Genesis 12: 1 – 5 (The Call of Abram) and John 3: 1 – 17 (Nicodemus Visits Jesus)
It was dark, and a shadowy figure skittered and dashed through the alleyways hoping that no one would see him. He was a man on a mission! One that could potentially cost him his life, if someone happened to see where he was going.
No, it wasn’t James Bond out to catch the bad guys. And he wasn’t a bad guy, either. In fact, he thought he was a pretty good guy, because he liked to follow all the rules.
The figure sneaking around under cover of darkness was Nicodemus and he was one of the group of Jewish leaders called Pharisees who basically thought that the only way to get to heaven was to follow all of the Jewish laws perfectly.
So, what was Nicodemus doing lurking around in the alleyways at night? Well, he’d heard about Jesus, and wanted to have a chat with him. But why couldn’t Nicodemus go in daylight?
Because he didn’t want anyone to see where he was going! The other Pharisees, hated Jesus. They were angry about what Jesus was saying about God. They were angry with Jesus’ talk about a new way of living faithfully, and their noses were being were put out of joint because people were beginning to believe and trust in him and not in the word of the Pharisees. They were angry that Jesus was saying that he had come to save everyone, because they wanted people to come to them for help! And if anyone saw Nicodemus and told the other Pharisees that he had spent time with Jesus, he would be in very big trouble.
But something deep inside Nicodemus must have urged him to talk to Jesus, so he risked everything and went to see him at night.
It seems from the use of the word ‘we’ when Nicodemus first speaks to Jesus as though Nicodemus went representing a small group of Pharisees who were sympathetic to Jesus and his teaching, but lacked the courage to come out of the shadows.
Perhaps their standing in the community was more important to them than the potential they saw in Jesus and perhaps he was the Messiah? Perhaps they were afraid, because Synagogue members were already being expelled for showing signs of loyalty to Jesus.
We don’t know how long this group’s interest in Jesus had been developing, but it seems to have reached the point where they must do as their father Abram did, and make a move.
But that meant taking the risk of deciding openly for Jesus by joining his community and being baptized, which would surely end their life in the synagogue.
Though Jesus spoke directly and forcefully to Nicodemus, he used symbols to persuade him to make a move. What he and his group faced was the excitement and disruption of ‘birth from above’, that is, from God or the Spirit, that we symbolise by immersion in the water of baptism. The words ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ both translate the Hebrew word ruach and this ‘birth’ is like ‘the wind’ whose coming and going, from and to God, make it a sign of grace and blessing – and energy too.
The ‘Spirit’ will bring Nicodemus and his companions out of the shadows, if only they can find the trust of their father Abraham. His faith in God’s promise was strong enough to allow him to leave everything that was familiar behind to follow God’s call and eventually even to contemplate sacrificing his son Isaac, a sacrifice God eventually made himself by giving his Son for the life of the world. There is no greater love than this to persuade Nicodemus and his group to take the risk of acting on their insights by coming out of the shadows.
And yet, contrast ‘So Abram went’ with Nicodemus remaining in the shadows.
In Genesis 12, Abram’s trust in God’s promise was a sure sign of life-giving faith that extended God’s blessing to his descendants. In John 3, Jesus asks Nicodemus to take steps in this direction. It will be risky, but, like Abram Nicodemus will find faith such as this to be life-giving.
But, how much does Nicodemus take Jesus’ call to heart?
Nicodemus decided not to become a Disciple of Jesus, but he did what he could from his position amongst the Pharisees. Later in the Gospel story, Nicodemus advises his colleagues on the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, not to take action against Jesus without giving him a fair hearing. And, at the end of John’s Gospel, he’s recorded as helping Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus for his burial.
But, does he get any further than devotion to Jesus’ dead body? Or is this as far as he and his group can manage to move in the testing circumstances in which they find themselves?
Nicodemus was asked by Jesus to make a decision, to put his public reputation on the line, to declare that his heart yearned to follow Jesus. But Nicodemus hesitated. What held him back? To decide for Jesus would have left him adrift from all that was familiar. It would have been difficult for Nicodemus and those who thought like him to give up everything they knew to follow Jesus. You see, they had built up a reputation, they were pillars of the community and perhaps it’s this that acts as a barrier to him showing the faith of Abram and following lock, stock and barrel where God was calling them.
Jesus presents us with the same challenge. What, I wonder does ‘being born of the Spirit’ require of you as an individual or us as a Church? What might we have to clean out as we have a bit of a Spring Clean of our lives and activities?
Sometimes, like Nicodemus, we can become paralysed by competing motives, constraints and aspirations and it’s good to be reminded of the courage of our ancestors in the faith, in this case, Abram. Can remembering his faith flick the switch required to galvanise us from faith in God to active commitment to God through Jesus.
What matters is that we as individuals and as a church are alive to God’s call which will direct our life, our behaviour and our work, and that day by day and moment by moment we show evidence of God-given spiritual health and vitality and strength and purpose.
Like Nicodemus, we must do what we can do from where we are in response to God’s call.
The Spirit of God is always on the move like a fresh spring breeze and no human organisation can keep up with it. Opening up the window and letting the breeze in can be very inconvenient, especially for the Nicodemuses of the world who suppose that they’ve got things tidied up, labelled and sorted into neat piles.
But unless we are prepared to listen to Jesus’ difficult message that we must let God’s Spirit energise and shake us up, that we must choose to be stirred up by the Spirit working in us and through us, we will become paralysed, unable to make the journey backwards in time, or forwards in faith.
Revd Janine Atkinson