The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

NICODEMUS

Delivered 2/18/96
Text: John 3:l-15 (Num. 11:1-17)

They say, "There is no fool like an old fool." And I am afraid that is exactly what I have been. I have been so busy protecting our religion that I have been missing our God.

I should explain. My name is Nicodemus. I am a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the seventy men charged with the oversight and defense of our historic and honorable faith, the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the faith of our fathers for hundreds and hundreds of years. Our task - one handed down from generation to generation since Moses - is to provide guidance for the people in matters pertaining to God, to oversee worship and to challenge any who would seek to lead the nation astray.

I came by my position naturally. I was born into one of the most respected families in Jerusalem and so had the benefit of orthodox training from my youth. I was educated in the best of the synagogue schools, taught by the best minds in the service of the High Priest, and learned the Torah as thoroughly as any man. I enjoyed the study of the Law; after all, the Law was God's gracious gift to us for the ordering of our lives.

I am a Pharisee. Obviously, I would HAVE to be either a Pharisee or a Sadducee just to be on the ruling council; no other sects are represented. We Pharisees have enjoyed a remarkable growth in our numbers over the past hundred and fifty years or so, but the Saducees, even though they are a minority in Jerusalem, are still powerful - after all, the High Priest is a Sadducee.

The most important difference between our two groups is that we Pharisees believe that this life is NOT all there is to existence, while most Sadducees believe it is - we Pharisees believe in a RESURRECTION OF THE BODY when Yahweh finally comes to establish the kingdom on earth. We would argue that, considering all the injustice in the world and the oppression that the children of Israel continually suffer at the hands of first one nation and then another, there MUST be something beyond this life to RIGHT all the WRONGS. Face it: there IS injustice and oppression that is suffered which is NOT rectified in this life - and if our God is a God of justice (which I believe), something will have to be done about that. I believe justice WILL eventually be done, but not until the day of resurrection.

We get our doctrine from the words of the prophets of old as well as some of the writings of antiquity which we consider as inspired Scripture. My Sadducee brothers, on the other hand, accept no writing as Scripture except that which our tradition says came from Moses - the TORAH - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The subject of resurrection is not discussed there, and since it is not, they have always believed any thoughts of life after death were pure speculation.

For myself, as I say, the concept of resurrection is very appealing. Besides, why should we consider that our God's mind is limited to that which was passed on to us through Moses? Perhaps there was no REASON to discuss resurrection with Moses. Does that mean it cannot BE? I wonder...and my brothers on the Sanhedrin KNOW my position. That makes me, at least in THEIR minds, a liberal thinker.

Well. Liberalism has its limits. I can accept the Sadducees and their understandings. I can accept the Essenes with their community down at Qumran who claim that only total separation from the world allows for a proper keeping of the Law. I can even accept the Zealots who demand that we overthrow the Roman invaders so that our allegiance not be divided between our God and Caesar. But I CANNOT accept anyone who might do permanent damage to our historic understanding of the faith. After all, protecting the people from false prophets and erroneous teaching is a part of my function as a member of the Sanhedrin. I may be more liberal than some of my Sadducean brethren, but that does NOT mean I will be swept along by any wind that blows.

Not long ago, I had occasion to travel down by the Jordan to investigate this man they call John the Baptizer. Word had come to the council that he had been having a remarkable impact on all who came in contact with him, and we felt an obligation to see whether or not what he was teaching followed the orthodox tradition. I admit John was an impressive fellow. He may have been influenced by the Essenes in his early days because his lifestyle was that of an ascetic - wearing sackcloth, living in the desert, eating only things like locusts and wild honey. He was a thunderous preacher, calling on people to repent of their sins, having them undergo a baptism in the river like the baptism we Jews require of converts to OUR faith. And people responded...in droves. Even Roman soldiers were inspired by the man and went under the water at his urging. John was quite a figure.

During one of these open-air sessions, we from the Jerusalem council sought to question him as to his authority to do what he was doing. Some had wondered whether or not he might be the Messiah who would be the deliverer of the nation; some who believed in that sort of thing wondered whether or not he could be the reincarnation of Elijah the prophet. We wanted to find out. To be sure, we did not mind itinerant preachers for they were all over the land; we DID want to keep tabs on them though. John responded to our questions in a strange way. He admitted that he was neither the Messiah nor Elijah. He claimed that he was, in his words, "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, saying, `make straight the way of the Lord.'" And then he said something very strange: he said there was someone coming after him who would be so great that John would not even be worthy to be the most lowly slave to him, the slave who ties and looses a man's sandals. We wondered about that, of course, but there was nothing he was doing that merited any action on our part, at least not at the time. So we left...and came back to report our findings to the Sanhedrin.

Not long after, our attention became focused on someone who was making an even greater impact than John. In fact, word had it that many of John's disciples were deserting him to follow this new teacher...a man named Jesus, from Nazareth. I realize that it is a little incredible that a teacher of any stature should come from such a grimy little hole-in-the-wall town like Nazareth, but that is where this Jesus was from. He was not the same as John - he did not limit his activity to preaching in the desert; he did not baptize anyone; he was certainly no ascetic - in fact, the word we had was that he was something of a party-boy, eating and drinking with some of the worst riff-raff in the nation: tax-collectors, prostitutes and the like. But the biggest difference between Jesus and John was what Jesus DID - word had it that Jesus was performing remarkable miracles... making the lame to walk, giving sight to the blind, even restoring the dead to life...the stories were incredible.

I doubt that the council would have been too concerned about him, and in fact probably would have admired him, except for one distressing incident. Just prior to the recent Passover, Jesus and his cohorts came into the temple courts and ran riot. He did not desecrate the altar or do permanent damage, but he upset some very powerful people. He went into the Court of the Gentiles, turned over the tables of the moneychangers who were there to exchange the coin of the realm for temple scrip and wreaked havoc with those men who were there selling animals for sacrifice. He even made a whip of cords and drove the merchants into the street, fleeing for their very lives. He claimed he did it because they were turning "HIS FATHER'S HOUSE" into a den of robbers. Now, I will admit that some of the prices charged for those services tend to be exorbitant, but was that any call to do what he did? Whether he knew it or not, these merchants were there by the express permission of the High Priest, and indeed, some of them were the High Priest's relatives. No wonder the council was concerned.

To be sure, some of my brethren were more than a little distressed. They went to Jesus to demand by what authority he had done such a thing. But the answer they came back with was very unclear. They knew of his miracles and wonderful works and they asked that he do one for them right then to attest that what he was doing there in the temple was legitimate. He replied, "Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days." What? That made no sense. It had taken forty-six years to construct this temple; how could he say that he could REconstruct it in three days? At any rate, everyone was confused.

I will admit that I was not so confused about Jesus' clearing out the merchants from the temple; it is something that should have been done long ago. What confused me was that reference to MY FATHER'S HOUSE. Devout Jews do not refer to God that way. We might say GOD OF OUR FATHERS, or OUR GOD, but certainly not My Father. It caused me to wonder about this Jesus, to wonder whether or not there WAS a special relationship he had to Yahweh, one that was different from the rest of us. Who IS this Jesus?

So, last night, I took it upon myself to find out. I had not been authorized by the Sanhedrin to do so, but my position among them did not demand that - I was well respected. To be honest, I did not go to Jesus simply as a member of the council; I was interested in him myself.

I chose the evening hour to approach him because his days were so filled with his disciples and the crowds. At any rate, since childhood the Rabbis had taught me that the best learning comes at night. Our minds are more receptive with the hustle and bustle of the day out of the way. Besides, it is cooler.

We sat together in the garden of the home where he was staying. The gentle breeze provided just the faint rustle of leaves in the trees; the moon was bright, having only recently begun to lose its Passover fullness; the stars twinkled in the clear desert sky. We talked softly as was befitting the atmosphere.

I was very open with him. I said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God, for no one could do the miraculous things you do if God were not with him. Share with me, if you will, the message God has sent you to bring." And he responded with something which, at first, sounded very strange: he said, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again."

BORN AGAIN? I understood what he meant because within our Jewish tradition, we employed the same kind of imagery when dealing with some of those who became converts to Judaism. Even some of the pagan religions who baptized their new believers in pits letting the blood of bulls wash down over them talked that same way and called their initiates "reborn for all eternity." I knew that the prophets of old had told our nation of the necessity for a NEW HEART among us which was essentially the same thing. What I found incredible was not the THOUGHT but the POSSIBILITY. All my experience had shown me that, despite people talking about becoming NEW again, in ANY sense of the word, all it was was just that: TALK. So I wanted to press Jesus.

I confess to a certain level of disingenuousness in my response to him. I made it sound as if I understood him to be crudely literal in this idea of new birth. I asked, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" But he moved right on. He answered, "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of the water of his mother's womb AND the Spirit of the heavenly Father. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. Do not be surprised at my statement about being BORN AGAIN. It IS possible...difficult to understand perhaps, but entirely possible. After all, the WIND is difficult to understand too: it blows wherever it pleases, you hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it came from nor where it is going. It is the same with the Spirit of God acting on people's hearts - you cannot analyze it, you can only see its effects." Jesus was beginning to make sense to me.

I wanted more. I asked, "How can this be?" And he responded by saying that it would only happen by trust. Faith. In HIM. He recalled the incident when our ancestors' lives were saved from the scourge of poisonous snakes and said, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." The Son of Man lifted up? What could that mean?

I wish I could say that the light came breaking through to me there in that garden, that suddenly all my questions were answered...but they were not. We bid each other SHALOM and I left him last night with him probably having no idea of whether I had understood him or not.

But I did understand, for the most part. And that is why I say I now know the truth of that old axiom, "There is no fool like an old fool." Because your brother Nicodemus has been an old fool for not taking seriously the power of the Spirit of the Living God to work miracles of change within the hearts of those who would truly be God's children. There is something profound and wondrous about this Jesus, and I suspect that, as time goes on, more and more people will come to know how special he is.

By the time I reached my home last night, my heart was pounding, my breathing was quickened - I realized that the Spirit of God was working within me, changing me, making me as if I had been BORN AGAIN, to use Jesus' phrase. As I stood in the grassy courtyard of my home, I looked up toward the stars, stretched my arms to the heavens, and prayed, "God of my Fathers, give me that new life. This old fool does not want to BE a fool anymore."

Can you make that same prayer...in the name of Jesus?

Amen!

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