“Doing the Work: Coming to the Light”
March 14, 2021
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins,
God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
In our text for today, a powerful Pharisee named Nicodemus makes a visit to Jesus.
Nicodemus has been intrigued by the identity and purpose of this rabbi from Nazareth.
Nicodemus had heard Jesus speak in the Temple courtyard.
He had heard about how Jesus was upset about the money changers in the courtyard.
He had noticed that there was something different about this rabbi from Galilee.
Nicodemus had even reasoned that the very power of God was at work in this engaging teacher.
So Nicodemus decided to make a visit to Jesus.
But Nicodemus, being a well-educated and powerful man, was also prudent.
He chose to make his visit to Jesus under the cover of darkness.
His reputation among the Temple leaders was not something to be trifled with.
He could lose his reputation and even his position if he were to be closely identified with Jesus.
So Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, to “test the waters”, so to speak.
Nicodemus may well have realized that everything in the Temple system that he served
was not as it should be.
The first thing Nicodemus said to Jesus was: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher
who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Then Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God
without being born from above.”
They continue their conversation about being born again, born from above.
Then Jesus speaks about the freedom of the Spirit to blow where it will.
We pick up the conversation in verse 16, with Jesus proclaiming these words
to the powerful, well connected Pharisee. Hear the Word of God from John 3:16-21.
‘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.
Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already,
because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment,
that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light
because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,
so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light,
so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
For God so loved the world, ton cosmos in the Greek, Jesus told Nicodemus.
God loves all the world, not just some of the world, not just some of the people, but ton cosmos,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
Nicodemus would probably have been a wonderful Presbyterian elder.
As a respected Pharisee, he was an unusually dedicated man of God.
He was a faithful servant of the Temple and a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling party.
The Sanhedrin of the early first century in Jerusalem was like a combination of our U.S. Senate,
the Supreme Court and the Pope’s cabinet, all wrapped into one body of 70 men.
These men ran the Temple “decently and in order”,
Their goal was to govern their nation in a manner acceptable to God.
These Pharisees were not ordinary men.
They separated themselves from many aspects ordinary daily life
so that they would be free to keep every detail of the law.
Nicodemus was truly dedicated to the pursuit of faithfulness and to righteousness by his good works.
He gave his life to lead his nation in proper worship and understanding of God.
Words like stability and tradition and carefulness could be attributed to him
and to other members of the Sanhedrin.
This was not normal or careful for a member of the esteemed Sanhedrin
to visit an itinerant rabbi at night.
Nicodemus had to be careful. He did not want Jesus to lead his people astray.
He did not want this Galilean rabbi to undermine the careful inner workings of the Temple.
He did not want this Jesus to cause upheaval in the tenuous relationship
between the Jewish leaders and their Roman occupiers, causing untold violence and suffering.
But he also realized that there was something different about this teacher from Galilee.
Nicodemus recognized that God was up to something new in this Jesus of Nazareth.
Nicodemus may have known for quite some time that he and his people
were in need of something new, in need of a rebirth of their hearts and souls.
Nicodemus probably recognized that the whole temple system had its problems,
that the common people had been left out and left behind,
and that perhaps God had been preparing the people of his nation for some new revelation.
Nicodemus may have been praying for years for someone like Jesus to come along,
longing for a Messiah who would turn the hearts and minds and wills of his people,
and disrupt the corrupt system of which he was a part.
But Nicodemus also knew how set were his people in their ways,
how firm were their habits and disciplines and attitudes.
Any rebirth or renewal might have seemed just as impossible as entering the womb a second time.
I wonder what Nicodemus thought when Jesus said to him:
All who do evil do not come to the light, because they do not want their deeds to be exposed.
But those who do what is true come to the light…
Consider what has come to light in our nation over the past year.
As a nation, we have rediscovered deep seeds of racism that many were either unaware of
or perhaps just did not want to see.
Over the past year, we have experienced a national reckoning over the sins of racism,
not just sins of personal racism, but sins of structural, systemic racism.
This past year has brought to light all sorts of uncomfortable attitudes and ugly deeds.
This past year has brought to light a litany of mistreatment and violence against people of color.
For many, this past year has been challenging and uncomfortable.
For many, these conversations have resulted in unexpected resistance and feelings of anger.
Over this past year, corporations and educational institutions and professional sports leagues,
and yes, churches, have sought to come to grips with real and deep disparities,
disparities that have continued to be perpetuated decade after decade after decade.
What has been most helpful, I think, has been for white people to listen, to seek to understand.
I had the opportunity to listen recently to a friend who described an encounter with a landlord.
My friend had spoken on the phone with the landlord, and the landlord was extremely nice.
When the landlord discovered that my friend was a graduate student,
she told my friend that she would waive the first month’s deposit and help in any way she could.
The landlord made a other helpful suggestions about my friend’s arrival in a new town
and said she would stop by later that week to check in and see if my friend needed anything.
Later that week, the landlord stopped by the apartment with a large plant in her hand.
When my friend opened the door, the landlord’s first words were: “Oh, you’re black.”
“Yes,” my friend replied. “This is me.”
“Oh…ugh…well…ugh…here’s a plant…” the landlord said, and then left without another word.
My friend never heard from the landlord again. All the friendliness was gone.
All the willingness to help was gone.
Gone was the desire to assist my friend in getting oriented to her new city.
When I asked my friend about what had happened, about the rude response at the door,
about how she felt when the landlord immediately changed the conversation when she saw her skin color.
“Oh, that was normal,” my friend replied.
What was memorable, what was not normal, what had been a real shock for my friend,
was how nice and helpful the landlord had been on the phone.
My African American friend had never been treated so nicely by a landlord.
My African American friend had been genuinely surprised and pleased
when offered the kind welcome by the landlord,
especially in a town where my friend had never before lived.
I confessed that for me, a white guy, the normal part would have been the friendly and helpful landlord.
The normal part would have for someone to go out of their way to assist me,
to help me accomplish what I was trying to do.
The shocking part for me would have been if someone treated me rudely because of the color my skin.
In my friend’s encounter, the system had been changed so that she was allowed to rent an apartment
near the university; what had not changed so much was the heart of the landlord.
One thing we have learned at Columbia Theological Seminary over recent years
is that just because there may be much greater diversity among the students and faculty and staff
does not necessarily mean there has always been a greater sense of inclusion or equity.
In this congregation, our “Doing the Work” curriculum during Lent
has been somewhat of a “coming to the light” of important information.
Many of us are becoming more aware of what was there all along, but perhaps we did not want to see it.
As an example, I was somewhat aware, but had not fully taken to heart that,
while the United States has only 5% of the world’s population,
our nation had 25% of the world’s incarcerated people,
and that a shocking percentage of those were black males.
Did you know that as many as 30% of adult black males in the state of Alabama
are ineligible to vote due to their criminal record?
Did you know that many of those persons committed crimes no more egregious than the crimes
of some of their white neighbors who did not go to prison nor lose their privilege to vote?
There are systems and structures still in place that are not equal, not fair, that hinder and oppress.
In the book of Acts, there is a powerful story about another Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel.
Gamaliel would have known Nicodemus well. They were probably conversation partners.
After the resurrection, Peter and the other apostles were teaching in the Temple in the name of Jesus.
Crowds were gathering around them. Many were being healed.
The high priest and the council were upset by what they were doing and saying,
and becoming jealous, and even wanted to have Peter and the others killed.
But Gamaliel, a teacher of the law and a member of the council, spoke up:
Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men…
in this present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone;
because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God,
you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’
Friends, if this nationwide movement toward a racial reckoning is not of God, then it will fail.
But if it is of God, no one – no political leader, no religious leader, no media personality –
will be able to overthrow this movement.
In fact, they will likely find themselves fighting against God.
God’s purpose is to save humankind, not to condemn.
God’s purpose is to bring to the light that which is evil, so that humankind may be saved from sin.
When the evil deeds of a society remain hidden, then none of us can live in right relationship with God
or with neighbor.
When evil deeds come to the light, we open the door to the possibility of being cleansed by God’s grace.
Nicodemus knew there were problems in the temple system of his day.
He knew the common people were being left out and left behind.
He most likely realized that excluding women and Gentiles and treating them as “lesser than”
was not sustainable in a quickly changing world.
Nicodemus was trying to come to the light…
If white America can confess the sins of racism and oppression and structural inequities,
then we will have the opportunity to move forward in the light and grace of Jesus Christ.
If we say we have no sin, the truth will not be in us, and our relationship with God will remain broken,
and our relationship with our black and brown neighbors will not be whole.
As long the sins of a society remain hidden, there can be no transformation by God’s love.
For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son not to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
I will close with a parable from a Jewish rabbi that I quoted a few months ago.
The rabbi asked his students, “When is it at dawn that one can tell light from darkness?”
One student replied, “When I can tell the difference between a goat and a donkey.” “No, he replied.
Another said, “When I can tell a palm tree from a fig tree?” “No”, answered the rabbi.
“Then what is the answer? When is it at dawn that one can tell light from darkness?”
“Only when you look into the face of every man or woman and see your brother or sister.”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church