Temptation to Triumph #2 in the Series
I don’t care what their IQ’s are, those two guys have to be smartest men in the world. They both know the ultimate truth that the choices we make determine our future.
Choices, decisions we all have to make them. We make thousands of choices every single day. Do I hit the snooze button or get up? Do I get coffee or do without? Will it be eggs, oatmeal or cold cereal for breakfast or should I stop and get a donut or sausage roll? Decisions; Choices. We all have to make them even if they aren’t as serious as the Family Feud question.
But there are those choices which leave us Torn, torn between going one way or doing one thing instead of the other. Today I want us to look at Choices through the eyes of Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to visit Jesus at night.
Let’s look at how John describes this encounter. John 3:1-17 (NRSV)
 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these sign that you do apart from the presence of God.”
 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.
 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
C. S. Lewis, the great Christian author of Mere Christianity and the Chronicles of Narnia series once said that “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you that chooses into something a little different from what it was before.”
The choices we make determine the course of our lives. One single choice can change everything. That’s exactly what happened in the life of Nicodemus.
I. NIC AT NIGHT:
Let’s look at Nicodemus and why this passage is so important. We know that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. The word Pharisee means “set apart.” And what set them apart weren’t their robes or their prayer shawls or their beards. It wasn’t anything physical at all. The idea of being “set apart” had to do with their lifestyle.
The Pharisees were those who were trying to live the laws of God as completely as possible. If you followed the correct procedure of hand-washing; if you never carried anything weighing more than two figs on the Sabbath, if you were meticulous in giving tithes of everything down to the herbs in your garden, then you were a Pharisee. They tried to be as faithful as they could in all their works.
There were Seven Classifications of Pharisees listed in the Talmud, the seventh one describes Nicodemus. He was a God-fearing Pharisee, who truly loved God and who found delight in obedience to the Law of God, however difficult that it might be, because to him it was simply a form of worship.
We know Nicodemus was a God-fearing Pharisee because he was part of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. John also identifies him as “a teacher of Israel,” an authority on the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. So, Nicodemus had considerable Religious status as well as the social status that went it. And when he visited Jesus in the garden that night, he was putting it all the line. (1)
Nicodemus was torn. He was torn between what he believed and what Jesus taught. He was torn between the faith in his head and the pull of his heart. He was torn between his comfortable, predictable place in life and the frighteningly exciting pull of an adventure in new life with God through Jesus whom he was starting to believe was the Christ, the Messiah.
At the end of the conversation, Nicodemus had to make a choice.
II. WESLEY THE PHARISEE:
A. It dawned on me this week that Nicodemus and John Wesley, before his Aldersgate experience, were just alike. Wesley and his Holy Club were trying to live just as obediently as Nicodemus.
Wesley was so meticulous that he kept a journal in which he graded himself every day on how faithful he was being. At times, he even graded himself every hour. Unfortunately, while we have 14 volumes of Wesley’s works, many of his journals were written in his own short hand code.
It wasn’t until 1969, when my Methodist history professor, Dr. Richard Heitzenrater, stumbled upon the cipher. He was working on his dissertation when he found the code stuck in the pages of a book in the Wesleyan archives in London. The diaries have revealed a lot about Wesley’s motivation and reveal that he was trying to live a life pleasing to God, one which brought Glory to God and not to him.
Unfortunately, the more John Wesley tried to be good, the worse he seemed to have gotten. He and Charles both came to America as missionaries. And for whatever reason, they both failed. Wesley would remark that he had made not even one convert among the Native Americans nor the colonists. As a result he began questioning his faith. But then one night, just like Nicodemus, something happened. He met and experienced Jesus in a way he had never expected.
For years John Wesley had ardently sought to be holy and was rigorously disciplined in every religious practice, but his fruitless discipline and devotion left him lifeless, empty, uncertain, joyless and deeply discontented. On Wednesday, May 24, 1738, he “went very unwillingly,” his words, to a society meeting on Aldersgate Street where Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans was being read. And something happened that changed him and changed the face of the church forever. Later that night he wrote in his journal:
“About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Although Wesley had known about Christ, believed in God’s work of salvation through Christ and had proclaimed Christ for year, it was on that night the John Wesley met Christ face to face. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. Wesley was given the assurance he needed to move his faith from his head to his heart. No longer did he just know about the love of Christ, he experienced that love for himself.
III. THE CHANGE:
A. Something happened to Nicodemus that night in the Garden of Gethsemane just as something happened to John Wesley that night at Aldersgate Street. Through their encounter with Christ, they both changed. It might not have been as life changing at the moment for Nicodemus as it was for John Wesley but we know that because of Jesus everything in the life of Nicodemus changed. It was Nicodemus who brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe for the burial of Jesus. We can infer that Nicodemus became a disciple because that was the amount of aloe and spices needed to prepare a king for burial.
While not part of the Bible, there are even stories from the early church about Nicodemus being baptized by Peter and John. He supposedly gave testimony in favor of Christ at the trial before Pilate. Because of that testimony he was stripped of his office and banished from Jerusalem. Whether or not that is true, something happened and changed him. He came Torn and left whole.
B. We want to fault both Wesley and Nicodemus for their lifestyle. But the simple truth is they were trying to be faithful. They were DOING everything right. Nicodemus was doing everything scribes said he had to do to be faithful; washing his hands, praying, and all the other details.
That’s exactly how Wesley and Holy Club were living. Both men were concerned with being worthy of God’s love. Both men were worried about BEING good enough for a God who demanded perfection. They were seeking perfection by trying to do everything perfectly for a judgmental and vengeful God who demanded perfection from his followers in order for them to be loved.
After Aldersgate John Wesley was concerned with DOING enough good while allowing himself to be perfected by a loving and gracious God who wants the best for his followers by helping them and encouraging them to become the best they can be.
Through their encounter with Christ, both men became concerned with doing good in response to the love they felt. See subtle difference? Instead of doing good works to earn God’s love, they simply accepted God’s love by faith through grace, and became new men whose lives proved their love for God by the good works they did.
C. It’s very easy for us to be like Wesley and Nicodemus before their life changing moments with Jesus. It’s easy for us to confuse religion and faith with our religious practices. There are tons of people in the world who believe that religion and being faithful consists in going to Church, tithing, reading the Bible and occasionally praying. But when we do that our religion becomes nothing more than a grocery list of religious actions and activities designed to make sure they’ve got their ticket for heaven.
But when our religious practices grow out of our faith and our love for a God who loves us so much He sent his only Son so that we could experience that love; so that we could know and experience that He is not a God of condemnation but a God of Salvation, that Faith becomes a living breathing thing in our lives. And our lives become Alive, born from above through Christ.
We do the same things, we worship, study the Bible, we tithe, we pray, we work in Missions and all the other things we do but our motivation is different, we practice the spiritual disciplines not because we have to, but because God loves us and we want to please God. And we want show our love for God by doing those things that please God.
I read about a pastor who baptized a two-year-old boy one Sunday morning. After the child had been baptized with water, he placed his hand on the little boy’s head and prayed the short prayer of laying on of hands that we do with everyone who is baptized. “The Holy Spirit work with in you that being born though water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.”
Unexpectedly, the little boy looked up and responded, “Uh-oh.”
Of course, he and the whole congregation laughed. It was funny. But you know, that “Uh oh.” was probably an appropriate response; because just like with Wesley, just like with Nicodemus something changes when we encounter Christ, whether we are children or adults.
Once we meet Jesus we can never be the same. We can turn our back and walk away, but the impact of standing face to face with the Son of God will be with us for the rest of our lives, whether we do anything about it or not.
You see, meeting Jesus is kind of like eating a powdered doughnut. You can’t eat a powdered doughnut without getting some of that powdered sugar on you. That sweet powdery coating comes off real easily. It not only comes off on our fingers, it gets transferred to others and if we’re not careful, we can leave our fingerprints on others.
That’s the way it is and the way it should be with the love of God in Christ. You can’t come in contact with it without getting some of it all over you. And if you’ve got it all over you, then you can’t help but leave fingerprints on others and on the world.
And that’s the way it should be. People should see and feel and get some of the sweetness of salvation on them. They should get some of the goodness of Christ transferred to them through our hands and finger and voices.
But it all boils down to the choices we make.
This is the Word of the Lord for this day.
1. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England, ed., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.