“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night …” It is the second Sunday of Lent and we have moved from the wilderness of Matthew into the world of the gospel of John. And here we will be for the next few weeks – visiting with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the blind man, and Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
John is the gospel that starts out with the cosmic “birth” story—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John is the gospel that paints stories with opposites—light and darkness, blind and seeing, dead and alive. John is the gospel where we always have to be careful to remember that Jesus and the disciples were also Jews. John is the gospel where John the Baptist calls Jesus the “lamb of God.” John is the gospel where Jesus’ first sign is to turn water into wine at a wedding. And John is the gospel where right in the second chapter Jesus drives the money changers and those selling animals for sacrifice out of the temple compound. Ok, now I think we are ready.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night…
We in 21st century USA cannot really understand what coming by night means. We have light from the City, and street lights, and car lights, and electric lights, and flashlights, and even lights on our phones. We are rarely in true darkness. But we do know what “night” signifies.
Walter Brueggemann in “A Way Other than Our Own” says,
Night is a time when we cannot see. Night is when we cannot control. Night is when children are frightened, because the shadows seem lively. Night is when things are unclear and beyond explanation. Night is when we are terrorized, and so we have bright lights all around the house to fend off the darkness. Night is when even adults are out of control, and we are visited by our haunted past and our feared future, and we dream and have nightmares …
(from Second Sunday Meditation on 2 Samuel)
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Whatever Nicodemus thinks about Jesus, he doesn’t find him in broad daylight. And even though Jesus is the light of all people, this conversation does very little to bring clarity. Questions bring answers that spawn more questions. What are we really talking about? Being born? How the wind behaves? That weird story about Moses and the serpent? God’s love shown in Jesus? We could spend the rest of Lent just trying to figure out just this passage, and probably not finish the task!
What struck me this year about this story is it might be a reminder of how God’s realm operates. Our desire is to have things cut and dried; for everything to be user friendly; to get knowledge in small bite-sized pieces that are relatively easy to chew. This story of Nicodemus just sweeps all of that expectation away.
What is happening here? First we light candles and sing “catch the light”—reveling in gaining understanding about Jesus, seeing Jesus more clearly. And now we end up in the dark, feeling like we are more confused than ever. How is that “catching the light?”
I love a story told in the Seasons commentary for this passage. A Hawaiian man got lost at sea, alone. He recounted how at night, he was awed by the stars. But when he saw pure darkness, he knew it was land, and moved toward it. As the commenter noted, “Too often we reject the dark as a place where life can be revealed.” (Seasons, p. 50).
--Maybe the story of Nicodemus can remind us that our world is not painted in black and white, but in living color.
--Maybe the story of Nicodemus can remind us that often things are complicated, and it is alright to take the time to learn, and learn again, and still again.
--Maybe the story of Nicodemus can remind us that we bring our own bias’ when we try to understand, and everything needs to be seen from many angles.
Nicodemus’ questions in the dark.
Are they asked with him looking over his shoulder, wondering who will hear?
Or are they asked as one might over a bar table—the distractions of the day gone, time for a heart-to-heart over a beer?
Pick one. Pick the other tomorrow.
What doesn’t change is that Nicodemus shows up—even if it is at night, even if he doesn’t really get what Jesus is saying, even if it doesn’t go the way he wanted.
And the other thing that doesn’t change is that Jesus is there—ready to receive him, ready to challenge him by not giving us easy pat answers, ready to offer him the chance to sit at his feet and be transformed.
By now you may glean that Nicodemus isn’t just playing Nicodemus here. He stands in for us.
Isn’t it good news that if we need to we can meet Jesus at night?
Isn’t it good news that no matter how settled we think we are, how much we think we get it, Jesus will still surprise us and ask us to widen and deepen and flip our understanding again and again.
Walter Brueggemann feels this applies not just to us as individuals, but to the church as well.
Too often the church in our society is thought to be a place of unambiguous answers and sure certitudes, where we come settled and cocksure, and the spirit has no chance to change anything. Both liberals and conservatives think they have it all settled. It is, however, more often than not, nighttime in the church—bewilderment, confusion, liminality, unsettlement. (ibid)
But Brueggemann doesn’t see this as a bad thing. As he concludes, “For it is in such odd moments that we sort out voices and hear God speak.”
This week, may we find the time to slip out the back door, wend our way through dark streets, come to Jesus at night, and ask all the questions we have in our hearts.
May it be so. Amen and Amen.