2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
We don’t know much about Nicodemus, but we’re told one tasty detail that gives a clue as to how Nicodemus may have felt when he went on his own spiritual quest. He went looking for Jesus at night. This suggests that he went in secret; he went knowing that there was some level of risk, knowing that there would likely be consequences to this encounter. I imagine he could literally feel his heart pounding in anticipation and dread as he went looking for Jesus that night.
Nicodemus was a prominent man. He was probably a lawyer or businessman, a leader and teacher of the Jewish people who sat on the most important and prestigious council in the land: the Sanhedrin. Were he alive today we’d describe him as a senior partner in one of the city’s leading law firms or as a managing director or CEO at a major bank or private equity firm. He was a well educated, scholarly man (a Harvard or Stanford type), with access to all the levers of power, yet still a public figure who was susceptible to scandal and wanted badly to avoid it. Thus he goes to Jesus by night.
John tells us that after Jesus had finished with the wedding bash in the village of Cana, where rumors raged that he turned water into wine, he and his friends went to an after-party in Jerusalem. Nicodemus got word that he was in town, and he realized that this was his chance to meet the young rabbi face-to-face. It was late, and Jesus was already in the room where the meeting has been arranged. Only a few with security clearance were in the room with the two men. Nicodemus wasted no time: “I’ve heard about you. I’ve heard about your impressive deeds and about your teaching. What you do and say is odd, it’s different and challenging, but it’s clear that God’s anointing is on you and your work. We scholars know that only God alone can do the things you’re doing. Help me understand what’s going on.”
But Nicodemus has met his intellectual and spiritual match at this secret meeting. Jesus intuits that Nicodemus isn’t coming to make a general inquiry, nor to flatter him. Jesus senses immediately that Nicodemus is asking a deeper set of questions; he’s on a spiritual quest so sincere and real that he’s prepared to take a great risk. So Jesus responds to him by saying, “Nic, you’ve got to start over. You have to be born again.” To which Nic immediately says, “That’s impossibly ridiculous. Am I to crawl into my mother’s womb a second time? Pfff!”
Again, Jesus speaks. “You know better, Nicodemus. You’re a teacher of Israel and you’re smarter than you pretend. What I’m saying is that all the things that you think give you respect, or identity, or security, or value, or importance, those things don’t really matter. If you think that your position, or wealth, or your pedigree are what determine the content and direction of your life, then my brother you’ve got it all wrong. You have to shed those things that give you false security, that convince you of your self-sufficiency and thus alienate you from God and from your neighbors. Your perspective on life has to change so radically that it’s almost as if you have need to be born again. Born from above. When that happens you will yearn for different things. You’ll start over almost like an innocent child who lacks the arrogant security or unbecoming insecurity we’re riddled with as adults. When you can start over, or be born again, you’ll encounter the God your soul so desperately desires. You’ve desired the wrong things, Nic, and if you truly desire God, you must start all over again.”
Can you sense the awkward silence that must have followed Jesus’ words? When Nicodemus finally speaks, all he can mutter is: “How can this be?” I feel such compassion for him because I identify so fully with him. One has to wonder from his question (“How can this be?”) whether he’s really asking, “Can what this man is telling me be true?” or whether he’s really asking a more soul-searching set of questions: “Where did I go wrong? (How can this be?) When did I lose sight of what was most important? (How can this be?) How did I let it get to the point where I have to start over or be born again? (How can this be?)”
These are exactly the questions Jesus intends that we ask ourselves. How can this be? How did I let it get to this point? What does it mean for me to start over? To be born again, from above? These are spiritual quest questions, and they’re questions that can only be answered when we’re truly hungry and when we truly desire God. When we’re mostly preoccupied with ourselves we lack the motivation or capacity to ask and much less to seek the answers to the questions Jesus poses. John the gospel writer understood this well, for this section of chapter 3 doesn’t end with the famous John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” Rather, it ends later in verse 19 where he writes, “This is the basis for judgment: God’s light came into the world, but people loved darkness more than light because they weren’t interested in pleasing God, they sought to please themselves.” (paraphrased).
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night hungry for an encounter of God. He was searching, he was ready, and his heart and mind were supple. He had reached that point in life where he had everything one could desire, yet he found himself asking, “Is that all there is? Is there something more? Something different? Am I on the right path?” He was asking spiritual quest questions, but he was doing more than merely asking them; he was ready for the adventure those questions would instigate. He was ready to encounter God. Nicodemus had decided that it was a good day to do great things.
Are you ready? Do you feel it in the depth of your spirit? Is it a good day for you to do great things? I say it is. It’s a very good day for great things.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Nic was born anew, from above. How can I make this claim? I admit it’s speculative, but not a stretch. Listen to how John the gospel writer concludes the story of Jesus, after he has been crucified and has died. “Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could take away the body of Jesus... Pilate gave him permission, so he came and took the body away. Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night, was there too. He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe, nearly seventy-five pounds in all. Following Jewish burial customs, they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the spices, in linen cloths. There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid…the tomb was nearby, and they laid Jesus in it.” Nicodemus, the man Jesus taught what it meant to be born anew, is the man who physically prepares Jesus’ dead body with spices and lays him gently and lovingly into his tomb. This time he wasn’t afraid of the risk or of the cost. Nic was indeed transformed, changed, born again.
Here’s a truth about spiritual quests: Those willing to start over, to be born from above, to begin the authentic journey toward God will find a God who has been journeying toward you all along. That’s the promise God makes to each of us. That’s what Jesus wanted for Nicodemus to wake up to, because it changes it everything. That journey and encounter prepares us for great things. And as we’ve already said several times, my friends, today is a very, very good day to do great things.
By Javier A. Viera