Genesis 12.1-4a Romans 4.1-5, 13-17 John 3.1-17
The Bible is punctuated with moments where people take a leap of faith; where there are clear signs of ‘thinking outside the box’. Sometimes these people are anonymous, sometimes they are named, as in today’s gospel when we have the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, the respected teacher of Israel, the Pharisee who wants to know more, to discern God’s word. The fact that he is named indicates that here was someone well-known, a familiar figure in the story of the faith to those early Christians.
In our first reading today, the father of the faith, Abraham, listens to God’s word, risking life and limb by uprooting his household from his home territory of Haran. He walks 500-odd miles to settle in the land of Canaan, confident that God’s promise to bless the nation which he was to father was to be fulfilled. As a result of this, as St. Paul reminds us in our reading from his letter to the Romans, he was reckoned as righteous. St Paul himself, of course, took his own dramatic leap of faith, blinded as he was by the light of Christ on the Road to Damascus.
The gospel this morning tells us of Nicodemus and his encounter with Christ fairly early on in Our Lord’s ministry. It is a story of turning and it is only to be found in the gospel of John. Like Paul, Nicodemus is groping about in the dark both literally and spiritually. He comes to Jesus by night – probably for fear of his fellow-Pharisees, who were beginning to distrust Jesus; to be discovered in daylight talking to this controversial Rabbi from Galilee could have undermined his credibility. But he also comes in his own benighted state; he comes to Jesus in the darkness of his lack of understanding, looking for enlightenment. For all his knowledge and wisdom, he struggles to make sense of what Christ is teaching with his repeated question, How can this be?
Our Lord recognises that Nicodemus, despite his thorough training in the Law, is open to the Spirit, that he has a personal faith. For Nicodemus tells him that no-one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. But the teaching is difficult: being born anew, from above, makes little sense in a world ordered by the natural progression of birth, life and death. And even when Our Lord uses the analogy of the wind to describe the blowing of the spirit, the penny still doesn’t drop.
The earthly reality is the presence of God’s only Son, the heavenly reality is that the son is sent from above, not to condemn, but to heal, a gift freely given from the Father’s love. Sadly, we’re not told the immediate impact of those words upon Nicodemus. We meet him on two other occasions in the gospel, one defending Christ against some of his fellow Pharisees who are looking for a way to charge him and once at the end of Jesus’ earthly life when, we are told, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea to take care of the body of the crucified Christ, supplying costly myrrh and aloes. There is no record of his witnessing the risen Christ, although tradition would have us believe that he became a follower in later life.
Our Lord’s challenge to Nicodemus: if you do not believe when I tell you about earthly things how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? is a question for us all as Christ’s followers today, and especially during this season of Lent when we are called to look at our own relationship with God. Lent gives is the chance to contemplate our discipleship by stripping away distractions, to pull ourselves out of the darkness of our own fear and ignorance and to turn to the light of the kingdom. We have to focus on thinking outside the box, just as Nicodemus was called to do – and also to persuade others to do the same, just as the Blessed Apostle Paul does in his letters.
The conversation with Nicodemus culminates in what is universally accepted as the best-known verse of the Bible: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. So here is a gift, freely given, a Son, not sent to condemn us for being human, for our lack of faith, our ignorance or our waywardness, but sent so that we might be filled with his godliness through the outpouring of his love. In the joyful reconciliation of things earthly and heavenly, there is in fact no box, for God’s abundance can’t be contained; there is only God and his children lifted up together, united in the person of Christ for all time.
And that truly is a wonderful gift. In our own journeys of faith we are often locked in the dark, like Nicodemus, and like him we never quite finish the story. If his final encounter with Christ was to fill the empty tomb with the dead body, then all his wisdom and renewed understanding would have kept him there. Those who see the tomb emptied of death, who see that new life, born of water and the spirit, flooding the world with resurrection light, have a different story to tell.
We meet the Risen Christ ourselves in all sorts of different ways. And Nicodemus, in his conversation with Christ, was given a glimpse of that wonderful truth, even in that dark night. It was enough to take him back into his own world to defend Christ and to challenge those who called his mission into question. And this is our responsibility too.
Those who take the leap of faith – Abraham, St. Paul and Nicodemus are all rewarded in many ways as they play their own part in advancing God’s Kingdom. We come together this morning in this Eucharist so that we too may meet Christ, to receive forgiveness in his name, to be inspired by his word, to proclaim our faith, to sing the praises of the one who sent him, and most of all to come into his living presence in the breaking of the bread. And stirred and moved by all the gifts he graciously gives us, we go out into our world as Easter people, people of faith.
And what better way do we have than to show our love for Christ by living holy lives, lives not characterised by gloom and despondency, by quarrelling and division, by gossip and murmurings, but lives which speak out in the world, lives full of the joy, the light and the hope of all that good news.
In our prayer after communion we ask, Send us out in the power of your spirit to live and work to your praise and glory. It really is that simple. So let’s do it, this Lent. Amen.