Lent II 2020
Imagine you love to play pinochle, yet all your friends play bridge. Or you love Downton Abbey, but everyone you know can’t stop talking about the Love Boat remake. Or you really wanted to see Frozen II while everyone else took in Captain Marvel. Imagine everyone in the training class is following the presentation, but you just can’t get it, but you won’t risk raising your hand to ask the question. Finally, imagine you’re a UVA fan and you live in Blacksburg!
Have you ever wanted to go somewhere but were a little afraid of who might see you and what someone else might think about what you are doing? Sometimes we keep our loyalties, our interests, our questions hush-hush. This is a story about someone who had an inkling something new was going on, but he wanted to check things out where no one could see him.
Nicodemus shows up three times in John’s gospel. Each time becoming a bit more comfortable with letting others know he is reaching out to Jesus. Yet it is little wonder he comes to Jesus at night this first time. Jesus has just tossed the tables in the temple and chastised the leaders for allowing the temple to be a marketplace. He tore into one of their income streams, hit them in the wallet. It is the beginning of his on-going conflict with those in authority.
Nicodemus cannot risk his colleagues seeing him chatting Jesus up. They would not be happy he is consorting with a radical. Coming to Jesus at night, a time of literal darkness, when Nicodemus can move through the city without being seen, he is trying to protect his reputation, status and power. Yet he is also taking a risk, “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 is trying to establish himself as a friend, although a secretive one. He is putting himself out there. Sort of. He thinks differently than his colleagues. Sort of. Surely this will show that. Sort of!
Light and dark have special meaning in John’s gospel. In the opening John identified Jesus as the “light that shines in the darkness” (1:5). He is establishing opposition between the light and the world. Light symbolizes the presence of God; darkness and night, God’s absence. Those who turn to Jesus in John are those who come to the light. Those who prefer the darkness are those who turn away. “Darkness becomes most intense,” Johannine scholar Raymond Brown notes, “when Jesus is handed over to death…; then John dramatically comments, ‘It was night.’”
By coming in the dark, John also tells us, Nicodemus is in the dark about Jesus. He is trying to test how his previous understanding of God fits with what Jesus is doing. But Jesus turns his opening statement on its head. He is still in the dark.
Yet Jesus sees Nicodemus better than he is. Jesus assumes, as Brown notes, Nicodemus is signaling his desire to live in the light that had come into the world. But to see Jesus as the light, Nicodemus must be born from above. We all must be. “To all who received him,” John has noted, “who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” Jesus is giving Nicodemus power to be born anew of God.
Back and forth this hush-hush conversation goes. Nicodemus isn’t buying yet. He wants to know how you can be born after growing old. He is stuck and trying to fit Jesus into his way of knowing. The light Jesus brings still not quite breaking through. So round and round, in quiet, yet insistent tones, the conversation moves.
It seems to me Nicodemus is a place holder for each of us who come to Jesus, frankly, by night. Trying, with all our might and wits, to keep one foot in things as they are, the things that comfort us, and one foot in the future God is giving us in Jesus. Something has drawn us into conversation with Jesus. We’re here, and we want to engage with him. But it is hard to change our thinking, and our doing.
We fancy our reason and knowledge and understanding to be a match for him, as long as we see him as a teacher, a very, very good teacher; as long as we do not really believe that in him we are having to do with God.
But the unsettling thing about this story is that in it, Jesus is taking from Nicodemus the possibility of being neutral about the life that is truly life in him. Jesus is taking away the option of qualifying the threat posed by the experience of light illuminating his darkness. He is taking away the hope that gradually, over time, we will decide for him rather than against him. Jesus is taking away the option that we can frame how we follow him. If we are to be in his light, in his life, if we truly come to Jesus, it cannot be just at night, when no one else sees us. We must come 24/7.
If you read ahead in the Gospel of John, it appears that Nicodemus spent the next three years wondering what he had missed that night. Wondering why he could not get his head, (let alone his heart) around what Jesus meant. Wondering about the truth he could not square with the facts.
How many of us have spent years of our own life wondering the same thing about Jesus? In the middle of John’s gospel, Nicodemus suggests to the Sanhedrin, at risk to his reputation, that Jesus be given a hearing before he is judged by them. Jesus is getting under his skin. Jesus is getting to his heart. A bit, anyway. He could not leave his old self behind the night he had a hush-hush conversation with Jesus. But neither could he see Jesus the way he used to see him before that conversation.
I mentioned that Nicodemus appears three times in the gospel. The last time is at the foot of the cross. “Nicodemus,” John reminds us, “who had first come to Jesus by night,” now comes to Jesus before night had fallen on the Jewish Day of Preparation, carrying a hundred pounds of spices, so that he, with Joseph of Arimathea might bury Jesus’ body.
In the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence is Michelangelo’s Pieta. There, holding the dead body of Jesus, is the perfectly chiseled figure of Nicodemus. His face is that of the artist, Michelangelo, the statue intended to be his gravestone. In 16th century Italy, there was a group known as the Nicodemites. They were Catholics who secretly sympathized with the Reformed theological turn toward justification by faith alone. They were also afraid to come out in the light if day against the Roman church. Some believe Michelangelo was a member of that group. On the one hand, to look upon the statue is to see the eyes of an old man, Michelangelo, whose death is not far off, one who dwells in the valley of the shadow. Yet, to continue to gaze is also to see the eyes of an old man, Nicodemus, seeing, as if for the first time, born from above, holding by the strength of his hand in life, the one in whose hand his own soul and ours will be kept from falling on death.
He has come a long away from the hush-hush of earlier life. Through the light of Christ, would that we may do the same.