Sermon text: John 3: 14-21
Have you ever had a hobby or skill that you wanted to master, but every time you tried to become more proficient you walked away feeling frustrated? Some activity where any progress you made seemed imperceptible? What was that one hobby, craft, skill, or sport that you wanted to get better at but always left you disappointed?
For me it was the sport of racquetball. In Somerset I was invited to play in a group on Saturday mornings. This group loved to play doubles, and there is nothing as terrifying or as exhilarating as four people running and swinging metal racquets while dodging a ball travelling well over 100 miles per hour wall within a 20 by 40 foot box.
I showed up to routinely, and I played, even though I was a complete novice. Years earlier I had played a little in seminary with friends, but we really didn’t know what we were doing. The people I played with in Somerset did know what they were doing. Some of them had been playing as long as I had been alive. Three of the players had won state tournaments, and all of them were very skilled.
I read books, I watched tutorials, I watched professional matches, I practiced when I wasn’t in a game, and I took as many pointers as I could, but it was frustrating. There’s also the fact that racquetball is a sport where skill gaps are easily exploited. I tried to learn the fundamentals, the strategy, and things like ball spin and body language cues and court positioning, but it never felt like I was getting anywhere. Before long I moved here and now my racquet is collecting dust in the closet. I needed more time.
I reminisce about racquetball and ask about failure and frustration because I see those emotions developing in the conversation between Jesus and his talking partner, Nicodemus. These two have a conversation for all of chapter 3 in John. In this story, where we hear Jesus deliver the most famous line in all of scripture, the Gospel in a Nutshell, John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life”—this entire conversation occurs because Nicodemus comes to Jesus and he just doesn’t get it. He cannot comprehend what Jesus is teaching.
And Nicodemus is no slouch. He’s a teacher of the law, a Pharisee, and a leader of the Jewish people. In this conversation we see that he is curious and open-minded enough to seek out this young rabbi and engage with some dialogue. He wants to learn. Questions are asked. Answers are given. But Nicodemus struggles. It doesn’t click for him. He is confused by this business of being born anew or born again or born from above. Eventually he just fades from the scene and returns to his official role and duties and life.
If we were to judge Nicodemus at this point in John’s Gospel our verdict would not be all that positive. Nicodemus meets Jesus, talks with him, hears the famous Gospel in a Nutshell, and yet cannot seem to shake his old ideas and practices for the sake of what Jesus has to offer. He needs more time, more practice.
I liken the encounter to learning and using a foreign language. In 2017 I went to Germany for a vacation. Before the trip I spent months on language apps trying to learn vocabulary and phrases. I progressed to the point where I could read and make sense of printed material like signs, menus, and posters. I had all of the niceties at my disposal. However, there were a few times when I was on my own, and I look German enough, so when it was assumed that I was German and they spoke German to me my eyes would get wide, I would catch a word or two of what was said, my head would swim, and I would revert back to English. Language apps are great, but they’re no substitute for an immersion experience.
Back to Nicodemus. He’s an interesting figure in the Gospel. At this point he is no shining example of the power of the Good News. He is flunking Gospel 101 even though Jesus is his professor.
But this isn’t the end of the story for him. Later he is mentioned for making a small case in Jesus’ defense in the Sanhedrin, reminding his colleagues that a person must be heard before they can be judged. At the end of the Gospel he also appears with Joseph of Arimathea on Good Friday when he brings 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe to anoint Jesus’ dead body.
While John never explicitly states that Nicodemus understood the Good News that Jesus taught, I’d like to think that he was gifted with faith. That things clicked. In fact, the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches all venerate him as a saint. Nicodemus is the patron saint of curiosity.
For me, Nicodemus is a good reminder that there is no single timeline of how people will respond to the message of Jesus Christ. His story serves as a cautionary tale against judging people for their perceived response to the Gospel or Church or God. Because Nicodemus doesn’t get it, until he does.
We all know people whose lives of faith are like my racquetball skills or German language ability: it is a struggle. We all know people we would like to see in church, people who are dear to our hearts, but have a different relationship with God. I have frequent conversations where parents or friends or relatives question a loved ones’ relationship with God, sometimes even worrying about what happens if they should die.
Nicodemus shows us that we all respond differently to the Holy Spirit’s call and that it might not be wise to judge a person for their perceived lack of faith…for to do so is not simply to judge them, but to judge God’s ability to continue to be at work in the life of those God has called.
“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. 17“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.”
The responsibility for salvation, faith, and eternal life rests on the broad shoulders of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We are called to be a children of the light, to be a witness, and to be curious. And when the Holy Spirit grabs us we are to constantly proclaim and live out the bold and life changing reality of the Gospel. So let us be witnesses, confident of the work of the God, endlessly joyful about Christ’s unfailing love for this world of ours. Let us be like Nicodemus, and see where the curiosity of faith will lead us. AMEN