Nicodemus: After the Silence

Sermon delivered by Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)

Sunday, July 29, 2008

First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo, CA

Nicodemus: After the Silence

Sermon delivered by Douglas Olds

Sunday, July 29, 2008

First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo, CA

Narrative sentence: In the presence of irrepressible holiness we are silenced, yet God reconstructs our voice for later service to the truth.

Texts: John 3: 1-15; John 7: 40-52; John 19: 38-42

Structure: Plain Style

Purpose: Open your mouth, make clear your faith, and walk in resurrection confidence.

[Introduction:] [Joke]

I tell this joke as a way of pointing out how people of faith sometimes look to outsiders. As we first encounter him, the Pharisee leader Nicodemus in the Gospel of John is just such a person of faith--the senior rabbinical and temple faith of his day--who seems to outsiders of our day as the one who comes to Jesus at night as though he had him figured out. Authorities like Nicodemus recognized that Jesus was “blowing through their land like a new wind,”[1] and they wanted to get ahead of the phenomenon.

Organized religion likes to keep control by defining newness.

Let us pray: Almighty God, enlighten our eyes, unstop our ears, and unbridle our tongues, that we may be servants of your Word. Let Christ be found among us and within us, shaping our life and our relationships in a way that brings you praise, honor, and thanksgiving. All for the glory of our Savior, your son Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, AMEN.

[Exposition:] According to Nicodemus and the authorities, Jesus has been defined as a teacher. The Greek in John chapter 3 structures the sentence where Nicodemus recognizes Jesus’ identity just in this way: with Jesus being a “teacher” coming as the anti-climax to the sentence. No one can do all the miracles and heal all the crowds and announce the Kingdom of God unless he were…a teacher!

This is how men like Nicodemus approached the expected coming era of God:

they pored over the scriptures, for it was thought that the gifted teachers among them could decipher the prophecies by close reading of those texts regarding the Messiah. Much of Judah was awash in messianic speculation at that time, and even members of the Pharisaic elite, we are told in the Gospels, went out to the Jordan valley to be baptized for repentance of sins in advance of the Coming One.

Nicodemus could not possibly have been unaware of the speculation regarding the arrival of the Messiah, and it was his stated view that a teacher who could demonstrate via healings, signs, and miracles the approaching messianic age was approved in his Scripture study by God.

Sometimes, though, the irrepressible call of God works by the suppression and reconstruction of voice such as we discern in the calls of the prophets Jeremiah[2] and Isaiah.[3]

We see this in the call of Moses, who develops a stutter and bashfulness when confronted with God’s call, and in the New Testament, with the muteness of Zechariah (Lk 1: 8-25) when the birth of his son John the Baptist is announced to him by the angel Gabriel.

All of these men are afflicted with silence that announces their unworthiness in the face of approaching holiness. It is just such a silence that Nicodemus is reduced to in John, chapter 3. Jesus is drawing Nicodemus to him for a greater understanding of the truth than what Nicodemus came to him with.

Let us listen to the way Nicodemus is progressively silenced.

He starts, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (He speaks 24 words in Greek). Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (18 Greek words).

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You  must be born from above.’ 

8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus replied to him, “How can these things be?” (4 Greek words).

From 24 words to 18 to 4 to…zero words. Because that’s it from Nicodemus in this episode.

Jesus now brings in a heap of irony and a hint of reproach that completely silences the elder, more socially esteemed man:

“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

While Nicodemus is gradually relegated to the background, moving from senior rabbi to obtuse student, Jesus’ contribution steadily increases with a discussion of heavenly and earthly things that only the Son of Man might confidently know. Nicodemus has been brought up short by the failure of his worldview to comprehend the messianic age, his worldview that held forth God’s manifest destiny for the Jews.

To Nicodemus’ face, a changing mass of confusion and fascination flickering in the candlelight, Jesus tells straight out that his worldview required an inward revolution.

Step into the unknown future and ride the wind, Nicodemus!

Be born again, and really live!

Don’t just study the Scriptures, LOVE!

So this is all we hear from the mouth of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John until chapter 7. Then we learn that Nicodemus opens his mouth for the Torah: that is, for justice.

In chapter 7, verses 50 and 51 we read that,

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus  before, and who was one of them, asked,

51 “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out

what they are doing, does it?”

The Greek is stronger than the weak question translated by the English. The Greek form of the question presumes that the answer is:

No! The law does not allow such an injustice.

Nicodemus makes clear his own answer by the form of his question--and forces his colleagues to go on record with their own answer.

Nicodemus is here acting as a proponent for righteousness among fellow council members who are only interested in expedience. Nicodemus is shown to be a righteous Pharisee, in contrast with what we learn about his fellow council members, a craven band which tries to silence him with ridicule--Verse 52:

52 They replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will

see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”

We can discern the wink and the nudge in this distorted, business-as-usual council. Just go along with us, Nicodemus; you are one of us, not one of them.

Yet Nicodemus has already chosen justice. Because of this, we can be confident that what transpired between Nicodemus and Jesus in chapter 3 is Jesus’ call of Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is not called to be a follower along Jesus’ path, but to be a witness for justice in the councils of the Pharisees of which he was a member. Now if we were left only with these portrayals from the Gospel of John, Nicodemus would be an ambiguous figure—maybe even just a polemical foil between the early Christians and the Jews.

Yet the Old Testament examples of call narratives report that the silencing of the called prophet is followed by prophetic and righteous speech and by a sign of faith. That is, the one who is called by God engages in both the speech and the act of faithful service. And so we move ahead to John chapter 19 to learn of Nicodemus’s creative sign of faith:

[With Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus] took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews, [and laid it] in a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.

This extravagant anointing of the body of Jesus with a hundred-weight of aloe and myrrh and laying it in a new tomb recalls the burial of the good King Asa in 1 Chronicles. Nicodemus is signaling by this act of anointing Jesus’ body that he considers Jesus a king: most likely, the messianic, Anointed king.

Nicodemus gives powerful witness that he was called by the Lord for justice and testimony. He can answer the hymn we are about to sing by saying, “when they laid him in the tomb, I was there.”

[Anthropology] In our focus on Nicodemus in today’s sermon, we are not considering so much theology; rather, we are considering what the specialists term, “anthropology.” That is, the nature of the human being both before his or her encounter with Christ and after. We can discern in the figure of Nicodemus a person who is humbled into silence by the irrepressible holiness of Jesus and who later acts in his vocation as a vocal witness for justice.

Sometimes, we are not called to be in the glamour positions, or in the positions that Jesus advances for apostleship, but rather to fulfill our role in the vocation in which we are called, in order to witness to righteousness and give onlookers a sign of our faith when the world seems to be collapsing. Nicodemus is an example of such a called person.

I would argue, though the traditional church has not, that Nicodemus is a Saint of Holy Saturday. He anoints and shelters the murdered body of God according to the testimony of the Gospel of John on perhaps the most dangerous day in the history of the world: the day that the Word of God has died, on the boundary between the old age of retaliation and the new age of ... well, who knew what was coming next?

Nicodemus though acts as a guardian of the resurrection future, a caretaker of the promise of the gospel, for only a promise that has been sealed by a death may be made unconditional by resurrection. Had there been no resurrection of the body of Christ, the gospel would not have become the unconditional promise of God to the faithful throughout history. The story of Nicodemus and Christ is thus intimately tied up with the messianic promises of the New Age. Nicodemus’s extravagant care for the body of a seemingly dead “failure” suggests that Nicodemus was endowed with a faith that few of us have, tested by the facts of Holy Saturday, the day in which it may have seemed that Satan had triumphed.

Nicodemus’ anguish must have been intense and his fears off the scales, and yet he acted. Nicodemus wrapped the body in yesterday’s best—the spices, the linen, the new rock tomb—at the same time wrapping his soul in tomorrow.

As paradoxically as it might have seen on Holy Saturday, Nicodemus was choosing life by this act, anointing the new temple and leaving yesterday’s behind.

Nicodemus became an actor of the dead center mystery of our faith.

We don’t know what happened to Nicodemus after he laid Jesus in the spices in the tomb. There is some speculation. Perhaps we can see glimmer of his life in a man like John Templeton, who died last week at age 95.

Templeton was an investments advisor, mutual fund founder, and philanthropist who used his wealth to explore the interface of science and religion. Templeton was born near Dayton, Tennessee, the scene of the Scopes Trial, and his family was devout Presbyterian.

Templeton later claimed to have met Scopes, so in a way Templeton was born between yesterday’s worldview and tomorrow’s. Templeton accepted the challenge of his context by becoming the most generous endower of research that attempts to find links between the scientific, materialist world and the spiritual, moral world.

The Templeton Foundation now has an endowment of $1.5Billion, and its most important research so far has been on the positive effects of forgiveness on the physical health, neurobiology, and well-being of those who practice forgiveness versus those who don’t.

There is the yesterday that doesn’t forgive, and the tomorrow that DOES.

Some researchers, though, won’t take Templeton money, because they don’t want to be one of them—they don’t want to be linked with such a worldview, that the material illustrates the moral.

Perhaps what Nicodemus promoted in his later life was also seen by the established elite as tainted or taboo. Because his news of the life and death of Jesus illustrated the moral life expected of all people.

[Application:] God has something else in store for us when we go out into the night on our initial visit to Jesus. Nicodemus thought he was on firm historical ground in his interview of the Rabbi Jesus, but instead found himself readjusted into silence by Jesus’ irrepressible holiness. He was on the vestige of yesterday when tomorrow was dawning.

At General Assembly last month, there were outside young protesters holding up signs that said, “God hates homosexuals,” and prophesying that our denomination was on its way to hell for resolving to ordain them. Some of the Presbyterian young adults, rather than engaging them in return argument, got down on their knees and prayed for them.

They became actors of the living center mystery of our faith.

I’d like to think that some of the protesters could not have been anything but moved to silence by this holiness.When met by holiness, we struggle to maintain our understanding of reality the best we can “How can these things be?” we hear ourselves feebly ask when the Word of God proposes to us the things of the heavenly future.

Yet, there is always danger in those seismic shifts between yesterday’s worldview and tomorrow’s, for as in the case of Jesus, these shifts are apt to produce corpses.

When faith and history rupture like they did in Nazi Germany, the unstable boundary between yesterday’s racial and religious manifest destiny and tomorrow’s evolutionary egalitarianism can disgorge its killing machines.

The Nazis found themselves with an unstable worldview like Nicodemus did on that first night visit to Jesus. It is a testament to the irrepressible holiness of Jesus that kept Nicodemus from turning murderous alongside the mob and the state.

[Conclusion:] I think Joanne has told this story, but it illustrates what I want to say as well:

Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu was asked, “When you were struggling to end apartheid in South Africa, how did you maintain your own hope, and encourage those fighting against apartheid with you?” He replied as follows:

“Central to the Christian message is triumph over seeming ignominious defeat, life comes from death paradoxically, resurrection after crucifixion, Christians would be prisoners of hope.”[4]

Tutu goes on to remark about how he maintained his courage in the face of the police and the thugs,

“We say to our oppressors,

‘Do you know what? We are being nice to you. We are inviting you to join the winning side. Come and join the winning side, because you have already lost.’"[5]

Desmond Tutu could look at the guns pointed at him with the confidence that he was of the people of the God who resurrects.

I believe Nicodemus faced swords with a kind of assurance he received after his interview with irrepressible holiness. He thus is an example of the faith of all those who have not witnessed the resurrection, but are blessed to believe in it.

It is my judgment that Nicodemus lived in hope on Holy Saturday. He was to learn that he had the resurrection God on his side. The Gospel promises are thus found to be unconditional.

With those promises in mind, we can cast out all fear and walk confidently among the mass of humanity who live on Holy Saturday, yet for whom God became a dead concept of yesterday-- for whom hope is extinguished in the killing of good men and women like Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet when we feel that the contingent truths of yesterday are challenged by the dawn of tomorrow, we discover that we all have today’s tomb to confront. With that prospect and without the resurrection God on our side, we must fight savagely for the last glimmer of yesterday, to prolong it somehow, to keep our hope in earthly, violent things—in order to evade the tomb.

Jesus told Nicodemus that there was another way, a way of heavenly things. Nicodemus is a model of faith for us in finding hope in Jesus’ surrendering to the grave and to the future rather than fighting for yesterday’s ways. This is the irrepressible holiness of Jesus.

AMEN for that, and for Jesus the Anointed One who lives today and tomorrow, forever.

AMEN for the unconditional Gospel promises.

Thanks be to God.

[1] See Kenneth E. Bailey, Presbyterian Outlook, 2008.

2. Jer 1: 6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7 But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;

for you shall go to all to whom I send you,

and you shall speak whatever I command you.

8 Do not be afraid of them,

for I am with you to deliver you,

says the Lord.”

9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.

[3] Is 6: 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;

keep looking, but do not understand.’

[4]Sermon by Rev. Thomas D. Wintle (1999), “Desmond Tutu and the Miracle of South Africa” accessed on July 2, 2007 at

[5] Ibid.