notre dame montreal

Sermon for Lent 2 Year A

By Rev Charles Royden


The Gospel of John was written with a real purpose in mind. John said that he wrote it to cause the reader to believe

John 20:31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Perhaps one of the major discourses in the Gospel which serves to bring this about is found in this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, in John Chapter 3.

If you look at the crowds in events such as the Olympic Games, just occasionally you will see somebody with a banner on which is written ‘John 3:16’. the same verse is sometimes found written on motorway bridges or other places where Christians have decided that the message is more important than the obvious crime of criminal damage! It is one of the most favourite passages of all the Bible, because it answers the most basic human question which has occupied people of every civilisation in human history ‘how can we live forever?’

We are in Lent, that time of the year when we are all engaged in seeking to live our lives in closer obedience. Lent is a time when some forgo the after dinner mints or the pre dinner sherry, our equivalent of sackcloth and ashes. It is a time of repentance and mourning over what we might be, if only we could try harder.

Yet we are reminded in this verse that the way of the cross is not about what we have done or left undone but about what God has done. God loves the world, loves it so much that he gave of his life. Jesus comes not to scold but to save. It was out of love that he came among us and stood beside us and died with us, for us, and saved us. It is all about love and because of God’s love we are not here as the lost but as the found.

For God so loved the world, that he sent his only son, that whosoever believed in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him [John 3:16-17].

This is a wonderful passage and note that God loves the world (KOSMOS), not just people, but all that he has made. O that Christians had grasped this message sooner. For example, we would have been in the vanguard of debate about the care for our environment, instead of once again being late to the party. Why is it that on so many issues of such great importance Christians are seen to be dragged along kicking and screaming, instead of setting the agenda? This is as true for animals welfare, recycling, the environment as it is for human rights, racial justice etc.

So Nicodemus comes to Jesus, he is a religious leader, he had much understanding, yet he is told that he must start over. He must start looking at things differently. Nicodemus, is wealthy, important, religious, and yet he is also deeply unfilled and searching.

This is to become a major success story. So often Jesus seems to fail in his teachings. People ignore Jesus, take oppositions against Jesus, even his closest disciples go on to deny that they know him. Yet we are told that Nicodemus was a man of considerable courage

In 7:50-52, Nicodemus appeals to the Law of Moses to defend Jesus to his fellows in the Sanhedrin:

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked,
"Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?"

In 19:38-40 Nicodemus aligns himself publicly with Jesus in his "lifting up" by joining Joseph of Arimathea in removing Jesus' body from the cross and burying him with an enormous outlay of spices

Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.

Nicodemus clearly changed. Not in the sense of factual knowledge, but in terms of his allegiance to Jesus. This is what being born again means. It is not a phrase used very often in the Bible, three times I think, but it means that we are enlivened into a new way of seeing God through Jesus.

What Jesus says about the difference between water and spirit makes the point that we can be physically alive but there is another level of life - spiritual life. We know this to be true.
As we look around at our society today perhaps now as importantly as ever before we need to know the truth of these words in which Jesus make a promise to Nicodemus
For so many people, in spite of the presence of so many things, life is still very empty. I have always wondered why it is so often the case that people who have a great deal seem the least satisfied. I wonder whether it is to do with some kind of motivation. Those who aspire to wealth, fame and riches have something to keep them motivated, - the hope that one day they will possess something which will give them fulfilment. However those who have got fame and wealth realise that these things are truly are illusory.

For so many people life is empty. Obviously we know that materialism is fundamentally unfulfilling. yet religion can just as empty as anything else. It can just be going through the motions but the inner heart is not quite alive. Nicodemus was a man who had religion but not one which was giving him fulfilment.

Jesus told Nicodemus that the only way to find fulfilment was to have a new kind of faith which grew out of the love of God.

To be born of the Spirit is not about religious high, religious champagne which makes us bubbly inside, only to go flat after 24 hrs To be born of the Spirit means to fundamentally change our perspectives so that we put our faith in Jesus.

Nicodemus was from the right background. he was a Jewish leader and teacher, a member of the Sanhedrin. He came from the right family and the right race. He was a prominent and respected Jew. But he came to Jesus and it is clear that this was not enough for him. He knew he was missing something which his Jewish religion didn't have but which Jesus clearly did.

The message which Jesus gave to Nicodemus was clear. It doesn't matter into whose family you are born. You get no credit from God on account of your family. For somebody who would have been proud of his family tree, this was a blow. He suddenly was told that he was no better of than the lowest of the low.

In the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we are told that Jesus will bring down the mighty from their seat and exhalt the humble and the meek. Today in the Gospel reading, Nicodemus is one of the mighty when he comes to Jesus. He is told that it counts for nothing, he discovers what Mary meant. With Jesus birth, social status, wealth, all count for nothing, it was like you had to be born again, and we were all equal.

We are told that it was dark when Nicodemus came to Jesus, but there was a light switched on in his life when he went away, Jesus had illuminated his spiritual vision through this encounter and Nicodemus was changed. He was changed so much so that he was able to become brave enough to care for the body of the dead Jesus.

There are many people like Nicodemus, they have questions and they are not sure about Christianity, or who Jesus really is. Jesus taught Nicodemus something which changed his life.

Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of wind. The wind blows where it will. You can hear it, feel it, but you can’t predict or control it. How do some people come to faith and others don’t ? Are we able to give explain the work of the Holy Spirit ? The answer must be no. We all want to know answers which help people to believe, but they are not there. We want God in a box, but God won’t fit. Perhaps this is what W.H. Auden meant when he said it’s hard to be a Christian if you’re not something of a poet.

Our part is very simple, one of faith and trust, and all are equal, there are no special places for the talented and gifted.

Jesus reminded Nicodemus that in the desert Moses told the people of Israel to look at a bronze snake and they would survive snake bites. Those people in the desert didn’t understand how the bronze snake worked. It just worked and it became the source of life for them. All they had to turn was to focus on the snake.

The cross of Christ is the same. I do not even begin to understand the atonement of God, or how the cross brings salvation to the world. Nobody knows how in the cross the enduring and overpowering love of God is at work to bring salvation to the world. Fortunately, we are not saved by explanations or understandings, we are saved by God.

Medieval map makers located the spot on which the cross stood as the centre of the earth and then they arranged the rest of the world around it. That may not be great cartography but it is excellent theology. The cross of Christ is our theology, its what it is all about.

Faith begins when we turn to Jesus and see in his death a vision of who God is. The death of Jesus on that cross assures us of his God’s good intentions towards us. We might not understand it but, because of the cross we trust that such a God has our best interests at heart.

Jesus confronts Nicodemus with the need for a totally new beginning, radically portrayed as starting life all over again: ‘Unless you are born from above you cannot see the kingdom of God’ (3:3). 
Nicodemus was confused because the Greek word ‘anothen’, used in this context, has a double meaning. It can mean ‘again’ or ‘anew’-but it can also mean, ‘from above.’ So the word can be translated either as being ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’.

Nicodemus took it literally by focusing on the concept of human birth, instead Jesus tells him that he will need faith of a deeper level. The miracles are signposts which should point to the reality of who Jesus is. He is not a great teacher or wise leader, he is not a prophet or specially appointed person by God, Jesus is nothing less than God himself.

How the salvation of Christ will extend to the ‘Cosmos’ which is subject to the love of God - we do not know. How every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord—again we do not know. However it is for certain that it is in Christ and through Christ—and in him alone, that the searching of human kind for eternal life finds its fulfilment.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.   Philippians 2:9