[message shared with the people of Friendship Church, February 20, 2005]
The old general had suffered a series of strokes. He was growing weaker by the moment and he knew that it was only a matter of time before death claimed him. But he had questions, big questions. What, he wondered, would happen to him after he died? He hoped that he would go to heaven to be with God.
Many people, even the most faithful, when facing their own deaths with such immediacy, have questions about their eternal futures. The prospect of death should make us honest, if nothing else does. I'll never forget sitting next to the hospital bed of a deeply faithful woman from my former church and hearing her say, "Pastor, I'm such a terrible sinner." "That may be," I told her, "but God's grace is bigger than our sins."
So, this general had questions about his salvation, too. He asked his family to summon a prominent preacher. The preacher arrived at his bedside and listened as the general asked, How could he be certain that he was going to heaven?
The preacher asked him if he believed that Jesus Christ came into the world to die for his sins and that he rose again so that he could give him everlasting life.
The general affirmed that, yes, he believed that with all his heart.
Then, the preacher told him, you will be with God in heaven forever.
At that, the general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, thirty-fourth president of the United States, flashed that winning Ike smile of his and through a mist of tears, thanked the preacher, Billy Graham, for the reassurance he’d needed. He was ready to die.
The fact is that all of us, whether this world regards us as mighty or lowly, have our questions. And all of us need to be reassured that we are loved and accepted by the God Who made us.
Nicodemus was a man who had questions and needed reassurance. It’s doubtful that most of his countrymen would have thought this of him. Surely, they would have thought, Nicodemus had it all together. He was a member of that sect of Judaism known as the Pharisees, people so confident of their goodness and their conformity to God’s laws that they seemed never to doubt their places in God’s kingdom. On top of that, Nicodemus was a member of the religious elite. Our Bible lesson for today describes him as a “ruler of the Jews.”
Yet, like Dwight Eisenhower lying on his death bed at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Nicodemus sought comfort in the face of life’s uncertainties and mysteries.
Our lesson tells us that he visited Jesus by night. I was always taught (and have even taught others) that the reason for Nicodemus’ visit at night was that he couldn’t afford to be seen with Jesus in broad daylight. Already, early in Jesus’ earthly ministry, powerful men were beginning to conspire against Him, plotting ways to trip Him up or kill Him. In fact, Nicodemus had apparently gone to Jesus in part, to warn Him of this fact.
But one student of this passage whose thinking I consulted while preparing for today, said that he didn’t think Nicodemus was afraid of being seen with Jesus. He said that even these days, rabbis have their meatiest theological discussions at night. I hadn't realized that and as I considered it, I wondered why that may be. Perhaps it goes back to the fact that historically, rabbis have had to work at other full-time jobs; the night would have been the only time they could get together for lengthy discussions of the things of God. Another might be that historically, Jews have regarded sunset and not sunrise, as the beginning of a new day. Getting together in the evening might be a way of saying, symbolically, "We put God first in our days and in our lives."
Be that as it may, this penchant for nocturnal theological debate suggests a different reason for Nicodemus visiting Jesus in the evening hours. Maybe Nicodemus genuinely respected Jesus and finding himself attracted by Jesus’ ministry, went to Him during rabbinic prime time with his questions.
You know, there are two questions I routinely ask the members of our congregation’s new members classes, like the one that wrapped up this past week:
How did you happen to come to Friendship?There are a few recurring themes that have run through the responses of class members over the years. They’ve said things like:
What made you stay?
“People were so welcoming and friendly.”My hope and prayer is that for as long as God allows me to be the pastor of Friendship Church, I’ll hear that kind of feedback. At Friendship, we want to be welcoming to people who have questions and to people who need assurance of God’s love and provision for them.
“We weren’t made to feel like outsiders. We still can’t find any inside clique group.”
“The congregation seemed to be focused outwardly, not inwardly.”
“I wasn’t made to feel stupid for not having my spiritual life completely together.”
Our model for this is Jesus. Jesus welcomed Nicodemus and all of his questions. And in the course of their conversation, Jesus uttered the most reassuring two sentences ever spoken in human history, sentences that can give us assurance today, if we let them:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”God is not our enemy. God is our friend.
God isn’t waiting to trip us up in our sins. Instead, He’s done everything necessary--taking the punishment we deserve for sin on a cross and then, rising from death--to open up eternity with God for us.
All He asks is that we believe in Him. That means, entrusting our whole life--our past sins, our future destiny, our present life, our ambitions, our worries, our relationships, our everything--in His care.
I can’t imagine any message that could provide any more comfort and reassurance, whether to a dying general, a ruler of the Jews, or ordinary people like you and me.
And even when life presents us with questions we can’t answer for as long as we live on this earth, the Good News of a God so desperately in love with us that He opens heaven’s gates to all with faith in Jesus will give us the comfort, power, confidence, and reassurance to face each day.
The problem of course, is that in a world that is often tough, it can be hard to remember that. This is why Jesus created the Church. Here, in a family of believers, we remind one another, we pray for one another, we worship and serve together, and we work together to share Christ with others. And through our life together, God reminds us again and again of the simple, life-changing message that Jesus gave to Nicodemus that night.
This spring, shortly after Easter, from April 9 through May 22, we will have a campaign of spiritual renewal at Friendship called Forty Days of Purpose. As I’ve explained before (and will keep on explaining), our goal is, at the very least, for every member of this congregation to get involved with Forty Days of Purpose.
Through our involvement with it, we will have many of our questions about life, particularly our questions about what our lives are meant to be about, answered. We will also grow in our assurance of God’s good intentions for us.
Forty Days of Purpose will also help us to grow in our security about welcoming the Nicodemuses who may come to us by night or day: people who have questions and who need to know that God wants them with Him.
Don’t let the wonderful opportunity this spiritual campaign gives you to have your questions answered and to live life confident of God’s love for you even when you don't have all the answers.
Read The Purpose Driven Life.I believe that this congregation and our community need all that God can bring through Forty Days of Purpose.
Get involved with a small group.
Volunteer when we have our Purpose-Driven ministry fair.
And pray like you’ve never prayed before in your life that God will use Forty Days of Purpose to draw us and our community closer to Jesus Christ!
Let me tell you why I think the spiritual renewal at which Forty Days of Purpose is aimed is so critically important. One of the most well-known passages in the New Testament portion of the Bible is Revelation 3:20, historically thought to be written by the same John who wrote the Gospel book from which today's Bible lesson comes.
Revelation 3:20 is from a section of the book in which John shares messages from the risen and ascended Jesus for seven different first-century churches. This passage is often used in evangelistic messages in which preachers call unbelieving, spiritually-disconnected people to come to faith in Christ. There's nothing wrong with using the passage in that way, of course.
But notice that it was originally addressed to people, Christians, who supposedly had already let Him into the center of their lives. This congregation at Laodicea, it turns out, was lukewarm in its faith, neither excited about their relationship with Christ or overtly hostile to Him. They were on spiritual cruise control.
Folks, let me tell you something: A church like that is already dead. The members have gotten so caught up in doing all the churchy stuff that they simply don't know they're dead yet.
Jesus doesn't want His churches to be like that. He was so disgusted with the lukewarm, moribund, go-through-the-motions faith of the church at Laodicea that He told them, "I'm getting ready to spit you out." Literally, the original Greek of the text says, that He was preparing to vomit them right out of His kingdom.
May God grant that we never become a moribund, lukewarm church. May we always be on fire with the love and goodness of Jesus Christ!
May we avoid the slippery slope of spiritual irrelevance that leads to hell!
Pastor Gerald Mann says he’s sometimes asked, “How can I be sure that I’m not going to hell?” “Well,” he answers, “the fact that you don’t want to go to hell indicates that you won’t go there. You want God because you know that life here and in eternity is better with Him. The only people who go to hell are the ones who choose to do so.” The desire for God, folks, is the beginning and the evidence of faith, belief, and trust in the God we know through Jesus Christ.
God cares about us. When we allow Jesus Christ to meet our sin with His forgiveness and love by trusting Jesus with our lives, the gift of eternity with God is ours.
Even now, two-thousand years after Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, that comes as very happy, reassuring, good news. It's news upon which to build a whole eternal life!
[This message, along with the insight about Nicodemus' motivation for visiting Jesus by night, has been inspired by one by Pastor Mike Foss, senior pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Burnsville, Minnesota.
[The paraphrased story about Dwight Eisenhower and Billy Graham is one I know to be true, but which I have been able to find in the books through which I've rummaged over the past several days. Graham doesn't mention the incident in his autobiography. In the one-volume biography of Eisenhower by Stephen Ambrose, the author simply says that Graham dropped by Walter Reed Army Hospital during Ike's final illness to discuss "spiritual things." If readers of this blog can turn me to the sources in which I have read this true story, I'd appreciate it.
[The Q-and-A involving Gerald Mann is something to which I have heard Mann refer many times in audiotapes of his messages delivered during worship at River Bend Church in Austin, Texas.]