He came at night, when no one could see where he was going. He came out of the dark, from the dark of the night and the dark of the soul. He had seen the buzz growing around Jesus. He had been on the edge of the crowd when he was teaching and healing. His colleagues were dismissive; they didn’t believe that this was of God. The new teacher had emerged from outside the regular structures. He hadn’t gone to rabbi school; he didn’t come from the right family. They were convinced that this was a flash in the pan. It would all go away, like so many other religious outsiders, here today, gone tomorrow. But Nicodemus was disturbed. Something inside of him was drawn to Jesus. He wanted to know more. So he went to see him. In the dark of the night.
He starts all polite, with tact and diplomacy. He tells Jesus that he recognises that there’s something going on here, and unlike the rest, he’s convinced there’s something real going on. God is in this, for sure.
Jesus cuts out the small talk and goes straight to the chase. You can only know the things of God if it’s there in you in the first place. Only those who are in the kingdom can see the kingdom. And if you want to be part of it, you have to be born again, from above, from God.
Now there’s a phrase that has caused confusion over the last 2,000 years. People have used it as a label, as a way of separating different kinds of Christians, those who have been “born again” from those who haven’t. Those who were “born again” were those who had experienced God for themselves in a real encounter with the living Lord, those who could tell the story about how they made their commitment to following Jesus. Last week, Chris told us how he made that commitment when he was 10 years old, at Spring Harvest. He didn’t use the phrase “born again”, but that’s what Christians a generation ago would have said. The problem was, when people used that label to separate those who could put the experience into words from those who didn’t have a story to tell.
For other groups of Christians, being “born again” was about the sacrament of baptism, going through the waters of life and rebirth to become part of God’s team.
During the Talking Jesus mission last week, I took a Pakistani Christian priest to visit two schools. He was a musician, and he brought his harmonium and taught the children to sing a song that he had grown up with, and that was great fun, because we learnt it in Urdu as well as English. The song goes like this:
I have decided to follow Jesus (repeated x 3).
No turning back, no turning back.
This week, on Tuesday, we baptised 12 young people at St Aidan’s School, and I talked about how they had decided to follow Jesus. I asked them why they wanted to be baptised, and three of the children told me, in front of their parents and godparents, in front of the school, that they wanted Jesus in their lives. It was so moving!
There is something very special about the moment when people decide that they want to follow Jesus. It is a threshold. You go through a door and find yourself in a different place. You come out of the dark and find yourself in the light. It’s a new start. From now on, your life is about walking on the road with Jesus. It doesn’t make life any easier, because sometimes God asks you to do difficult things, but you know God is with you, and you are sustained and supported by the love of God, by hope, by faith, and you are open to God’s peace and joy.
Of course, life gets more complicated than that. Sometimes, you stray off the road. Often, our lives get so cluttered with things going on, with other priorities, with the sheer business of living. The faith side of our life grows darker for a while. The shutters come down. And we find we need to turn back, refocus, make the decision once again to follow Jesus. There are times when we want to go deeper, to grow in faith and hope and love, and we turn to Jesus again and make a new commitment. We turn to him when things seem dark, and he gives us light.
Why? The Gospel reading shows us why. Jesus tells Nicodemus: God so love the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
God loves us. God loves us so much, and he wants us to believe in him, to have a relationship with him, to live as part of God’s kingdom. God wants us to flourish in him. He is there, waiting for us to turn to him, reaching out to us. Jesus is there for us. And when we say YES, and let him into our lives, he walks with us and guides us and helps us and heals us. And bit by bit, we learn to shape our lives in his way. And God starts to shine through us, so that other people can glimpse the light in us.
And Nicodemus? What about him? We hear of him again at the end of John’s Gospel. When Jesus has died on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea provides a tomb and Nicodemus comes along with spices. Jesus had warned him that he would have to die, and Nicodemus turns up to help. He has come out of the dark of anonymity into the light of public commitment and service.
It’s a story that invites us to look again at our walk with Jesus and turn to him again, to say YES, Jesus, I do want to know you, I have decided to follow you, now, and always.