Nicodemus is a fascinating character. When he first opens his mouth to speak to Jesus, the words sound pious and Godly, and surprisingly, especially coming from a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin, surprisingly, he sounds sympathetic to Christ. He has seen some of the signs and wonders that Christ has done. Perhaps he had seen Jesus change the water into wine at Cana, or watched as a blind man received his sight back, saw a demon driven out, looked on as someone whose legs refused to move stand up and walk, or saw Jesus walk into the temple in a righteous fury, overturning tables and cracking a whip, sending men and cattle stampeding, and heard Jesus say that he would rebuild the Temple to what it should be. He saw these things and, in contrast to the rest of the Pharisees who charge in St. Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus drove out the demons by the prince of demons, Nicodemus saw that anyone who did such great things as these must be sent from God. And it seems like he gets it. There doesn’t appear to be any irony or sarcasm in his voice. He sees what Jesus has done, sees that Jesus is going to make the world a better place. That he’s helping people in need and reforming their religion back to what it ought to be. He’s been successful so far, and certainly that is proof that “God is with him.”
And then comes Jesus’ response to all of this. Nicodemus, you’re close, but you’re way off. You don’t get it. You have not seen the Kingdom of God, and right now, you will not be able to enter it.
In darkness, Nicodemus has come, seeking out Christ, the Light of the World, thinking that he has grasped the light, that he knows from where it came, and wanting to make sure that they’re both going in the same direction. But as he came in out of the darkness, into the presence of the Light, he was left disoriented and confused, struggling to make sense out of what is there in front of him.
This is the problem that the world has as well. The world in its darkness either flees from the light or thinks that it can assimilate Christ into it its own agenda. It can tolerate a Christ who came to show us how to love each other better, a Christ who came to prod us along to help those in need, a Christ who came to inspire political revolution against corrupt, oppressive regimes.
And in our own lives, we are tempted to make a similar judgment, and make earthly things the standard by which we judge God’s presence in our lives. We want to be able to see the signs and say “surely this couldn’t have happened unless God was with us.” When things keep working out in our favor, when the bank account stays at a nice comfortable level or even grows a bit, when everyone in the family is getting along with each other and staying healthy, even in our spiritual life, when we can say hey, I’ve been good with my Bible readings, I’ve been keeping up my prayers, I’ve been at church every week, and everything’s going well, surely God is at work here.
Even in the Church this can come to be how we think about things. We are tempted to see God at work only in the flashy things. As if God only works through flashy new websites and no longer in old fashioned print media. He is at work with splendid new organs, but not so much through a lowly electric piano. Fancy programs that attract plenty of new members are signs that God surely must be at work. But when the numbers aren’t there, do we conclude that the program is not blessed by God. Or the charitable works which we can point to, in which we can measure the good we have done for the poor of the world; it is these we look at and think “surely God has blessed our efforts.”
And none of this is to say that any of these things that we look to are bad. All of them are good things that we can be happy about and thankful for. But we are tempted make these things the measure of all God’s involvement in the world. We are tempted to take the easy way, the way that we can see, the way we can point to, the way that we can measure.
And so, when we are faced with difficult times- when the money runs low, the family starts fighting and someone falls ill, when we find ourselves falling time and again into temptation, when the church attendance drops, or the website crashes, we start to wonder what went wrong. We feel lost and forgotten, and we want to say, “Surely God is not at work in our lives any longer. Surely God has abandoned us.” When the signs and the blessings stop, we’re left wondering if God is really for us anymore.
But Christ says to Nicodemus, who says that he is sure he is seeing God at work in the world through the signs that Christ has done, he says to him that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is still in the dark, he tells him, he is not seeing, not able to comprehend the true work of God. And goes on to further explain that “everyone who believes in the Son of Man may have eternal life,” but only when the Son of Man has been lifted up as the snake in the wilderness.
Christ tells Nicodemus that true evidence of God’s love for the world, the place where the glory of God’s kingdom in the world, is in the last place we might ever look for love or glory, a dead man hanging on a cross. It is Christ’s death that shows us what the Kingdom of God is all about and what God’s will for the world is: He loved the world so much that He sent His only-begotten Son to suffer and die for us, so that we might be brought back into the Kingdom.
Where God is to be found at work in the world, then, the places we can point to and be sure of is where Christ crucified is proclaimed, where Christ’s body broken and blood shed are administered and received and where people are Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.
In our baptisms, we are buried with Christ in His death, and our life becomes not one of steady improvement, where we can point to our progress, to our blessings, and say how good we are becoming, how much God is at work for us, but instead, it becomes a cycle of daily dying to sin and rising to a new life in Christ. A cycle that ends only upon our last death, when we are raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit, and taken to Christ to be His own and live under him in His Kingdom.
Until then, we can rejoice in the good things of this world, the blessings that God gives us, the work being done to bring others to faith, and the work being done to help the needy. But our faith doesn’t rest there. Websites become old news in a hurry. Organs grow old and wear out. Bank accounts rise and fall, health comes and goes. The life of a Christian is often far less than a victory march. Suffering indeed will come. It came to our Lord. And just as Satan pushed Christ to strive for and measure glory through earthly means, the temptation to take that easy way out is there for us as well.
But having been baptized into Christ’s death, we have something that is more sure and certain than any fleeting glory in this world. Something that lasts. Something that calls us out of the darkness and into the light. The promise that just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too will walk in the newness of life. Amen.