I don’t want to frighten you, but there are only 89 shopping days left until Christmas. Of course, that’s taking the traditional view; if you are willing to include Sundays, you get an extra 13 days, for a total of 102. Either way, it doesn’t sound like long.
Perhaps you are sitting here feeling smug, because you bought everything you needed in July. Or maybe, like me, you dare dreading the thought of struggling round the shops in December. I love Christmas, and I love giving my family presents that they like. I just find it really hard to choose the right thing. Of course, some are fairly easy – the children generally tell me what they would like several months in advance. Others are more difficult – what do you do when someone doesn’t seem to lack anything? What do you get the man (or woman) who has everything?
In our passage today we meet the first century Jewish ‘man who has everything’. We’re going to find out what gift God has in store for him. Before we do that, though, I’m going to pray for us:
Lord God, please help us as we look at your Word from the Bible together. Please show us more of your character, and help us to love you more closely. Amen.
1. What do you give the man who has everything?
So, the man who has everything. His name is Nicodemus, and verse 1 lists his qualities for us. Firstly, of course, he’s a Jewish man, a descendant of Abraham, and so a member of God’s chosen people.
More importantly, though, we are told that he is a Pharisee. The Pharisees were a Jewish religious group who were absolutely dedicated to following God’s law throughout their lives. Every aspect of Nicodemus’ life would have been spotless – you could guarantee that he would be present in the Synagogue every Sabbath, apart from those occasions where he was in Jerusalem at the Temple. There would no hint of scandal – no financial irregularities, no marital unfaithfulness. He would be a generous giver, both to help the poor and needy, and to contribute to the running of the Temple. Nicodemus would have been a pillar of his community, a person that everyone looked up to. We don’t really have any direct comparisons in our culture, because we tend not to celebrate personal morality in the same way, but perhaps if you think of the charity work of Princess Diana combined with the clean living of the Dalai Lama.
So, Nicodemus has the respect of his community. He has a lifestyle without fault. But he also has political power. We are told that he is a member of the Jewish ruling council. The Romans were in charge of the civil government of Judea, but the Jews were allowed a certain amount of freedom to manage their own affairs. So, there is a ruling council of the Jews, and Nicodemus is a member. It’s kind of like being an MP, but without any of our 21st-century assumptions of corruption, expenses scandals and the like. Finally, there is evidence later in John’s gospel that Nicodemus is reasonably wealthy, as you might expect for someone in this position of authority.
Nicodemus really is the man who has everything: a moral lifestyle, the respect of his community, political power, and personal wealth. There would no question for a first-century Jew that Nicodemus was a man blessed by God.
And here comes Jesus giving out gifts from God. In verse 2, Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says “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.” And the question left hanging in the air, unasked, is “what gift do you have for me?” What will God give to the man who has everything?
I wonder what you might expect God to give Nicodemus? We’re not told what Nicodemus was expecting – a pat on the back, perhaps? Confirmation that God is pleased with his efforts? It’s not what Nicodemus gets from Jesus. Instead, Jesus tells him in verse 3 that he must start again at the beginning, that he must be born again. Jesus says that all Nicodemus’ qualities – his moral lifestyle, his community standing, his power, his money – won’t help him get into God’s kingdom. In the world’s eyes, Nicodemus has everything. But from God’s point of view, he has nothing to offer.
2. What does God give the man who has nothing to offer?
Nicodemus finds Jesus’ words hard to accept. Of course, there’s the literal meaning – a fully-grown man can’t be born in the way that a baby is born, that just ridiculous! But I think there’s more to it than that. Nicodemus isn’t just physically bigger than a baby, he’s achieved much more as well. He thinks that these achievements should count for something. And here’s Jesus saying that he needs a fresh start, a rebirth.
Now, we need to be careful here. Jesus is *not* saying that Nicodemus lifestyle is irrelevant, as if God doesn’t care one way or the other how we live. Nicodemus knows well that God had given his people a great many laws setting out their behaviour in different areas.
Where Nicodemus has got it wrong, though, is in thinking that any of his achievements have made him acceptable in God’s eyes. He should know better than that – throughout the Old Testament, it was always the case that God rescued his people first, and *then* expected them to live his way. And it was always the case that they failed to manage it – even if everything looked ok on the outside, there was always some secret character stain, some rebellion against God.
Jesus points Nicodemus to this in verse 5: “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” This is probably an allusion to a famous passage in the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 36. God promises to restore his people once and for all, and says: “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean. […] I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees.” As a religious teacher, Nicodemus should have known this passage well. He should be expecting that he needed to be made clean by God.
I want you to imagine that it’s time for your car to go for its annual MOT check. And let’s say that, unlike me, you’re really careful about looking after your car. You wash it every week without fail, the paintwork is gleaming with several layers of wax, and you *never* leave any rubbish on the passenger seat. And you go for your MOT, and they run the emissions tests, and your car fails. If you drive a VW, this may not be too difficult to imagine – I’m sorry. But do you see – it doesn’t matter how good your paintwork is, if the emissions fail, you fail. God’s standards are much higher than even EU emissions tests – he is perfect, and so he requires perfection in every part of our lives. It’s no good just looking good on the outside.
Well, so far, that has not been good news, either for Nicodemus or for us. If Nicodemus, a morally upright, religious, generous, well-respected, rich, Jewish man isn’t good enough for God’s kingdom, what hope is there for us? Us, with our failed jobs, broken marriages, or just ordinary existences? Well, thankfully, there is *great* news, because we get to hear what gift God has in store for us. He gives us his Son!
3. Answer: God gives his only Son
In what is probably the most famous and well-known verse in the Bible, John chapter 3 verse 16, we read this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. Jesus says something similar in the preceding verses: the Son of Man (that is, Jesus) came from heaven, and “as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Again, Jesus is pointing Nicodemus back to his Old Testament history, to an event that is recorded in Numbers chapter 21. The Israelites had grumbled against God, complaining about having been rescued from Egypt. In response the Lord sent venomous snakes to attack them, and many died. But God also provided rescue: he told Moses to make a bronze snake and put in on a pole. Anyone bitten by a snake could look on the bronze snake and live.
Jesus then, is explaining what it means for God to give his Son. He is being given as a rescue, to be lifted up on a cross so that those who believe in him may live. Even though we don’t deserve to enter God’s kingdom, we can, simply by trusting in the rescuer that God has provided.
There are a few different possible responses when you are given a gift. In the car, we have a few stories on audiobook for listening to on long journeys. One of our favourites is The Railway Children. Towards the end of the book, there is a chapter surrounding the birthday of Mr. Perks, the railwayman. The children want to honour his birthday, and so they collect together some simple gifts from the people of the village. When Perks finds out, he is horrified, and he refuses to accept the gifts. His pride means that he won’t accept charity. However, when Perks realises that these gifts are given in love, and they are things he does need, he changes his mind. He apologises for his foolishness, and sits down to tea with the children.
God has given his Son to us in love. We have nothing to offer ourselves, and it’s a gift we badly need. Whether this is the first time you have heard about God’s gift, or the thousandth, can I please encourage you to accept. Don’t let pride get in the way.
Conclusion: God’s gift and ours
As we finish, then, three thoughts from this passage about our Gift Day. This isn’t a passage that is particularly concerned with money, but it still has something to say to us.
Firstly, I hope you can see that the most important gift for us to consider is God’s gift of his Son to us. I’d love it if, as you go home today for your Sunday lunch, the talk is all about God’s gift to us rather than any gift you might be making to the church. No matter how much you might have given or be planning to give, God’s gift is of infinitely greater value and importance. Christians are primarily those who have received the gift of Jesus, rather than those who give to others or to God.
Secondly, our passage teaches us not to hold on too tightly to our money. Nicodemus was a man who had wealth, but that wealth didn’t bring him any closer to the kingdom of God. Just like everyone else, he needed to be born again, to be made clean by Jesus. By all means, make careful decisions about what you do with your money. But don’t be fooled into thinking that financial security offers the eternal rewards that come from knowing Jesus.
Thirdly, let’s give God’s gift to others. God has given his Son to the world. Jesus is the greatest gift any of us can receive, so it makes sense that we do what we can to give that gift to others. And that means that when you think about giving money away, it’s good to help the poor, but it’s even better to support a Christian missionary or organisation working to make Jesus known to the world. That’s what we want to be here at St. Michael’s, and that’s why we’re asking our church family to contribute – not to preserve an old building, or to grow a social network, but to build a community of Christian believers who can share the gift of Jesus Christ with the people of Gidea Park.