Scripture: John 3:1-15
Last winter I put on a few pounds. It wasn’t a super big deal. But I could feel the change around my waistband and, with as hard as it is for me to find “little person” clothes; I determined I would make some dietary changes to take those few pounds back off. A few days into the process, missing my chocolate and other sweets, I said to Britt, “I don’t think this is making any difference at all.” He asked, “So how long have you been doing this?” “At least a week,” I said, realizing as soon as the words left my mouth how ridiculous I sounded. Did I really think those pounds I’d picked up over four or five months were going to magically go away in one week?
But that is our human nature, fueled by our instantaneous culture. Decades ago, if people wanted to hear the day’s news, they needed to be in front of their TV set at 6:00. Today, we just pull out our smart phone anytime and anywhere. We’re just one click away from knowing what happened on the other side of the world thirty minutes ago… unless we’re surfing social media and then we learn about it in real time. A few years back, a friend told me the story of a little boy whose parents signed him up for T-ball. He wasn’t doing very well. So they took him to the doctor. That makes sense… after all; you’d want to check his vision or other potential medical issues. But a thorough check-up revealed everything was normal. The doctor’s diagnosis: he’s just taking a little bit longer than the other children to develop those skills. But it was more than the parents could bear. They signed him up for ball therapy. Yes; it’s true. Ball therapy is a real thing.
We live in an instantaneous world. But here’s the caveat: relationships will always take time to grow and mature. Relationships involve understanding, trust and intimacy and there are no shortcuts for those. And, although people sometimes think of Christianity as a belief system, it is – first and foremost – about a relationship with Jesus and that relationship, like all relationships, will take time to mature. Over time, our relationship with Jesus will change us. We’ll begin to feel and think and speak and act in different ways. But change doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes even in the church, we contribute to this “microwavable conversion” approach. We all love the story of a sensational conversation. When we read scripture, we focus on passages like the one in Acts when Saul (who becomes Paul) is struck blind on the Road to Damascus. What an exciting story. But most of us aren’t struck blind and for many of us, our desires to be healthy disciples of Jesus might feel more like my first sugar-free diet week. But friends, change generally doesn’t happen overnight. Change takes time.
I want to invite you to turn to the center of your program. Although our Christian maturity does take time, I do want to invite to consider “can you recall a time in your life when you experienced a ‘spiritual growth spurt’?
[pause] There’s a great picture also in your program. Claudia Levy and Dan Glover have written a book called “Deepening Your Effectiveness.” It’s a book about Christian discipleship and it employs the metaphor you see pictured in your program. Our relationship with Jesus, friends, is a little like swimming. We generally don’t wind up swimming with great proficiency in the deep water on day one. It takes commitment and time and courage to move from the shoreline out into the deep.
And fortunately, we do have a biblical character who serves as a reminder that our relationship with Jesus can sometimes take time to develop and mature.
This morning I shared from John’s gospel, chapter 3. A Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night” to question him. In John’s gospel, the darkness that accompanies nighttime is a powerful symbol. From the beginning, our gospel writer reminds us that Jesus is light. Even in our culture today, light is associated with enlightenment and darkness is associated with confusion and uncertainty. So, when Nicodemus first comes to Jesus, he is “in the dark” – literally and figuratively. As Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about spiritual birth, Nic isn’t getting it. He’s confused. He’s also fearful. People do under the cover of darkness what they do not want others to see. Nicodemus is part of the Jewish religious establishment. They will be, all throughout John’s gospel, in opposition to Jesus. So, even here, Nic is taking some risk in coming to Jesus. But, by coming under the guise of darkness, he minimizes his risk; minimizes the chance that he’ll be seen.
But John, chapter 3, is not the end of the story of Nicodemus for he enters the stage of John’s gospel two additional times. Now first let me say, here in chapter 3, it’s never clear that he’s “left the stage,” so to speak. Jesus’ response to his question, “How can these things be?” evolves into an eloquent discourse about new birth and new life. And where is Nic? Did he walk away? Stride offstage? Drift into the shadows? Or perhaps just sit down behind some prop on stage right to watch the drama unfold? I’m being facetious, of course. But my point is this: the journey of Nicodemus has just begun and, at this point, we don’t really know what the future holds for this character.
He appears again in chapter 7.[i] There, Jesus has gone to Jerusalem at the time of a religious festival. The city is bustling with people and so Jesus uses this occasion to preach. He captivates the crowds and creates a great deal of controversy and speculation. Even the temple police are not sure what to make of him. But the chief priests and Pharisees are fed up with it all and angry that the police didn’t arrest Jesus. And then, amidst their bickering, Nicodemus speaks up. Our narrator reminds us that this is the same Nicodemus. And he asks this question: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing, does it?” Now Nicodemus’ question is far from a bold confession of faith, but it is a bold question and the other religious leaders suspect this involves more than Nic’s love of the law. They ask, “Surely you’re not also from Galilee, are you?” In other words, “what’s up with you? Why are you defending this guy as if you have some stake in him, some association with him?” As one bible scholar notes, by “insisting on correct legal procedure toward Jesus, Nicodemus takes a certain personal risk.”[ii] And yet, he still appears to be “on the fence.” When his colleagues lash back at him, he seems, once again, to drift quietly into the narrative shadows.
But he’ll return one final time.[iii] After Jesus’ crucifixion, he will join Joseph of Arimathea in laying Jesus’ body to rest. The job of burial rites belonged to the family of the decedent just as it generally does today. And so, by taking the initiative to care for Jesus’ dead body, Nicodemus’ “identification” or association with Jesus is no longer a possibility; it is a clear fact. Jesus was executed as a criminal. No law-abiding citizen would want to be associated with him, right? Yet Nicodemus now participates actively in these burial rites. And the excessive amount of burial spices Nicodemus uses to anoint Jesus’ corpse reveal that his intent is to honor Jesus. Though lacking a verbal profession of faith, Nicodemus’ actions speak volumes.
And so we find, within John’s gospel this character whose faith journey is, most definitely, a journey. And his journey can become, for us, a model and a challenge. Nic models for us the reality that our relationship with Jesus will, likely, take some time to grow and mature. He also challenges us because, by the story’s end, there can be no doubt that his honoring Jesus has become of greater importance to him than his social position or reputation. He has made a choice that we are sometimes reluctant to make because, at the end of the day, anyone can say “Jesus is Lord,” but it will be much harder to live it out. It takes time and commitment and courage to decide that honoring Jesus is more important than our careers or what our peers think of us. It takes great loyalty to Jesus to decide that he will be the recipient of the very best of our time, our talents, our money and our energy. It takes great love for Jesus to decide that our boss, our coach, our advisor, our teacher, our friends and colleagues, even our families will need to get in line behind Jesus. And it will likely take some time for that kind of loyalty, that kind of love, that kind of relational commitment to grow. And it’s OK if you’re not quite there. It’s OK even if your journey has just begun. But here’s what’s important: are you making progress? Are you more committed to Jesus now that you were, say, a year ago; or maybe 20 years ago; or maybe even just last month?
As a culture we promote check-ups, right? Once a year, Britt and I get blood drawn to evaluate our health. It tells us how our cholesterol is and how our major organs are doing – our pancreas, heart, kidneys and liver. And every year we fill out paperwork from our financial advisor to determine if the way she’s investing matches our goals and needs. And lots of us do that sort of thing.
But when was the last time you evaluated your spiritual health? If we never take time to reflect, how will we know if we’re maturing in our relationship with Jesus? So, if you turn back to your program, I want to encourage this week to set aside time to reflect on your discipleship health; to think about where you are in your relationship with Jesus. How long has it been since you’ve had a spiritual growth spurt? How much have you allowed Jesus to change you – the way you think and act and speak; the priorities you set in life? Change doesn’t happen overnight. So, take some time, make some time, to consider where you are in your relationship with Jesus. Take the time and take a step to consider your next step to grow closer to Jesus.
[i] See John 7:45-52
[ii] Word, Theology and Community in John, Painter, Culpepper and Segovia as editors. Chalice Press, 2002, pp. 23-24.
[iii] See John 19:38-42
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