John 3:1-9

Confession, they say, is good for the soul. Maybe that goes for pastors too.

So, let me make a confession. You’re probably waiting with bated breath. You’re wondering what salacious sin a pastor would dare confess in public.

Actually, there are several things I could confess. But here’s my confession for this morning. I have, at times been guilty of PHARISEE BASHING. I feel like standing up in church and announcing: “I’m Mark and I’m a recovering Pharisee Basher.”

Someone says: “Pastor, why couldn’t you confess something more interesting?”

I even confess I have enjoyed bashing Pharisees! They are such easy targets. They almost invite abuse. And didn’t Jesus Himself have extremely stern words to them and about them?

So who were these guys we love to hate and love to beat up on?

Five hundred years before Jesus, a man by the name of Ezra was a kind of guardian of the law in post-exile Judea. Ezra made it his business to know the law, keep the law, and teach the law. The Pharisees were the spiritual descendants of Ezra.

By the second century before Jesus, they had become known as “God’s Loyal Ones.” A little later they became known as Pharisees, which means “the Separated Ones.” By Jesus’ time, Pharisees numbered some 6,000. They were not priests, but lay-theologians, lay-teachers.

A Pharisee invested his life in an all-out effort to keep the Law of Moses. A Pharisee tried to keep the law down to the smallest detail. Beyond that, a Pharisee tried to keep the plethora of man-made rules that told you how to keep the written Law of Moses.

For example, the Law of Moses commanded to keep the Sabbath holy. Don’t do work on the Sabbath day. But then, you’ve got to define what work is. For example, tying a knot is work. But even that isn’t enough. You’ve got to define what a knot is. So they decided that the only knots you could tie on the Sabbath Day were knots you could tie and untie with one hand. When you split hairs like that, you invite caricature if not outright bashing.

But yet, it appears that most Pharisees were dead serious about keeping the Law.

And they were serious about keeping the Law because the Law was from God. God commanded these things. And so, it is important to do or not do according to God’s commands.

The first half of John 3 is one of the amazing “people stories” in this people centered gospel. Here, we meet one of these Pharisees named Nicodemus. Not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, but he was “a ruler or leader of the Jews.” More recent translations speak of Nicodemus as “a member of the Jewish ruling council.” It’s very likely that Nicodemus was wealthy. He certainly had influence, pull, power. I call him one of the “respectably religious.” Nicodemus came to see Jesus – and he did so by night – maybe because respectably religious people didn’t want to be seen with Jesus.

So, why do I have second thoughts about bashing Pharisees?

Because when I look closely and honestly, they look way too much like me.

And they look way too much like many church people like me. Good, law-abiding, morally respectable, devout, well intentioned if misguided. Respectably religious – that’s what we are. Nicodemus was one of us!

Now, in John 4 John 8, Jesus encounters disreputable people. Jesus took time for them. And we celebrate that about Jesus. “He eats and drinks with riffraff,” was one criticism of Jesus. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” said Jesus (Matthew 9:13).

But Jesus took time FOR GOOD PEOPLE TOO. Some good people, respectable people, religious people sought Jesus also. Nicodemus and people like him sometimes become dissatisfied with their goodness. They become dissatisfied with being just respectable. Even good people seek after Jesus.


What are THE HAZARDS of being respectably religious? And how is the respectably religious way of life challenged by the cross of Jesus? Where do the respectably religious need to make changes if we are to journey with Jesus?

I) For one thing, among the respectably religious, as the Nicodemus story implies, there is THE TENDENCY TO SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS.

That was a major pitfall of the Pharisees. But their problem was not that they worked hard at keeping the law. The Pharisee’s problem was that they thought working hard at keeping the law was what made them acceptable to God. The problem with the Pharisees was not the Law. The problem with the Pharisees was the LACK OF LIFE.

The reason Jesus died on the cross was not just to help people keep the Law.

The reason Jesus died on the cross was not just to make bad people good.

The reason Jesus died on the cross was to bring dead people to life.

And life, said Jesus to Nicodemus, that life which really matters, comes not through working hard at keeping God’s Law. That kind of life comes only through the Spirit of God. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (or as it can also be translated – born from above.)” “No one,” said Jesus “can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water (the water of purification symbolized by baptism) and born of the Spirit” (John 3:3-5).

The kind of life we need and we lack comes only through the Spirit of God. We cannot earn it, deserve it, buy it. It comes only from God.

Sometimes, among us, there are what Frederick Buechner has called “super Christians.” “They are apt,” he says “to (be relentlessly) cheerful… They tend to be a little too friendly a little too soon and the women to wear more make-up than they need. You can’t imagine any of them ever having had a bad moment or a lascivious thought, of using a nasty word when they bumped their head getting out of a car. They speak a great deal about ‘the Lord’ as if they have him in their hip pocket and seem to feel that it’s no harder to figure out what he wants them to do in any given situation than to look up in Fanny Farmer how to make brownies.” (Whistling in the Dark, p. 23)

The folks Frederick Buechner describes aren’t exactly the same as Pharisees.

But maybe they are respectably religious. Maybe they are or they want us to believe they are “super Christians.” Maybe they are at least tinged with self-righteousness.

A life-long church person, a leader in a church, in fact, a candidate for ordination, was asked about the meaning of holiness. This person responded that it meant being the best person you can be. But that isn’t good enough. That is not what we believe. We believe God accepts us not because of anything we do. We believe God accepts us not because we try harder or do the best we can. SALVATION COMES THROUGH WHAT GOD HAS DONE IN JESUS.

“God so loved the world,” said Jesus to Nicodemus,”That God gave His one and only Son…”

And what was to be the foremost outcome of the gift of God’s Son? Was it that the world might be made good and law abiding? Was it that the world might become a better place? “For God so loved the world that God gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in this Son might not perish, but might have EVERLASTING LIFE” (John 3:16).

The foremost outcome of God’s gift of the Son is LIFE. And the cross of Jesus makes very clear that this life does not come as a result of self effort. If we could be good enough by trying harder, why would Jesus have died?

John Wesley grew up in an 18th century, Anglican pastor’s home. He became a devout, law-abiding, God-fearing young man. At Oxford, John and his brother Charles formed what was called “the Holy Club.” These were young men who were serious about being holy. They studied the Bible, served the poor, did good works. John Wesley became a missionary to the colony of Georgia. He worked hard at ministry to native Americans and to the colonists. But here is what this respectably religious man said of himself:

“By my continued endeavor to keep His whole law, inward and outward, to the utmost of my power, I was persuaded that I should be accepted of Him, and that I was even then in a state of salvation.”

It was only later that John Wesley experienced the life-producing work of God’s Spirit. He spoke then not of keeping God’s Law, but of his heart being “strangely warmed.” He spoke of trusting in Christ and Christ alone for salvation. John Wesley was a respectably religious man, who moved from self-righteousness to life in Christ.

I too have been a life-long, good person. I have colored within the lines most of the time. I have been a person of faith for as long as I can remember. I’m a fourth generation pastor. But does that make me acceptable to God? Does it? Does that make me any more God’s child than one who did not have my faith heritage and one who has struggled with immoral behavior? Definitely not! What makes me acceptable to God is that God’s Spirit has birthed life in me through faith in Jesus.This is something God’s Spirit does in me as I look to and trust in Jesus. It is not something I can take any credit for. There’s no room for self-righteousness when we walk the road with Jesus. None!

When we come to grips with self-righteousness in our relationship with God, we may also observe how much of a hazard it can be in our relationships with other people. Self righteous people think God owes them one. Self righteous people think they are one up on other people. Self righteousness disrupts relationships with everyone around us.

Jesus found self-righteousness in any form quite intolerable. Jesus’ strongest, sharpest words of rebuke were to the self-righteous.

If you’re among the respectably religious, and most of us are to some extent among that crowd, we need to beware this hazard of self-righteousness.

There’s another hazard of the respectably religious, illustrated by Nicodemus.


I think Nicodemus was A RATIONALIST, as are many respectably religious people. Nicodemus had a hard time accepting what Jesus said God’s Spirit could do.

Why? Because he couldn’t rationally figure out how this could be.

Nicodemus reacts to Jesus’ picture of birth from above, birth thru the Spirit.

Says Nicodemus incredulously: “How can a man be born when he’s old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Come on, Jesus, be reasonable! Be logical!

Today, respectably religious people are often into rational and logical religion.

They want reasons for, evidence for, arguments against, etc. They want to understand.

Please hear me – To desire understanding is not bad. In a church across the street from a university, we DO promote understanding. But understanding isn’t the only thing. And understanding may not even be the most important thing.

Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about things he could NOT understand merely with his mind. Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about things that went beyond human understanding because they were the work of God’s Spirit. Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about things he must experience. And that experience would be at least to some extent a mystery.

There is MYSTERY, something not fully explainable about what God’s Spirit does.

Said Jesus to Nicodemus: “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” (John 3:8).

But that leaves Nicodemus still spluttering. “But how can this be?” this respectably religious man asks.

Maybe Nicodemus is one of those respectably religious folks who are resistant to change. They keep claiming that new possibilities are still impossible. As Jesus stretches his vision, I wonder if Nicodemus doesn’t keep stammering “How is this possible?” “How is this possible …?”

But respectably religious Nicodemus, did walk with Jesus to the cross. We hear about him again two more times. Once, the rest of his Pharisee brothers angrily claimed Jesus was deceiving the people. Nicodemus spoke up: “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” (John 7:50-51). Nicodemus, still cautious and careful, nevertheless speaks up for Jesus.

But it’s at the cross, that Nicodemus comes out into the open as a follower of Jesus. Nicodemus joins with Joseph of Arimathea to care for the dead body of Jesus.

Nicodemus, like Jesus’ closest followers, had no idea that He would rise from the dead.

Says John 19, Nicodemus brought 75 lbs of spices to prepare the body of Jesus for burial, 75 lbs of spices for one who would not need them in a couple of days (John 9:39)! I see Nicodemus still partially blind to what God’s Spirit can do. But he’s on the road. His journey has brought him from where he was closer to where he needed to be.

I can’t prove it, but I imagine Nicodemus in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost. Can you see this respectably religious man in this amazing scene? This was not a comfortable place for a rationalist! And I suspect that this respectably religious man was swept off his feet that day by the wind of the Spirit. Nicodemus’ journey was never the same.

Maybe it’s time for another pastoral confession. I have often been more than a little skeptical of things I cannot explain. I’ve had and still have question marks around radical change in human beings. When I look at troubled people and troubled marriages, sometimes I wonder – Can God fix this? When I look at problems and issues too big for me to handle, I am sometimes not as open to the working of God’s Spirit as I should be.

Now, I believe God works thru human cooperation. I believe God chooses not to violate human freedom. But yet, I feel God calling me to be more open to what His Spirit can do, beyond what I can figure out, beyond what I may expect, in fact, a mystery as remarkable as the wind and its impact.

A church member sent me a real life story in an email this week. My emailer’s sister recently encountered a Free Methodist pastor somewhere in Africa. This American pastor had apparently once been a terrible alcoholic. He spent 14 yrs in AA and somehow got saved. Now, as a pastor he has returned to AA. His flock is about one third recovering alcoholics. Said the email: “Imagine a bunch of sober Free Methodist drunks!” I cannot fully explain that outside of what God’s Spirit does.

Maybe you’re facing a complicated marriage or a difficult relationship with a child or close friend. And you wonder-Can things really change? Can God do something here that is beyond the human?

If I commit to being totally open to the working of God’s Spirit in MY OWN LIFE, I may be amazed at what God will do. Of course, I must always begin with me and not tell the other person how God has got to change him/her. But then, if I pray fervently that the other person in the relationship will similarly open his/her heart to the influence of God’s Spirit, who knows what could happen?

Yes, it is true that some relationships are blocked by human rebellion. The basic cause of marital failure is hardness of heart, an unwillingness to be open to God. But when we give the wind of God’s Spirit a chance, who can tell what might happen?

What might God want to do in our church, in our worship, in our ministries?

Is it possible that a 123 year-old congregation has some of its best years just ahead?

I invite us to keep tearing down the reasonable boxes that respectably religious people like us tend to put around God.

I came across a wonderful story about a man visiting a tenant farmer in Kentucky.

This farmer was an older fellow from a very rigid background. The tenant’s little blond-headed granddaughter, three or four years old, was running about with them. Whenever something contrary to the old man’s thinking came up in conversation he made a point of saying so the little girl could hear, “We don’t believe in that, do we?” It was always the same, whether the subject was dancing, smoking, working on Sunday or giving equal rights to women, “we don’t believe in that, do we?” As they approached the farm pond, they discovered that one of the ducks had hatched her eggs. Mother duck was surrounded by a dozen scurrying, cheeping balls of yellow fluff. The little girl ran to them and squatted in their midst. For a few moments she was absolutely entranced by this wonderful new mystery. Then, suddenly she remembered herself. She looked up at her grandfather and said, “Grandpa, do we beweeve in ducks?”

It’s possible, you know, to barricade ourselves against the wonder and mystery of what the Spirit wants to do by what we think we believe.

“Oh Oh! Do we believe in ducks?!”

“Oh! Oh! Do we really believe in the Spirit?

I confess I may always be a little like Nicodemus. But here’s where I find my journey leading as I walk with Jesus. I am more and more convinced that Jesus is the One who saves, not me.

I love these lines from old hymns:

“Nothing in my hands I bring/Simply to thy cross I cling.”

“O to grace, how great a debtor/Daily I’m constrained to be.”

I want no part of self-righteousness either toward God or toward others.

And, as I journey with Jesus, I find myself wanting to be more open to what His Spirit can do and will do.

It’s spring these days and the breeze is fresh and lively. But if I keep my windows closed, I severely limit my experience of spring. So I want to open my windows as wide as my Nicodemus self can. And who knows – who knows what God’s Spirit might do?


H. Mark Abbott is Pastor of First Free Methodist Church in Seattle, WA.

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