It must have looked suspicious. An elderly man – dressed in some finery perhaps, sneaking around the darkened streets. His name was Nicodemus – I admire him and feel rather sorry for him.
He was a Jewish aristocrat, very well educated in Religious Law, wealthy and with a great deal to lose. He was like a very wealthy Oxford Professor, perhaps. Someone used to having the answers – not being challenged and probably stuck in his ways.
He was the great leader of the Pharisees whose credo was this. If God’s written word was perfect and as was God, then it must have everything we need to live a Godly life in minute minute detail. And so they unpicked the Word and applied it everywhere with rules and principles and regulations.
They took principles and turned them into legalism. A principle like – keep the Sabbath Holy, and do not work on that day. Ah but what counts as work? Generations wrote millions of lists – each codifying what work is. So to tie a knot is work if tied with two hands, but tied with one hand is not work.
But this great legal mind – Nicodemus can’t rest because he has begun to have his doubts. He has a very modern question. What does it take to be close to God? And stacked up behind that question are others we might have like – What is the character of God, What does God offer us.
Of course, the problem with legalism is that it cannot answer the simplest, most important, most childish question – what is Love, and especially what is God’s love like? It’s like this – you can list every ingredient in a magnificent cake but that won’t help you know that the cake was made for your mother who has gone through hell and high water for you, and to say thank you for all her love and sacrifice.
So back to Nicodemus, creeping around at night, restless. He has taken a vast risk, of going to visit a troublesome, Rabbi to ask him, yes this scruffy provincial, some thing very important.
Just give that a second to sink in. A ruler of the Jews – wants to speak with Jesus. He was a member of the supreme court of the Jews and he wanted to speak with Jesus. An aristocrat on his way to chat to a carpenter. Jesus a homeless prophet and this man wants to talk about his very soul.
That’s why I admire him so much.
The thing he gets stuck on is what it might mean to be born again – to start again. You see he is a literalist. He can’t picture it. And old man being literally born of a woman again. It is a problem that the language of God of salvation isn’t always up to the job.
Jesus tells him you need to be born in the Spirit of God. Let yourself go. Get over yourself and your rules and let God do the work in you. Turn towards him and just say yes,
How hard is to let go. Especially when we have power and position. But it is liberating. I think that is what being born again is. Not magic. Not a secret society. Sometimes we don’t know it has even happened.
For C S Lewis it was on a bus on the way to Chessington Zoo. He described it as like passing over the border to another country.
And it is then that we get to the big question and the big answer – very valuable as we toil through Lent.
What is God like, what’s he for?
Go loves the world…I was once at a rather energetic Christian gathering and one of the leaders a well known one. Took up the microphone and said this. God is repulsed by certain behaviours. He said, I walked through Soho and I knew what God was disgusted.
Ah…but let us go back to our Bibles. God so loved the World. Yes he wants us to be the best version of ourselves we can be, Yes we are ambassadors – and that implies a responsibility to love others, be kind, slow to anger and so on. Yes we all wrestle with sin and need to come to God for his forgiveness and renewal.
But Nicodemus heard something that night that changed his whole life. God so loved the World that he sent his only Son so that everyone who believes in him should have eternal life. That is what it is to born again and saved. Saved to and for God.
Later Nicodemus becomes one of the earliest followers of Christ. Rescuing his body and laying it in a tomb.
We don’t anything else about him. We don’t know where his faith led him. But we see in his questions and Jesus answer the very essence of intellectual and emotional grounding of the faith. You can’t work your way to God. It is all Grace and that is why St Paul made the following his life’s work – he had a similar revelation to Nicodemus – I preach Christ and Him Crucified.
So do I.