law, he is probably someone who others would seek out with their questions and here he is, completely humbled, being chastised by Jesus, a lowly carpenter from the countryside! It’s hard to actually understand the enormity of what is going on here. But Nicodemus allows this, he is hungry for the truth.
And yet despite chastising him – ‘you, are Israel teacher, how do you not understand this…’. Jesus clearly has compassion for this man because his tone changes and reveals to Nicodemus the very essence of the gospel, one of the if not the most often quoted lines in the bible: vs 16: for God so loved the world… and he goes on.. he almost offers Nicodemus a challenge doesn’t he? Its your choice, its there for you, if you want it, if you can take it, the truth is there, eternal life is there for you.
And the same challenge is there for all of us…
We don’t always get it do we, like Nicodemus, no matter how strong your faith, sometimes there’s things we just don’t get, don’t understand. No matter how good our biblical knowledge, our intelligence, or our position in life, our standing in society if you like. Still, there is always the great mysteries of faith. Nicodemus, even after all this we cannot be sure that he gets it right away can we? We don’t see in this passage what his immediate response would be to Jesus’ challenge.
But the next time we see him is in John 7.
Jesus has been speaking in the temple courts and the chief priests are getting angrier by the minute and want to arrest him:
45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”
46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied.
47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”
50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

So they ask has any of us believed in him, no of course not, but then Nicodemus speaks up in his defence.  He says, exactly what he has done – can we condemn him without first hearing him… he is clearly a man on integrity.
Whatever happened during that meeting with Jesus and his subsequent reflection on that has given him the courage to speak out in front of his peers and elders. Something has changed in him.
How interesting that the last thing we see Jesus saying to him is:
Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
When Nicodemus first meets him it is at night, in the dark and yet here he is coming out into the light, revealing himself and standing in defence of Jesus.
And then finally..
 we see him after Jesus’ death, very publically helping Joseph of arimethea with the body, and providing spices and myrhh to embalm the body.
John 19:38
38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.[e] 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.

It’s interesting I think that Nicodemus journey in these passages is actually a classic example of someone seeking God. First they have an experience of seeing others talking, acting on their beliefs, they are interested.  Then there are the questions and the courage to come forward to actually ask them. a step into the light if you like, and at last, the final step, openly accepting the Lord. Perhaps not fully understanding but choosing to make a stand, put a stake in the ground and publically make a declaration.
I love this story because it just shows, wow, if Nicodemus could do it, in his position of standing and authority, risking all he had, the respect he had, etc then can’t we all?
Maybe some of you today are a bit like Nicodemus, are you still seeking/ are you still asking questions? Not quite stood up and said, ok this is the way I am going to go…

Nicodemus was a scholar.  he went to go and to understand the doctrine Jesus was teaching, seeking real answers to his questions. Instead he got what he didn’t understand.
But that’s often what its like for all us, we can have a great knowledge of the bible like Nicodemus. We can observe laws or ways of living, but that is not encountering the one who came here for all of us. We need to experience him to encounter him, to know him, to allow our lives to be transformed..
In our human understanding we cannot begin to comprehend all that Jesus is, all that he did and does, but we don’t have to, we just have to accept him as the one we want to follow and he will begin to open our eyes.
But there are so many things that stop us completely doing that aren’t there? Life, busyness, fear…
Have you ever known you were going to meet someone well known, or respected or someone you admire? How did you feel before hand? In advance there is much preparation. There’s  great excitement, but also fear and anxiety – what will I say to them, what will they be like, will I make an idiot of myself? What will I look like in front of others there…? And encountering Jesus for some of us is like that. There’s a great story in one of the alpha talk about a young guy who has been doing alpha and is really excited about Jesus but he’s worried what his friends and family will think. So he goes to speak to his pastor and confesses his worries and says, if I give my life to God,  do I have to tell anyone, and the pastor says no of course not, that’s up to you. So he goes home, goes into a quiet room and prays and gives his life to Jesus. And afterwards he is so excited he just runs into another room and tells all his friends/family I just have my life to Jesus! The one thing he was concerned about in the first place. Because in the moment of encountering Jesus all his fears were gone. He had met the king.

That’s what its like encountering Jesus. Unknown, scary, exciting, life changing, challenging, joyful, yes sometimes painful, a huge rollercoaster ride, but its like nothing else on this earth.
And we can encounter him every day. Not just the first time when we give our lives, but every day if we want to, in the opportunities he gives us, in reading his word, in others around us, its all there for us. That’s what I want, what I seek, not just an experience, a one off encounter, but a daily truth, a daily meeting with my King that informs my whole life.
Can you imagine what life would be like if every person who called themselves a Christian opened themselves daily to an encounter with the king. Yes it would be scary, there would be challenges of course, for some of us the very thought of speaking to someone about our faith or praying with a stranger would turn us cold, but we don’t need to fear, because if we just trust in him, all will be well. Can you imagine what this world would  be like if we were all open to that daily encounter?  Imagine for a moment how that would impact us, people around us, society. Wow, I long for that – that is the kingdom of God, coming on earth…

So I think some of us maybe are still a little like Nicodemus – got some questions but are we going to keep asking or are we going to step into the encounter? I think there’s also some of us who maybe have been Christians for a while but feel they haven’t really encountered Jesus for a while. And I really want to pray for you…

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