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“Nick at Night”
John 3:1-21


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Second Sunday in Lent—March 20, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel Reading could be named after the popular TV channel: “Nick at Night.”  “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He came to Jesus at night.”

At first glance the time reference “at night” in this account would seem to be incidental and insignificant.  But, Martin Luther insightfully explains that John in his Gospel often has what seem to be incidental references to time and place that really have a symbolic meaning.  Sometimes this is explained for us.  When Jesus puts mud in a man’s eyes he tells him, “Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam,” and then John explains, “this word means ‘sent.’”  And when Jesus is crucified John reports, “Carrying his own cross, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha.”

Other times the significance of these allusions to time and place is not explained.  John is the only Evangelist to note that on the way to Gethsemane Jesus crosses a brook named “Kidron.”  Luther says, “In Hebrew ‘Kidron’ means dark and black.  Accordingly, the Evangelist points to this brook as an omen foreshadowing Christ’s arrest and death, as if he were saying, ‘He crossed over the black brook indeed.’”

So, what is the significance of the seemingly incidental comment that Nicodemus “came to Jesus at night”?  Throughout the Bible, and especially in the Gospel and Epistles of John, night and darkness represents evil.  One of the biggest differences that we take for granted between our modern world and life in Bible times is shining brightly above us.  We are so accustomed to the darkness of night being easily interrupted with just the flip of a switch.  But, to the ancients, night was a terrifying time, when the forces of evil reigned.

Luther reflects this fear and dread of the night in his morning and evening prayers: “I pray that you would . . . graciously keep me this night. . . from all harm and danger . . . let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.”  This equation of darkness with the forces of evil is why Jesus describes hell itself as, “the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

So, this seemingly incidental comment that Nicodemus “came to Jesus at night” actually has a deep symbolic significance.  The physical darkness in which Nicodemus comes to Christ symbolizes his spiritual state.  For, although Nicodemus is a member of the ruling council and a Pharisee and a very religious man, nevertheless he comes to Christ not only in the dark of night but also in a state of inner darkness, spiritual darkness.  For, Nicodemus missed the whole point of his religion: Jesus is the promised Messiah.  And so he remained in spiritual darkness.  As John’s Gospel says, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. . . but the world did not recognize him. . . the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it.”

The night which hangs over today’s Gospel Reading also symbolizes us, our fallen, sinful state, our inner, spiritual darkness, and the spiritual darkness of the whole, sinful world.  “This is the verdict,” Jesus says, “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

A proper sermon has two basic parts: first the Law, the proclamation of our sin; and then the Gospel, the Good News of our salvation.  Jesus begins his sermon to Nicodemus with the Law: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. . . Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” 

No one had ever talked to Nicodemus like this.  Today we would call it “speaking truth to power.”  For, although Nicodemus is a very important person and extremely religious man, Jesus confronts him with the truth that he needs to be born again, because he is flesh, a sinful human, in need of a Savior.  “Flesh gives birth to flesh. . .  You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”

This preaching of the Law that Jesus proclaims to Nicodemus is also meant for you.  For, like Nicodemus, we all come to Jesus “at night,” in the spiritual darkness of our sins.  Like Nicodemus, we all “must be born again,” for “flesh gives birth to flesh” and we are all sinful humans in need of a Savior.

After proclaiming to Nicodemus and us the condemnation of the Law, Jesus comforts Nicodemus and you with the Good News of the Gospel: “The Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”  John later explains, “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.”  Jesus is prophesying his death upon the cross.  “The Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Luther beautifully comments, “This disgraceful, cursed death upon the cross is an offense to the eye, but to us it is a blessed death, for it takes the curse away from us and brings to us God’s blessing. Here hangs God’s Son with his outstretched arms extended in welcome, as a testimony that he will cast no one out, but gladly receive every one and draw all to himself, as he promised. His head is lifted toward heaven, pointing out to us the way of eternal life. His feet reach toward the ground where they crush that old serpent Satan.”

“The Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Nicodemus came to Jesus willing to acknowledge him as a great teacher: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  Still today most people are willing to at least acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth was something special.  A great teacher, a prominent philosopher, a mysterious miracle worker, a famous historic figure and religious leader.  Even Islam declares Jesus to be the second-greatest prophet, next to Mohammed.

But, Jesus calls upon Nicodemus and you to trust in him as something much, much more than all of that: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.”  Jesus calls upon Nicodemus and you to trust in him as the very Son of God, your Savior: “That whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Later in John’s Gospel we see the impact that this encounter and Jesus’ Law-Gospel sermon had upon Nicodemus.  In a meeting of the ruling council when they are plotting against Jesus, Nicodemus boldly speaks up in Jesus’ defense.  And after Jesus’ death Nicodemus comes with Joseph of Arimathea to lovingly embalm and bury Jesus’ body.

The Good News of John 3:16 led Nicodemus to bold faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, his Savior.  John 3:16 is also God’s Good News for you.  For God so loved you that he gave his only-begotten Son.  Believe in him and you shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn you, but to save you through him.

How grief-stricken Nicodemus must have been as he helped Joseph of Arimathea lovingly arrange Jesus’ body in Joseph’s tomb.  No doubt Nicodemus remembered sadly his first encounter with Jesus three years before.  But, what an extraordinary joy it must have been when Nicodemus heard on Easter morn that the body he had laid in Joseph’s tomb was no longer there—that his Savior Jesus Christ had risen from the dead!

That encounter Jesus had with “Nick at Night” led Nicodemus to spend eternity with Jesus in the unending light of heaven. And it is the same for you.  For, through your encounters with Jesus, in his Word, in Baptism, in Communion, he will take you to the light of eternal glory.  As Paul says in Colossians, “The Father has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.  For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Amen.

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