Sunday 8 March 2020
As you drive around these southern suburbs of Brisbane, you will see some large digital signs that are used by the appropriate Government agency to provide the public with relevant news. They might give a warning about impending traffic congestion today, or advice about road closures in the future. Since the recent change in the penalties associated with mobile phone usage while driving, they often have the message that using your mobile phone could cost you a fine of $1000 and the loss of four demerit points.
I wonder if I could ask you to raise your hand if, since the penalty increase for mobile phone use while in charge of a motor vehicle, you have seen anyone in your travels who was breaking that particular law. Could you keep your hand raised if you have seen at least five road users breaking that law since the penalty increase. Please keep your hand raised if you have seen ten.
It is interesting to consider this human behaviour as an example of risk taking. It involves risk in two ways: 1) the potential of causing or being involved in a traffic incident because of inattention or distraction; and 2) the potential for receiving a very hefty fine and loss of demerit points.
It reminds me of the time when I was a Probation and Parole Officer and there would be all sorts of calls in the media for the imposition of tougher and tougher penalties, usually associated with the length of time individuals would be sentenced to jail terms, in order to address the latest category of crime that was in the spotlight. In speaking with these individuals who had been arrested and convicted on these charges, it was patently obvious that they committed these crimes with the reasonably clear understanding that they had no intention of being caught and so penalties were no deterrence to them at all.
That is the very nature of all risky behaviour. Humans engage in risky behaviour because they have convinced themselves that they will not have to endure the consequences because they will take what precautions they think they need to in order not be caught.
Then we come to Nicodemus.
“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night …” The night time was very different for people in the days of Jesus in Palestine. With no electric or gas light, night time was not the time of day to be wandering around. But Nicodemus was taking a big risk coming to speak to Jesus. He was a man of position in the society of the time. He was a member of the Sanhedrin and his peers amongst the Pharisees would not let him escape sanction if they knew he was talking to Jesus. Nicodemus came by night to reduce the risk of being detected speaking to Jesus.
Nicodemus took a risk to find out more about what Jesus was on about. He took a big risk! Later in the gospel of John we will read that people were being put out of the synagogues by the Pharisees if they were following Jesus.
Not only do we learn from Nicodemus that being a follower of Jesus might involve some risk. We also learn from him that our relationship into discipleship with Jesus involves a journey. Here in chapter 3 we find him taking the first risky step of meeting privately with Jesus at night. Later in the gospel towards the end of chapter 7, we see the Pharisees chiding the Temple Police for not arresting Jesus. Nicodemus takes another risk and intervenes by asking: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” He is quickly shot down by the Pharisees, but he has taken a further risk on his faith journey.
The next and final reference to Nicodemus in the gospel occurs after Jesus’ death. “After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”
Here we find Nicodemus, with another wealthy individual, who we are told is a secret disciple of Jesus, taking the enormous risk of claiming and burying the body of the crucified Jesus at a time when all of his public disciples have abandoned him and fled. Nicodemus has certainly come on a journey in his relationship with Jesus throughout the gospel of John. And it is a journey of coming ever closer to his Lord and Saviour and it is journey involving risk at every stage.
Have we any right to consider that we are entitled to a journey in our relationship with Jesus that does not involve risk on our part? Surely not. Every relationship that we nurture and grow in involves us in taking risks in order to reach deeper levels of connection.
I would suggest that the level of risk involved in our coming closer to Jesus and being public about it is enormous in our secular society. The story of Nicodemus tells us though that, without taking risks, we miss the opportunity to become intimates with Jesus.
Could I suggest that during this season of Lent, we take every opportunity in the increased life of prayer in which we engage to ask of God the courage of our convictions; to ask for the courage to take the risk involved in being a true disciple of Jesus in our sceptical world. Perhaps we might gain the fortitude required to come to Jesus by night in the hope that we will eventually be present with him at his moment of triumph, just like Nicodemus, the Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin who had so very much to lose by following Jesus – but he took the risk!
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen