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  • Added March 29th, 2011
  • Filed under 'Sermons'
  • Viewed 2437 times

Jesus meets Nicodemus

By Donald Phillipps in Sermons

A sermon preached on Lent 2, March 20, 2011

'"This Son of Man must be lifted up as the serpent was lifted up by Moses in the wilderness ..."' - John 3 :14


These days we have five or six full-time TV channels devoted to sport - in common with every other aspect of modern life we are sinking under the weight of non-stop, endless, often boring, entertainment

There's one channel where you can watch greyhound-racing - about as exciting as watching a darts match, or grass grow - there are infinitely more thrills and skills to be seen in a game of lawn bowls

I've never been to a race-course, yet, but in an older day horse-racing was about the most exciting thing you could listen to on the radio and I sometimes did just that

In February 1960 a little horse, referred to as the 'mighty atom', won the Inter Dominion trotting cup at Harold Park Raceway in Sydney - its real name was Caduceus and that word caught my fancy

The caduceus is the staff of the messenger of the Greek Gods, named Hermes, or Mercury - around the staff are entwined a pair of serpents

One myth has Hermes seeing two serpents bound in mortal combat - he separated them and brought about peace between them, and as a result the wand with two serpents came to be seen as a sign of peace

God instructed Moses to fashion a pole upon which he was to position a serpent made of copper; when looked at it would spare the lives of any Israelite bitten by a venomous snake bite

But more to the point - there was among the ancients the belief that the ability of the snake to slough off its skin was tantamount to a new birth - snakes didn't grow old - they remade themselves

Last week we had the story of the temptation of Eve by a snake - snakes were an enormously potent symbol in ancient times - for the people of the Middle East, as for every other ancient culture

The snake is one of just two animals in the OT who are given then power of speech - when Jesus referred to a snake in his conversation with Nicodemus he would have touched a nerve, as it were

For a moment I want to continue to explore the picture of the serpent, and to return that very ancient notion of what happens when the snake sloughs off its skin

We've probably seen pictures of the process, and how a seemingly new creatures emerges - it's a powerful image, one that might suggest to the ancients that a brand-new creature had come into being

Does anything strike you about this image when you think about the devastation that two huge earthquakes have wrought in New Zealand and Japan

We have been advised that there will be a Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Christchurch quake - to what purpose I wonder - what will we learn about it that we did not already know

We have been reminded of the predictions made well over a decade ago and more about the nature of the terrain on which Christchurch is built - are we any more likely now to heed new warnings

Forty and more years ago the Japanese electricity authorities were being warned that to construct nuclear reactors on their mainland was extremely dangerous, given Japan's seismic fragility

What risks industrial nations take with their own people for the sake of increasing production and profits, and employment of course - what blind eyes there are in the world of global capitalism

Is Mother Nature teaching us a sort of lesson - does the skin we're so carelessly putting on the surface of the earth with our great buildings and our dams need to be sloughed off, too

Well, that's obviously too simplistic and answer - but we already know enough about the nature of the earth's crust to now that we have to be enormously careful about where and how we build

I look at pictures of the Burj Al Arab hotel at Dubhai, 1053 ft high, shaped like a sail, built on an artificial island - and I think of the Tower of Babel - and I wonder at human arrogance

As Jesus says, in a way, a cyclone blows where it will - we can predict and control them no more than we can a major earthquake - what will it take us to learn to care for our world

I haven't yet finished with this sloughing off notion - because it has to take me into the heart of Jesus discussion with Nicodemus - he simply couldn't understand how radical was this new teaching

Nicodemus - he may well have been the wealthy and respected Jew, Nicodemus ben Gurion who lived in Jerusalem in the 1st century CE, known from other sources for his holiness and generosity

As a member of the ruling Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, he would have been an opponent of some of those who supported Jesus as a Messiah, and who were prepared to foment rebellion against Rome

However generous, however moderating an influence he was among his powerful colleagues, however intrigued by this extraordinary young preacher from Nazareth, Nicodemus was a pillar of the traditional faith

He took pains not to be seen in his company - though he might have been ready to allow that this Jesus spoke good sense and did some wonderful things, he simply wasn't on his wave-length

And this was never more evident when Jesus started to talk about God's future - as a loyal Jew Nicodemus could not possibly imagine how radical was Jesus' personal understanding of the God of Israel

The moment Jesus used language like, "I tell you, we speak of what we know, and testify to what we have seen...", Nicodemus would have been lost at best, and offended at worst

The God he and his equally devout but traditional countrymen believed in was not a God who could ever be regarded as intimate in the way in which Jesus described him

Only when you speak as Jesus did, and out of this sort of relationship with God, is it possible to understand what he is saying when he says to Nicodemus that he must be born again

Nicodemus thinks it's bizarre - all about re-entering the womb and, to go back to my earlier picture, putting on a new skin - the 'ruler of the Jews' didn't have that vision or imagination

His God conforms to what has been taught for centuries - whereas Jesus' God, and Father, is making all things new

If, for Nicodemus, God has to work, it might be a little inaptly said, through known channels - the grace of God will not be so confined, but will reveal itself as it chooses, like the wind, like the Holy Spirit

In this passage from John, Jesus stretches the language of ordinary communication almost to breaking-point - you and I have to be careful not to jump to conclusions, to assume we know what he means

Having baffled Nicodemus with his picture of re-birth, it then seems to me that he took him on another journey into the abstract world of symbols when he talked about Moses and the serpent on a staff

I can imagine the older man trying to make the connection - he would have known that story as well as anyone - it simply had to do with the founder of his nation taking steps to care for his people

If, as is the case, the brief section from Numbers 21 where this account appears is a puzzle to present-day scholars, it may well have been the same for the people of Nicodemus' time

When a story is complicated it's easiest to take it at face value - there were venomous snakes in the wilderness causing havoc, and Moses, guided by God finds a way of dealing with the plague

I don't believe that John understood Jesus' use of the story like this at all - it makes sense to me, as it does to many scholars, that the key phrase is that the Son of Man must be lifted up

Just as the lifting up of the caduceus is a symbol used by Moses to demonstrate the awesome power of God, so will be the lifting up of Jesus at his death

Remember that John was writing his account a forty or even fifty years after Jesus' death, when the cross was already a unique symbol of the new faith in Christ

I don't think I am stretching the analogy too far when I suggest that already, by that time, it was part of the graphic symbolism of Christian worship to raise the cross in the presence of Christ's people

Remember that the very first writer to attempt to explain the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth was Paul - he never knew him in the flesh but was writing about him within, say, twenty years of his death

And so soon as that he could say that he preached one thing, and one thing alone, and that was Christ crucified

Did Nicodemus guess that that was what Jesus was hinting at - I think not - I think that would have been more objectionable and even blasphemous for so righteous a man

Is it even possible for you, and me, now - to grasp the meaning of the cross - is it too familiar altogether - do we even notice it

How many different ways are there of looking at it - how many different shapes - how many different materials - is it more effective for being empty, or for carrying the dead body of Jesus

If it is a precious symbol, how is that to be given expression - how many are of gold or silver, inlaid with jewels - how many are plain, rough wood - does it matter

Is there one word that contains all the meaning - all the horror and suffering - all the abandonment and careless torture - all Mary's grief and desolation - all the bewilderment of his friends

Is there ever an end to the questions - is it possible to live on the other side of the empty tomb - when there was still a body on a slab, awaiting those who would embalm it

Is there an answer, or are we left not knowing - face to face with a mystery which is not ours to solve - except that it points to death

Lent is a journey towards a cross - but we are still back beyond Easter - and all I know and trust is that God is with us.

-- Donald Phillipps.