Several years ago a new phrase cropped up in the Church: seeker sensitive. Being seeker sensitive was less a phrase, I guess, than a paradigm shift, a whole new way of looking at Christianity and the Church. The Church was now to exist only for the benefit of those who were not in the Church: the non-Christian, the bored, the empty, those who felt that something was missing in their lives and who might just drum up enough effort to visit a church to see if they wanted to buy what the church was selling. And boy, the Church started selling, especially the big evangelical churches, it became a marketing arms race. I’ve been to a couple of these churches, and they are more like shopping malls than places of worship, so when the seeker we were all trying to be sensitive to finds one of these churches, they find a Starbuck’s, a fitness center, professional day care, seminars on everything from parenting to money management to career advancement. When I walked into such a church down in North Carolina a couple of years ago to see an old friend, I looked around at these amenities and said “What next, a massage parlor?” Sure enough, down the hall was where the masseuse set up on Sunday mornings. In the effort to be sensitive to seekers, these churches had managed to be sensitive to physical and retail needs: the bored were entertained, the empty filled with free soy cappuccinos, the non-Christian were now, well, who knows.
By this standard, Jesus was not terribly seeker sensitive. Today’s Gospel lesson from St. John gives us the story of Nicodemus, Pharisee and seeker, and his encounter with Jesus. I wish we knew more about Nicodemus, but we do know some things about him from St. John and from the early Church Fathers. Nicodemus was a Pharisee of the Sanhedrin, the Sanhedrin being essentially the Supreme Court of Israel. The Sanhedrin contained within itself seventy-one judges, often headed up by whoever was High Priest at the time, and they were a busy court, convening every day except on the Sabbath and festival days. The Sanhedrin made the big decisions, they were the final word on interpretations of the Law. To give you an idea, the last binding decision the Sanhedrin made was in 358, when they codified the Hebrew Calendar. That’s like the US Supreme Court deciding when the Sun is to rise each morning. Nicodemus was a prominent member of the Sanhedrin, he was most likely wealthy, highly educated, and judging by the fact that he is referred to by the Greek rendering of his name, which would be Naqdimon in the Hebrew, he was of a certain social class.
But still, it is not strange that Nicodemus would seek out Jesus, and even though many preachers make a big deal out of Nicodemus seeking out Jesus at night, his nighttime recon mission would not have been strange at all. The Pharisees taught that the best time to study the Law was at night, unencumbered by the pressures and interruptions of the day, and so Nicodemus did his seeking after the day’s business was done, he sought knowledge of this Jesus just as he would have sought knowledge of the Law. What he found was a bit different than what he expected.
“Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Nicodemus presumed to speak for the Sanhedrin using the plural we, his standing among the Jews allowed him to speak for his whole people. Teacher, he says, you are of God, there is something very special about you. Nicodemus managed to see all that, but Jesus knew that Nicodemus, despite this show of knowledge, did not know all things, and Jesus knew that Nicodemus knew that as well. That’s why he was there. Nicodemus the Pharisee, the judge, the seeker.
Nicodemus called Jesus a teacher from God, and then Jesus, as usual, does the unexpected: He answered a question Nicodemus did not audibly ask, Jesus answered the question on Nicodemus’ heart. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” Nicodemus was probably a bit flustered by this unexpected answer to his silent question, he famously missed the point of what Jesus was saying, but let’s give him a little credit, at least he had a follow up question better than “Say what?” Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” That was typical response from an educated Jew, going right for it, answering with the absurd when confronted with the absurd. 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?,” the nice way of saying “What the heck are you talking about?” Jesus goes on to chastise Nicodemus for his lack of understanding, chastised him just a little bit, and then rewards him for his seeking of the Kingdom of God, rewards him with the most famous words He ever said. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Nicodemus sought, Nicodemus found, but St. John doesn’t tell us right away if Nicodemus accepted what he had found. Nicodemus apparently had no response to Jesus’ words, at least no response worth noting, but St. John catches up with Nicodemus later. He defends Jesus before the Sanhedrin, warning them not to condemn Jesus without first hearing His testimony, and then we find Nicodemus again, this time not defending Jesus but rather performing the most loving act an old Pharisee could ever do. John tells us that after Jesus had died, Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate gave him permission. So Joseph came and took the body of Jesus. And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds worth, an absolute fortune spent on caring for the Body of his Savior. Nicodemus sought and Nicodemus found, and on that dreadful day received that which he found, that now slain Teacher of God, from the arms of Mary His Mother, he with Joseph wrapped the Christ in fine linen for burial, and in a strange twist, Nicodemus was the last person to see Jesus dead.
Nicodemus sought and Nicodemus found, He found the Kingdom of God in Christ Jesus. Nicodemus was martyred not long after the Resurrection, killed for his faith, he was granted to die the death most worthy of Christ. Nicodemus sought and Nicodemus found, he was the first to hear those most comfortable words of Jesus, that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Nicodemus sought, and Nicodemus found Jesus. What are you seeking?