TEXTS: Gen. 12:1-4a; Ps. 121 p. 760; John 3:1-17
Of the three Scripture readings for today, we have one that points us toward our vocation, our calling, offering Abraham’s call to leave home and follow the voice of God as a metaphor for our own vocation. The Psalm points us to one of the central biblical truths, the one that keeps us open to a spiritual life at all, which is the message that we are loved, that God adores us. When the Psalmist says that God will keep us from all evil, one translator says that it should more rightly be translated: “in the face of all evil.” And the Gospel lesson points us toward a rebirth, or an awakening from out of the shadows of our lives, to a new day with God and in God’s love.
As a character, Abraham is utilized over and over again by biblical writers as the epitome of faithfulness. Here is a man, who late in life, with no children, hears a voice that he decides is God’s voice, and who leaves home, not knowing where he is going, in response to a call from God. Abraham represents faithfulness, or trust without reservation in God.
Nicodemus is another metaphorical figure for the early church, at a time when the church was being persecuted and separated painfully from the Jewish communities where it had its roots. Like Abraham of old, Christians were having to leave home, leaving family, lands, potential inheritances behind, to follow one who was leading them to unknown places…spiritually, as well as literally.
Nicodemus represents those Christians who were uncertain, who were keeping their faith under wraps, who were—so to speak—keeping the fact that they claimed to be Christians in the shadows, and only coming to Christ in the dark of night, in the secret moments of their lives which they kept hidden from others.
We see Nicodemus three times in John’s Gospel, and only in this Gospel. We see him here, when Nicodemus emerges rather abruptly out of the night’s darkness; again in the 7th chapter when he intercedes for Jesus with other Pharisees; and then again at the story’s end, Nicodemus purchases 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes, and goes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus, “according to the burial custom of the Jews”, John writes.
Nicodemus is portrayed by John to be a person much like many 21st century Christians: he is successful; he plays a leadership role in his church and religious community; he seems to be spiritually receptive, curious, and a rational man. He approaches Jesus in a non-confrontational, but direct, face-to-face manner. But he does all of this privately, from within the shadows of night, so that he will not be revealed publicly as one seeking to know more about this man Jesus. Nicodemus, Jesus perceives, is gestating in the dark, and unprepared to respond to the Abrahamic invitation to emerge into the public, into the light of day, and let Jesus, or God working through Jesus, change him utterly, to be born again.
How many of us are like old Nick? Maybe we participate in religious activity because we were raised with it as a cultural norm; but hey, only fanatics go around talking about religion in public. Nicodemus-like, we certainly are not likely to speak to others about our faith, our trust in the ultimate source of love. Maybe such speech might come from our lips during dark moments in our own lives, or that of others, but generally speaking, we keep our faith under wraps, so that it won’t differentiate us too profoundly from the culture around us and the society in which we live.
In this strange passage that contains the most recognized verse from the entire Christian Testament, Nicodemus and Jesus seem to be “talking past one another”, not on the same “wave-length” at all. That, too, can be a metaphor for much of our spiritual life: we try to talk to God in our prayers, and it doesn’t seem as if God is on our wave-length at all.
Nick makes a declarative statement: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Then the text says: “Jesus answered him”, but there was no question asked. Jesus’
response implies that what we might call a passive-aggressive unstated question lies under the statement that doubts the validity, the truth of the signs, and their relationship to the kingdom of God, when he answers: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
This, by the way, is the only time that John’s Gospel mentions the Kingdom of God, which the three other Gospels make central to the message and work of Jesus. John changes the idea of the kingdom of heaven, as Matthew calls it because he is unwilling, as a Jew, to use the name of God, or as the Kingdom of God as Mark and Luke call it, to the concept of “eternal life”, by which John does NOT mean immortality of the soul. A richer translation of the Greek words for “eternal life”, or “everlasting life” as the KJV puts, it might be “the life of the age to come.” For the Fourth Gospel, “eternal life”, the “life of the age to come” is available now in the presence of Jesus, and faith—or trust in his way, his truth, his life.
This poignant interchange suggests that Jesus perceives that Nicodemus has a faith that is not faulty, it is just too small, kept too tightly wrapped up in shadowy places, so that this midnight visit is like a child still safe in its mother’s womb. Deborah Kapp, writing about this passage in the commentary, Feasting on the Word, articulates this startling and imaginative interpretation: Nicodemus is like a fetus whose due date has come, and who seems reluctant to leave the safety of that private and interior place, for the public light. Light and darkness are two of John’s favorite themes, and they are very evident in this passage.
Professor Kapp says: “When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be born again by water and Spirit, he is asking Nicodemus to let God work in his life. …Jesus invites Nicodemus, as he invites each of us, to come into the light of day and become mature believers, full participants in the abundant life he offers. Jesus knows that neither Nicodemus nor contemporary believers can do this on their own.” It’s as if God becomes the pitocin, the hormone, the agent changing all the chemistry in our being, laboring with us, and pushing us into a more open relationship, a new life, with God in the real world. It is not a requirement; not a command that we have to have a “born again” experience, so much as it is, as always, with a gracious God, an invitation into a relationship with a holy lover.
John does some things in this passage that we miss because we are reading it in English, which uses the same pronoun “you” to represent both a single person and many people, a plural “you.” When Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet YOU do not receive our testimony”, that “you” shifts from singular to plural, and John means for this text to apply to his readers, Christians who are afraid in their current environment of the need to change from the womb of Judaism to a new community of faith, to those who are standing on the edges, exploring this new version of faith from the dark and shadowy places and times of their lives. To commit oneself to Jesus is to leave the darkness and come into the light. Believing and doing are inseparable. Many of us have difficulty leaving the womb of the religious ideas of our childhood. Our God is too small, on the one hand; simply a projection of ourselves with greater powers. Or our God is too big, in our imaginations, to care about us.
Nicodemus stands as a metaphor for us in yet one more way: as we watch him reappear in this Gospel, we see him defending Jesus in the midst of the intense conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, but he gives an impression of merely lukewarm support for Jesus. How often, in conflicts with others around political or social causes, do we waffle, are we lukewarm, in our support for the sorts of priorities that we know Jesus asks of his followers?
In his final appearance, Nicodemus buys an extraordinary quantity of burial spices, suggesting that he still hasn’t come to the light, still doesn’t quite accept that God’s love for the world in the person of Jesus, can triumph over death. Nicodemus stands as perhaps the reminder of how ambiguous we each may feel, from time to time, about just who Jesus is and will be for us. Nicodemus may, in a strange way, be a comforting reminder that even the best educated and most well-read, even church leaders, perhaps quite a few preachers, too, may have questions and may be still searching. And that very ambiguity may be the hint, the sign to us, that there is something in us that wants to be born anew, to move out of the places where we keep faith under wraps, from out of the shadowy places within us, to new life that God makes available to us now, in the present moment.
Lent moves us through the lengthening of days, from which the season takes its name, from the dark and shadowy times of winter, from the midnight questions, to the bright light of spring, of Easter, of the astonishing event of resurrection, of new life that has left all the dross of the old life behind.
The last direct message that Jesus has for Nicodemus, and for any who are still coming to him from the dark of night, is that God loves this world so much that God gives his very self. To the safety conscious Nicodemus in each of us, God says: come to the light, discover what it might mean to be public about the fact that you have been grasped by the power of an eternal love that gives everything. So may it be for you in this season as we follow Jesus to his new life, and the new life offered to each of us now. Amen.