When I was a child, I was afraid to swim.
I liked being in the water, but I didn’t like
being in over my head. At all.
So if you saw at my old family vacation photos, I was the kid always at the shallow end of the swimming pool, clinging tightly to the side.
I wanted to wade out to the deep parts, where everyone else was having a great time, but I didn’t because I was afraid.
And this is similar to the way we live our spiritual lives today.
Sometimes, you see, we’re just afraid of the deep water.
We just haven’t learned how to swim.
We don’t have faith that we can actually do it.
In a lot of ways, Nicodemus was like this, too.
In just our reading today, we learn a lot about Nicodemus, but he’s actually mentioned three times in John’s Gospel.
In the third chapter, that we read today, Nicodemus approaches Jesus under the cover of night to find out where Jesus gets his miraculous power;
A little later, he is seen advising his fellow Pharisees to hold off on judging Jesus until they learn more about him;
And then, at the end of John’s Gospel, who is it that provides 100 pounds of aloe and myrrh for Jesus’s burial after he is crucified?
It’s this Pharisee named Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, who by all means, is a man of means.
Even as a Jew living in a Roman world, he is rich and powerful.
He is influential. He can afford to take chances because he is a successful, upper-class elite.
Yet despite all of this, he yearns for something deeper.
All that the world has to offer him is still nothing in comparison to what he truly desires.
That peace and calm that continues to elude him at the shallow end of his life is worth wading out into the deep end and risking everything to learn more about Jesus:
— Even under in the secrecy of the dark night. Nicodemus doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s interested in what Jesus has.
— Even risking his place among his peers, telling them to hold off on judging Jesus. Here, Nicodemus is going very public about his interest in this new Jesus movement and the person of Jesus.
— and even risking it all on making the donation of funeral costs after the Jews — and the Pharisees — killed Jesus. And what does this mean? It means Nicodemus had come to believe in Jesus — Jesus Messiah, Jesus the Christ.
Nicodemus, you see, goes out to the deep end, and Nicodemus becomes born again.
And this is what he kept coming back to Jesus for.
Jesus offers rebirth
What does Jesus offer Nicodemus?
We see Nicodemus in the secret of night admitting that Jesus was sent by God.
He tells Jesus in Verse 2, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God, because no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God were with him.”
And how does Jesus respond?
“Truly, truly I tell you, unless you are born anew, you cannot see the kingdom of God.”
This makes no sense to Nicodemus. And he questions how he can be reborn.
Nicodemus, you see, is a man more of reason than faith.
And diving into the deep end does not seem reasonable.
But he’s changing. He wants that faith. It’s why he keeps coming back.
He’s testing the waters, isn’t he? Not fully immersed. Not yet.
What is happening here is profound. As a successful Pharisee, Nicodemus believes he knows all the answers.
Pharisees are well-educated and well-versed in the Old Testament — the Law and the prophets.
But instead of having the answer now, he has nothing but questions — and desire!
Nicodemus moves from professed understanding to professed lack of understanding. And this calls into question his very own identity as a teacher of the Law.
He must give up worldly reason for spiritual faith.
Nicodemus is going deeper and deeper, from testing the water to being immersed in it.
Jesus says in Verse 5: “Unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Water and the Spirit is not two elements, but one here.
It is a combined physical and spiritual birth. Flesh and spirit together.
This is what baptism is. Bringing this physical creation together with the spiritual.
But then Jesus adds this in Verse 14: “…just as Moses lifted on high the serpent in the desert, so also must the Son of Humankind be lifted up, so that everyone believing in him should have eternal life.”
Let’s take that apart.
Moses lifted on high the serpent in the desert. This comes from Numbers 21.4-9, in which the Israelites are in the desert complaining about the bread that’s falling from the sky for them to eat as they're making they way out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
God sends a poisonous serpent, which bites and kills a whole bunch of Israelites.
The Israelites seek Moses’s help, and he prays, and God tells Moses to fashion a bronze snake, put it high up on a pole, and if the people who had been bitten pass under it and have faith, they will be saved.
And so back to our reading this morning in John, Jesus tells us the Son of Humankind must be lifted up this very same way.
That whoever believes in him will be saved.
And so we have to pause and think about that statement.
What does it mean to lift up Jesus like the serpent was lifted on a pole?
Yes, Jesus will be lifted up onto the cross.
And then he will be lifted from the tomb — the resurrection.
And then he will be lifted into heaven — the ascension.
And when they see, they will believe. They will be saved.
They will be given eternal life.
Nicodemus begins to understand that what Jesus is offering him is something much greater than anything the world could give him.
And we know it is something much greater than anything the world can give any of us.
So what is our response? We must ask ourselves:
Are we, like Nicodemus, coming to Jesus in the secret of the night, so that no one knows?
It sounds silly, but it serves as a great metaphor at the way we are afraid to share the Gospel these days.
Does that mean we have to be in-your-face, judgmental or privileged Christians who evangelize by annoying people, passing out tracts or imposing our moral standards upon others?
No, that’s not what I mean.
But are we afraid to pray with others in public? Can we share our faith in broad daylight?
Are we teaching our families and friends about Jesus?
Are we creating spaces for God and inviting others into those spaces?
And like the curious and longing Nicodemus, are we asking our friends and family — anyone in our circles — to not pass such harsh judgment on Jesus, or on Christians.
Do we see situations in the world today and state publicly, “Go to God!” or at least, “We need to pray on this.”
And are we willing to show how Jesus changed our lives — again, publicly — just as Nicodemus did by sacrificing his position to bring aloe and myrrh to the King?
What do we give?
In this way, we openly proclaim our faith.
We let the world know Jesus is our Savior.
Wade in the Water
What does Jesus ask of us?
We see the answer in what he asks Nicodemus.
Be my disciple, I will give you eternal life.
Isn’t that simple?
And so the theological question that we need to ask ourselves is this:
Based on what we know of God’s nature, and what God is doing in our lives, what does God require of us? (repeat)
The short answer is to be Jesus’s disciple.
For us, it means not just kicking off our shoes, rolling up our cuffs and wading into the water — testing the waters timidly, so to speak.
It means just as we are and exactly where we are, now, today, diving in, unabashedly into the deep end of God’s love.
It means remerging with that water having cleansed our hearts and working to stay free from sin.
It means remerging with that water having cleansed our eyes and being able to see, to differentiate between hate and love, lies and truth, injustice and justice.
And it means working to lead others off the sandbar and into the waves.
The calm is in the deep waters. That’s where we are called to be.
It’s the same image we see in the Sacrament of Baptism.
When we Baptize a person into the Body of Christ, we are testifying that we are fully immersed in the Body, and work as the Body of Christ.
We ask, among other things, “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races?”
And we answer publicly, “I do.”
And we are immersed in the water.
We rise from the water, like Noah from the flood.
We rise from the water, like God’s people coming out of the Red Sea that God opened.
We rise like Jesus from the water of the womb — fully human.
We rise like Jesus anointed with the waters of the Jordan.
We rise with our sins washed away.
Reborn through water and spirit.
All of these images come from our Baptism language, among the most wonderful and meaningful images in our lives.
And with this reading today, and in this service today, we remember those images, those words and those acts that wash us clean and that unite us body and soul with the Spirit.
Because this is how much God loved the world:
God gave God’s only-begotten son, so that everyone believing into him should not be destroyed, but should have eternal life.
Reborn to be given eternal life, which means living now in the unending presence of God.
Earlier I asked, based on what we know of God’s nature, and what God is doing in our lives, what does God require of us?
We have been born into the Body of Christ in Baptism.
The waters of God’s mercy, love and grace surround us.
This is where peace and calm is.
Why does the shore look so tempting to us sometimes, when we know of the comfort that’s found in God’s deep love?
This is where we need to stop, and stop letting this notion of some false idea dictate how we live our lives.
Sometimes, we might find ourselves on that shore, with what feels like solid ground beneath our feet.
And sometimes, we feel like we’ve been washed up on that shore, shipwrecked.
And we stand, longing for something greater — but it’s the same shore.
This is when we need to let faith be our guide, and let the Holy Spirit take us by the hand and the heart and lead us back into the calm waters again.
We wade in, and then we have to make a decision: Do we stay right there up to our ankles?
Do we turn back?
Or do we dive in head-first?
God doesn’t want just a part of you; he wants you all.
This is why God sent Jesus, and why Jesus died for us all.
Every one of us.
When we’re standing there deciding, we need to remember this.
God wants ALL of you.