A smart man. A thirsty woman. A blind beggar. A grieving sister. Four very different people in four very different situations. One of them appears in each of the four readings from the Gospel of John appointed during the month of March. Each of them encountered Jesus. Each was changed by Jesus. The smart man was instructed. The thirsty woman received living water. The blind beggar was healed. The grieving sister was comforted.
In many ways their stories are our stories. We are smart. We thirst. We are, about many things, blind. And we grieve. Which is why I suggest you preach a four-part series of sermons on these four individuals as you help your congregation walk toward Holy Week this Lent.
We start with the smart man; Nicodemus was his name. He was a Pharisee, a religious legal expert. He was educated. He was responsible for teaching the Law to the people. This smart man paid close attention to Jesus. He watched as Jesus performed miraculous signs. He listened as Jesus taught the people with authority. He recognized Jesus was no ordinary man from Nazareth. So, he did what smart men do. He sought out more information.
It should not be hard for us to put ourselves in the shoes of the smart man. After all, we are smart, very smart. Our collective knowledge is nothing short of astounding. Our understanding science and nature have led to cures for countless diseases. Try spending a day in the hospital talking with patients and not marveling at modern medicine. Our collective understanding of mathematics and physics has enabled humanity to develop technology which was unimaginable a generation ago. We know so much. We are so smart. And what we do not know we simply ask our phones. “Smart-phones” we call them!
Our Gospel reading records their conversation. Nicodemus came to Jesus during the night (he was smart enough to avoid the crowds). He began the conversation with Jesus by using a statement about what he knew (that is how smart people often begin their conversations). “Rabbi,” Nicodemus said, “we know You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs You do unless God is with him” (3:2).
It is hard to know what Nicodemus expected Jesus to say. Perhaps, he wanted Jesus to give it to him straight, to tell him who He really was. Whatever he wanted, Jesus had other things in mind. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (3:3). It is safe to say this was not what Nicodemus expected to hear. The smart man did not understand. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born” (3:4)?
It is safe to say this was not what Nicodemus expected to hear. The smart man did not understand.
Jesus went on. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (3:5). The smart man did not follow. “How can these things be” (3:9)? At this point Jesus appears to have become a little impatient. “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things” (3:10)? In other words, “I thought you were smart!”
But Nicodemus remained silent. He stopped talking. He stopped asking questions. And he listened. He simply listened to Jesus.
It was his smartest move yet.
In this conversation with the smart man Nicodemus, Jesus taught the most basic description of the Gospel truth in Scripture. It is as if Jesus was saying, “Ok, Nicodemus, I am going to make this very simple for you.” “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (3:16-17).
We are a smart generation, and I am very thankful for how much we know. I am very thankful to enjoy the blessings of scientific discoveries and technological inventions. These are wonderful gifts from God. But when it comes to “heavenly things,” as Jesus put it to Nicodemus, there is nothing smarter than the simple truth in these two verses.
God loved this world so much that He sent His only Son, first to Israel and then to all, including you and me, including your hearers. He sent His Son to teach us, to forgive us, to heal us, and to comfort us. To die. To rise. To return. For us.
To know and believe this simple truth; now that is smart!
After his late-night conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus is mentioned only twice in the New Testament (John 7 and 19). In John 19:38-42, it was immediately after Jesus’ death. Nicodemus helped wrap Jesus’ lifeless body. I wonder what he was thinking as he performed this loving and caring service. I wonder if Jesus’ words from their late-night conversation were ringing in his ears. As he walked out of that garden with Joseph of Arimathea, leaving behind the one who had raised others from the dead, I wonder if this smart man understood Jesus would give life through His own death and resurrection.
I would like to think Nicodemus understood. I would like to think the words of the Word made flesh from that late-night encounter echoed in his ears and created faith in his heart. But for the purposes of your sermon, Nicodemus’ faith (or lack thereof) does not really matter. He is not in your congregation. Your hearers are. Do they understand this basic truth? Do they trust this incredible promise? Are they smart in the ways of God?
Your sermon this Sunday is a good opportunity to make sure they are.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on John 3:1-17.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 3:1-17.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 3:1-17.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 3:1-17.