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Minor Men With a Major Message: Nicodemus – The Man Who Wore Both A Belt And Suspenders

John 3:1-15, 7:45-52, 19:38-40

Nicodemus was a man who came to Jesus Christ but he was so cautious and careful and hesitant in the way he came that it had little worth and effect. Nicodemus, you see, was a very cautious man. He was the kind of man who would wear both a belt and suspenders.

I think it is worth noting that most of what we know about Nicodemus is found in three passages from the Gospel of John. In each one of these three episodes, we find evidence of a man who was careful and cautious to a fault. A man who never became what he might have been because his hesitancy held him back.

In John 3, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night so no one else would see him, and he came making no commitments, leaving all his options open. In John 7, the Pharisees were plotting against Jesus, and Nicodemus was led by his heart to speak a word on His behalf. However, he was led by his head to be very cautious and restrained in his remarks, so he focused on a technicality of the law. When that didn’t work, he said nothing more. In John 19, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus assisted Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus and it was Nicodemus who purchased the spices with which the body was anointed. But the Bible notes specifically that both men did all of this “secretly, for fear of the Jews.” In other words, Nicodemus loved Jesus enough to send flowers to the deceased but he didn’t love Jesus enough to sign his name. Cautious and careful to a fault.

Now, why was this true of Nicodemus? I have been thinking about that and I would like to offer some suggestions…

There is a possibility that Nicodemus lacked self-confidence.

In that story in John 7, when the Pharisees were plotting against Jesus and Nicodemus spoke a hesitant word for Jesus, the other Pharisees snapped back at him, “You know no prophet comes from Galilee.” With that, Nicodemus fell silent. Maybe he was so filled with self-doubt that he couldn’t assert the good that was in him.

Marcus Arelius, the Roman philosopher said, “A man’s life is in what his thoughts make of it.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American thinker said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” Is there a possibility then that Nicodemus thought of himself in such lowly and limited terms that when the time came for him to step up and step out for Jesus, he just couldn’t do it.

I know what that’s like. I remember how little confidence I had when I tackled my first pastorate in Kilgore, Texas. I kept recalling the story about the preacher who was new in town and he asked a little boy the way to the post office. The little boy told him. The preacher then said, “Thank You. Now, if you’ll come to church on Sunday, I’ll tell you how to get to heaven.” The little boy said, “I don’t see how you’re going to be able to tell me how to get to heaven, when you can’t even find your way to the post office.” Well, that’s the way I felt. I didn’t feel ready for the task which was mine.

Everything changed one Sunday, a few weeks later. We had to have a called Session meeting to decide one rather important matter. So the Elders came to my office between Sunday school and worship. I was in my shirt sleeves since I would soon need to put my robe on for the service. We quickly put the matter on the floor for discussion. After a few moments, one of the Elders asked me what I thought. I was hesitant, so I ducked the issue. I took no position. After the meeting was ended, Leroy Rader, the Clerk of the Session, took me aside and said, “Look, you’re a lot younger preacher than we thought we would have, but we didn’t call you here, God did. And he wants to speak to us through you. We may not always agree with what you say, but don’t you ever hesitate to take your stand and to speak. It may be the only way God can get through to us. And by the way, when we meet as a Session, we are doing the Lord’s work, it’s not casual, you need to dress accordingly.” Well, I’ve never forgotten what he said. Being reminded that I was functioning under the call of God altered the way I thought about myself. And for twenty years now, I have never appeared in a Session meeting in any thing less than a coat and tie. And for more than twenty years now I have not been hesitant to take my stand and to speak what is in my heart. I haven’t always been right, but I have always tried to be faithful to the call of God to me in Jesus Christ.

Well, I wish that Nicodemus had been close enough to Jesus to hear him say, “You’re the light of the world, let your light shine. As my Father has sent me, so now I send you.” If Nicodemus had heard that call and responded to it, he might have become more of the kind of man God had given him the capacity to be. But he held back, he was too cautious.

Or there is the possibility that Nicodemus thought he was too old.

When Nicodemus is mentioned in Scripture, he is referred to as “The Teacher.” Now, placing the definite article “the” in front of the word “teacher” denotes one who is older and revered. So perhaps Nicodemus felt that at his age, he couldn’t be much help to Jesus.

A lot of people fall for the old saws. You know, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and “Once the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” That’s absurd. We’ve done some stupid things in our society but none more stupid than the notion that when people reach 65 years of age, they cease to have significant worth or value in our society. There could not be a more costly mistake. For older people have so much wisdom to impart, so many riches to share, so much experience to offer. It’s high time we re-discover that truth.

I like what General Douglas MacArthur said: “You’re as young as your faith and as old as your doubts. You’re as young as your confidence and as old as your fears. You’re as young as your hopes and as old as your despairs.” These are great words and he was 80 years old when he wrote them.

I wish that Nicodemus, in fact, I wish all older people would hear what Jesus said: “Those who are of the faith are like little children in the Kingdom of God.” In other words, no matter their chronological age, they live each day on tiptoe, with joy, excitement and anticipation. I wish that had been true for Nicodemus. But perhaps, he just let his age make him too cautious.

And there’s a possibility that Nicodemus was afraid of anything new.

Let’s remember, please, that Nicodemus had worked his way up the ladder of success. He is described in Scripture as being a “ruler of the Jews.” That means he had achieved a place of prominence, a position of professional superiority. For him to make any kind of significant commitment to Jesus Christ would have meant turning his life upside down. It would have brought revolutionary change into his carefully ordered life. When you’re at the place in life where Nicodemus was, it’s easy to be terrified of new ideas. It’s been said many times, yet it is still true that a courageous person dies only once but a coward dies a thousand times. Maybe Nicodemus was one of those who died again and again because he was afraid of running any risks in his life.

It’s not only true for individuals, it’s true for churches, too. I heard about a Sunday school teacher who was teaching her class on justification, sanctification, salvation, incarnation and revelation. After going into unending detail on all these “actions,” the teacher asked the class if anyone knew what the word “procrastination” meant. One little boy stifled a yawn and said, “I don’t know what it means, but I’m sure this church believes in it!” Lots of other churches believe in it, too. It’s a rare church that acts on a new idea in the same decade in which they thought of it. The point is that there are lots of genuine believers who are afraid to think new thoughts and pursue new directions lest they somehow undermine what has gone before and lose their sense of security.

But when you think like that, it’s so easy to slip into a kind of “bored believing”. The poet put it in four lines:

Some folks die by shrapnel,
And some go down in flames;
But most folks perish inch by inch,
Playing at little games.

Maybe Nicodemus just played at little games. Maybe he was afraid to dream great dreams and then work to make them come true. Maybe he was a penny-ante person. I wish that he could have heard Jesus say, “Behold, I make all things new! The old has passed away and the new has come.” It takes courage to face new possibilities. Maybe Nicodemus’ caution robbed him of his courage.

Of course, then there’s the possibility that Nicodemus was deterred by the negative people around him.

Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin. It was a tight group and they were very much down on Jesus. So it may be that Nicodemus was so surrounded by the pessimistic influence of his friends that he couldn’t break free.

We underestimate just what a burden the negative influence of other people can be. Let me illustrate that by turning the proposition around.

When Vince Lombardi accepted the job as head football coach of the Green Bay Packers, the Packers had lost every game in the previous season. When Lombardi met with the team for the first time, this is what he said. “Gentlemen, we’re going to have a great football team; we’re going to win games. Get that. You’re going to learn how to block and tackle and run and pass. Get that. You’re going to out play the teams you face on the field. Get that. And how will this be done? You will have confidence in me and in my system. Hereafter then, I want you to think only of three things: Your religion, your home and the Green Bay Packers. Think of them in that order and let enthusiasm take hold of you.” Well, that season, they won seven games. The next year, they won their division. The year after that they became World Champions and went on to compile a record which has never been surpassed. Understand please, that enthusiasm is contagious, champions make champions. Lombardi manufactured champions because he was a champion.

By the same token, negativity begets negativity. There are some people who say they would like for me to preach more on condemnation of sin and sinful institutions in our world. They would like for me to talk more about the difficulties we face in this church. We do have our problems, I would never suggest we don’t. We are not universally successful in doing the Lord’s work. But I do not choose to focus on the negative, not because it isn’t there, it is. All you have to do is come to one of our Session meetings; they’re wide open for you, to see that we are not doing all that God wants us to do. But I’m not going to stand in this pulpit and major on the minors. Instead, I delight in telling you that we are one of the largest, strongest, fastest growing, most spirit filled, most dynamic Presbyterian churches in the United States. That’s not because of me or even because of you; it’s because of the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to change human lives and to change the world.

I wish Nicodemus could have known that. I wish he could have heard Jesus say, “You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Behold, I make all things new; the new has come and the old has passed away. A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. Seek you first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these other things will be added to you. If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move hence to yonder place and it will move and nothing will be impossible to you. In the world you have tribulation but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.”

I wish Nicodemus could have heard that and believed it. I wish all the children of God could hear it and believe it. For that is the Gospel, my beloved. Let us not be so cautious and careful and hesitant that we miss it.

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