Questions in the dark

GOSPEL: John 3:1-17

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” … 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? (Read the whole passage)

Our Lenten journey takes us from the wilderness and desert of last week, to the dark of the night this week. And not just because of daylight savings time and a later sunrise this morning. Lent began last week as Jesus was driven out into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and prayer, followed by temptation. We watched at Jesus showed us the way into the wilderness, into a moment of everything being stripped away that distracts from God.

On this second Sunday in Lent, rather than Jesus going into the wilderness seeking to grow in faith… it is a Pharisee, a leader among the people of Israel who is coming to Jesus for answers. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in the darkness away from the prying eyes of the city, risking his reputation and safety in order to ask this wandering preacher who threatens the established order, just who he is. Nicodemus takes this risk of meeting with Jesus because he needed to know more, he needed answers of some kind.

Nicodemus might not be wandering in the desert, but he is showing us another kind of wilderness

Nicodemus begins by stating that he knows that Jesus is more than just a wandering preacher. The signs and miracles say so. Nicodemus wants to know more.

But Jesus is cautious. He answers cryptically, in case Nicodemus is a Pharisees intent on catching Jesus preaching heresy. And so Jesus and Nicodemus begin a somewhat strange conversation about being born again, about the physical impossibility and about the unknowable nature of the spirit.

“How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks Jesus.

Maybe it was then that Jesus knew that Nicodemus wasn’t interested in tricking Jesus into some trouble, but really just wanted to know more about who Jesus was. Maybe there was something in the way that Nicodemus asked the question, pleaded with Jesus to understand.

Maybe even a religious leader, a teacher of Israel did not understand what God was up to in the world, could not see the Messiah right in front of his own eyes, could not comprehend what the Christ coming in flesh meant for creation.

Maybe Jesus needed to know just what humanity and all creation did not know and couldn’t understand.

As Nicodemus comes in the darkness to ask Jesus his question, to ask for understanding, it is about more than idle curiosity. Nicodemus comes with true doubt, true wondering. Not just about Jesus, but about himself and the world. He wants to know who Jesus is, want to know if Jesus is the Messiah because Nicodemus wants to know if the world is worthy of redemption. Can God fix the problems, the suffering, the sin, the death. Can God save God’s people? Can Nicodemus be saved, is Nicodemus worthy of salvation?

These aren’t the questions one asks over lunch at the local coffee shop. This isn’t water cooler chit chat. These are the kind of questions that scroll through our minds when yet another news story about the Coronavirus is told on the evening news. It is the wondering that we succumb to at the end of the day, after all the busy-ness of the day has quieted down. It is the kind of questioning that keeps us awake at night, starting into the dark abyss. Nicodemus asks the kind of questions that can only be whispered at night in the hopes that no one really hears them.

We know these questions because we have probably asked them too. Can this world be saved? Is there something that can be done about war and violence that never seems to end? Is there safety in the face of illness and disease that is spreading indiscriminately? Will our political leaders be able to step up, finally, at this moment?

And of course there are the questions that narrow down from the global scale. Will my family be safe? Will my job be affected? Do I need to fear my foreign neighbours?

Not to mention the regular worries that keep us up at night about our lives, and relationships and futures.

So we get it. We know what Nicodemus is up to, what he is feeling when he shows us to asks Jesus what is going on? Nicodemus just wants to know if there is hope for his community, his family, for himself.

Last week, as the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness he asked questions too. Questions that Jesus gave careful answers to.

And yet, as Nicodemus comes in the night, he needs something different. Not the warnings that Jesus gave to the devil, but assurance. Even as Jesus begins with cryptic answers about being born again and about the unpredictable spirit… Nicodemus presses for more.

“How can these things be?”

And Jesus knows that Nicodemus needs something different, something more.

And so Jesus begins with something familiar. Jesus uses an image that would have been well known to Nicodemus. If Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is, look to the stories of God’s people that have been passed on for generations. To the story of the rescue of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. Rescue from sin and suffering, rescue from foreign powers and hardened oppressors, recuse from seemingly arbitrary and pointless death.

Just as the people of Israel were fleeing Egypt, only to be set upon by poisonous snakes, Moses lifted up the bronze serpent and the people of God looked upon it and were saved.

Nicodemus wants to know if his world can be saved by God, if the Messiah can do anything about this mess? Jesus reminds him of one of the lowest points of the people of Israel.

And then in one of the clearest passages of the bible – one that so many of us were encouraged to memorize as a concise articulation of the Gospel – Jesus gives it straight to Nicodemus.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…”

It is as if Jesus is saying, you see how God gave the people the bronze snake is their most desperate moment… well the Father is giving me to the world, in your most desperate moment.

If Nicodemus needed the questions that keep him awake at night answered, Jesus gives him what he needs. Jesus gives him an answer that gets right to the heart of Nicodemus’ fears and anxieties. Jesus gives an answer for which there can be no misunderstanding.

There in the dark night, Jesus shines a light on all the sin, suffering and death of the world and declares that even that stuff, God has a plan for.

It is not a fix in the moment and it isn’t about just making it all go away.

But it is a promise. A promise that there is hope and life on the other side. That all these things that keep us awake at night will not define us, they won’t control us, they won’t overpower us.

The Father has sent the Son, and the Son is on his way to save.

It is the same promise and hope that we are given week after week. Even as our nighttime anxieties and fears, our questions pile up… Jesus meets us here (even in the early morning) and reminds us again and again.

For God so loved the world…. For God so loved us… For God so loved you.

That all the sin, suffering and death. That the unending wars, and scary viral outbreaks, and rail blockades that divide us, and inept politicians who don’t seem to be able to do anything helpful… all the things that keep up at night…

That God has sent the Son for us in the midst of all that, and God has sent the Son to save.

To save us up high from the cross, to save us by walking with us out of empty graves.

To hear our nighttime questions and to go with us on lenten wilderness journeys.

“How can these things be?” We ask with Nicodemus.

And Jesus reminds us again, “For God so loved the world, For God so loves us.”

Amen.

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