The story of Nicodemus is one of my favorites. Nicodemus was an interesting man. A Pharisee. We see lots of Pharisees in scripture, lots of self-righteous, self-important, condescending religious leaders. You know the kind, even today. “That movie is too bad. That book is too secular. That music is too fast. Your life is too reckless. Why aren’t you driving ten mph under the speed limit?” The “I-had-my-quiet-time-and-it-made-me-better-than-you” Christians. We know the kind, but we are all holier than them. We don’t judge like they do, we don’t concentrate on other people’s holiness like them. We… Oh, yeah, I guess we do.
We all have a little bit of this. We’re all infected with this disease of self-righteousness.
We all attempt to cover our own guilt and shame and fear—to restore ourselves. Whether it is by knowledge, authority, ministry, money, stuff, relationships or just living well. But we see something very unique in the scriptures in the person of Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee. He did not need to have anything explained to him, you see, because he was the preacher. He knew it all. He could parse the verbs, quote the text, knew how to create a 3-point sermon outline and draw it together with a witty and emotionally captivating story. He even knew the names of the magicians who opposed Moses (even though it wasn’t recorded in scripture)! And yet, something interesting happens—he sneaks through the city by night and finds Jesus and does something shocking.
He takes off his mask.
This is pretty extravagant. As his friends and co-pastors used their nights to plot, scheme, and create questions to condemn Jesus, Nicodemus comes forth and fesses up. “We know you are a teacher come from God.” The implication? ‘We’re just faking it. We don’t get this stuff and we are killing ourselves trying to keep up. You have the truth and we have formulations, guesses, and a book club.’
It is a confession we all need to make. We’re liars, fakes, and misfits. We don’t belong in the place of teachers, Jesus does. It is only by him, and through him, and for him that we are able to teach. We must come before him as Nicodemus did and say that we’re tired of faking it, teach us your word. Until we let go of our own righteousness, we can never gain Christ’s. Until we acknowledge our bankruptcy and stop trying to pay with our lack of funds, we can never receive the glorious riches of his grace. This is the essence of Phariseeism, protecting a false persona, mask-wearing. Get real, remove the mask, bask in the wonder of the words of Christ, learn from Him and then, in His grace, mercy and generosity — we get to teach others through the power of Christ, made present in the lives of those who have turned in their masks, through the working of the Holy Spirit. This is the only cure for our self-righteousness. It is the only hope for Pharisees.
So, welcome all Pharisees, but leave your masks at the door. God’s words are not for the “righteous” but for the “raggedy” and it is about time we all acknowledge which we really are. This is the gateway to hearing those wonderful words from Jesus:
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:14-18, ESV)
What masks have you worn over your life? What benefits have you seen from removing your mask?