We’re now three weeks into the season of Lent. And, as the author Sarah Parsons explains, Lent is a time when we:
look at our lives and ourselves, not so we may criticize ourselves more harshly but so we can identify the obstructions that keep us from God. Lent gives us a chance to look at such obstructions and to move them gently away so that we can come closer to the one that gives us life, the one whose triumph we will celebrate on Easter morning.
What Parsons is saying here is that Lent is a season of both reflection and action. It’s a time when we look at our lives so we can try to find the things that keep us from following Jesus. And it’s also a time when we recommit ourselves to following Jesus as we move forward.
But you know what? You can’t really recommit to following Jesus if you don’t know what that means. So throughout the season of Lent at Melbourne Heights, we’re working our way through a series of sermons called Follow Me? where we’re going to talk about what it means to follow Jesus.
And if there was ever a person who should’ve known what it means to follow God, it was a man named Nicodemus. But who was Nicodemus?
Well, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. And the Pharisees were important and powerful people in Israel in the first century. The Pharisees were perhaps the most elite religious society of their time. They were part priests and part politicians, and they were leaders in the Temple and in their communities. The Pharisees were the who's who of Ancient Israel, the kind of men that every little boy wanted to grow up to be like.
So Nicodemus was a religious scholar and leader. He was the kind of person who memorized the ten commandments, and could tell you all about Abraham, Moses, David, and the other fathers of our faith. Nicodemus had spent his life studying the law. He recited the prayers of the Psalmists, and had been humbled by the words of the prophets. Nicodemus knew his Bible forward and backward.
So Nicodemus is the kind of person who should’ve known exactly what he needed to do to follow God.
But, as we dig deeper into his story, we’re going to find out that that’s not the case for Nicodemus. So if you’ve got a Bible close by let me encourage you to go ahead and grab it, and turn with me to John 3 where we’ll read more about Nicodemus’s story.
And, as you’re finding John 3, I just want to point out that the book of John is essentially a biography of Jesus. So in the book of John, you can read about Jesus's ministry and his miracles, you can read about how Jesus lived and who Jesus is, you can read about Jesus’s crucifixion and his resurrection. But in John 3, we’re going to read about the time that Jesus met Nicodemus. So with that in mind let’s take a look at John 3 together. We’ll start reading in verse 1, where John writes:
1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night…
John 3:1-2 (Common English Bible)
Let's stop right here for just a minute. Now, I know that this sentence doesn't sound too important, but there is something here that we shouldn't overlook. Did you catch it? If you didn't, let me help you out. What time of the day did Nicodemus show up for his meeting with Jesus? He came to Jesus at night.
Now let me ask you this if you were planning on visiting a teacher, a preacher, or some other public figure, when would you typically meet with them? Are you going to show up on their doorstep in the middle of the night or are you going to visit during normal business hours?
I hope that you’d plan on coming sometime during the day – especially if you're going to visit me. Because if you show up at my house in the middle of the night, I'm going to sick my little fifteen-pound attack dog on you.
So, if most people would visit during the day, why does Nicodemus come to Jesus at night? Well, Nicodemus came to visit Jesus at night because he was a Pharisee. And, if you remember the Gospels well, you'll probably remember that the Pharisees didn't exactly get along with Jesus. As a matter of fact, the Pharisees were Jesus’s biggest critics; and they ended up being the driving force behind Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion.
So when Nicodemus decided to visit Jesus, he knew he couldn't risk being spotted by his fellow Pharisees – after all, he'd become the laughingstock of the whole group if anyone found out about his visit with Jesus – so he snuck out to see Jesus in the middle of the night.
But why would Nicodemus want to visit Jesus at all? Why would he want to visit someone that all the other Pharisees seemed to hate? As we keep reading in John 3, we’ll see why Nicodemus wanted to visit Jesus. So let’s pick up the story back in verse 1. Once again, John writes:
1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
John 3:1-2 (Common English Bible)
So why does Nicodemus want to visit Jesus? He visits Jesus because even though he has spent his life studying the law and the prophets and learning everything he could about God…Nicodemus knew that he was still missing something. Nicodemus knew that he still wasn’t following God the way he was supposed to. So Nicodemus felt like he was still in the dark when it came to following God.
But Nicodemus heard about the miracles Jesus performed and the things Jesus taught. And he knew that no one could do what Jesus was doing unless God was with him. So Nicodemus decided to go to Jesus to see if Jesus could enlighten him. Nicodemus went to Jesus to see if Jesus could show him what it means to follow God.
And, as we pick back up in John 3, we’ll see that’s exactly what Jesus does…Jesus teaches Nicodemus about what it means to follow God. So let’s take a look at what Jesus tells him. We’ll pick back up in verse 3, where John tells us:
3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10 Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?”
John 3:1-10 (Common English Bible)
Let's take another break right here because it’s pretty clear that Nicodemus still doesn’t get it. Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus what he needs to do to follow God. And he starts by telling Nicodemus that he must be born again, but Nicodemus thinks Jesus means he has to literally climb back into his mother's womb. Now clearly, that isn't what Jesus means. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to be born again, Jesus means that following God is like starting a whole new life.
Think about it this way: when you're born, what do you know about the world you just entered into? Even though none of us remember what it was like to be a newborn, we all know that babies don't know much about the world they’ve just entered. The same is true for us when we start following God. When we start following God, we don’t know much about what it means to follow God. And the only way to learn is to experience it for ourselves.
But up to this point, Nicodemus was unwilling to experience what it’s like to follow God for himself. He was comfortable with memorizing scripture and studying the law, but Nicodemus still has no idea what it’s like to follow God. So he asks Jesus to explain it to him. And picking back up in John 3:11, Jesus responds:
11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.
19 “This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20 All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21 Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”
John 3:11-21 (Common English Bible)
In this passage, Jesus explains to Nicodemus who God is. He tells Nicodemus that God is a God who loves the world. So, if we’re going to follow God, we have to love the world too.
If we’re going to follow God, we’re going to have to love the world too.
But how do we do that? Well, Tony Campolo – who's a popular teacher, writer, and speaker – tells an incredible story about a trip he once took to Honolulu that shows us how we can love the world.
He was suffering from jet lag after a long flight, and he found himself wide awake and hungry at 3:30 in the morning. So he left his hotel to find something to eat and discovered an all-night diner.
He had just ordered a cup of coffee and a donut when a group of eight or nine boisterous women burst in the door and sat down on the stools along the counter, laughing and talking. Realizing they were prostitutes, Tony started thinking about a way to make his exit as quickly as possible because being spotted with a bunch of prostitutes isn't exactly good for a preacher's reputation.
But as he finished his coffee, he heard the woman seated next to him say, “Tomorrow's my birthday; I'll be 39.” From down the counter, another woman said, “Big deal! So what do you want? A cake, a party, somebody singing 'Happy Birthday'?”
“I'm not asking for anything,” she said. “I've never had a birthday party in all my life. Why now?” They left soon, and Tony asked Harry, the man behind the counter, “Do they come here every night?”
“Yes,” he replied, “I know them well. That's Agnes who's having the birthday. Why do you ask?”
Tony replied, “Well, what do you say we have a birthday party right here tomorrow night?” Harry smiled and called his wife out from the kitchen to tell her. Tony told them he'd be back at 2:30 the next morning with a cake and decorations. “No,” Harry said. “We'll make the cake.”
By the next night, the word was out on the street, and at 3:15 am the diner was packed with street people and prostitutes. Tony had strung up crepe paper and a big sign that read “Happy Birthday, Agnes.” When she walked in, everyone shouted. She was so surprised her knees buckled, and someone had to help her to a seat. Her eyes started to fill, and when they brought in the cake, Agnes broke into sobs. She said she couldn't blow out the candles, and someone else did it for her. Agnes couldn't take her eyes off the cake. “Before we cut it, can I take it home for a little while? I just live down the street.” As the door closed behind Agnes, a deep silence fell over the diner.
Tony broke it by saying, “What do you say we pray for Agnes?” He prayed for her life to change, for God to be good to her, and for her salvation. After he finished, Harry said, “You didn't tell me you were a preacher. What church do you belong to?” Tony Campolo didn't answer right away. After a moment, he said, “I belong to the church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” The man sneered, “No, you don't. There's no church like that. If there was, I'd join it.”
Whether you realize it or not, following Jesus means that you’re part of a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning, because you are part of a church that follows a God who loves the world.
And that means that God loves prostitutes enough to throw them a birthday party in the middle of the night. That means that God loves the starving child living halfway around the world enough to make sure he’s fed. That means that God loves the elderly person living down the street enough to go over and help take out her garbage. That means that God loves the waitress serving his meal enough to leave her a big ole tip.
Because following God means that we’ll love people the world doesn’t.
Following God means that we’ll love people the world doesn’t.
But I’ve told you every week throughout this series that we’re not just talking about what it means to follow Jesus. We’ve called this series Follow Me? with a question mark at the end to remind us that following Jesus is a choice.
Following Jesus is a choice.
So today you’ve heard what it takes to follow Jesus. You’ve heard that if you want to follow Jesus you have to love the world that he loves and that if you want to follow Jesus you have to love people the world doesn’t. But you have to decide if you’re going to do it or. You have to decide if you’re going to love.