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Sunday sermon 16 August 2015 – Secret Disciples, and Jewish insomniacs

Sunday 16 August 2015

Readings: John 3:1-21; John 19:38-42

We had a great time here at Tuesday church on Tuesday – and started thinking about this passage from John 3. Nicodemus is the man here – a member of the ruling Jewish Council – who comes to see Jesus at night. Perhaps he has insomnia. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be seen with this controversial preacher from Galilee.

What I love about the interaction they have is the way Jesus gives answers to questions that are not asked. But they are questions that need answering! I think if he showed up here, the same thing could happen. We might think we have relevant questions or comments – but really what matters is what he says. After all, he knows best does he not?

On Wednesday at home group we were talking about which gospel is best recommend for new Christians to read. Rob Harley in his talk suggested John’s gospel. Some of us had different views – preferring Luke for historical accuracy with his sequel in Acts, or Mark’s Gospel for brevity.

John in this gospel account takes us on this amazing journey of signs and responsive teachings by Jesus. Things progress quite quickly at the beginning.  There’s a prologue in chapter 1. Then there’s John the Baptist identifying Jesus. Then Jesus’ encounter with his first followers. Then there was the interesting engagement Jesus has with Nathanael.

In chapter 2 there’s the first major sign Jesus does at a wedding – turning water into wine (with his mum getting involved!). There must have been others. In any case he cleanses the temple in chapter 2 as well – and at the end of the chapter John lays out the difficulty here: Joh 2:23  Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. Joh 2:24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. Joh 2:25 He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.

And in the very next chapter (chapter 3) John gives an example of a particular man:  Verse 1 reads: Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.

The water into wine sign, together with whatever else Jesus had done, certainly got this specific man going – this Jewish guy with the Irish sounding name. Listen to what he says (after knocking on the door where Jesus was that evening):

He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:2)

You always wonder what people are up to when they say something nice about you, and follow it by a “but there’s this problem…”. Jesus gets to the heart of things. I love the response – “I tell you the truth”.  Those “verily verily” sayings (as translated by the KJV).

This has to get your attention. Tom Wright translates it like this: ‘Let me tell you the solemn truth,’ Wright, Tom (2002-10-18). John for Everyone Part 1: Chapters 1-10 Pt. 1 (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 27). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

Joh 3:3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

The question was – which we talked about on Tuesday – if you were to live your life again, would you do the same things – follow the same career, or do things differently? In the conversation I had with my son – who asked me this very question – I was clear that I would not want to go to school again. He was surprised – he thought I liked school. I didn’t like the bullying. What he didn’t know was that I was always the youngest in my whole grade. That can be tricky.

I reckon the best answer about the decisions you make comes from the wife of Billy Graham when speaking on prayer. She said something like this: “I am glad that God didn’t answer all my prayers. If he did I would have married the wrong man – more than once!”

Nicodemus’ question is reasonable – if you think only in terms of this world and the one shot we have at life. He says this: Joh 3:4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

This time he gets a real answer to his question – with an upgrade. Not only will you not see the Kingdom of God (which is the heart of Jesus’ teaching and the first major request in the Lord’s Prayer which shapes what we pray for afterwards too).

You won’t enter it either: Listen again:

Joh 3:5  Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.

Joh 3:6  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Joh 3:7  You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’

Joh 3:8  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

 This bright lad with all the training is left scratching his head:

Joh 3:9  “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

And this time he gets a real lecture:

Joh 3:10  “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?

Joh 3:11  I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.

Joh 3:12  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?

The rest is history – as they say. John 3:16 forms part of that lecture that Nicodemus gets. Of course what we don’t know is who told John so that the story of the man who came to Jesus at night turns up in John’s gospel.

Like Thomas later in the gospel, questions get thorough answers in John’s gospel. Great teaching comes out of bad interviews. (Remember Thomas – when Jesus talks about where he is going in John 14:

 Joh 14:4  You know the way to the place where I am going.” Joh 14:5  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Joh 14:6  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Thanks Thomas.

We don’t hear much more about Nicodemus. He appears once in John 7 where he sticks up for Jesus on the basis of natural justice. He gets shut down.

Joh 7:43  Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.

Joh 7:44  Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.

Joh 7:45  Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”

Joh 7:46  “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards declared.

Joh 7:47  “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted.

Joh 7:48  “Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him?

Joh 7:49  No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

Joh 7:50  Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked,

Joh 7:51  “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”

Joh 7:52  They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”

Joh 7:53  [Then each went to his own home.

And then there is Jesus’ funeral. Listen again to what we heard in the second reading today:

Joh 19:38  Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.

Joh 19:39  He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.

One gets the feeling that it’s like sending too many flowers to a funeral – maybe out of regret.

Nicodemus – still recognised as the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night.

Joseph of Arimathea is there: Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. Secret disciples. And the one that came to see Jesus by night.

Was Nicodemus a disciple?

I’m not really sure. Luckily for Joseph John wrote his gospel quite late in the piece. If Galatians was the earliest book in the New Testament to be written – John’s gospel is probably the last. Had it been written early – I guess Joseph of Arimathea would have lost his category of one of the earliest secret disciples!

It is a challenge for others too – for the wrong reasons. Later on in John 12 we read:

Joh 12:42  Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue;

Joh 12:43  for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.

I recommend you read John. Listen to Tom Wright on this book:

The gospel of John has always been a favourite for many. At one level it is the simplest of all the gospels; at another level it is the most profound. It gives the appearance of being written by someone who was a very close friend of Jesus, and who spent the rest of his life mulling over, more and more deeply, what Jesus had done and said and achieved, praying it through from every angle, and helping others to understand it. Countless people down the centuries have found that, through reading this gospel, the figure of Jesus becomes real for them, full of warmth and light and promise. It is, in fact, one of the great books in the literature of the world; and part of its greatness is the way it reveals its secrets not just to high-flown learning, but to those who come to it with humility and hope. (So here it is: John for everyone!). Wright, Tom (2002-10-18). John for Everyone Part 1: Chapters 1-10 Pt. 1 (New Testament for Everyone) . SPCK. Kindle Edition.

Epilogue:

Of course there is this final question. We know that you can’t be a secret disciple in some places. And daily people are being martyred for being Christ followers.

And in some places it is wise not to publicise your faith – especially if you put others at risk.

What about me and you? Are we also lurking in the night or being secret followers of Jesus? Perhaps we are also John 12:43 followers unwilling to confess our faith publicly – as John puts it – “for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.”

Are we going to be remembered like Nicodemus and Joseph? Or would it be better to be remembered like Nathaniel or perhaps Thomas.

Its worth reading John’s gospel to reflect on this.

Amen. Amen.

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Tuesday Church sermon 9 April – Born again

Reading: John 3: 7-15

I love to read about Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus at night – possibly because of privacy or secrecy (Jesus was a controversial person in the ruling Jewish Council) – possibly because he was a prayerful student who studied late at night – who knows really?

I also love the details about Jesus’ burial – in John 19:38 – Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.  John 19:39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. So good to see that Nicodemus does become a disciple!

The idea that you can be born again is perplexing to him. But Jesus is clear: You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.”

When Nicodemus says: ‘How can this be?’  – Jesus is more direct: 10 ‘You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and do you not understand these things?

So are you? Born again?  Jesus says – You should not be surprised at my saying this!

It’s very clear that the Christian life is about a new beginning. Two things are very clear from today’s reading:

  1. It’s a work of the Holy Spirit – a spiritual rebirth!
  2. It involves the cross!

1. It’s a work of the Holy Spirit – a spiritual rebirth! We are born of the Holy Spirit – listen again to Jesus:

You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’

The word for spirit and wind are the same in both bible languages.  In the NT it is pneuma – here are various English words that come from this. The point is – you can’t actually see the wind, but you can see its effect. So too the Holy Spirit.

We don’t talk about the Holy Spirit enough. It is through the Holy Spirit that we receive assurance of faith (Rom 8:16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.) We experience the love of God through the Spirit: Romans 5:5 – because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. We are told to be “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18 – Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit,) which is about on ongoing relationship with God who is spirit (John 4:24 – God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” ) and who empowers us with his transforming presence.

And it all begins with the spiritual rebirth – we are to be born again (from above) and born of the spirit – a touch and regeneration by the spirit – a bringing to life of our spirits so that we begin to experience the things that are in a different realm – the realm of the spirit. That realm – using another word for realm – is the Kingdom of God.

The Christian life is a spiritual life!

2. The Christian life also involves the cross – there is no escaping Easter here!

John also records these words of Jesus: 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’

This spiritual life – being born again by the spirit – also involves our being saved from a life of sin and death and being launched into a life in the spirit.

This is also referred to as “eternal life” and it is found in Jesus (verse 15  – “that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him”).

The reference to Moses is interesting here. The Israelites were in trouble – condemned to die because of their sin – which interestingly was not the breaking of the 10 commandments directly, but GRUMBLING. Listen to the account from Numbers 21:

Num 21:4  They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way;  Num 21:5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Num 21:6  Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.  Num 21:7  The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

Num 21:8  The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”  Num 21:9  So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

Grumbling against God and against God’s leaders gets people into trouble! They looked to the bronze serpent – and they were saved from death!

The parallel is clear. The bronze snake was lifted up – just as Moses lifted that symbol up in the wilderness, so to the Son of Man was to be lifted up “15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

They confessed their sin and asked for prayer – and Moses prayed for them. “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.  ” (Numbers 21:7.) We too look to the cross – and confess our sin! Well we should.

And of course this story is told to Nicodemus as a warning. One commentator, James Philip, puts it like this:

This was surely one element in Nicodemus’ situation: his was a willing blindness. He did not want to see the truth about the necessity for rebirth, because seeing it would have been at that point much too costly a thing for him. He resisted the truth because his heart was in rebellion against God, as much as the Israelites were. (James Philip was the minister of the Holyrood Abbey Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. He died in 2009. A great pastor-teacher)

That’s a warning to us when we say “oh we don’t need to be born again! We don’t need this Holy Spirit business. We’re just fine!

We need to really seek this fullness of life – the new birth – the fullness of the Spirit – a full understanding of what eternal life is – with our eyes firmly fixed on the cross.

Amen.