He came to Jesus under the cover of darkness - 'a ruler of the Jews' - a member of the Sanhedrin which, in most domestic matters, the Romans allowed to operate as both a civil and religious governing body. It's seventy members were presided over by the High Priest.
Nicodemus was not only a member of this council, he was also a Pharisee - a member of one of the stricter sects in Judaism. In many ways the Pharisees were the best people in the whole country. There were never more than 6,000 of them; but they were known as a brotherhood.
'Pharisee' has come to have a bad connotation to most Christians, which is unfortunate because it distorts our understanding. Even Jesus calls them the 'blind leaders of the blind' and likens them to 'white-washed tombs full of the rottenness of dead men's bones'. But they were the responsible, respectable, decent people of their time. They were as solid and devout a group of people as one could find. We ought to remember that St. Paul proudly lived and died a Pharisee. (Philippians 3:5; Acts 26:5). The Pharisee in the Temple is not necessarily any more representative of all Pharisees than Richard Nixon is of all Republicans or Bill Clinton is of all Democrats. What it comes down to is this: Nicodemus was a pillar of the Establishment. As such a "teacher in Israel", he was expected to set a good example.
He must have been wealthy as well. St. John writes that when Jesus died Nicodemus brought for his body "a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pound weight" (John 19:39), and only a wealthy man could have afforded that.
In this Gospel lesson, our Lord is staying in a house in Jerusalem. Which one, the Evangelist, John, does not report. It may have been John and Marks' mother's house, where it is thought the Upper Room was located. I've walked the dimly lit and narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem at night and have marveled that they are reasonably safe, exceedingly quiet, and virtually empty. I can imagine that Nicodemus found ancient Jerusalem much the same. It was also safe for a respected member of the Supreme Court of the Jews to sneak to the place of lodging of this Rabbi from Nazareth unseen by passersby who might ask searching questions.
His friends and associates heard about Jesus and had serious questions concerning this new teacher. Nicodemus had questions, too. The fact that he went at night is usually held against him as though it implied secrecy. Maybe it does. Or maybe it just meant that the cool of the evening was a good time to visit. Whatever the reason, it should be said to his credit that he went at all.
To the Jewish establishment Jesus must have looked like a potential troublemaker. He was a Galilean who had come to the Holy City - Jerusalem - and that was roughly the equivalent in our day of being a 'hillbilly' in New York City or Boston. Jesus had a popular following and the power structure is always threatened by a populist.
Nicodemus was impressed by the 'miraculous signs' that were a part of Jesus' ministry. The basis on which Nicodemus sought out and acknowledged Jesus' authority was because of all the wonderful things it is reported he had done and, as one who has 'come from God'. Jesus was talking about a Kingdom and the people weren't clear whether he was talking about politics or religion. A controversial prophet from Nazareth, it is not surprising that this pillar of the Establishment was circumspect in seeking him out. But it is because of the things Jesus has done, not because of the unique clarity of his teaching, or because Nicodemus recognized the truth incarnate in Jesus' ministry. Jesus, like all of us, is first known and judged by his actions, not his ideas. Again, it is to his credit that Nicodemus had the courage and a mind open enough to seek him out.
Nicodemus begins his conversation with a complimentary remark in a gentlemanly fashion, confirming Jesus' authenticity. But Jesus knew that he was not there just to pass the time of day. Jesus interrupts him sounding almost abrupt responding with a statement guaranteed to start a conversation. He points out to Nicodemus that what really matters is that a person must be 'born anew' or 'from above', or that person cannot enter the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus doesn't catch the metaphor. He takes the words literally and asks how someone could be born a second time. A puzzled Nicodemus responds: 'How could anyone enter into his mother's womb and be born a second time when he is already an old man?' In his mind birth is a once-in-a-lifetime procedure. Centuries later the psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, contended that all of us want to go back to the warmth and security of our mother's wombs but none of us ever do or can.
So Jesus tried again and said one has to be born of water and the Spirit. Nicodemus, as a teacher in Israel, should not have found the idea of rebirth strange. When a man from another faith became a Jew and accepted into Judaism through prayer, sacrifice and baptism, he was regarded as being 'reborn'. The Jew knew the idea of rebirth.
Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of the necessity of being born from above in order to enter the Kingdom of God and he points to the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing the new birth. He reminds Nicodemus of an Old Testament event, recorded in Numbers 21, to serve as an indication of his saving work. "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
But the pace was too fast for Nicodemus. He didn't get it. He disappears from the conversation as the dialogue turns into a monologue by John. The whole scene finally dissolves setting the stage for what Martin Luther called 'the Gospel in miniature' - John 3:16. "God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life." For God to love the world was to love that which was unworthy of such love. The world had, from the beginning, shown its rebellious character. It had disobeyed God, it had sought to compete with God, it had substituted idols for God, it had rejected God, and it had killed the prophets of God. Though unworthy, God loved the world, and as part of that world he loves us.
The story of Nicodemus is a reminder of the call of Jesus to those who would follow him. The Kingdom of God requires a clean break, a fresh start. What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus is something like this: "If you are really interested in what I'm doing, the first thing to realize is that you have to start all over again. You can't inch your way into the Kingdom of God by tinkering a little bit here or a little bit there with your self. It isn't just a matter of being a little more disciplined, or giving a little more to the Church or to the United Fund than you do, or praying a little more often. It's a whole different way of life. It's like kicking a drug habit, you've got to do it cold-turkey-all the way-and the withdrawal symptoms are like the trauma of being born again." It was the same message Jesus had for the rich young ruler: " . . . sell all that you have", completely change your outlook on and orientation toward life. That was more of a clean break than the rich young ruler wanted to make because he had great possessions. On the other hand Zaccheus, the tax collector from Jericho, made that clean break.
One of the most fascinating stories of the 20th century is the autobiography of Elizabeth Burns. The Late Liz is the story of a woman who was rudely awakened by the Holy Spirit and became one of God's most effective witnesses. She was a product of America's upper class and suffered through three broken marriages. Finally, so riddled with hurt and bitterness, one night she took thirteen high-dosage sleeping pills in an attempt to commit suicide. Her son found her unconscious and rushed his mother to the hospital where she hung between life and death. She slowly awakened but it was an awakening which was to be a total personal awakening in her soul as well as in her body. Her remembrance brought a sense of freedom "as though the windows of my life had been washed, a part of me was left behind, a part old and hard and heavy. My mind was clear, it too had been washed and unencumbered and I understood for the first time what it means to be forgiven by God."
It's unfortunate that the phrase "born again" has been so largely identified with, and reduced to, experiencing a single type of emotional religious experience because it clearly involves different things for different people. Elizabeth Burns made a clean break with her past. The rich young ruler needed to make a clean break with his success. Some need to make a clean break with their guilt and failure. Some people, maybe Nicodemus was one, need to make a clean break with their religious ideas. Some people need to make a clean break with their goals. Some people need to make a clean break with their companions. Being in the Kingdom of God means making a clean break with anything and everything which interferes with our obedience to God.
Let us also be reminded that the love of God has a way of redeeming lives long after they seem to have been lost. A person cannot go back to his or her mother's womb but he or she can receive new life from above-a fresh start, a new direction. One of the great love stories of literature is that of Elizabeth Barrett. She was 40 years old, had been an invalid for 25 years, and was living the life of a recluse in a secluded, darkened room. One day Robert Browning walked into that room; they fell in love, were married, and had a child. It was the start of a whole new life for Elizabeth Barrett Browning after a time when most people would have said her fate had long since frozen into immobility.
The classic film The Horse's Mouth tells the story of a Bohemian painter who lives on a houseboat. There is one scene where a young admirer of the painter asks why and how he became an artist. The man looks through a broken window as though at something far away and says, "One time I saw a painting by the artist, Matisse. In that moment I was stunned and suddenly saw the world in color for the first time. God skinned my eyes; I became a different man; it was like a conversion."
The same thing happened to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, who at age 35 was a dejected and rejected ex-missionary whose preaching turned people off more often than it turned them on. Then one night at a Moravian prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, the Holy Spirit broke through the life of this broken Anglican pastor who felt for the first time that "God had forgiven my sins, even mine.". It was the event which lifted the veil in Wesley's life and the beginning of the great revival which some historians believe saved 18th century England from the fate that befell France in the French Revolution.
I close with the story which I heard many years ago, of an old Army man who for more than 35 years had been a heavy drinker with a temperament of a top sergeant long after he had become a Colonel. He spoke before a group of doctors. He said he'd had a personality change and now he was as temperate as he had once been intemperate, as considerate as he had once been severe, as concerned for others as he had once been selfish. In the audience was a psychiatrist of the school which says that personalities are set very early and who protested that at his age you can't have a personality change. "Well," replied this member of Alcoholics Anonymous, "at least I am under new management."
That is the answer of Jesus to those who say that the drunkard cannot become sober, that the self-centered must always be that way, that the cruel cannot become kind. It is possible to come under new management, to 'be born anew' and when we do life has a quality it never had before.