Monday, August 13, 2012

Monday in Pentecost, Proper 14: Groping in the dark

Opening Sentence
I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the Lord." Psalm 122:1

Commemoration: Jeremy Taylor
O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, like your servant Jeremy Taylor, deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let your Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Psalter: Psalm 89:1-18

Lessons: Judges 12:1-7Acts 5:12-26John 3:1-21

John’s Gospel is not a “one size fits all” message. To a wealthy, influential “ruler of the Jews” like Nicodemus, the words, “You must be born again,” meant something far different than they meant to a despised tax collector or an outcast Samaritan woman with a troubled marital history. The well-to-do are at a decided disadvantage when it comes to understanding the nature of Jesus’ radical call to conversion.

Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, is often viewed sympathetically, as a courageous Pharisee who took a stand against the prevailing wisdom of his colleagues. Contextually, however, he is the very embodiment of all that was wrong among the Jewish religious elites at the time of Jesus.

To begin with, the beginning of chapter 3 cannot be understood without first reading the last three verses of chapter 2.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25)

John has not constructed a favorable context for the introduction of Nicodemus.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

The context is even less favorable when Nicodemus is contrasted with John the Baptist, introduced in chapter 1.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)

The contrast here is stark. John the Baptist was “a man sent from God,” a divinely inspired prophet with the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was “a man of the Pharisees,” a member of the old guard who held his position merely by virtue of his birth according to the flesh. John the Baptist “came as a witness, to bear witness about the light.” His work was done out in the open, for all to see. Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night.” He snook away from his colleagues and met with Jesus under cloak of darkness.

John is intentionally playing one “man” off of the other. John the Baptist was the herald of the new order, a “man” anointed with the Spirit of God, bearing witness in broad daylight. Nicodemus was the embodiment of the old order, a mere “man” about whom Jesus needed no one to bear witness, seeing the “signs” but failing to comprehend their meaning (cf. John 1:5).

Nicodemus was bound up in generations of human tradition which made it impossible for him to grasp the truth embodied in the man with whom he was conversing under cloak of darkness. As a Pharisee, he understood the essence of Judaism was being a child of Abraham, a descendant of Israel’s great ancestor according to the flesh. But it was precisely this cherished tradition that put Nicodemus, “the teacher of Israel,” outside of the kingdom of God. It was not enough to be born of Abraham. You had to be “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13), that is, you had to be “born again” or, literally, “born from above.” Citizenship in the kingdom of God was not someone’s right according to one’s heritage. Jesus gave “the right to become children of God” only “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name” (John 1:12).

Nicodemus could not comprehend the things of the Spirit because his mind was dulled by the things of the flesh. He knew of no other birth than that which involved entering his mother’s womb, a feat which he could not imagine accomplishing “a second time.” The birth about which Jesus speaks is a birth “from above,” entering into the realm of God and being transformed by the power of his Spirit to be a part of a glorious new creation. Perhaps Nicodemus failed to understand precisely because he was so in love with the old creation. After all, he had done pretty well for himself under the present regime. He was wealthy, respected, and influential. Why should he have the faintest desire to be “born again?”

Yet, Jesus’ words, “You must be born again,” were directed toward no one else besides Nicodemus, the well-to-do “man of the Pharisees” and “teacher of Israel,” the elite “ruler of the Jews” who was staring God’s long-awaited Messiah in the face but was unable to see because the darkness of cherished tradition had blinded him to the truth.


Shine Jesus Shine