The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams –March 16, 2014
Lent 2, Year A: Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
So, over the years, I’ve had sort of lukewarm relationship with Nicodemus. He can push my buttons like few other Biblical characters can do. But he can also open my heart in ways that it needs to be opened, if I let him. And so I have this inner wrestle that happens whenever we get to this story. And I’ll get to all of that in a minute.
Because I also need to say that the language in this story can make this gospel passage a little confusing too. Birth and rebirth? Water and spirit? And then at the very end we’re hit with one of the most well known (yet also misused) verses in all of Scripture – having appeared in thousands of football end zones and hundreds of thousands of billions of sermons over time are these words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. . .” So, we’ll go there too.
But first Nicodemus and a little bit about him. And me.
Nicodemus was a leader of the synagogue. He was a Pharisee which meant that he had a whole lot of authority in his community of faith and in his society too. He was a ruler, a teacher, an official who probably also had considerable wealth. He was robed, vested and invested. Nicodemus was a very public figure who stood in a solid position of leadership and respect; he was was visible, powerful, and likely highly honored and esteemed.
But he came to Jesus by night. In this part of the gospel, Nicodemus was sort of sneaky in his approach and so part of me wonders why he couldn’t just come during the daylight like everyone else? Why couldn’t Nicodemus stand with the other searchers and seekers and shout out his questions just like all the rest of them? In reality, Nicodemus was one of the most powerful people in this gospel – unlike the Samaritan woman whom we’ll meet next week and the blind man the week after that (heck, they didn’t even have names in this gospel) unlike them, Nicodemus was one of the most secure in his world. And yet he of all people came by night. And so he pushes my buttons because I see the risks people were willing to take in order to put themselves in Jesus’ presence, or the risks they took in trying to follow him, and Nicodemus is initially, just sort of sneaky about it all.
But there’s more too. There’s more to Nicodemus’ story – which is true of everyone we encounter. And it’s important to remember that. Nicodemus appears not once but three times in this gospel. There is this first encounter which happens by night, then there’s another moment later in the gospel when Nicodemus is standing in a crowd of Pharisees and at that point, the Pharisees are literally ready to condemn Jesus on the spot. And it’s Nicodemus who shouts out from the middle of them. And he shouted out that their religious law required they at least offer Jesus a trial. Right out in the broad daylight Nicodemus did that! Now it’s not exactly a public witness or testimony, or renunciation or resurrection – but hey, it was a huge step for him. And it probably put his reputation at risk.
And then at the very end of the gospel Nicodemus was present again. With Joseph of Arimethea Nicodemus cared for Jesus’ body after Jesus died and it’s a very tender moment. Nicodemus essentially broke with the purity code and defiled himself in order to touch and care for the body of Jesus.
And so while Nicodemus frustrates me, he also fascinates me, and in some ways he even humbles me.
Because Nicodemus reminds me that this journey comes in all different shapes and sizes. He reminds me that God is working on us all – those who are on the margins and those who are in the very center, or even at “the top.” God is working on the powerless and the powerful, the fearful and the courageous, those with nothing to lose and those with everything to lose and everyone in between in each of those categories. And actually, that should come as good news. Who am I to question Nicodemus’ process? Now I can question the public stands he takes. I can question his underlying theology. But I should have room in my heart for his journey too. Nicodemus was willing to let the door crack open if even just to let a little nightlight shine through. And grace sometimes grace looks just like that.
And what made all of that so very grace-filled in this story was how Jesus received him. This is where I have something to learn. The words Jesus gave to Nicodemus were beautiful. “You can be born again,” he told him. “Everyone can. In fact everyone needs to begin again,” Jesus told Nicodemus. So don’t feel so bad about it. And then Jesus went on, “Because the Spirit blows where it will,” he said, “and you hear it but you don’t always know – no matter how robed or vested our invested you are – even you, religious leader don’t always know from where the Spirit will come or where it will take you.”
And that response is so much better than judging Nicodemus for needing the cover of night. That’s so much more loving than comparing Nicodemus to the blind man or the Samaritan woman. Which was part of Jesus’ point, right? God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, not to condemn the world – not to condemn Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman or the blind man or any of the rest of them – not to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through him.
And so the good news has lots of layers in this one. On some level we all need the cover of night for things we bring to the Christ. We just do and Christ is there for us. And sometimes we are those people in positions of power who need to do our own searching and seeking and being born anew. And sometimes we need to open doors for those who arrive by night so that they can encounter the Body of Christ in ways that are safe for them.
But then the story continues for all of us and all of them too. Maybe courage comes. Maybe then they/we find our voices if only for a moment and right there in full day light we’re able to cry out for justice – for ourselves or someone else. And then at the end of the day, maybe they/we can risk everything we have for the life, the death, the caretaking of the one who came to love us all.