1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (Read the whole passage)
If you could choose, if you could decide how you would know, if you could have any evidence, any sign you wanted that God is real, what would you have? Jesus to beam down from the sky like a character from Star Trek? What about for God to come and end all wars, feed all those who are hungry, heal everyone who is sick? Maybe you want a divine message to be written in the clouds, some clue to the meaning of life.
It is quite the question to ask. To wonder what it would take for us to have strong unwavering faith. To set the criteria for belief. To decide what signs and miracles we would need to see in order to know that Jesus is God.
We have been making our way through John’s Gospel, we began with events surrounding Jesus’ baptism and we have heard stories about the wedding at Cana and the cleansing of the temple. Now we eavesdrop on a nighttime conversation under the cover of darkness.
We are presented with someone who comes to Jesus, precisely asking about the signs and miracles. Nicodemus. A Pharisee, a leader of religion and faith in Israel. He comes to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness. In John’s view, those who are in the Dark, have no faith. Darkness is the Apostle’s way of saying that Nicodemus came to Jesus with a lack of faith. Yet, Nicodemus is not entirely without curiosity, even a faithful curiosity. He has come with questions. Nicodemus risks being seen with Jesus, which could lead to ridicule and shame by those who follow him as a teacher and expert in religion.
And here is the thing about Nicodemus the Pharisee, he has seen the signs. He knows what Jesus is up to. But he still cannot believe. Nicodemus’s question is not really a question at all. He makes a 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”. Nicodemus manages to get the lead up to his question out. He still hasn’t asked Jesus anything, yet Jesus interrupts. Jesus says one must be born from above, or again, or anew, to see the Kingdom of God. And Nicodemus has no idea of what Jesus is talking about, and starts imagining how someone can be literally born again. How a man could crawl back into his mother’s womb, and still fit as an adult.
So the conversation continues, and Jesus preaches — lots. He talks about faith and the Spirit, about the son of man being lifted up and about God’s plans for saving the world.
We can see ourselves in the story Nicodemus, in curiously seeking answers, wondering who and what this Jesus guy is all about. Nicodemus saw the signs and miracles, but that wasn’t enough for him, he still was in darkness. Nicodemus even had the opportunity to speak with Jesus himself, in the flesh. And still he doesn’t leave convinced as far as we know. Imagine, if we had the chance to sit down with Jesus for a nice evening conversation, if we could sort out all the questions of faith.
So often, our faith can feel like it is a nighttime faith. Unsure, and questioning. Unsure that God is real. Unsure that a real God can love imperfect us.
There is something about the night that leaves us open to questions and reflections. In the day, we are busy and full of life. There are people to see, things to do, work to be done, entertainment to be had. But at night, when life slows, when there is opportunity to think and reflect, that is when the questions come. The worries and fear begin. How many of us have laid awake at night wondering about life.
As Christians, our normal experience of worship together is during the day, or in the light so to speak. But we do have traditions of worship and prayer at night. Monks and nuns would observe the daily services of evening and nighttime prayer, not unlike the Lenten Services that we are held over the years.
In evening worship services the feel is quite different than on Sunday mornings. Rather than the cross being the primary symbol, in an evening service the Christ Candle becomes central. And even though the darkness is close and all around, the light of the single candle shines in the darkness and the darkness does not over come it. Space and time are given to listen to God as God listens to us. Silence and reflection are the essence of Nighttime prayer.
In one part of the service we sing:
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit
You have redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
Into your hands, I commend my spirit.
We sing those words each night because we are practicing. Each night we practice dying as an act of faith. We practice for when those words will be said over our bodies when we die.
They are at the same time profound words of faith and profound words of doubt. By speaking them we practice trust and faith, by speaking them we also admit that we do not know the future, by speaking them we do not even truly know that the sun will rise tomorrow, except by God’s grace.
These words only really fit at night, in the darkness of faith.
As Nicodemus comes with his questions and doubts something interesting happens. Jesus receives him. Jesus does not send Nicodemus away, nor does Jesus judge the Pharisee for having doubts. He receives him and teaches him. Nicodemus comes in the darkness, but Jesus provides light. Not overwhelming light like the sun, but light like the gentleness of one candle in dark room.
And yet, Nicodemus does not go away convinced. But throughout the Gospel of John, Nicodemus appears again. The second time he defends, somewhat hesitantly, Jesus’s teaching. And the third time, Nicodemus is the one who comes with Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body after being crucified.
For Nicodemus, faith is not immediate. Yet, Jesus is patient enough to allow Nicodemus to have his struggles and stays with the Pharisee throughout his ministry.
And that is how Jesus is with us too. Whether it takes time and practice, or whether it seems to be natural and easy. God’s way with us is not to overwhelm us, but to meet us in our darkness. Jesus meets us in our night time questions and shines a light in the darkness of faith.
In our questions, in our doubts, in out late night wonderings, Jesus reminds us that faith is not a simple or easy thing. In fact, a strong faith is not a certain faith. Because certainty is knowing, and faith is not knowing. Certainty and faith are opposites. Faith is much more like doubt. Being unsure is a sign of faith.
Just like the wind that blows and makes a candle dance in the darkness, the Spirit blows and dances within us too. The Holy Spirit blows questions and wonderings, it stirs within us a desire to know God, and this is where God meets us. Not in our certainty, but in our doubt and faith.
The signs, the miracles, those are about knowing that God is real. Those are about knowing that the real God loves imperfect us. The nighttime questions are where faith happens, where Jesus hears our questions, receives doubts, and takes our wonderings.
Into your hands, O Lord, we commend our faith. Into your hands, we commend our spirits.