This morning, we are turning to the Gospel of John for our scriptural reading. In our reading, Nicodemus visited Jesus in the middle of the night to ask him a bunch of questions. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the assembly of Jewish elders who were appointed to sit as a tribunal in each city in the land of Israel. They were judges who adjudicated over the Jewish people. So, Nicodemus was a well-established community leader and holy man. And, he was curious about Jesus.

            Please read along with me as we turn to John chapter 3, verses one through seventeen:

Proclamation of the Scripture            John 3: 1-17

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 

He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 

Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spiritgives birth to spirit.

You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘Youmust be born again.’ 

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 

Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 

I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 

No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,

that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Hear ends this reading of the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Let us pray…O God, may the word that is read and spoken become through us a liberating word to all who are in bondage and who long for freedom. Open our hearts to hear your call for justice and to answer it with our prayers and our actions. Amen.

            Nicodemus was the type of person whose thoughts were very concrete, very literal.  He took things at face value, and therefore had trouble understanding the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words.  WebMD says, “While concrete thinking is needed, relying exclusively or too much on this style of thinking can impede learning, empathy, and the ability to relate to others.” Nicodemus came to Jesus with lots of questions, and then continued to question every statement Jesus made.

            Throughout his ministry, Jesus had a tendency to answer questions with questions. When Jesus told Nicodemus people need to be born again to see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus asked how can this be? And, Jesus counted with “You, Nicodemus, are a teacher of Israel, how do you not understand these things?” But, since Nicodemus was a concrete thinker, he really did have trouble understanding Jesus’ answers.

            Yet, something about Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus, even if Nicodemus didn’t fully understand Jesus’ answers, made Nicodemus into a supporter of Jesus. Later on, when Jesus was arrested, Nicodemus defended Jesus in the Sanhedrin and told the other Judges Jesus couldn’t be convicted of a crime without a trial. And, after Jesus’ death, Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea retrieve Jesus’ body and bury Jesus in the tomb.  Nicodemus became a supporter of Jesus, and was willing to stick his neck out for him when Jesus was at risk and after Jesus died. Nicodemus wasn’t afraid to show his support, even when being on “Team Jesus” could have become problematic for Nicodemus.

            Part of Nicodemus’ struggle with Jesus’ words was that Jesus was able to preach and perform miracles that were reserved for the Messiah, but Jesus looked to Nicodemus like a regular person. He was also a peasant, not one of the educated religious elites. There were many things about Jesus that were confusing for Nicodemus.

            Nicodemus may have been confused, but Jesus imparted upon him two teachings that we still value today.

            First, Jesus talked about the need for Christians to be “born again.” This phrase is thrown around more in evangelical communities that UCC churches, but we also believe in this concept. It is just that for some of us, when we are asked about the day we were “born again” or “accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior,” we often don’t have that moment pinpointed. When we say someone is born again, we mean that they experienced a spiritual transformation, a change of heart, and they decided to commit to the Christian faith for themselves. When we have our Confirmation Sunday in a few months, we will ask our young people if they “profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?” When they say “I do,” we believe they are making a mature commitment to be Christians for themselves. It is not just something their parents decided for them, but they take on the Christian faith for themselves.  So, according to our understanding of being born again, this is when we commit our hearts to following and believing in Jesus as our main spiritual guide and choose Christianity for ourselves.

            The other major take-away from the Nicodemus and Jesus middle-of-the-night conversation is the statement Jesus made at the end of our reading:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Other than the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, this is probably the most memorized portion of scripture. God loves the people of the world so much God sent Jesus to the world, to preach and to die, so that all of us who believe in Jesus will able to have our lives extend from this life until the next life – we receive Eternal life through our belief in Jesus. And, Jesus didn’t come to judge us or condemn us or to make us feel worse than we already do, but Jesus came to save us – by inviting everyone to believe in God, to overtly extend the love of God to the entirety of humankind.

            When we are not afraid to ask questions, we learn the most. God blesses the curious because we are ready to learn and experience something new. One of the things I love about the United Church of Christ is that we are not the kind of church where we think we have all the answers. We can call the president of the UCC, who is currently Rev. John Dorhauer, and ask him questions about theology and church life and best practices, and he won’t tell us exactly what to do or what to believe. Instead, he would have a dialogue with us about the possibilities to try or potential theological ideas to explore. And, he is so accessible that he sometimes makes comments on my facebook posts.

            Nicodemus was full of questions. Some of those questions we because he was not much of an abstract thinker, concrete thinking was his forte. But, he wasn’t afraid to approach Jesus and ask his questions. God wants us to ask questions. God wants to be engaged with our faith. God wants us to change our minds sometimes. I think God is disappointed with people who think they learned everything they were ever going to learn in their childhood Sunday School classes and haven’t come up with any new questions in the decades afterwards.  Part of our work as people of faith is to read the scripture, to participate in discussions about what it means and how it applies to our lives now, and to be in dialogue with other Christians about how do to a better job of practicing our faith. Part of our work is to explore our faith, to ask hard questions, to grapple with the answers, and work though what we feel called to believe.

            Let us be like Nicodemus, full of questions.

            May it be so. Amen.