Preached at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd on the 2nd Sunday of Lent.
…(Jesus said)The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”… (Read the whole lesson here).
Each year in Lent, St. David’s would have soup and the word before their regular Thursday Evening Prayer service. People would gather for soup and they would talk over the readings for the coming Sunday together with Father Angelo. After an hour or so, the group would gather in the sanctuary for Evening Prayer.
Heather had been an Evening prayer regular for several months. She wasn’t a member of the congregation, and she didn’t attend Sunday mornings, but she had been faithfully attending Thursday Night Evening Prayer week after week for a while. Father Angelo hoped she would come to soup and the word.
Last week, we began Lent like we do each year. On the first Sunday of the season we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
Today, we move from Matthew’s Gospel to John’s. We step into the story with Nicodemus. He is a Pharisee who has come to see Jesus at night. Nicodemus has come to Jesus with questions. Nicodemus comes asking questions that eventually lead Jesus to utter what is perhaps the most famous verse in the whole Bible: John 3:16 is memorized and recited by Christians all over world. John 3:16 can cause us to miss the story around it because of the way it dominates our memory. Instead of this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, we hear that verse and imagine a shirtless, beer-gutted man holding up a sign at a football game.
Once we get past John 3:16 and when we can bring our thoughts back to Nicodemus and Jesus, we can discover a powerful encounter between two unlikely men. The conversation that Nicodemus and Jesus share contains some of the richest images of the bible. Being born again or from above by the spirit, the spirit blowing where it will like the wind, Moses lifting up the snake in the desert, for God so loved the world. These images can be so rich, that we can forget this is a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee.
So lets step back from the conversation for a moment, and imagine the scene. It is night, Jesus is waiting in a convenient spot, maybe beside a fire. Nicodemus comes in secret to speak with Jesus. Nicodemus is on the other team from Jesus. Nicodemus is Pharisee, a member of the group trying to trap Jesus, the ones who will eventually accuse Jesus before the temple authorities chanting “Crucify him.” Nicodemus is risking a lot by bringing his questions to Jesus. Nicodemus risks being discovered, losing his place in his community, losing all respect from his peers. And Nicodemus isn’t even sure about this Jesus guy.
On the second week of soup and the word at St. David’s, the group talked about the story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus at night. As people asked questions about being born again, or who will be saved and who is condemned, Heather sat in silence. Finally just before the hour was up, Heather chimed in.
“I understand Nicodemus” she started. “I mean, he has questions. He has seen things and heard stories about Jesus, but how is he supposed to know that Jesus is the real deal. How can Nicodemus be sure that Jesus really is the one? I have read the stories, I have heard the testimonies. How can I be sure Jesus really is the son of God? I think Nicodemus gets it. He wants to know his part in this, just like I do. What is my part with God. What am I supposed to do to be born again? To be saved by the Son of God?”
Father Angelo was about to answer, when the worship assistant came ringing the bell for worship. The group got up and headed up to evening prayer. Heather’s question was left hanging.
We can be a lot like Nicodemus when it comes to God and to faith. We want to know how things work before dive in. We are not sure we want to show our hand before we have to. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in secret. And he leaves without being convinced. Sometimes it might be the same with us. We come to Jesus expecting answers, and instead we leave unconvinced.
Faith and church and God can leave us feeling like Nicodemus. As we go about our day, the world keeps us busy and preoccupied. But when the darkness settles in, the questions come. At night, we have the time to sit and wonder. Question rung through out minds lying in bed, or late at night when the television can’t hold our attention. We begin to wonder. Is God for real? Does faith make any sense? We start out unsure, but we can become uncertain. Uncertainty leads to doubt, and we become shaken, afraid, alone. What if God isn’t all that we say God is?
Nicodemus leaves the conversation unconvinced today, but farther along in John’s gospel, Nicodemus shows up again. This time he half heartedly defends Jesus to his Pharisees buddies. As the story of Jesus unfolds, Nicodemus is hanging in there, even if only at the fringe or on the margin.
And maybe, of all the things, all the familiar rich images that Jesus uses today, it is what Jesus doesn’t say that might be significant. Jesus does not condemn Nicodemus. He doesn’t expect Nicodemus to demonstrate his faith. There is no expectation that Nicodemus sign up and become an open disciple. Jesus doesn’t treat this man like the fisherman calling them from their boats. He doesn’t heal Nicodemus with an exhortation to faith. Jesus simply gives Nicodemus time and space. Jesus welcomes Nicodemus, allows him the room to ask questions, and gives him the chance to think. Jesus let’s Nicodemus watch the story unfold.
Throughout the rest of Lent, Heather kept coming to soup and the word. She had more questions, but none as direct as her questions about Nicodemus.
It was the Good Friday custom at St. David’s to have a prayer vigil. Members would sign up to pray at the church for an hour at a time all through the day and through the night. Father Angelo noticed that Heather had signed up for the 8PM shift.
At 8PM Good Friday, he joined her in the candle lit sanctuary, and the two sat in silence for a while. Eventually Heather looked over to him and said,
“Father Angelo, did you know that Nicodemus is the one who comes to bury Jesus after he is crucified? All the other disciples, the ones who boldly followed Jesus for years, they all hid away, afraid. But when Jesus is crucified, it is Nicodemus who comes and asks for the body. When he sees the whole story, he is finally ready to be an out in the open disciple.
“I know” said Father Angelo. “Interesting isn’t it”.
“So why couldn’t Jesus tell him to wait for the rest of the story when Nicodemus first came with his questions?”
“Jesus isn’t about giving answers, Jesus is about showing us God. Nicodemus needed to see that. Maybe you needed to that.”
“I did see it” Heather said. “I finally saw it this week, I saw Jesus today, on the cross. I finally saw the rest of the story.”
“Good” said Father Angelo. “But story isn’t over yet… everything is going to change on Sunday morning.”
Like Nicodemus, we can hesitate, we can be unsure about Jesus. We can wonder about God. We might prefer to keep our faith in the dark, in secret, we might leave feeling unconvinced many days. Like Nicodemus we have our questions, and we wish Jesus would just answer them, because we want to know. If we could just know if Jesus, if God is real… than the uncertainty, the fear, the loneliness might leave us.
But that is not how Jesus is with us. Jesus doesn’t come to give us answers. Jesus comes to meet us in our doubts, in our questions. Jesus meets us in the darkness, in our fears and isolation. Jesus meets us and give us space. The space to ask our questions, and the space to watch the story unfold. And Jesus tells us the good news again and again. That God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son to die on a cross for us. God gave his son so that whoever questions, whoever wonders, whoever hears the story from beginning to end, from manger to cross to empty tomb might be transformed for eternal life.
That is how Jesus is, saying what we need to hear, not saying what we don’t need to hear, and giving us the space to discover that we have been caught up by and changed by God’s great love.