This is the message I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for Trinity Sunday, 18 June 2000. The Scriptures are Isaiah 6: 1 – 8, Romans 8: 12 – 17, and John 3: 1- 17. This was also Father’s Day.
There is a scene in the movie “The Alamo” where Colonel Travis draws a line in the sand and asks for people to step across the line and help defend the now surrounded mission. Of course, because of the nature of the battle every man there steps across. And in the dramatization of this scene, Jim Bowie, ridden with fever and confined to a bed calls for some people to come and get him and carry him across the line as well.
Volunteering in situations like this always seems to bring the best of people. Tom Wolfe, in his book “The Right Stuff”, sounded amazed that men would volunteer to be astronauts. But he also wrote that the way the orders were written, it was too much of an opportunity for test pilots to turn down.
And in the Old Testament reading for today God asks Isaiah “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6: 8) Isaiah, seemingly without hesitation, answers, “Here I am; send me!”
This particular passage from Isaiah contrasts very much with the passage from the Gospel reading for today. In the passage from Isaiah, Isaiah must have thought that he had come to the end of his life. Confronted with the vision of the Lord in verses 1 – 2, Isaiah understood that he was undone, that he was under judgement.
It is late at night when Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus. As the passage in today’s Gospel reading indicates, Nicodemus is ruler of the Jews. This would seem to indicate that he was a member of the ruling council, a member of the committee who had previously investigated John the Baptist. That he came at all would suggest that he had a faith in Jesus but that fact that he came late at night would suggest a certain degree of fearfulness.
A lot is going to be said today about commitment. But that could be as much of a problem as anything else. But commitment is more that the saying of a few words. The challenge for today is not to talk about commitment but rather to initiate action. If you do not understand this, think about a plate of bacon and eggs. There were chickens involved in the production of this meal but it was the pigs that were committed to its success.
That may be why Nicodemus is included in John’s Gospel; in fact, he is mentioned three times, here at the start of Jesus’ ministry, once more when the opposition to Jesus is growing, and finally after Jesus has died on the cross. As a Pharisee, he was well versed in the Scriptures but he still had not learned the central truths of justice, mercy, and faith. But Nicodemus also knew that he didn’t know or understand these things. So he come to Jesus and he allowed Jesus to challenge his understanding, just as Jesus challenges our understanding today. And something must have happened.
The problem for Nicodemus is that he never admits that he is either for or against Jesus and we can never learn from reading the Gospel how John, the author, felt about this indecision. But this passage, coupled with the question God asked Isaiah, presents us with a very sharp question. Will we play the part of Nicodemus or shall we step beyond the tentative, reasonable inquiry that Nicodemus pursued.
Nicodemus is an honorable man. He wanted Jesus to speak when brought before the authorities, to find out more about what Jesus’ thoughts were. But Nicodemus will not make the commitment necessary to follow Jesus. After Jesus had died, it was Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathaea, who came to take care of the body. But while Joseph had acknowledged that he followed Jesus, even if it was after His death, Nicodemus still would not make that final step.
But when Jesus died and Nicodemus came to claim the body, he brought a vast amount of spices. Such an amount was far too extravagant for the task, and besides, since there was no body in the tomb, obviously a waste. Are we to think that this Nicodemus is the same person who came to Jesus late at night, uncertain about whom Jesus is?
There will be a time when we must make a step like Nicodemus made. Our own uncertainty, our own inability to commit to Christ arises because we simply do not trust in Jesus. Paul assured the readers of his letter to the Romans and assures us today that when we give our lives to Christ, when we start a new life with Christ, the Holy Spirit will also be a part of our life and we will not be alone.
And least we forget God’s commitment to us, all we have to do remember the closing words of the Gospel reading today, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son.” And as we come to the communion table today, we come knowing that Christ gave his life so that we can live.
Christ calls us today to go out into the world. The call for volunteers is very loud. Shall we be like Nicodemus was at the beginning, unsure of what to do and only acting after the fact, or shall we be like Isaiah, emphatically answering the call?