My sons are just thirteen months apart in age. They developed their own language when they were toddlers, saying things to each other that we couldn’t understand. After exchanging words that were unintelligible to the rest of us, they would head off together in some sort of joint venture. When they left crib life behind, we tucked them in each night in bunk beds, one boy stacked on top of the other. I always tried to keep my children on a good sleep schedule. So, when I heard them talking in the dark, half an hour after saying bedtime prayers, my instinct was to suggest they pipe down and go to sleep. But then I would hear their conversation. They processed the day, they giggled over funny moments, and they asked questions that the other was willing to answer. Many times, even though there was no answer to a question, they knew that they were heard. One brother cared enough to reflect on life with the other even if they couldn’t make sense of every experience. This loving dialogue allowed them to fall into a deep sleep.
The philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, described Nicodemus as an admirer of Jesus but not a follower. He came to Jesus in the night, drawn to what he saw in Jesus but not ready to publicly own Him. Emmanuel Lartey states, “Like Nicodemus, we discover some of our most profound understandings about life come from conversations and consultations with people we talk to ‘at night,’ people we are often afraid to be seen associating with.”
Nicodemus is a work in progress in John’s gospel. He moves from intrigue to belief. In this introduction to him, Nicodemus seeks Jesus out but only under the cover of darkness. In chapter seven we meet him again and he defends Jesus in the midst of his angry Pharisee colleagues. They deride him for his willingness to see Jesus in a positive light when they only see Him as a threat. Finally, we meet Nicodemus in John 19 after Jesus’ death. The man who initially was not willing to meet Jesus in the light of day anoint Jesus’ dead body with expensive spices. He and Joseph of Arimathea give a proper burial for the man they love. Like us, Nicodemus is a work in progress, moving from admiration to worship.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night looking for enlightenment but finding only confusion. Notice where he starts the conversation: “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…” This learned Pharisee is giving a lecture to Jesus about who He is! But it sounds like Nicodemus is trying to convince himself of Jesus’ identity. He begins his speech with assuredness. As a scholar he is accustomed to being the one who teaches students. He is the intellectual who studies his world and defines it for others. But his teaching moment goes downhill from there. He thinks he knew Jesus well enough to lecture about Him. But, when faced with the very man he so admired, he learns that there is much he can’t comprehend.
I wonder if you have ever been certain that you knew someone well only to discover that you never really knew them? You missed telling revelations because you were sure you knew all there was to know about them. Many in our world today are put off by Christians because they come across as know-it-alls. These believers are ready to lecture about truths they have pinned down. In their self-righteousness, they miss the remarkable revelations others bring to the conversation because they aren’t open to a re-ordering of their carefully constructed world!
Nicodemus, the scholar, begins with a proclamation about who Jesus is and ends with a repeated refrain of, “How can this be?”
What did you once understand thoroughly only to humbly discover that you grasped the subject matter very little? In matters of faith, the closer God draws near, the more we realize that we cannot know this God fully. The instant we are sure we can predict the movement of the Holy, the wind shifts and we recognize that the power of our God cannot be contained. In our arrogance, we are humbled.
Last week I was outside with my grandson. He was racing along the sidewalk, trying out his running skills. At a rare moment when he was still, the wind gusted and a thousand rosy helicopter seeds blew toward us from a nearby maple tree. We were mesmerized as they floated past and tried to anchor themselves in a manicured lawn. The breeze moved on and our world was once again still. God’s creation seeks to bring growth, to perpetuate the species, to put down roots so that life can break forth from unlikely places. If we devoted all our energies to stopping the shedding of seeds from plants and trees right now, we could not. If we put all our efforts into preventing locusts from showing up every seventeen years to do their brief dance out in the open before leaving their eggs deep in the ground, we could not.
The Spirit of God moves over the face of the earth, sending seeds of growth that challenge our self-assuredness.
John Calvin thought that Jesus wasted His precious time on proud Nicodemus. But Jesus understood that there are lots of us who begin as secret admirers. In the dark of night, we dare to ask our questions, hoping that we will be heard. Jesus’ willingness to challenge this scholar gave Nicodemus the opportunity to recognize how much he had narrowed his world. Nicodemus understood that Jesus loved him enough to engage with him. Jesus trusted that this confident Pharisee could see the world newly through Jesus’ eyes. When we meet him again in John 7, Nicodemus is no longer in the dark about Jesus. He takes a stand before his judgmental colleagues, losing professional credibility because of his willingness to see the divine in controversial Jesus. You see, Nicodemus was indeed born again through that night talk with Jesus. The encounter gives him the humility to allow the Spirit of God to take the lead and teach him new truths. Nicodemus learns that the life of faith is built upon a continual movement of self-surrender. Lartey states, “Rebirth is a spiritual experience available to all, but perhaps most needed by religious people who might think they do not need it.”
Does that challenge you like it challenges me?
On Trinity Sunday we remember that the nature of God is to be in community. God sent Jesus to give us a greater understanding of who God is. Like those helicopter seeds that optimistically float to the ground, hoping to put down roots, the Spirit blows in each of our lives. We are reminded of a glorious truth: God blows across the face of this earth seeking relationships with all of humanity. God searches you, me, our children, our crabby neighbor, a dying atheist who is finally willing to look for the Divine in the sunset of his life. This is one of only two places in John’s gospel where Jesus speaks of the kingdom. His message is not that God’s Realm is limited to the great beyond, experienced as eternal bliss beyond this physical space that we call home. The Realm of God is here and it’s now! It is found in the quality of life we shape for ourselves and others today, tomorrow and next week. Nicodemus embraced this lesson because we find him for the third time in the nineteenth chapter of John’s gospel, taking a very public stand before the religious authorities. They are so threatened by Jesus that they orchestrate His crucifixion. Nicodemus, alongside of Joseph of Arimathea, tenderly carries the broken body of Jesus (who died a criminal’s death) and anoints Him with spices to welcome Him into the next life. To say that Nicodemus’ caring for Jesus’ body is controversial is a gross understatement. He understands that God’s realm is lived out here and now with each word, thought and decision that we make, both privately and publicly. In the end, Nicodemus worships Jesus.
This past week was Trinity Sunday. The point is not to understand the Trinitarian God. We are called to love God. We are invited to watch for the movement of the Spirit by the seeds that drift before us and settle in our lives, trying to take root. Nicodemus would tell us, “Don’t hold back from God! Never stop asking your questions because God is listening and will hold you in your times of need!”
It is in the dark of night that we wrestle with our deepest questions. Captives, held against their will, whisper questions about their future for which there are no immediate answers. In the asking, they are comforted to sense that God is with them. Lovers at night pledge their devotion to each other, choosing to commit to one another for a lifetime of faithfulness. They know that they can be true to those promises only if they invite God to guide. A father holds his fearful child, assuring her with the words she somehow believes: “It’s Ok.” She falls into a deep slumber because she knows she is safe. My boys’ questions, uttered from stacked bunkbeds in a darkened room, may not all have been answered but they, nonetheless, drifted off to sleep contented that they weren’t alone in their journey. As children of the Tri-une God, we understand that we are created for community. The past fifteen months have been a painful lesson in how much we need to be in each other’s presence, hugging, listening closely, and looking each other in the eyes. Even when we can’t answer each other’s questions; even though we get it wrong at first, what matters is that we are heard and held and loved. What matters is how we hear and hold and love.
Will Willimon reminds us of how much God loves us: “Salvation, our healing and restoration by God, through God’s son, is not our achievement. It is God’s gift. The requirement is not that we know, but that we are willing to be known. God so loved the world that God gave the Son.” Amen!