by Prof. Dr. David Zersen
A Sermon based on John 3: 1-17
(This sermon is a monologue to be delivered orally, walking in the midst of the audience. It is best achieved if the proclaimer commits the ideas to memory and shares them in his/her own words. The preacher could also wear a simple garb/robe to remove the impression of 21 st century street dress. If necessary, the monologue can be read, but it loses some of its effectiveness.)
GOD IS HERE FOR YOU TODAY
My name is Nicodemus. You probably recognize the name, although you may not know much about me. I appear three times in the Gospel according to John and each time a new incident tells something more about me. I’d like to take you back to each reference and share some reflections you may not have thought about when you hear my name mentioned. In each case, you will probably learn a good deal not only about me, but also about yourself.
In the first reference (3:1-17), you learn that I am a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council or the Sanhedrin. I had a significant role with the Jewish people and it was not proper for me to be found chatting with Jesus too personally and publicly, so I came one night, knowing where I could find him. I had some things on my mind I hoped Jesus might help me work through. Has that ever happened to you? Especially with respect to serious spiritual matters? Sometimes there is the feeling that everything which you have been taught may not be the way things really are. I can tell you that I had thought a great deal about what I had wanted to ask, but everything seemed to go wrong during that conversation. Isn’t that typically the way things happen?
I approached Jesus very respectfully and acknowledged that nobody could do the things that he was doing if he were not involved with God. He responded that nobody could discern such things unless he had true spiritual insight. The word he used confused me. He said unless a person is “anothen,” which could mean either “born again” or “born from above,” he can’t enter into the full dimension of the spiritual. I chose to understand it in terms of the first possibility, knowing that we Jews didn’t believe in re-incarnation, wondering how we could start all over in our mother’s womb. I had missed his point.
I got confused a second time when Jesus said that the “pneuma” comes and goes, giving new birth wherever it will. But “pneuma” can mean both “wind” and “spirit,” and again, I chose the first possibility, wondering what in the world Jesus was talking about. Again I missed his point. Then, of course, he challenged me, saying that as a teacher in Israel I should have understood such spiritual matters. I felt judged and condemned by what he was saying. I wasn’t sure that I should have come at all. Yet, in some ways I knew that what he was saying was right—he was actually helping me to understand that he was right and I was wrong.
You can be sure, I had been trying. Don’t we all? Sometimes we struggle with questions for which there are no easy answers. Is there really a God? Does this God know me and have a concern for me? Does God care about what happens in our world? About hurricanes, wars, and pandemics? I have friends who question God’s role in all these things. I was honestly hoping that Jesus could help resolve some of these issues for me—and for them as well. But in some ways, my attempt to understand things from a human and material perspective had to be condemned before I could make a new beginning.
I must confess that I have struggled with Jesus’ answer ever since that time. It is profound and difficult. But my life began to change dramatically as I wrestled with his answer. He said that as people came to believe in him, the one who would be lifted up on the cross for them, they would receive eternal life. It became clear to me that as I turned away from material explanations for everything, my initial thoughts on being “born again” and on “wind,” for example, and began to focus on more spiritual matters introduced by Jesus’ words and his suffering and death, I was receiving a new way of thinking and living. It took some time to understand all this, but it was an exciting pilgrimage into which he was leading me.
The second reference to me (7:45-52) in John’s Gospel takes place during a meeting of the Sanhedrin. The temple guards were being chastised for not taking Jesus captive. The guards defended themselves by saying, “no one ever spoke like this man.” The Pharisees retorted, “do you see any of us believing in him? No, just your kind of rabble!” It seemed so smug and smart-ass-like. Then I spoke: “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing what he has to say?” They were again very condescending and accused me of being a Galilean, of all things, and reminded me that prophets do not come from Galilee!You see, by that time, I was now well on my spirit-led journey. I was convinced that Jesus was showing us the way to God and that in his teachings and actions, God was at work. I had to watch what I said in public, but I clearly wanted to understand.
I will admit there were difficult issues here. What was Jesus’ relationship to his God and ours? Regularly we confess the words “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” (Deut. 6: 4-9, OT lesson for today) and no one believes that more strongly that I. Unlike some who may think there are many gods, I find that idea abhorrent. There is only one God! When Jesus called us to love the Lord our God with all of our mind and soul and spirit, I heard him calling us back to our ancient commitment, to the very commandments we were to inscribe on our hearts and impress on our children. He was calling us to let God’s spirit transform us from above so that we could be by God’s own power what we could never be by ourselves. And this was to be a real-life, daily, occurrence, the power of God working in us here and now already to realize the power of a life which would last forever.
The third reference to me (19: 38-42) is a moment I could never in my wildest dreams have expected. Jesus did talk about being lifted up and he did say that God “gave” his only son, but I did not see where this “giving” was leading. After he was crucified, we weren’t sure what to do. Joseph of Arimathea and I took his body from the cross. I brought myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds, wrapped this within the strips of linen we placed around his body, according to our burial customs. We placed Jesus in a tomb in which no one had ever been laid in a nearby garden, because the Day of Preparation for Passover lay just ahead. And we waited.
You can’t understand what this meant to me. I was convinced that his teachings were from God, yet now human authority seemed to silence the power of God. But then I realized I had been thinking materially again, just as he first showed me, not spiritually. I had not yet fully understood that it was God’s intent to send his son into the world, not to condemn it, but to save it through him. And this salvation was tied to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
I know there are many of you listening today who are spiritual seekers as once I was.
There are difficult questions with which we daily wrestle. Does life have a meaning? Does it make any difference if I’m a moral person? Are there reasons why I sometimes suffer loss and my neighbors don’t? Each of us has questions for which answers at times come with difficulty. I can tell you that I know that that means. With time, however, I came to understand that God was opening a door to me in Jesus that helped me to see things in a new way. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God cancelled the rule of self-serving evil in our world and presented a new opportunity—the opportunity to find a true spiritual dimension in living life not just for oneself, but also for others.
And I want to make it very clear, strict monotheist that I am, that this was God’s own doing. I think some people get very confused with a kind of Jesus religion, a religion that almost assumes that Jesus is, if not another form of God, then at least an alternative approach to God. Jesus would have been offended by such an approach. His whole ministry sought to make visible the love, mercy and justice of God. He wanted to show us how much God loves us. He was, in word and action, the very love of God among us.
If I can share anything after all these years, anything that has had its impact on me, it is that I, Nicodemus, spiritually transformed as a result of one late-night meeting and many other encounters, came to know through Jesus that God loves me and that his Spirit is within me to forgive and empower me each day that I live. If you already know this claim of your Lord, this is a time to celebrate that along with me.
But, if you’re not there yet, place before God the state in which you currently find yourself. A questioning mind and a troubled heart are sometimes the very media which receive what God yet wants to share with you—whether it be in a stumbling, bumbling late-night encounter or in a blinding flash of insight in the noonday sun. The medium and the moment, the claim and the love will be God’s alone. Yours alone is the question: Is he there for me? And I, Nicodemus, am here today to say that he most assuredly is.
Prof. Dr. David Zersen is President Emeritus of Concordia University at Austin, Austin, Texas
Source: Göttinger Predigten im Internet, ed. by U. Nembach, J. Neukirch, C. Dinkel, I. Karle ]
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