March 13, 2008

Judica Wednesday Vespers Sermon: John 7.40-52

I am ashamed when I think of it now, that night which seems so long ago. I arrived under the cloak of darkness, because I was afraid of what my fellow teachers of the Word of God would say if they knew. But I needed to know more. I wanted to talk to Him, for His words seemed to have the ring of truth, though they were unlike anything I had ever heard before.

So I went at night, in the darkness. But in truth, the real darkness was in my own mind. I started by flattering Him: “Teacher, what you are doing must be from God.” But He saw right through me; it was as though He knew all my thoughts, everything I had done, my mind and soul naked and exposed before Him, nothing hidden. Instantly He said to me, “Nicodemus, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” I was shocked; scandalized, even. Born again? Impossible! A man has one mother, is born once, and dies. Perhaps I was wrong to come; my fellow Bible-teachers were right. This man draws the crowd, but then crowds tend to be drawn to fools, don’t they?

As I said, I am ashamed to think of it now, those blasphemous thoughts running through my head. All the more ashamed, when I think how patient He was with me. He explained, “No, the rebirth I am talking about is not like that. You must be born again of water and the Spirit. You need to be baptized, Nicodemus. I am not talking about an earthly thing, but a heavenly. You are a teacher of the people of God, but haven’t you read the Scriptures? I will tell you what is to come,” He said to me. And then, the things He began to say made no sense to me. I had heard the stories before, I had taught them myself many times, but the meaning He gave to them was astonishing!

“You have heard, Nicodemus, about when the fathers rebelled in the wilderness, and God sent serpents into their midst? What did God tell Moses to do?” “Put up a bronze serpent,” I quickly replied. “Indeed,” He said to me, “And as Moses lifted up that serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. And I tell you something more; anyone looking at that, believing, will have eternal life. God love the world, Nicodemus; don’t forget that. He loves the world so much, that He sent His Son, not to condemn the world but to save it. The light has come into the world, Nicodemus, but so many love the darkness rather than the light.”

Those words pierced me deep. I hadn’t realized it before, but I was one who loved the darkness. That’s how I came to Jesus, in the darkness of night.

His words stayed with me. But I was a coward. When a council of the Pharisees was called, they dispatched officers to arrest Him. But those officers came back empty-handed, and my brothers on the council snarled, “Why didn’t you bring Him?” Their answer was simply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” I knew what they meant. His words stay with you, although accepting them would upset everything we formerly held.

So I tried to stick up for Him, when they were condemning him. “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” I asked. They spat back, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” I stayed quiet—again, I am embarrassed to admit it—and now I wished that I had reminded them that Jonah was from Gath-hepher, which is in Galilee, and that Isaiah had said that a great light would shine in Galilee. I was leaving the darkness, but not yet in the light.

And then, it finally happened. My fellow Pharisees had a council with the chief priests, and Caiaphas stood up and said, “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Oh, that he had understood his own words! For with them, he plotted to murder Jesus, but they are truly the Good News! But they did not understand, and when they lifted Him up on the tree, I heard Jesus say as much: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And then, I saw it. How blind I had been! “When the Son of Man is lifted up, like Moses lifted up the serpent” He had said – and there, on that Roman cross, He was lifted up – and we, who are dying, were invited to look and be healed!

And when it was over, and I thought He was dead for good, I decided I should no longer be a coward. With my friend Joseph, I went and took the body of Jesus, so bloody and bruised, and wrapped it in a linen cloth. Seventy-five pounds of spices we had. I suppose it was necessary, for He was truly dead; and yet in the end, none of it mattered. He rose, and never has anything been more wonderful.

I often think of it, now, and as my own death draws near, my friends ask me if I am afraid. “No,” I reply; “for Joseph and I put the body of Jesus in the tomb, but it could not hold Him; since I have now received that new birth, of water and the Spirit, I am not afraid. What can man do to me? His death was for me, and I know that His life is also for me.” That is what I saw.

I am ashamed to think of it, how I came to Jesus by night. But I am full of joy when I think how Jesus pulled me, despite myself, into the light. Thanks be to God!

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