First Congregational United Church of Christ

2810 West 7th Street, Hastings, NE 68901


What will you risk?

Sermon, March 12, 2017


Genesis 12:1-4a

John 3:1-21


When I first entered Seminary, it was kind of a secret.  I did not tell most people in my life about it.   I mean, my parents knew, my sister and my roommate, a few other close friends… but I didn’t shout it from the rooftops.  It wasn’t something I tried to keep from people… I just didn’t really bring it up.  My faith journey that had started in my high school youth group, detoured during college, and was being rekindled through my organizing work was life-giving to me but would prove plenty confusing to others. I mean, if you can imagine… I was an organizer working in the rough and tumble world of Illinois Democratic politics.  In the political world of power personalities, there was a constant pressure to prove you were serious about the work – and plenty of people who lived and breathed politics.  Most of my social network was drawn from those I had previously worked with.  Few, if any of those people, had a habit of going to church… and most of them associated the word ‘Christian’ with political causes they disagreed with.   


And while many of my classmates at Chicago Theological Seminary had a distinct vision of who they wanted to be, I entered Seminary mostly as an exploration.  I wanted to know what this God thing was all about… but I didn’t want to risk my reputation with my secular political network by talking about it too much. 


Nicodemus was a guy who wasn’t ready to risk too much of his world either. 


Nicodemus was a powerful guy in his time. We see him 3 times in the book of John; first in this passage, and later in chapter 7 when as a Pharisee, he protests the course of action being taken against Jesus and argues that he deserves a fair trial; and finally after the crucifixion, when Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimethea in retrieving Jesus’ body from the cross, and dressing and anointing it before laying it in the tomb.


From these three passages, we can deduct that he was a powerful man in the Jewish hierarchy. He’s a member of the ruling council of Sanhedrin.  The name Sanhedrin always remind me of something out of the Da Vinci code…but it actually comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to assemble’. In the Hebrew Bible, Moses and the Israelites were commanded by God to establish courts of judges who were given authority over the people of Israel. Drawing on this command, the Sanhedrin were these judges; they were a governing body made up of the chief priest (high priest), a vice chief justice, and 69 general members that were Pharisees and Sadducees. It is basically the Supreme Court and legislative body of ancient Israel.  In addition to being part of the Sanhedrin, Pharisees were also considered religious leaders and teachers of Judaism in the land of Israel.  So Nicodemus was indeed a powerful man in the Jewish ruling system. Respectable. A very public figure in his community whom everyone probably knew, like a Pastor, a member of the city council, and the President of Kiwanis all rolled into one.  He was part of the leadership of the community.  But as we can see… he was also a believer, on the fringes of the Jesus movement.  


Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark because it’s too dangerous for him to come in the light of day.  He has a lot to lose.  Meeting with this Jesus, this peasant teacher and healer, is quite far below his stature. It would raise some eyebrows.  It could be like Paul Ryan coming to meet with someone living at the Crossroads Shelter.  But also to be heard admitting that “we” know you are a teacher that comes from God…  did you catch that?  It’s not only Nicodemus who believes that Jesus dwells with the presence of God - there are others among his social class of Pharisees.  To be heard admitting this about a man who challenges their rules and laws at every turn… that would risk surrendering the authority of those who claim to be authorities on the Word of God.  Nicodemus is compelled by his conscience, by something weighing on his heart, but it’s not something he’s ready to share publicly.


I don’t think of Nicodemus as someone selfishly concerned with his own reputation.  Perhaps Nicodemus was not so concerned with his own power and prestige, but perhaps with finding a reasonable solution to the dilemma.  I imagine Nicodemus was a natural negotiator who was looking for some incremental compromise that would save his institution but also preserve Jesus’ life and message.  I think he comes looking for practical answers.


And instead, Jesus answers him with a beautiful allegory about living in the light. About eternal life and the Kingdom of God.  About being born again, from above, of Water and Spirit.


Being born again - being ‘saved’ – these are phrases that I’m sure we’ve all heard before. Powerful statements that proclaim someone’s relationship to God, and probably more about a certain lifestyle and social network.  Your reaction to this phrase probably has something to do with your past experience with someone who proclaimed it.  Sometimes the phrase is used to include, sometimes to exclude.  I spent a lot of time in college in bible studies with wonderful, loving people who were inviting me into their social circle of people who professed to be Saved, but I struggled with the theology.  At home, my best friend who I met in my high school youth group was also spending time at home with an adult youth group and really enjoying it.  Her new friends were warm, and welcoming, and she felt like she had belonging in a new social circle.   One day they were all sitting around a dinner table, and someone suggested they tell their stories.  My friend listened to the wonderful stories with appreciation. But when they got to her and asked, ‘when were you saved?’, she was a bit dumbfounded.  “I’ve always been saved… I’m Catholic. I was baptized.”  ‘Sure, they said… but when did you know you were truly loved by God?’  My friend answered, “I’ve always known that.”  She said that after that conversation, the welcome didn’t feel as warm anymore. 


The funny thing is, they were speaking the same language.  The pledge that takes shape when someone is ‘born again’ is the same pledge as our Baptisms, later affirmed by our confirmation in the faith.  It is a pledge to live a life that reflects God’s will. It is a promise to respond to the call of God on our hearts and minds with our deeds, voices and devotion.  It is a covenant that someone will be able to recognize our faith by the way we live our lives. 


When I started to ‘come out’ as someone studying ministry, I received my fair share of shock and surprise… and some disgruntled opinions as well.   There were a lot of questions. A few of my friends – those who grew up Catholic – asked me if I was going to become a Nun.  THAT question I knew the answer to… but there were plenty of questions I didn’t know how to answer.


One day, while still in school, I attended a church service led by my friend, Reverend Jim Benn, who had been a mentor and a guide through my deliberations on Seminary and ministry.   Jim had a unique story of going from an atheist community organizer to a converted, proclaiming, ordained minister – and part of that happened through the process of Seminary.  After church, as he was introducing me to people during coffee hour, I noticed him looking at me with curiosity mixed with disappointment.  He asked why I wasn’t telling people that I, too, was in Seminary.  He reminded me that I have undertaken a journey to serve God, and it also required a change in lifestyle.  Why hadn’t I been doing that?  I guess I wasn’t ready… I was still developing my faith, and the answers to all the questions I would get.  I was gestating… my born again experience wasn’t yet at full term. 


Nicodemus believes, but he hasn’t yet come to the conclusion that he should be turning his life upside-down for this Jesus character.  He can see the evidence of God in this man, but he’s looking for a safe route.  He’s looking for a compromise. He’s trying to negotiate, as I was for so many years.  Later, he tries to intercede – pushing back on the other Pharisees in the Sanhedrin when they are rushing to judgment and arrest – but it’s already too late.  The other Pharisees ridicule him!  Still, he hopes to preserve the institution and the man.


It is only after the Crucifixion that Nicodemus openly shows his true colors.  Only once the holy light of Jesus has been extinguished, does Nicodemus come out of the shadows.  Without reservation or statement, he goes solemnly to the cross with Myrrh and Aloe to do the hard, sad work of anointing a man he believed in.  In those moments, I wonder how many times he judged himself, “I should have… I could have…” recognizing the opportunity he missed to really know this man, this agent of God – how he missed the opportunity to know God himself. 


We have all been Nicodemus at some point in our lives.  We have all stood at the edge of risk and chosen to be cautious.  We have all negotiated, looking for ways to compromise and hold onto the things that we think make up our identity. We have all been in a place where we would choose to incubate just a bit longer.   


Contrast Nicodemus with Abraham.  The Hebrew scripture chosen for today from the book of Genesis is a short passage telling of Abraham’s call from God.  Abraham risked everything by following God’s command to separate from his kin.  In that time, the kin group was the source of identity, economic benefit, security, and protection.  To leave such a fundamental social network is to put a great deal at risk – and for what?  What assurances does God offer?  To lead him to an unspecified location, a land that God will show him, in time.  Few of us can probably relate to what it feels like to leave everything behind.  To become an immigrant and take extraordinary risks, alienate yourself from your culture, and your people, and your protection… These are two parodies about risking yourself to follow what God is calling you for.  God is telling us that yes, there is incredible risk in following the call of God upon one’s life.  But, as the passage concludes, God tells Abraham, in you will be a blessing to all nations.  To answer God’s call is to become a blessing to others.


My friend Jim Benn died in 2009, much too early, of Pancreatic Cancer.  He never had the opportunity to see me find the courage to proclaim God’s call on my life.  


Nicodemus was neither the first in the community, nor the last, to follow Jesus from afar.   He was a seeker that could have used more time to develop his thoughts, his plan of action, and then to act.  The point is not that faith in the dark is faulty – only that it can be too small, too safe, too late.  The question is not whether we are saved – but more than that.  The question is, will we take a risk to show our faith?  What is God’s desire for us - and when will we take a risk to respond to God’s call?  What concerns or worries or dreams are we keeping hidden when it’s far past the time for action?  When will we respond to that thing that’s weighing on our conscience?  How long will it take for us to act – and will it be too late?


Or will we take a risk, trusting that God is with us in the journey?