A Face In the Crowd

  • A Face In the Crowd
  • John 3:1-9
  • Brian Brownlow
  • April 5, 2020
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Good morning! It’s great to celebrate Palm Sunday with you. Typically, we would all be gathered here waving our palm branches, but recently we’ve had to get creative. If you’re sitting on your couch, you can wave your virtual palm branch. God knows our hearts, and I believe He’s pleased that we are gathered this morning in whatever way we can.


Before the world was seemingly turned upside down a few weeks ago, we had planned to do a living Last Supper this morning – complete with actors portraying the twelve disciples. I know I’m a poor substitute, but we will ask for a double measure of God’s grace. Don’t worry, we will hold on to the idea and hopefully have that for you next year. There are a lot of things that we have had to adjust recently. We were in the middle of a series dealing with David and his heart for God when social distancing became a thing. While talking about having a heart for God is never a bad thing, the decision was made to switch gears and address some very real issues that we are all dealing with during this very unusual time. While we don’t want to make each week focused on the coronavirus, we do want to be sensitive to where people are right now. Often stressful times draw us closer to God and have the positive effect of revealing just how much we need Him. When things are going well, it’s easy to put our spiritual life on autopilot. Sometimes we take the attitude of, “It’s okay God, you can just relax, I’ve got this. I’ll let you know if things get rough.” Things always get rough, don’t they? And when they do, we are reminded of the fact that we most certainly don’t have this! It is always better if we just take a step back and let God lead even if we don’t know where He’s going, and sometimes think we could choose a better route.


I am living into that this morning. When Lyndol asked me a couple of weeks ago to preach on Palm Sunday, he said just to seek God’s direction for the message because we were not going to continue with the series on David that had been planned. As many of you know, we’ve been fasting and praying on Mondays for God’s direction for the United Methodist denomination. The Monday after my conversation with Lyndol, I was praying in the John Burk prayer room during lunch, and I began to ask God what direction he would have me go on Palm Sunday. Immediately I sensed him saying, “Nicodemus.” I responded, “Are you sure? I mean, after all, you do know it’s Palm Sunday – right Lord?” I thought that was appropriate because, well, you know, 2 Peter 3:8 tells us that with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. I figured, maybe He gets confused about what Sunday it is. Sure enough, God was not confused, so here I am trying to model obedience.


Nicodemus may be a familiar character to many of you. Others of you may be thinking, “Wasn’t he the wee little man who climbed up in a Sycamore tree? I think we sang some songs about him in Sunday school when I was a kid.” That would be Zacchaeus, but I’ll give you an A for effort. Others of you may be thinking, “Nicka who?” Nicodemus is certainly not an obscure character in the Bible, but I’ve found that he seems to get confused with other Bible characters – particularly Zacchaeus.


Nicodemus is found in three places – all of them in the Gospel of John. Chapters 3, 7, and 19 all have references to Nicodemus. Using the scenes from those three passages, I want to refresh your memory about who he is and then try to share with you what I think God is saying to us on this Palm Sunday.


I will start in John chapter 3, verses 1-9:

1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling Council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” 

4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.   

John 3:1-9 NIV  


John gives us clear details about who Nicodemus is. In verse 1 we see that he is a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling Council. Neither of those two groups were particularly friendly toward Jesus. Throughout the Gospels, we see them sending a representative or representatives to question Jesus. Sometimes it appears they really wanted to know His opinion on a matter, and other times, Scripture is very clear that they were sent to try to trick Him into saying something that would give them reason to accuse him. This passage seems to indicate that Nicodemus was sincere in his question. The fact that verse 2 notes he came to Jesus “at night” is often emphasized. Many interpret that to mean that Nicodemus didn’t want to be seen or have anyone know he was there. Some speculate that he was a follower of Jesus, or at least he wanted to be. At this point, that’s a bit of a leap. He could’ve been coming to him at night simply to avoid the crowds. We don’t know why, and I don’t want to dwell on that minor point too much. What is clear is Nicodemus stating that he believed Jesus has come from God. He is familiar with the signs and wonders Jesus has performed. Perhaps he has witnessed some of them himself. Unlike other religious leaders who criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath or spending too much time with sinners, Nicodemus says, “No one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” He certainly seems to be affirming Jesus and what He has been doing.

Jesus’ response is interesting. In verse 3 He says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” In typical Jesus fashion, He raises the bar. And, like most people who hear Jesus, Nicodemus does not understand. Can you blame him? This talk about being born again doesn’t make any sense. Nicodemus must be more than just a little puzzled. He says to Jesus, “What do you mean? Surely someone cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”


Jesus and Nicodemus are not talking about the same thing. Nicodemus can only think in terms of physical, natural birth. Jesus is talking about a spiritual birth. I kind of feel for Nicodemus here. He’s definitely at a disadvantage. This is new information. No one can expect him to know what Jesus is talking about. I’m going to guess even Jesus did not expect Nicodemus to understand. Jesus is doing what He has come to do, proclaim the kingdom of God; a kingdom that is much more than anyone could have imagined. Nicodemus and all the other people have seen the miracles Jesus has done but now He’s raising the bar. Teaching them that He’s not just a magician. He didn’t come just to perform miracles. Those miracles are important! They validate who He is as the Son of God. They provide proof that He is truly from God and is operating in the fullness of that. I am not diminishing the importance of signs and wonders Jesus performed. But He’s telling Nicodemus – and I think He’s telling us – there is more than just the physical manifestation of His power. It’s the spiritual change that will happen for those who would believe in him. Jesus goes on to double down on this idea in verses 5-6. He makes it clear that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born again spiritually. He makes the distinction that flesh gives birth to flesh, and the Spirit gives birth to spirit. Nicodemus could not have understood what Jesus was talking about because he was operating in the flesh. This exchange ends in Nicodemus giving one last confused response, “How can this be?”

We can get some help on what is going on by looking at the context.


The passage I just read is John 3:1-9. Perhaps the most recognizable verse in the entire Bible comes just after that. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever would believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” flows out of this exchange with Nicodemus. Jesus goes on to say that the Son of Man (which is Himself) must be raised up in order for people to have eternal life in Him. At this point, that makes absolutely no sense to Nicodemus.


The second scene involving Nicodemus is found in chapter 7. Here we find the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling Council) in session. We know from chapter 3 that Nicodemus was a part of this Council. The Council is in an uproar. Its leaders have instructed the Temple guards to arrest Jesus, but they have come back empty-handed. When questioned about why they failed to arrest Him, the guards respond, “No one ever spoke the way this man does.” Of course, this infuriates the leaders of the Council, and they accuse the guards of being deceived and stupid. It is at this point that Nicodemus enters the scene.


Let’s look at verses 50 and 51, “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, ‘Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?’”


The gospel writer is very careful to let us know this is the same Nicodemus from chapter 3 by noting he had gone to Jesus earlier, and he was one of the Pharisees. Yet there seems to be something different about him now. Clearly standing up and defending Jesus in this setting was not popular. It could even be dangerous. Now, it could be argued that all Nicodemus does is remind the Council of their own rules. He doesn’t actually defend Jesus. However, by this time, we have seen the way the Pharisees, and the ruling Council as a whole, view Jesus. They have repeatedly tried to arrest Him and spoken among themselves about having him killed. They have ridiculed anyone who even speaks in neutral ways about Him. They have become consumed with silencing Him and have no patience for anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Something has happened to Nicodemus since his first encounter with Jesus. We do not know what it is, but certainly there has been a change from the man who was confused by all this talk about being “born again.”

Let’s jump ahead to the third scene involving Nicodemus. I want to read it to you without any introduction. I’m reading from chapter 19 verses 38 to 40.

Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who had earlier visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds. Taking Jesus body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.


Nicodemus has come full circle. When we first met him, he was a curious and confused Pharisee. Now, he has become a full-fledged follower – a disciple if you will. I don’t think that statement is a leap or assumes too much. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. A part of the Jewish ruling Council that had just played an instrumental role in having Jesus crucified. They manipulated and intentionally orchestrated the events that led to His death. For Nicodemus to join Joseph in taking the body of Jesus and preparing it for burial was no small thing. Touching a dead body made you unclean in the Jewish religion. Typically, it was to be avoided unless it was a close relative. This is not Nicodemus standing up and simply pointing out that a prisoner has rights. Nicodemus is going way out on a limb here. There’s a lot of debate about how much the 75 pounds of spices he provided would’ve cost. You can do some research on that. I won’t go into it, but what is unquestioned is that what he brought was extremely expensive. Nicodemus is all in.


If you can hold what we know about Nicodemus to this point and set it aside for just a moment, I’d like to switch gears to the scene of Jesus coming into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. The scene is filled with cheering crowds. They are waving their palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” Hosanna is a term of adoration and praise. This is a victory parade. Everyone is excited, and Jesus is the focal point. He is not riding through a festival or a celebration that’s going on for another purpose. He doesn’t just happen to come by while people are in a festive mood. He is being hailed as the Messiah, and that drove the Pharisees crazy. In Luke’s account (all four Gospels give the account of Jesus coming into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives to the shouts of the people waving palm branches), the Pharisees tell Jesus to rebuke His disciples for saying such things. They are shocked that Jesus is being referred to as the Messiah. He answers them merely saying if they stay silent, the rocks will cry out. As soon as He enters the city – Jerusalem – He goes to the temple and begins throwing out all of the money changers and those who are buying and selling in areas where they should not have been. Just another insult to the Pharisees and the religious leaders who have been allowing this. You get the picture. Jesus was angering the religious leaders to the point where they are about to explode.


One more scene. I promise this is the last one. It is like the one I just described. Jesus is the center of attention, and there is a large crowd gathered. There’s one very big difference this time. Jesus is under arrest and standing trial. Instead of cheering and shouting, “Hosanna,” this crowd is jeering and shouting, “Crucify him!”


We have three scenes involving an individual, Nicodemus, and his encounters with Jesus. We have two scenes involving crowds and their encounters with Jesus. The actions of the crowds in the two scenes couldn’t be more different. One crowd is hailing Jesus as a king and a Savior. The other crowd wants to see him killed by one of the most brutal methods in the history of the world.


What do the scenes of an individual named Nicodemus have to do with these two very different scenes of crowds? I believe everyone who encounters Jesus must respond to him. Some shout “Hosanna” and embrace Him. Others mock and ridicule Him. Sure, some just shrug their shoulders and go on. I suppose not everyone has one of the extreme responses, but everyone responds. I believe that our encounters are all like Nicodemus’ in that they are individual. Our responses get lumped into crowds. Some embrace Him and shout “Hosanna.” Others turn and walk away in some form or fashion.


We all end up a face in the crowd. The question is which crowd are we in. I’m certainly not trying to make the point this morning that Nicodemus was standing on the Mount of Olives as Jesus came in on Palm Sunday. I am saying that the witness of God’s word here in the Gospel of John clearly tells us that he belonged in that crowd.


This morning I want to ask you; which crowd will your face be in? If you have encountered Jesus, what has been your response to Him? I’ll say this, and I’ll just leave it here for you to ponder and wrestle with. If your response has been to shrug and walk away, the result is the same as if you jeered and mocked. But if you embrace and cry “Hosanna,” to you belongs the promise of perhaps the most famous verse of the Bible, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have everlasting life.” If you want to know the God who makes that promise, I want you to go to your knees right now where you are and cry out to Him. Maybe you’re frustrated with Him. Maybe you don’t understand what’s going on around you in the world, whether it be the coronavirus or other challenges that you have in your life. Perhaps you are wondering if God really exists because you just don’t see much good around you. I just want you to cry out even if you don’t have a lot of belief right now. I’m just asking you to cry out, ask God to show up. I believe He will.


I am going to close with a time of prayer over you. I am going to pray that the Holy Spirit will break through whatever barriers are in your life and transform you. All I am asking you to do is go to your knees and cry out to God. I believe that is an act of faith. Tell Him you’re ready. Remember, Nicodemus went to Jesus at night and didn’t really understand everything at first. But after encountering Jesus, there was a change. Jesus changes us. He makes all the difference. Please bow your head with me and cry out to Jesus as I pray over you.