The Pharisee Nicodemus…, Lent 2 (A) – 2002
February 24, 2002
The Pharisee Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, paid a visit to Jesus cloaked by the secrecy of night. He came alone to probe and to have some questions answered. We might ask, “Why did he come at night?” Was it because he didn’t want anyone to see him in the company of this man, Jesus? Did he fear losing his place in society? He was, after all, a leader and a man of wealth. Or perhaps he simply wanted to avoid the daytime crowds that were constantly hanging around this rabbi, Jesus, and to have a little one-on-one time with him.
Nicodemus was a man who held an elevated position in society. He was a teacher and a man of means. As we read further in this Gospel, we see that Nicodemus had become something of a secret follower or supporter of Jesus. And this situation developed in stages. First, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark of night. Second, he gave Jesus vocal support in the council of the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51). And the third and last contact he had with Jesus was caring and direct. After Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus openly came forward to anoint and prepare his body for burial with a 100-pound mixture of “myrrh and aloe” (John 19:39). In those days myrrh was not cheap.
We can look at Nicodemus’ progression and compare and contrast it with our own personal relationship with Jesus. We are a lot like Nicodemus in that at different times of our lives we have been at the same stages he was in our relationship to Jesus. How many times have we sought out Jesus in the secret and comfort of our homes? How many times have we gone out in the world openly proclaiming the Word to anyone who would listen? How many times do we show compassion and love for our neighbors-who are the faces of Christ? And how many times have we freely opened our bank accounts and given to our churches? Many of us are just like Nicodemus when we spend too much time looking for the answers to the mysteries of life.
Nicodemus came to Jesus looking for some answers but, instead, all he found was confusion. He failed to understand what Jesus was saying to him. He replied with an obvious meaning rather than digging deeper into what was being said. Nicodemus’ first statement had to do with him and his cohorts knowing that Jesus is a “teacher who comes from God,” because the “signs” that Jesus performed could not have been accomplished “apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus was confused because the Greek word anothen, used in this context, has a double meaning. It can mean again or anew-but it can also mean, from above. So the word can be translated either as being born again or born from above. Nicodemus took it literally by focusing on the concept of human birth. He replied to Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus passed by these absurd observations by explaining to him what he meant-but Nicodemus remained clueless. And we, too, can remain clueless if we focus on only a few verses. How many times have we all heard someone say, “I am a born again Christian”? Didn’t we get it right the first time?
For thousands of years, many Native American Indian tribes have practiced a purification rite that we know today as “a sweat lodge ceremony.” There are actually different names for this rite. For instance, the Lakotas, who live on the wind swept Northern Plains, call it the Inipi. This ceremony is conducted first, before all other sacred acts. It is a cleansing ceremony. It is conducted within a dome-like structure constructed of thick bent branches that are covered over with hide or cloth. This structure can hold about six to eight adults, squeezed tightly together. In the center, a pit is dug that is large enough to hold a dozen or more stones. The stones are super-heated in a fire pit that is prepared near the entrance to the lodge. The entrance to the lodge always faces east, toward the rising of the sun. When the ceremony is begun the structure is fully covered. Water is poured over the stones, thereby creating a tremendous veil of steam within. The process is continued until all of the stones are cooled. This can take anywhere from an hour to two hours. During the time the water is being poured over the stones, the participants offer prayers and sing sacred songs. The physical, as well as the mental and spiritual, sides of life have been cleansed by the ritual.
It has been said that the domed structure of the Inipi is symbolic of Grandmother Earth being pregnant. Being inside the Inipi is symbolic of being in the womb. While inside, much formation takes place in the mental, physical, and spiritual bodies of the participants. When participants emerge from the lodge into the cool air of the outside world and the full light of day, they feel literally, and on many levels, reborn.
The Inipi rite can be a reminder of what Jesus said to Nicodemus about being born from above. It can also be understood as being born again. In one sense, the Inipi ceremony really is symbolic of being born again-yet that is not its focus. The focus is always God-centered. As Christians, we have accepted Christ into our lives. Through baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are made new. And we believe and understand this verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Don’t forget to subscribe to the Sermons That Work podcast to hear this sermon and more on your favorite podcasting app! Recordings are released the Thursday before each liturgical date.