By the time Nicodemus came to visit him, Jesus was the talk of the whole country. Nicodemus had heard Jesus was performing inexplicable wonders. But what’s more, Nicodemus had heard Jesus was traveling amidst the most downtrodden and disreputable people: notorious sinners and suspicious foreigners, poor uneducated laborers, and women, and the sick. Jesus was teaching them they were in the very presence of God, and Jesus was confronting the religious authorities and teaching them they had strayed far from the presence of God.
So what was Nicodemus doing visiting Jesus? Nicodemus represented everything Jesus was critical of. Nicodemus was rich and well educated. What’s more he was a part of a strict religious order, well known for their staunch morality. He was even a leader among that order, serving as a sort of a judge and expert on religious matters. He was at the top of the heap. But this man who seemed to have everything going his way, slipped out of his home at night, and under the cover of darkness secretly sought out where Jesus was staying, just to be able to talk with him for a few minutes.
Why? What was Nicodemus looking for that was so important?
It’s simple. Nicodemus was looking for God. He was looking for something that despite his wealth and rank and knowledge had somehow eluded him. Nicodemus wanted to feel the peace of being beloved of God, the assurance of knowing he was doing right by God, but above all, Nicodemus wanted to know how—how could he get these things, what could he change himself, how could he find God? That’s why he came to Jesus, Nicodemus says as much, he calls Jesus teacher—teacher, you must have been sent by God, the things you do are so wonderful, nothing less than the presence of God can explain them. Nicodemus was looking for God, and he thought Jesus could teach him how to find God.
But what Jesus says to Nicodemus, well, it was hard to understand. Jesus says, if you are looking to be in the presence of God, you would have to be born again. Jesus says this with a straight face, as if Nicodemus should understand at all how to be born again. So Nicodemus responds and says—“I am grown old now, and my mother? Well she has born and birthed me once, which is all anyone could ask of a person, so how in the world could I be born a second time? How?”
Jesus responds, “If you want to be in the presence of God, if you want to be born again, you’ll have to be born from the water and the wind. The wind, though, the wind is free. You can’t control it. You can hear the wind and listen for it but the wind doesn’t listen back or come when you call. You can feel the wind blowing against you but you can’t know where it started from or where it will end up or tell it where to go next. To be born again, it’s like being at the mercy of the wind.”
Nicodemus came to Jesus with a question: “How can I know the presence of God, how can I feel the peace of being beloved of God, how can I do right by God?” Nicodemus was burning alive with the question—how, how, how, how?
The answer Jesus gives him is: there is nothing you can do. There is no road you can walk that will take you into the presence of God, there is no course of study to give you the peace of knowing you’re beloved of God, there is no code of behavior rigorous enough to do right by God. There is nothing you can do—it’s like you’re at the mercy of the wind. It’s like you are at the mercy of God and there is nothing you can do about it. And with anguish Nicodemus asks one more question: “How can this be?” He spent his life studying about God, was it all for nothing? He spent his life working to be respectable, was it all for nothing? He had sacrificed and denied himself and done the right thing for righteousness sake, was it all for nothing?
With anguish Nicodemus asks, “How can this be?” and Jesus replies gently—“You’re a leader of God’s people and you can’t understand? You cannot ascend up into heaven to meet God, no one can. And so God has come down to earth and is with you, and is with everyone. God has come down to earth from heaven so that anyone, everyone, might have life eternal, life abundant, life overflowing and wonderful, everyone—not just the holy, not just the learned, not just the rich, everyone can be in the very presence of God. Everyone can know they are beloved of God. Everyone can know they have done right by God. You cannot earn God’ love, but that is true of all the most wonderful gifts. You don’t have to earn a gift, you just have to accept it, and then it’s yours.”
I don’t know whether Nicodemus understood what Jesus meant, understood who Jesus was, the story doesn’t say. But it does say that when Jesus was brought before the court on religious charges, Nicodemus was the only one who defended him, and when those charges cost Jesus his life, Nicodemus spent what must have been a life’s savings so that Jesus could be buried.
Thank God for Nicodemus, thank God for the honesty of his questions and the depth of his need for reassurance. I know what it is like to be consumed by the question of how, to be burning so hot with the need to do something to be close with God. For me, it was not so very long ago, years not decades. It was not so very long ago that I was praying on my knees, needing for my life to change, knowing I could not do it on my own, with a bellyful of doubts up against a back breaking from fear, knowing that I needed God to show up and too afraid to ask. And there on my knees I gave up, I gave up on being worthy enough to deserve God’s love, I gave up on ever being free of doubt. I gave up and all that space inside of me that I had filled with fear just emptied out, and into that emptiness something else came rushing in like a wind from God knows where, unbidden and unexpected, I cried like a child for his mother. I gave up and it was like … being born again.
Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’re like Nicodemus. Maybe you’re looking for God and you just don’t know HOW. Maybe you think there’s something you have to do before you’d ever be worthy of the presence of God, maybe you believe you have to hit a goal weight, or you have to be the perfect family, or you have to be sober, or you have to get off the street, or you have to finish your degree or you have to earn more money, or you have to do something before you deserve to be in the presence of God. Take it from those who know what it is like to give up and find yourself in the arms of God. Take it from those in this church who remember the moment they gave up trying to pretend they were straight, and in coming out they were born again. Take it from those in this church who remember the moment they gave up trying to save a marriage that was poison, and in filing for divorce they were born again. Or take it from the saints who gave up their hold on this life and in dying they were born again, but on a farther shore and in a greater light. You can be in the very presence of God just as you are, but you have to give up trying to deserve it.
When we try to earn our way to God’s love we are like people trying to build a tower tall enough it could take us up to God. And when the towers we build are never tall enough or strong enough and finding ourselves just as far from God as before, we blame our designs or our materials or our fellows and we tear it down and begin anew. It is when we give up on the task of building our way into heaven, when we cast our eyes back down to the earth, that we finally find God. We find God standing beside us like a brother, as he always had been. We find God holding us up like a sister, as she always has before. We find God giving everything we need, giving everything there is simply out of love, like a mother who so loved the world that she gave her only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. God’ love is a gift. You cannot earn God’ love, but that is true of all the most wonderful gifts. You don’t have to earn a gift, you just have to accept it, and then it’s yours.