Grace and Peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
Nicodemus was an interesting case. He was an important man, a member of the ruling council of Israel, as powerful as a cabinet minister or a member of the Canadian senate. He must have had wisdom as well as authority, for Jesus called him a teacher of his people. We’ll pretend that Nicodemus has come to St. Peters to speak to us. “Everyone had heard about Jesus,” he says. “Reports about his teaching and his personality told me that he was the sort of man I’d like, so I wanted to find out for myself. I didn’t want to offend the other members of the ruling council and that’s why I visited him at night. I told him that his miracles had made a big impression on me. He could only have done that sort of thing if God was with him. I’m the kind of man who likes a challenge, and it didn’t take Jesus long to challenge me. He used words in a way I’d never heard before. He said that everyone who wants to see the kingdom of God needs to be born again. Born again, think of it. Not of the flesh this time, but of water and the Spirit. I asked one of his disciples later on what he meant. This man said that the Spirit awakens tired hearts and brings new life. He replaces emptiness with hope and joy. The new kind of life that he brings is eternal and everlasting. We take hold of it by faith.
“This disciple was a big help to me. He told me that faith isn’t simply a general good feeling about life. It needs to be directed toward one specific thing, and that was why Jesus spoke to me about the Son of God – he himself, who came down from heaven and would return to it by way of a cross. Jesus would give his life for the healing of the whole world.
“These assurances came to me as a wonderful surprise. They lifted me up. I’ve discovered that God’s promises have the power to change lives, including mine, as I showed when I defended Jesus later on before the same council I was afraid to upset and when, after he was crucified, I brought spices to anoint his body. He made me strong, you see, and full of faith, and brave. He gave me power and taught me that I could do the right thing even when it’s difficult.
“But I don’t want to talk to you only about myself. Jesus also has a message for the people of Jerusalem and our nation. He once said that he came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, of which I was one. We had strayed and his mission was to bring us back to God. The problem was that we had turned the faith that God gave us to bring us life into a dead religion of habit and custom. One of our leading groups taught that life with God centered around the temple. Another group believed that what counts most is living by the moral code. They had 613 commandments that included 39 laws having to do with the Sabbath. Jesus broke through the traditions we had built up; he taught that life with God depends on faith and on the work of the Spirit. He brought liberty from artificial restraints and the freedom to live in confidence with God.
“The disciple I met said that this was important. Every religion except the faith that Jesus brought into the world teaches that there is only one way to please God and that is by keeping his laws, and that includes, most important, the rule of love. But no one keeps the law perfectly and God demands perfection. In order to save us, then, he needed to take action himself, and so he sent his Son, who kept the law perfectly for us and then gave up his life to pay for our shortcomings. The Heavenly Father doesn’t condemn us for our failures. He asks us to trust in Jesus, who won the salvation that we can’t earn ourselves. Other religions emphasize what we need to do. Jesus proclaims what God has done for us. We cling to him.
“But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jesus breathed new life into our old faith. He wanted to give the people of Israel new energy so that we would be the blessing for the rest of the world that God intended. He wants to bring every single person to faith in him; he intended to use his beloved children of Israel to help him.
“So when Jesus told me about God’s love for the world and his own work, he was also speaking to everyone, Jews and Gentiles, female and male, old and young. People everywhere are busy; we make plans; we use our abilities to do the best we can. Most of us know how to stay interested in life and many are comfortable. Resilience is part of human nature; we know how to recover from setbacks. At the same time, the Scriptures teach us that God sees the world as full of sin – dead in its trespasses. He turns his wrath on sin. No one could blame him if he shut the world down. He doesn’t work that way, though. He loves the world. His will is to save, not condemn, so he sent his Son to rescue us. He offers a new kind of life, one that isn’t based on sin, that begins with the new birth he told me about. This is his gift to us, which he gives to us by waking up our faith in him. Faith in the Savior who died for us is a sign of life and makes us alive through him. We turn from death to life, away from sin to God and his Son – a hundred times every day, sometimes without even noticing it, and this life is eternal and everlasting. Death can’t wipe it out, because death is the gateway through which we pass to the heavenly world.
“God does not wish to exclude anyone from eternal life. He calls to us all. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son...’ I think you know the rest. The disciple told me that this sentence is so full of meaning that if we know only these words and nothing else from the Bible and that if we take hold of them in faith, we will be saved. They make sad folks happy and bring to life those whose souls are dead. What a blessing to people who fear they must please God with their own works and know that they can’t. Everyone who believes in Jesus is saved.
“But there’s a catch. By nature, we love sin more than we love God. We prefer to do things on our own. It’s natural for us to say when the light of Christ appears that we don’t need it, that we are strong, we can rely on ourselves. We say that sin is only a minor defect that we can overcome if we try hard enough, when the fact is that sin is a powerful force that corrupts human nature. Evil touches everyone. How common it is for us to cherish our sins and to make excuses for them – anger, lust, selfishness, pride. We can come up with reasons for everything we do that’s wrong and then keep on doing it. And when the light of Christ comes, we run away into the shadows, because we don’t want to hear sin called by its right name.
“Still, the light of Christ keeps on shining and some folks, like the ones who worship at St. Peters, catch on. We don’t take hold of salvation until we understand that we’re helpless without God. With him, we are saved. Jesus comes to us with God’s love. He doesn’t give up. He is faithful and loving and won’t go back on his promises. He brings us here today to rejoice in the new life he has prepared for us through his earthly ministry and his death and resurrection.
“God is not harsh or severe, but just and loving. He smiles on our faith and forgives our failings. The trials that come to us aren’t punishments but ways God uses to test and refine us. Because we believe in Jesus, God does not judge us. It may be that our faith is shaky at times, but our Heavenly Father doesn’t look only at passing moments. He sees the future, where what may be small at one point can grow to great strength.
“It’s enough to believe in Jesus with words only, but with heart and soul and mind. Judgment won’t fall on us when the great day comes. God will affirm publicly the verdict he had already passed on us because of our faith in his Son. He claims us as his adopted children; he promises to bless us with the ability to carry on in the faith until the day of fulfillment when we will reign as kings and queens alongside our Savior.
“I invite you,” Nicodemus concludes, “to thank God for his promises to us in Christ. We praise him for the offer of eternal life that he gave to the world through his Son. We remember, too, that our Heavenly Father is using us now. His church and her people are blessings to the whole world. We don’t keep Jesus’ gifts of faith to ourselves but spread them around. His light shines through us so that others see Jesus in us. We each give a testimony in our own way. We don’t give up. We keep on going. Only God himself can see what good things he will make out of our faith in him. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.