There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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.” 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)
Out of the wilderness and into the darkness. As Lent began last week, as it always does, with Jesus going into the wilderness to fast and be tempted… we come out of the wilderness this week only to come to Jesus by the cover of night. We leave the Gospel of Matthew behind of until the season of Easter, and we continue our Lenten journey with John’s gospel.
And John who is rich with words and images, where Jesus loves to talk and teach and preach, gives us the most famous of bible passages, John 3:16. Yet, in context, this famous passage comes in a long line of familiar images. The image of being born again in the spirit. The image of the spirit as the wind, blowing where it chooses. The image of the son of man being lifted up just as Moses lifted the serpent. And finally, “For God so loved the world…”
But when we pull back again, we meet Nicodemus. Nicodemus the curious pharisee. And while the rich and familiar images of this story stand out… it is perhaps the setting by which Nicodemus comes to have this conversation with Jesus that really helps us to understand where we are going on the 2nd Sunday in Lent.
So take a moment, and put all the familiar words and famous bible verses out of your mind and imagine this image.
It is the dead of night. Dim lamps burn here and there among stone walls and buildings. A lone figure, cloaked in darkness makes his way down deserted streets and alleys. The cicadas and crickets are chirping in the hot, dry nighttime air. Finally, the lone figure finds who he is a looking for. Jesus is appears in the darkness, standing among the trees and plants of a garden.
Nicodemus pulls back his hood and looks around to be sure that no one else is lurking nearby. “Rabbi” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”
The story comes to life when we can imagine the background of this conversation. Nicodemus has come to Jesus at night to ask his questions. Nicodemus, a religious leader, needs the darkness to feel safe. He has much to lose in coming to Jesus: his standing in the community, his authority as a leader, his relationships with friends and neighbours.
Yet, here Nicodemus is, seeking out Jesus in the cover of darkness, to ask honest and real questions of the Rabbi… Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is, what he means for all the things that Nicodemus believes about God and religion.
And curiously, Jesus begins by dodging Nicodemus’s question. He has been asked these questions before. The scribes and Pharisees and temple priest love to probe Jesus, they love to put him on the spot and see if he will withstand the pressure. How is Jesus supposed to know what Nicodemus’s intentions are? Even at night, even with no crowds to rile up, Nicodemus is still a Pharisee. Nicodemus is still part of a group that is suspicious of Jesus.
So Jesus answers vaguely about being born from above, prompting a follow up from Nicodemus. And Jesus goes on about being born of water and spirit, about the wind blowing where is chooses.
But still Nicodemus wonders, “How can these things be?”
Nicodemus and his questions are not unfamiliar to us. They are not the wonderings of children, nor the questions of someone new to faith. Nicodemus has old questions, question that come from a life time of sitting in the pew and weeks upon weeks, months upon months, years upon years of hearing the bible stories. Nicodemus knows the doctrine and theology. Nicodemus doesn’t need religion explained to him.
Nicodemus needs the answers for his doubts. He wants to know if all of this is real and what it all means. He wants to know if Jesus is the real thing. Are the thing Nicodemus has believed about God really true?
Our Nicodemus moments come from the same place. They are questions we are too afraid to ask in the light, the doubts we are afraid to share in public, the feelings of being silly for believing in a God that the world often laughs at.
I remember once sitting in on a bible study with a group at a bible camp. A group of volunteers: of retired men who came to fix the plumbing, to drive the tractor that mowed the fields, to chop enough firewood for a whole summer. Retired women who came to scrub kitchens, to sew drapes and to wash windows. People who were faithfully in church every Sunday and then faithfully volunteering at camp during their weekdays.
And as the group talked about prayer and how they could pray about anything to God and God would hear them, one of the men, a life long and faithful Lutheran, a gruff retired contractor asked the bible study leader a question. With tears in eyes he said, “But how can God hear my prayers? I am nobody to God.”
It was a Nicodemus moment. A moment for the deep questions of faith. A moment that we all come to know sooner or later. A moment when we wonder if Jesus the real thing, or when we wonder if Jesus will remember to include us in his Kingdom, or a moment when we realize that believing in Jesus is much riskier than we imagined. Believing in Jesus might mean risking our place in our community, it might mean accepting people we don’t want to accept, it might mean making room in our lives for new things like prayer, and bible study, and acts of service and worshipping God with a sense the world is transformed by that worship.
In Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus, there is moment where something curious happens. As Jesus first doges Nicodemus’s question with vague and confusing talk of being born from above and the spirit doing as the spirit wishes…. Nicodemus asks Jesus a second followup question, “How can these things be?” And again, the question is not unlike questions often asked of Jesus by the religious authorities. But this time, Jesus seems taken aback, “Where not you, a religious leader, taught these things?”
There must have been something in the way that Nicodemus asked the question that stopped Jesus in his tracks. There must have been something honest and searching, maybe even something desperate in the way Nicodemus asks.
And so Jesus changes and adjusts.
Jesus moves towards to Nicodemus.
Jesus drops the confusing speech that he normally saves for pesky religious leaders questioning him in public.
And Jesus gives Nicodemus what he is looking for.
Jesus gives the assurance that Nicodemus is seeking. Yes, Jesus says, the son of man is following in the footsteps of Moses. And no, this is not an easy thing to accept or believe.
Yet, Jesus declares boldly, for God so loves the world that he gave his only Son…
Jesus gives Nicodemus the gospel in the clearest of terms.
This move towards Nicodemus is just a smaller version of what God has been doing all along. After calling the people to repentance, and the people always fall back into the sin, God decides to make the move. And so God move towards the people. Beginning with an announcement made to a young virgin that she will bear a child. And then with a voice Thundering over the waters of baptism in the river Jordan. And then a dazzling transformation on a mountain top. And then last week, as the tempter tried to get Jesus to return to the old pattern of falling into sin…
The movement of God became clear. God has moved towards creation and there is no going back. Jesus moves to Nicodemus, giving him the assurance and good news he needs to hear.
And Jesus makes the same move towards us.
Jesus assures us in our Nicodemus moments, that he is indeed the real thing.
That when we are worried about looking foolish to the world, that Jesus will accept our foolishness without hesitation.
That when we are worried that believing in Jesus may mean we have to accept people we don’t want to love, Jesus will love us and forgive us regardless.
That when we are worried that this whole faith business may mean changes in our lives in how we live, what we do, who we serve and what we value, that Jesus will keep moving to us, making up the difference in our half heartedness.
Nicodemus moments are something we cannot avoid. We will as people of faith have our questions, our doubts, our fears that would only dare ask in the darkness. But Nicodemus moments are also the moments when Jesus changes course and makes a move towards us. Jesus moves toward us in our darkness, in our confusion, in our hesitation.
And Jesus gives us what we need…. the Good News that God so loved the world, so loved us, that God gave his only Son.