“Jesus Schools a Pharisee”
Today we pause to acknowledge those who are graduating from high school and college. Being an educated person will make all the difference in your life. I have spent many days in academic pursuit from high school to college to seminary I have achieve degrees and learning. This has greatly changed how I understand and perceive my world, but I also wish to share with you that some of the most important realizations and understandings about life may not be found in a classroom. Some of your most thought provoking, life changing, and heart teaching moments are dependent upon faith. Now what is Faith?
The Bible tells us in Hebrews 11 “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Sometimes people think faith has something to do with wishful thinking, or simply believing in something that can not be proven. This is not what faith is. The Bible speaks about faith as being an assurance of things hoped for; and the conviction of things not seen. Assurance does not come from wishful thinking and conviction does not come from simply believing. Our assurance of things hoped for and our certainty of things not seen are the result of revelation and the experience of encountering truths beyond ourselves. Faith is a knowledge gained from encountering God, and God revealing truth to us. Faith in one understanding is knowledge. It is just a different kind of knowledge from that of empirical scientific data.
Do you know who God is? Do you know that there is a heaven? Do you believe that God will give you and those you love eternal life –That when the body grows old, fails, and fades away, God will prove old age to be farce and death to be lie? This is the hope that the Gospel carries. There is a part of each of us meant for life and immortality. No matter how old we get, within each person there is a life that will never die. Faith is the knowledge (it is the assurance and conviction) that this is true.
The story is told of how a person once came up to John Wesley and asked him, “Why do you always preach, ‘Ye must be born again.'” John Wesley replied, “Because YE MUST BE BORN AGAIN.” We often may hear that phrase. Sometimes it seems entirely overused and in danger of becoming a cliché, rather then words with a distinct meaning. However, even today these words should not be downplayed. They bear the truth found in faith –a truth that even the most well-educated person may never learn unless if he or she is willing to admit how much he or she does not know, and it is likely that there is no greater truth for you to learn and come into contact with then this truth that God has invited you to life. Academics will not teach it, but there it is.
Let us consider the story of Nicodemus. His is the story of a well-educated person who still had something to learn. He was a Pharisee, a very religious person with a great knowledge about the scriptures, greatly respected by many people, and we are told that he was a ruler of the Jews. He taught and guided others about how they should live as well.
Still despite Nicodemus’ great learning and even teaching skills, he recognized that something was at work in Jesus’ life that he did not understand. Nicodemus was curious enough, self-aware enough, and perhaps even humble enough to admit t that there were things he did not know or understand. I think this is an important point. We also can never learn until we admit that there is something we need to know. This is true about school and true about God. To understand faith, you must come before God with a desire to know and to learn.
Now we read that Nicodemus came in the night to talk to Jesus. This tells us that he wanted to know, but he did not want people to see him asking. He was concern about his reputation. Still, he approached Jesus with respect, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” He called Jesus Rabbi, which means teacher, and he sincerely identified Jesus as being about God’s work. However, before he could really get the words out of his mouth and get down to the real reason for why he wanted to talk with Jesus, Jesus takes one look at him and says Nicodemus, “unless one is born anew, he can not see the kingdom of God.” In a sense we see Jesus taking Nicodemus back to school. For all that Nicodemus knew, he needed to understand something more. Jesus was trying to give him knowledge beyond his education and place in life. No matter what we know, God will always have something more to teach us.
Maybe it is not surprising that Nicodemus struggled with Jesus’ teaching, “How can a person be born again when that person is old?” And so, Jesus explains further. In a sense Jesus tells him that one must be born twice to enter the Kingdom of God. One must be born physically, and one must be born of the Spirit from above. And the Spirit of God is like the wind. You hear it but you do not see where it came from and you do not where it is going. God is beyond the control of humankind.
Nicodemus still does not understand. Even Jesus is amazed that he is having a hard time explaining his point to this wise teacher. He asked Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand this?” In some ways we might be drawn to sympathize with Nicodemus, but really the idea that we all need a spiritual rebirth in our lives is not new. In Psalm 51, King David wrote, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” In many places the Old Testament speaks of God’s Spirit coming to rest on a particular person, and the prophets spoke of a time when God would pour out His Spirit on all people.
Nicodemus biggest problem and sometimes our biggest problem is that we insist on trusting only in ourselves and in what we can control and see. Here Jesus is telling us that salvation and life with God primary depend on the very Spirit of God that like the wind is beyond our control. Maybe Jesus could have used another illustration to speak about the Spirit, but I think there was something intentional on Jesus’ part in describing the Spirit in this way. What we need is that which we can not gain for ourselves. God is about the process of doing something more and this movement of the Spirit everyone needs. Will we truly turn to God and receive the truth, or are we stuck in our own self-sufficiency and certainty? What happened to Nicodemus?
Actually, John’s gospel does finish the story of Nicodemus. In John 7:50, the Pharisees sent out guards to arrest Jesus, but they came back empty handed. Some of the leaders were angry that Jesus had not been arrested, but Nicodemus spoke out saying, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing to learn what he does?” Nicodemus guardedly is supporting Jesus. And finally in John 19:39, it is recorded that this very same Nicodemus who came to Jesus during the night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight and buried the body of Jesus. Jesus taught and argued with the Pharisees and at the end of his life it was a Pharisee that cared for his body in his death. A strange thought isn’t it? I believe along the way Nicodemus came to faith. The Spirit of God blew through his life and Nicodemus became more certain and surer that in Jesus was truth for life. So, it was for Nicodemus, and so it must necessarily be for me and you and our church. Have you felt the wind of God blowing through your life? Have you learned this lesson or need you confess that this is one of the truths you have yet to learn?
Some people have stories of God touching their lives and being transformed as the love of God floods into their life. They are born again and can tell you an exact time when God made such a change in their lives. For others I believe it is a gentler process. Almost imperceptibly their lives are changed, and God comes to dwell at the center of their lives in many wonderful ways. God changes life and that makes a difference to you and those around you.
Tony Campolo tells a wonderful story about a pastor friend of his who had a deacon in his church. The pastor tried to get the deacon to really open up and let the Spirit of God lead him. Finally, the Spirit led the deacon to conclude that there was one thing he could do in service to God and others. He could take the youth group to a local nursing home. Once a month the youth group of this church went and put on a little church service for the people who were there. Once this deacon went with the youth group and stood in the back of the room. The young people were performing and this old man in a wheelchair rolled his chair over to where this deacon was standing, took hold of his hand and held it all during the service. That was repeated the next month and every month that followed. Then they went one Sunday afternoon, and the man wasn’t there. The deacon asked the nurse in charge, “What happened to that man?” “Oh,” she said, “He’s near death. He’s just down the hall, the third room. Maybe you should go in and visit him. He’s unconscious, though.”
The deacon walked down and went into the room. The man was unconscious and clearly near the end of his life. The man went over and took hold of the hand of the gentleman in the bed. Led by the Spirit, he said a prayer. And when he said “Amen,” the old fellow squeezed his hand. The deacon was so moved by that squeeze of the hand that he began to weep. He tried to get out of the room but, as he was leaving, he bumped into this woman who was coming into the room. She says, “He’s been waiting for you. He said he did not want to die until Jesus came and held his hand, and I tried to tell him that after death he would have a chance to meet Jesus and talk to Jesus and hold Jesus’ hand. But he said, ‘No. Once a month Jesus comes and holds my hand and I don’t want to leave until I have a chance to hold the hand of Jesus once more.”
Personally, I like that story. I think that elderly man near the end of his life was not confused, but I think he just was seeing things in a different way. There at the end of life he was catching the fresh wind of God blowing over his life, because one man heard the Spirit’s call within him to go and serve. That deacon became the instruments of God’s calling and not only brought the presence of God to another but found God’s presence in his own life. And the new life of God was made sure and certain to each. This is faith. God is here. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. You must be born again! The wind of God is blowing through your life. Feel the breeze and know the life that God gives. There are some things you never will learn in school. Amen