Faith for the Common Man
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
The title of the sermon this morning is inspired by an orchestral work called, “Fanfare for the Common Man”, by Aaron Copeland. I chose it because I see Nicodemus as a common man of common intellect and common faith.
While John describes him as “a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews,”—most likely, a member of the Sanhedrin—there’s nothing to indicate that Nicodemus was anything but ordinary and unremarkable.
His place was in the middle of the pack—an honest, God-fearing man of integrity—conscientious and responsible—who was simply doing his best to be faithful in the course of turbulent times.
So, I picture Nicodemus as a common man much like any one of us. And, if I’m right, his story is our story from which we can benefit and grow in our relationship to Jesus Christ. The story begins,
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
The same came to (Jesus) by night, and said to him,
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God,
for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”
News of Jesus’ miracles in Galilee had obviously reached Jerusalem. The temple leaders had heard all about his turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. (John 2:1-11) Possibly, they’d heard about his feeding the multitude, healing the sick, even raising the dead.
Miracles are signs of God’s power. If Jesus were indeed a teacher sent from God, it’s easy to understand why Nicodemus would’ve wanted to get to know him better.
So, he came to Jesus—and that’s interesting—he could’ve had Jesus come to him. And he came at night, I’d say for obvious reasons: He was one of the elders. He held a position of respect. He wasn’t at liberty to associate openly with itinerant preachers and faith healers, especially one whose teachings now bordered on heresy.
Let’s just say he was intrigued. Could Jesus be the Promised Messiah? If no one can perform such signs as these except by the power of God, could Jesus be The One?
So, Nicodemus came under the cloak of darkness to find out for himself. He got less than he hoped for. After he made his little opening statement, Jesus said,
“Most certainly, I tell you, unless one is born anew,
he can’t see God’s Kingdom.”
What kind of response is this? If Nicodemus wants to know, “Are you sent from God?” what does it mean for Jesus to say, “Unless you are born anew you can’t see God’s kingdom.”
There’s an obvious disconnect. The thoughts are unrelated. Nicodemus drew a blank. Let’s think about that for a moment.
We’ve heard Billy Graham sermons and others preach on the theme, “Ye must be born again,” for so long and so often that we don’t give it a second thought. It’s become a staple of our diet.
But think how this must have sounded to Nicodemus. Where would he have heard this before? More importantly, where was this found in scripture? Where in the Torah—which is what Nicodemus had to go on—does it say anything about being born again?
I don’t mean to question Jesus, only to put it in perspective. For Jesus to talk to a Jewish leader in the 1st Century about being born again was unheard of. Nicodemus responded the same way as any self-respecting Jew of his day when he said,
“How can a man be born when he is old?
Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”
He didn’t get. Nor would you. Nor would I. The dialogue only gets more cryptic. Jesus said,
“Most certainly I tell you, unless one is born of water and spirit,
he can’t enter into God’s Kingdom.”
He goes on to talk about flesh, as opposed to Spirit, and how the Spirit, like the wind, moves of its own accord: You don’t know where it comes from or where it goes; all you can see are the effects. He concludes by saying, “… so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 2:8)
By now, Nicodemus’ eyes must have glassed over. He had no idea what Jesus talking about. Where was the common sense of it all? All he could think of to say was, “How can these things be?” (John 1:9)
Nicodemus was not the only one to miss the point. Near the end of his ministry, Jesus told his disciples,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father, except through me.
If you had known me, you would have known my Father also.
From now on, you know him, and have seen him.”
Philip—my name’s sake—didn’t get it. This flew right over his head. He said, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” (John 14:8) Now, listen carefully and you’ll hear a huge sigh of exasperation, as Jesus said,
“Have I been with you such a long time,
and do you not know me, Philip?
He who has seen me has seen the Father.
How do you say, ‘Show us the Father?’
Don’t you believe that I am in the Father,
and the Father in me?”
Philip was not the only one. When Jesus was transfigured up on Mt. Herman, Peter wanted to build three booths—one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus, as if to say, “Let’s hold on to this moment forever.”
Then, on their way back to Capernaum the disciples got into this big argument. Jesus asked, “What were you arguing among yourselves on the way?” (Mark 9:33) They were so ashamed no one would say a word. Scripture says,
“But they were silent,
for they had disputed one with another on the way
about who was the greatest.”
More than once, Jesus had told them, “If any man wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) He spelled it out saying,
“… they who are recognized as rulers over the nations lord it over them …
it shall not be so among you,
but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant.
Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all.
For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
So, we needn’t come down hard on Nicodemus for being in the dark.
Besides, if you take seriously the image of a second birth as the model for a life of faith, ask yourself: How much did you have to do with the circumstances of your first birth? Did you pick the day on which you were born? Did you choose your parents? Did you select your genes, one by one?
The truth is you had nothing to do with the circumstances of your birth. It’s a given. It’s the hand you were dealt, as some like to say.
So, if your spiritual birth is anything at all like your physical birth, it has a lot more to do with God than you. This is borne out from Genesis to Revelation. And so …
• Just as God chose the people of Israel from all the other Semitic tribes of the day;
• And just as God chose various prophets to proclaim his Word;
• And just as Jesus chose his disciples;
• God chooses whom he chooses to know him and love him and share the Good News of his love with others.
The bottom line is Nicodemus was a common man driven by common sense. He’d heard of miracles Jesus had performed, and he came to Jesus to find out more. It was the best he knew to do.
In my first experience in ministry, I served as student pastor of a little church in a small town in North Texas, population 501. We had a convenience store on the main drag that was run by a man named Henry Smith and his wife, Betty—not their real names, of course—a mom and pop operation, with Henry doing most of the work.
On any given day, he’d pump the gas, fix a flat tire and slice up baloney for sandwiches in one continuous motion. He seldom stopped to wash his hands. He wore the same bib overalls, day after day.He bathed about as often as he changed clothes. He shaved every once in a while and, well, he didn’t have much hair to comb. On top of all that, he dipped snuff and, as often as not, there’d be a drool oozing out of one side of his mouth, especially when he smiled.
As you might guess, when it came to criticizing or poking fun at someone, Henry made for an easy target. All parents had to do was tell their children, “You’d better study hard and mind your Ps and Qs, or you’re going to end up just like Henry Smith.” That’s all it took. Henry was the butt of jokes and the model of what not to be.
Except for Leta Hayes. Leta Hayes was one of the saints of the church, and she believed in a loving God who showed mercy on all his children, especially the weak. So, when someone spoke up and came down hard on Henry, she’d put them in their place. She’d say, “He’s as good a man as he knows how to be.”
There was no refuting that. He was. Then she’d add an exclamation point: “We should all hope that the same could be said of us.”
Nicodemus was as good a man as he knew how to be. And while he may not have understood what Jesus was talking about when it came to being born again, his character and devotion to Jesus can be seen in at least two ways.
First, Jesus was teaching in the courtyard of the Temple when he called out,
“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!
He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said,
from within him will flow rivers of living water.”
The people took him to be a prophet. Some thought he was the Messiah. When word got back to the chief priest and the Pharisees, they asked the temple guards why they didn’t arrest him, and they said, “No man ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46)
They were about to send the guards back when one of the Pharisees spoke up on Jesus’ behalf. He asked a procedural question: “Does our law judge a man, unless it first hears from him personally and knows what he does?” (John 7:51)
It stopped them in their tracks. They backed down, then they turned their wrath on him and said, “Are you also from Galilee? (John 7:51) As if to imply he was sympathetic to Jesus. Little did they know, he was. His name was Nicodemus.
That’s not all. Late in the afternoon on the day of the crucifixion, after Jesus had breathed his last and the Roman soldiers were hoisting him down from the Cross, there were two men standing there to receive his lifeless body.
One was a wealthy man named Joseph of Arimathea. He was the one who provided the tomb in which Jesus was to be buried. The other was Nicodemus. He brought a hundred pounds of costly myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. (John 19:38-40)
At the end of the day, it was these two men who lovingly covered Jesus body with spices and wrapped it in a linen shroud and placed it in the tomb and sealed it with a stone. (John 19:41-42)
Joseph is identified as “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews.” (John 19:38) Was Nicodemus also a clandestine disciple of Jesus? Did he go on to bear witness to Jesus as the Son of God, the Savior of the world?
We’re not told. All we know is this: He was there for Jesus when it counted … no longer hiding under a cloak of darkness … with a love and devotion for all to see. May the same be said of us today.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2014 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.