Continuing Christ's ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing in his birthplace
Sunday, 17th March 2019.
Sermon by the Presiding Bishop Dr. Tamas Fabiny
Nicodemus was a Jewish leader and member of the Sanhedrin. Therefore it is not a surprise that he wanted to meet Jesus covertly and visited him at night. When I started my service as a pastor in Communist Hungary, I also met such Nicodemuses. They used to work in high positions, they were members of the – that time one and only – political party and they were afraid of losing their jobs, so when they wanted their children to be baptised, they contacted the pastor and the church secretly.
There is a Hungarian saying “The question is not where are you coming from but where are you going to”. This is also true for those who meet Jesus in secret. We will see later on, how Nicodemus will arrive at a much closer contact with Jesus, even though now he would not have dreamt about that.
Jesus accepts this cautious approach of Nicodemus but during the night talk he jumps straight to the point: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (3:3).
Nicodemus does not understand how this rebirth can proceed. So Jesus refers to a story every Jew knew well: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”.
Yes, the most well-known and probably most important sentence of the Bible is part of our today’s text. Martin Luther made it very personal when he said in a sermon: “For God so loved Martin Luther that he gave his one and only Son for Martin Luther so that if Martin Luther believes in him, he shall not perish but have eternal life”. I may say: “For God so loved Tamás Fabiny…” And your pastor would say: “For God so loved Munther Isaac”. And all of you may add your own name in silence. Just as Nicodemus probably said when he finally understood it: “For so God loved Nicodemus that he gave his one and only Son”.
The story about putting up the bronze snake was familiar to Israel’s teacher. During the wandering in the wilderness, Jews speaking against God were bit by venomous snakes. So Moses prayed to God and the Lord told him to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Anyone looking at the bronze snake would live according to the promise of God. Jesus connected the bronze snake lifted up in the desert to his own uplifting on the cross.
There is a deep theological message in this: Jesus suffered instead of us the consequences of the bite of the snake (also present at the fall), that is, the consequences of sin. Fulfilling the prophesies of the Old Testament, Christ took away the sins of the whole world and suffered and died such as he had committed all sins.
Reading John 3, we tend to feel that Nicodemus did not understand Jesus’ message in its full complexity. After a while, he disappears from our sight. But later we meet him again, actually when Jesus dies. In John 19:39–40, we read that together with Joseph of Arimathea, he buries Jesus. He brings a mixture of myrrh and aloes, and they lay Jesus wrapped in linen.
For this, he had to be courageous in several ways.
Firstly, they had to ask for permission from Pilate which could have easily led to being accused of following the man of Nazareth who was executed as a rebel. Secondly, they had to surpass their limits as Jews. According to the religious ritual, the burial made them unchaste and they weren’t allowed to participate at the Passover. When Nicodemus appears around the crucified Jesus and his burial, it means that Israel’s teacher is ready to become unchaste! He does no less than the good Samaritan: Mercy has now become more important for him than any religious regulations. So he has understood the core of Jesus’ message who interpreted the teaching of the prophets saying: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”.
During the night conversation, Jesus spoke about his own uplifting. Here, in the passion we see movement in the opposite direction: The body of Jesus has to be taken off the cross and put into the grave. Nicodemus is taking part in this. The man who went to Jesus covertly, in the darkest night, is now making direct contact. He can embrace Jesus, just like Mary. There is a number of moving Pietas, where Jesus’ mother is embracing his dead son. If I were a painter or a sculptor, I would like to make a piece of art where Nicodemus, the proud teacher of Israel is embracing Jesus and mourning for him.
It might be bravely put if I say: When Nicodemus adores Jesus’ body with the spices and puts it into the tomb, it is like he would become his father.
Let me refer to an Oscar-winning Hungarian film which might be known to some of you. In the Son of Saul, the main protagonist Saul is working in a concentration camp run by the Nazis when he finds his own dead son. From that point on, he has only one goal: To be able to bury him. He takes the corpse covered in cloth with him and tries to escape with it – because the son has to be buried. Similarly to the shocking fate of this Saul of the 20th century (Géza Röhrig was starring in the role), Nicodemus also wants to bury Jesus whom he nearly adopted as his son.
Through this, he fulfils the last sentence of our today’s text: “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God”.
At the beginning, he only dared to visit Jesus undercover. At that time, he did not fully understand his teaching either. But after the crucifixion (when darkness fell upon the world), he already walked in light.
Because death was followed by resurrection. Darkness was replaced by light. May God help us – irrespective of how we are trying to approach Jesus – in finally arriving at this light.
Bishop Dr Tamás Fabiny