Genesis  12 :1-4a                   Psalm 121            Romans   4:1-5,13 -17                           John 3:1-17

They call me Nicodemus.  Perhaps you’ve heard of me.  It’s a common enough name, meaning ‘victorious people’.    Sounds like quite an arrogant name for a Jewish child born during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, doesn’t it?  There were a lot of boys named Nicodemus around the year 1BC, when I was born.  Victorious people - we children of Israel can be a bit conceited.  

But I’m the only Nicodemus in the Bible.  Let me tell you about it. 

I had the traditional childhood of a boy of my class.   My father was a member of the Sanhedrin, so I was educated by the rabbis to become a leader of my people, to take my father’s place when he grew old.   I obeyed the laws and the commandments of the priests and did my duty in all things, according to the customs of the Pharisees.  I was good at school and liked by adults, and I tried hard to be faithful and a credit to my family and my people.  At a young age, I became a rabbi myself and assumed my late father’s seat in the Sanhedrin.  This was somewhat unusual as most of the Sanhedrin were wealthy Sadducees.  The Pharisees were generally drawn from the common people; still, my father’s money and position in the community was enough to assure my appointment. It would be my lifelong job to help keep our people safe by enforcing all the laws of the Torah.     

The Sanhedrin consisted of 71 rabbis.  Why 71?  God told Moses, “Gather for Me 70 men from the elders of Israel.” Moses presided over them, as the verse continues, “And they shall stand there with you.” Thus, the 70 judges plus Moses equals 71.  Once Moses passed away, the judge with the greatest knowledge was appointed in his stead, down through centuries.   

The Sanhedrin was always located close to the Temple, to be close to God. In Moses’ time it was near the entrance to the Tabernacle; in later times they were seated in a special chamber in the Temple compound.  Any laws or decrees issued by the Sanhedrin were binding on the entire Jewish nation. Although lower courts consisting of 23 judges could try capital cases, only the Sanhedrin had authority over cases involving the king, capital crimes committed by the high priest, or crimes committed by an entire tribe or city. 

 

 It was a big job – huge, in fact – and a huge responsibility for a man in his 30s.  Through hard work I was doing it capably and well.  But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t enough  I was helping to write laws and render judgments against people who already couldn’t keep Moses’ law, or carry out the new judgments.   The law of the Torah was such a burden for the poor to carry that the very Temple itself was stocked with animals for them to offer as sacrifices for their sins; it was easy and profitable to keep birds, sheep, and other livestock there to sell, and there was no lack of buyers from even the most poverty-stricken of Israel’s people. 

There was a lot of money to be made, selling God’s forgiveness to people who couldn’t do any better.  So the laws were enforced, the rich like me got richer off our profitable businesses, and the poor – well, the poor did the best they could.  

Some days I found myself wondering what, if anything, all this business and busyness had to do with God.  Other days, I was pretty sure it had NOTHING to do with God.  We were keeping the people safe to an extent with the law – safe from the Romans and their brutality, safe from other, worse captors and predators, safe from each other too.  It wasn’t perfect, but it worked most of the time.  The laws bound the people into a community, but it also kept them prisoner to a system that had God firmly socked away in a box, and access was only granted to paying customers with the right pedigree and friends.  A person who was outside the law didn’t have a prayer, in the most literal sense.  

It didn’t seem fair.  All those people trying to please a God who remained silent.  God didn’t speak to His people anymore.  That was all over and done with centuries ago. Still, something in me kept watching the horizon, waiting to hear something or Someone that was more than just the laws and customs. 

Then I heard the new rabbi.  A young man about my own age, who came to town from the middle of nowhere and began teaching and preaching.  I heard him in the Temple courtyard a few times and was astonished at things He said.  Things like commanding – COMMANDING! - that we were to love each other as much as we professed to love God.  Can you imagine?  Loving created things as much as we loved their creator.  It didn’t make a lot of sense – how could we promise to love other people, people who weren’t relatives, who weren’t even Jewish?  

And those stories He told – seeds and sowers and rocky or good soil, women who lost coins, Samaritans who paid good money to save Jews who’d been robbed – it was all crazy talk, but I couldn’t get it out of my head.  And you wouldn’t believe me if I told you about the miracles people attributed to Him.  Healings, mostly.   It was impossible, yet once I saw Him drive a demon out of a child, saw it with my own eyes.  He gave that boy back to his parents, safe and sound.  There was so much I couldn’t understand yet something compelled me to keep trying.   I waited for Him every day in the Temple and got close enough to listen to his preaching while trying to not attract too much attention to myself. I was Sanhedrin and a rabbi myself, after all.  I was used to respect and obedience - but for all my money and connections, I’d never commanded a demon and been obeyed.   

Still, it got so I couldn’t sleep at night for thinking about whatever He’d said earlier that day. Even more than the miraculous healings, it was His words that kept me awake. 

One particular sleepless night, I finally got dressed and went to the house where He was said to be staying.  I was surprised they opened the door for me – a member of the council at your door after dark usually means trouble - but Jesus wouldn’t hear of leaving me outside. There were other people there, still awake and talking to Him at that late hour.  I tried to slip to the back of the room, but Jesus made me come in and sit down beside Him. 

My throat was dry as sandpaper, and I suppose the people in the back of the crowd couldn’t hear me, but I finally managed to say “I know you HAVE to come from God, for no one could do the things you do, apart from God.”  I still don’t know what made me say such a thing; it was a terrible risk.  I guess I expected Him to deny it or tell me that I had misunderstood everything.   A statement like that could be grounds for a charge of blasphemy for both of us.   

But He didn’t deny anything.  Instead, He told me that I could only see the Kingdom of God by being born from above, born of water and Spirit.   That stopped me cold.  Why did He mention seeing the Kingdom of God when I was nowhere near to asking Him about it?  I mean, I intended to ask Him how did worked His miracles, and if He heard God speaking to Him, and who had taught Him all the things I had heard Him say when preaching.    I didn’t ask about the Kingdom of God, I don’t even know what that is.  I didn’t ask about birth, and besides, that’s still more crazy talk.  How can anybody be born a second time even as a baby, much less after growing up? 

Jesus said I had to be born of water and Spirit.

 The children of Israel are no strangers to immersion.  There are any number of baths around Jerusalem available for purification.  This was no different, and yet it was completely different. I could sense that but couldn’t find my voice to say anything more than ‘How?’, when I felt my heart burst open with a feeling I’d never known before.  I suddenly KNEW how much God loved me.  ME, Nicodemus!  It had to be what Jesus meant about being born from above – being born of water and Spirit.  Being made a new person by God, by His infinite goodness.   

And even though I hadn’t asked about the Kingdom of God, I realized that the Kingdom was what I’d always been looking for.  A place where all God’s children belonged, not because they kept the law so well or gave such handsome sacrifices for their sins, but because God loves them, delights in them, wants to be friends.   

And then Jesus said this: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  

I had spent all those years teaching people that they were sinners that God could barely stand to forgive, and trying to protect God from exposure to sinners, when what God REALLY wanted was for us to love Him and each other.  All through His grace and mercy. 

We ARE victorious people, after all.   AMEN+++

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