Nicodemus (First Person Sermon) — Throwback Thursday Books

This is a first-person sermon I wrote several years ago, based on John 3:1-17, and the story of Nicodemus. It could readily be used for as the message for March 14, 2021. This sermon and other first person sermons can be found in my little book, The Half-Blind Mumbler (available as e-book or paperback). You can purchase this book by going to my “Books for Sale” page.

(Nicodemus enters, stretching and rubbing a very sore back): A hundred pounds of spices! A hundred pounds—just thinking about lifting that load is enough to make my back ache. But I had to carry that bundle over a mile, in the dark, and on my own. I have not done that much physical work in many a year. But I certainly couldn’t have any of my servants carry it for me. 

All of it had to be done in secret and under the cover of darkness. After all, I certainly don’t want to end up like him…

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I am Nicodemus. I am a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the chief legal body in Judea. For that reason, I am known as a ruler of the Jews. I have a reputation for being one of the chief teachers of our faith here in Jerusalem. I am quite certain now that I don’t deserve that reputation. 

Let me tell you why.

We have just laid Jesus’ body to rest. I am sure you have heard all about Jesus of Nazareth. Many of us had great hopes for him. My good friend, Joseph of Arimathea, had even become one of his disciples. Of course, Joseph could not be open about his allegiance. That might have been fatal for Joseph.

So Joseph went to the procurator, Pilate, in the middle of the night. He asked for Jesus’ body so that it would not hang on that cross to be defiled by the wild animals. Pilate agreed. My part in this little plot was to bring the linen cloths and the spices to prepare and preserve the body. Joseph has a family tomb in a secluded garden. No one saw us. We are safe.

Safe. That always seems to be my path.

My name in Greek means “conqueror of the people.” That sounds impressive, does it not? Conqueror of the people! Please do not be impressed. At most, I have conquered a difficult piece of Hebrew or a large jar of wine. My conquests extend no farther.

We buried Jesus in the dark. That is how I came to him the first time as well—under the cover of darkness and secrecy. 

It was just before Passover in Jerusalem. We were having our annual Sanhedrin conference. We debated the usual issues—taxes, purity laws, too many Gentiles in Jerusalem, and the upkeep of the Temple. As we discussed the Temple, a messenger burst into our session.

“Some lunatic is causing a riot in the Temple courtyard! He made a whip of cords and started beating the merchants and moneychangers. Tables are thrown all over. Money is scattered in every corner. The livestock is running wild in the streets. And he keeps shouting, ‘Stop making my Father’s house a market place!’”

 We all ran into the courtyard and saw him—Jesus of Nazareth. He was covered in sweat, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of this?” the chief priest screamed. “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus raised his chin in defiance. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

“Are you mad?” the chief priest laughed. “It has taken Herod forty-six years to build the Temple, and it is not finished yet. How will you do the job in three days!” The Sanhedrin members were sure Jesus was a crazy fool. We went back to our debating.

His words, however, would not leave me. For some reason, I needed to know more. Many in the crowd shared that view and encouraged me to seek him out. I was unwilling to risk a public conversation. So I found out where he was staying. We met under the cover of darkness—secret, and safe.

I am a Pharisee. No matter what you might think, I was not opposed to Jesus. I want God’s kingdom to come as much as anyone. I heard about Jesus’ power and his teaching. Perhaps there was something to it all. I had to know. “Teacher,” I said with the greatest respect, “we know you have come from God. After all, no one can do these signs as you have apart from God’s presence.”

I treated Jesus with honor. In return, I received a challenge. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The word Jesus used was very complicated. Did he mean “born from above” or “born again” or “born anew”? It could have been any of those meanings. I didn’t understand him at all.

“How can these things be?” I asked. Jesus was blunt. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” I did not hear many of his words after that. I now know what he did. He used mysterious phrases because he didn’t know me. And he did not know my motives. For all Jesus knew, I might have come to trap him into an arrest. He evaded precisely such traps many times in his life.

What hurt the most was how right he was about me. “‘Very truly, I tell you,’ he said to me, ‘we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.’”

That was it. I did understand, but I did not like what I heard. Jesus talked about a whole new way of living in God’s kingdom. For centuries we had been trying to find our way to God. Now Jesus said that God was coming to us. And God was coming to us through him!

I came to Jesus in the darkness. And that was the problem. I did not hear many of his words, but these words have stuck with me. “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” I was safe in the dark. I was afraid to come into the light. I was afraid to change my mind.

After that, I left. But I was not the same.

Some months later, Jesus came to Jerusalem again. It was the Festival of Booths, the time when we Jews celebrate the gift of God’s law to Moses. In the middle of the festival, Jesus began teaching in the Temple. The crowd debated whether he was from God or not. He was persuading large numbers of people that he was right.

I was becoming more and more convinced.

The Sanhedrin debated the issue briefly. Then a vote was taken. The council sent the temple guard to arrest Jesus for blasphemy. The guards, however, took some time to listen to Jesus. They hesitated. They returned to the authorities empty-handed. 

“Why did you not arrest him?” the authorities demanded. 

“Never has anyone spoken like this!” the officers of the guard replied. The authorities scoffed. They described the crowd as ignorant of the law and cursed by God. I was not ready to take a public stand on Jesus. But I could not let this terrible process continue. 

I stood up before the council and raised a point of order. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” I asked. 

The president of the council responded with an insult. “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” he sneered. “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” 

I was publicly humiliated. But at least I bought Jesus some time. He was gone before they could send the guards back to the temple.

This last time, however, he did not escape. He came once again for the Passover. This time the chief priests had an inside contact. They bought off one of his disciples. They arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

The trial was quick—merely a formality. I could have spoken in his defense, but it would have made no difference. All that would have happened is that I would have ended up dead alongside him. And courage is not my strong suit, remember?

The Romans crucified him at the Place of the Skull. He was one more failed messiah, humiliated and broken by the might of the Roman eagle.

Joseph decided that Jesus had endured enough. That is when he asked to be allowed to bury the body. I may be short on courage, but I have plenty of money. So I bought the spices and the sheets. If only a strong backbone could be so easily purchased.

I sought him out in the dark. But I know that I cannot remain in that darkness. I remember now some of his words from that first encounter. “But those who do what is true come to the light,” he said, and he looked closely at me, “so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

I have lived in the darkness long enough. Now he is buried with respect and honor. Tomorrow is the Sabbath. On the third, I will go to the Sanhedrin speak the truth that I have heard from him. That will be the first day of the week. 

Who knows what might happen after sunrise that day!

Grasshoppers and Grace –A First Person Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

(Joel enters, holding a dry, bare branch).

Do you see this? A day ago, this branch was covered with leaves. Then they came. It only took a few minutes. Now this is all that is left. It’s not even good for firewood.

You can call me Joel. My name means “The LORD is God.” My folks gave me that name as a joyous testimony to their faith. But right now it seems like a dark sign of judgment.

You see, we have a bug problem. Locusts have invaded our land. You might call them grasshoppers. And you might wonder why this is such a big deal. Well, let me tell you. One locust is just a bug. A hundred million locusts is a disaster.

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They are so thick that sometimes they blot out the sun. Those hoppers strip our grapevines. They split fig trees right down the middle. They chew the bark off the trees and leave them to die. Just look at this branch!

Now imagine hills and valleys covered with nothing but bare stems and dead branches. That’s how our land looks right now. The locusts eat everything in sight. What cutting locusts leave, the swarming locusts eat. What the swarming locust leaves, the hopping locust eats. What the hopping locust leaves, the destroying locust eats.

They march through fields like six-legged soldiers. Ahead of them is green grass. Behind them is a wasteland. Sometimes the chewing and chirping are so loud we can’t hear each other even when we shout.

They cover everything. They eat our clothing. They chew on our ropes. They clog our wells and foul our wine jars. We find them in our beds, on our tables, crawling in our hair. It is maddening, terrifying. Sometimes it seems like the world is coming to an end. It seems like this is God’s great judgment on us.

We have no feed for the cattle. We have no seed for the next year. People are starving. Some are leaving their farms and heading for other lands. It is a dry year and even the water fails us. The dead stems are like tinder. Heat lightning strikes. So when the locusts leave, the fire takes over. Our land is covered in darkness and despair.

I am no farmer. I am a Jerusalem priest. The people come to the Temple in a panic. The farmers stand in the vestibule and wring their hands. The vinedressers wail in the wings and plead for answers. 

Little children come with their mothers looking for food. Old people wander in and say that they have never seen anything like this. We hear cattle bawling for fodder. We see sheep wandering in dazed confusion.

The people demand answers. Is this the end of all things? Is God angry with us? What shall we do? Tell us! So we do what priests do. We take off our nice robes and dress in sack cloth. We sit in ashes and pray. We fast all day and chant all night.

Our leaders call a solemn assembly of all the people. They urge everyone to come to the House of the Lord. They ask us all to cry out to God for help. No one is exempt.

The aged come with their canes and crutches. The children toddle into the Temple square. Mothers come with infants nursing at their breasts. Newlyweds are called from their celebrations.

All the people gather. The announcement is terrifying.

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming, it is near… Truly the day of the Lord is great; Terrible indeed—who can endure it?”

We priests lead the people in panicked petitions. “Spare us, your people, O Lord!” we cry out. “Do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations!”

We appeal to God’s glory. “Why should it be said among the peoples,” we ask, “’Where is their God?’”

As we pray, the weeping wanes a bit. The panic gives way to peace. There is some safety in the sanctuary. There is some comfort in the crowd.

Now…now…I am having a vision—a vision like none I have experienced before. I see clouds fat with rain coming over the hills to the east. It is the rain we need for our crops. As the clouds rush toward us, the great locust army is scattered. The drenching storm drowns the great hordes and washes them to the sea. The land is rescued and the people are saved. 

The vision comes to me as a song. It is a song we have known since we were children. I chant the words as they come to me.

“Yet even now, says the LORD, Return to me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, with mourning;” As I sing, the crowd becomes quiet. All the eyes turn to me. “Rend your hearts, and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, For he is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger and abounding steadfast love, And relents from punishing.”

Now the crowd is swaying as I sing. I see faces stained with the tears of repentance. I see heads bowed in prayers of confession. I see former enemies embracing each other with forgiveness. I see the wealthy linking arms with the poor. 

“Who knows….who knows…whether he will not turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind him, A grain offering and a drink offering For the LORD, your God?”

Yes, who knows? Who knows? This is not the cry of despair. It is rather the heartbeat of hope. Only the safe and secure have the luxury of certainty. Only the smug and self-satisfied desire the stability of an unchanging God.

Our prayer is different. Like the Hebrew slaves we cry out and pray that God will hear. Turn back to us, O Lord! Turn away from the punishment we deserve. Turn to us with the grace we need! Foreswear your judgment and embrace your love! 

We know your heart, Lord God! The foolish Hebrew children abandoned you in the wilderness. They made a golden calf and worshipped that mute piece of metal. Moses pleaded for their lives, and you listened. You changed your mind and started again.

You sang to Moses the song I hear in my vision. “The Lord, the Lord, A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, And abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, Keeping steadfast love for thousands of generations,

Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” Who knows whether the Lord will not turn and relent? Who knows? We know! We know your heart, Lord God! We know that you do not desire the death of sinners. Instead, you long that we will turn from our sin and have life.

You long that we will trust you and rely on you as our God. The locusts will soon leave. We know this from centuries of experience. Yet what they represent remains.

There is a dark power that seeks to consume us. There are forces in this life that wish us nothing but death. There are realities in this universe that thrive on our terror and feast on our fear. The little monsters are only previews of the great evil afoot in the cosmos.

This is not the last battle between the forces of light and darkness. But it is a glimpse of the glorious ending. There will come a time when all is set right. 

Isaiah once talked about a branch—a righteous branch that springs from the stump of Jesse. That branch is a descendant of great King David. That descendant will set all things right. 

I look at this dry branch now, and I have another vision. The branch is broken into two pieces (breaks the branch in two). I see them crossed and covered with the form of a man. It is a wondrous and terrible vision.

As I see that dry branch now made wet with blood, I hear strange words. “For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin,” a voice says, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Who knows? Who knows? The dry branch may yet bear fruit. There will come a time when the grain, the wine and the oil will spill out abundantly. There will come a time when the forces of darkness will rot on the shores of God’s kingdom. There will come a time when the threshing floors shall be full and the vats shall overflow. There will come a time when the Lord’s people will never be put to shame.

As we sing together there in the Temple, something wonderful is happening. The vision I received is becoming the vision of the whole congregation. Young people are speaking words of hope and joy. Old people are seeing the vision. Even our slaves are dancing and singing and speaking good news. The spirit of prophecy is poured out on us all!

The question on our lips is the question of hope. Who knows? Who knows? And the answer on our lips is the answer of faith. God knows! God knows! And God knows us in mercy and love!

(Joel exits in silence).