Tag Archives: Nicodemus

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.

Asking Jesus Questions in the Dark

John 3:1-21

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (Read the whole passage)

If you could choose, if you could decide how you would know, if you could have any evidence, any sign you wanted that God is real, what would you have? Jesus to beam down from the sky like a character from Star Trek? What about for God to come and end all wars, feed all those who are hungry, heal everyone who is sick? Maybe you want a divine message to be written in the clouds, some clue to the meaning of life.

It is quite the question to ask. To wonder what it would take for us to have strong unwavering faith. To set the criteria for belief. To decide what signs and miracles we would need to see in order to know that Jesus is God.

We have been making our way through John’s Gospel, we began with events surrounding Jesus’ baptism and we have heard stories about the wedding at Cana and the cleansing of the temple. Now we eavesdrop on a nighttime conversation under the cover of darkness.

We are presented with someone who comes to Jesus, precisely asking about the signs and miracles. Nicodemus. A Pharisee, a leader of religion and faith in Israel. He comes to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness. In John’s view, those who are in the Dark, have no faith. Darkness is the Apostle’s way of saying that Nicodemus came to Jesus with a lack of faith. Yet, Nicodemus is not entirely without curiosity, even a faithful curiosity.  He has come with questions.  Nicodemus risks being seen with Jesus, which could lead to ridicule and shame by those who follow him as a teacher and expert in religion.

And here is the thing about Nicodemus the Pharisee, he has seen the signs. He knows what Jesus is up to. But he still cannot believe. Nicodemus’s question is not really a question at all. He makes a statement, “ 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 manages to get the lead up to his question out. He still hasn’t asked Jesus anything, yet Jesus interrupts. Jesus says one must be born from above, or again, or anew, to see the Kingdom of God. And Nicodemus has no idea of what Jesus is talking about, and starts imagining how someone can be literally born again. How a man could crawl back into his mother’s womb, and still fit as an adult.

So the conversation continues, and Jesus preaches — lots. He talks about faith and the Spirit, about the son of man being lifted up and about God’s plans for saving the world.

We can see ourselves in the story Nicodemus, in curiously seeking answers, wondering who and what this Jesus guy is all about. Nicodemus saw the signs and miracles, but that wasn’t enough for him, he still was in darkness. Nicodemus even had the opportunity to speak with Jesus himself, in the flesh. And still he doesn’t leave convinced as far as we know. Imagine, if we had the chance to sit down with Jesus for a nice evening conversation, if we could sort out all the questions of faith.

So often, our faith can feel like it is a nighttime faith. Unsure, and questioning. Unsure that God is real. Unsure that a real God can love imperfect us.

There is something about the night that leaves us open to questions and reflections. In the day, we are busy and full of life. There are people to see, things to do, work to be done, entertainment to be had. But at night, when life slows, when there is opportunity to think and reflect, that is when the questions come. The worries and fear begin. How many of us have laid awake at night wondering about life.

As Christians, our normal experience of worship together is during the day, or in the light so to speak. But we do have traditions of worship and prayer at night. Monks and nuns would observe the daily services of evening and nighttime prayer, not unlike the Lenten Services that we are held over the years.

In evening worship services the feel is quite different than on Sunday mornings. Rather than the cross being the primary symbol, in an evening service the Christ Candle becomes central. And even though the darkness is close and all around, the light of the single candle shines in the darkness and the darkness does not over come it. Space and time are given to listen to God as God listens to us. Silence and reflection are the essence of Nighttime prayer.

In one part of the service we sing:

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit

You have redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

Into your hands, I commend my spirit.

We sing those words each night because we are practicing. Each night we practice dying as an act of faith. We practice for when those words will be said over our bodies when we die.

They are at the same time profound words of faith and profound words of doubt. By speaking them we practice trust and faith, by speaking them we also admit that we do not know the future, by speaking them we do not even truly know that the sun will rise tomorrow, except by God’s grace.

These words only really fit at night, in the darkness of faith.

As Nicodemus comes with his questions and doubts something interesting happens. Jesus receives him. Jesus does not send Nicodemus away, nor does Jesus judge the Pharisee for having doubts. He receives him and teaches him. Nicodemus comes in the darkness, but Jesus provides light. Not overwhelming light like the sun, but light like the gentleness of one candle in dark room.

And yet, Nicodemus does not go away convinced. But throughout the Gospel of John, Nicodemus appears again. The second time he defends, somewhat hesitantly, Jesus’s teaching. And the third time, Nicodemus is the one who comes with Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body after being crucified.

For Nicodemus, faith is not immediate. Yet, Jesus is patient enough to allow Nicodemus to have his struggles and stays with the Pharisee throughout his ministry.

And that is how Jesus is with us too. Whether it takes time and practice, or whether it seems to be natural and easy. God’s way with us is not to overwhelm us, but to meet us in our darkness. Jesus meets us in our night time questions and shines a light in the darkness of faith.

In our questions, in our doubts, in out late night wonderings, Jesus reminds us that faith is not a simple or easy thing. In fact, a strong faith is not a certain faith. Because certainty is knowing, and faith is not knowing. Certainty and faith are opposites. Faith is much more like doubt. Being unsure is a sign of faith.

Just like the wind that blows and makes a candle dance in the darkness, the Spirit blows and dances within us too. The Holy Spirit blows questions and wonderings, it stirs within us a desire to know God, and this is where God meets us. Not in our certainty, but in our doubt and faith.

The signs, the miracles, those are about knowing that God is real. Those are about knowing that the real God loves imperfect us. The nighttime questions are where faith happens, where Jesus hears our questions, receives doubts, and takes our wonderings.

Into your hands, O Lord, we commend our faith. Into your hands, we commend our spirits.  

Questions in the Dark – Our Nicodemus Moment

John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (read the whole passage)

Out of the wilderness and into the darkness. As Lent began last week, as it always does, with Jesus going into the wilderness to fast and be tempted… we come out of the wilderness this week only to come to Jesus by the cover of night. We leave the Gospel of Matthew behind of until the season of Easter, and we continue our Lenten journey with John’s gospel.

And John who is rich with words and images, where Jesus loves to talk and teach and preach, gives us the most famous of bible passages, John 3:16. Yet, in context, this famous passage comes in a long line of familiar images. The image of being born again in the spirit. The image of the spirit as the wind, blowing where it chooses. The image of the son of man being lifted up just as Moses lifted the serpent. And finally, “For God so loved the world…”

But when we pull back again, we meet Nicodemus. Nicodemus the curious pharisee. And while the rich and familiar images of this story stand out… it is perhaps the setting by which Nicodemus comes to have this conversation with Jesus that really helps us to understand where we are going on the 2nd Sunday in Lent.

So take a moment, and put all the familiar words and famous bible verses out of your mind and imagine this image.

It is the dead of night. Dim lamps burn here and there among stone walls and buildings. A lone figure, cloaked in darkness makes his way down deserted streets and alleys. The cicadas and crickets are chirping in the hot, dry nighttime air. Finally, the lone figure finds who he is a looking for. Jesus is appears in the darkness, standing among the trees and plants of a garden.

Nicodemus pulls back his hood and looks around to be sure that no one else is lurking nearby. “Rabbi” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”

The story comes to life when we can imagine the background of this conversation. Nicodemus has come to Jesus at night to ask his questions. Nicodemus, a religious leader, needs the darkness to feel safe. He has much to lose in coming to Jesus: his standing in the community, his authority as a leader, his relationships with friends and neighbours.

Yet, here Nicodemus is, seeking out Jesus in the cover of darkness, to ask honest and real questions of the Rabbi… Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is, what he means for all the things that Nicodemus believes about God and religion.

And curiously, Jesus begins by dodging Nicodemus’s question. He has been asked these questions before. The scribes and Pharisees and temple priest love to probe Jesus, they love to put him on the spot and see if he will withstand the pressure. How is Jesus supposed to know what Nicodemus’s intentions are? Even at night, even with no crowds to rile up, Nicodemus is still a Pharisee. Nicodemus is still part of a group that is suspicious of Jesus.

So Jesus answers vaguely about being born from above, prompting a follow up from Nicodemus. And Jesus goes on about being born of water and spirit, about the wind blowing where is chooses.

But still Nicodemus wonders, “How can these things be?”

Nicodemus and his questions are not unfamiliar to us. They are not the wonderings of children, nor the questions of someone new to faith. Nicodemus has old questions, question that come from a life time of sitting in the pew and weeks upon weeks, months upon months, years upon years of hearing the bible stories. Nicodemus knows the doctrine and theology. Nicodemus doesn’t need religion explained to him.

Nicodemus needs the answers for his doubts. He wants to know if all of this is real and what it all means. He wants to know if Jesus is the real thing. Are the thing Nicodemus has believed about God really true?

Our Nicodemus moments come from the same place. They are questions we are too afraid to ask in the light, the doubts we are afraid to share in public, the feelings of being silly for believing in a God that the world often laughs at.

I remember once sitting in on a bible study with a group at a bible camp. A group of volunteers: of retired men who came to fix the plumbing, to drive the tractor that mowed the fields, to chop enough firewood for a whole summer. Retired women who came to scrub kitchens, to sew drapes and to wash windows. People who were faithfully in church every Sunday and then faithfully volunteering at camp during their weekdays.

And as the group talked about prayer and how they could pray about anything to God and God would hear them, one of the men, a life long and faithful Lutheran, a gruff retired contractor asked the bible study leader a question. With tears in eyes he said, “But how can God hear my prayers? I am nobody to God.”

It was a Nicodemus moment. A moment for the deep questions of faith. A moment that we all come to know sooner or later. A moment when we wonder if Jesus the real thing, or when we wonder if Jesus will remember to include us in his Kingdom, or a moment when we realize that believing in Jesus is much riskier than we imagined. Believing in Jesus might mean risking our place in our community, it might mean accepting people we don’t want to accept, it might mean making room in our lives for new things like prayer, and bible study, and acts of service and worshipping God with a sense the world is transformed by that worship.

In Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus, there is moment where something curious happens. As Jesus first doges Nicodemus’s question with vague and confusing talk of being born from above and the spirit doing as the spirit wishes…. Nicodemus asks Jesus a second followup question, “How can these things be?” And again, the question is not unlike questions often asked of Jesus by the religious authorities. But this time, Jesus seems taken aback, “Where not you, a religious leader, taught these things?”

There must have been something in the way that Nicodemus asked the question that stopped Jesus in his tracks. There must have been something honest and searching, maybe even something desperate in the way Nicodemus asks.

And so Jesus changes and adjusts.

Jesus moves towards to Nicodemus.

Jesus drops the confusing speech that he normally saves for pesky religious leaders questioning him in public.

And Jesus gives Nicodemus what he is looking for.

Jesus gives the assurance that Nicodemus is seeking. Yes, Jesus says, the son of man is following in the footsteps of Moses. And no, this is not an easy thing to accept or believe.

Yet, Jesus declares boldly, for God so loves the world that he gave his only Son…

Jesus gives Nicodemus the gospel in the clearest of terms.

This move towards Nicodemus is just a smaller version of what God has been doing all along. After calling the people to repentance, and the people always fall back into the sin, God decides to make the move. And so God move towards the people. Beginning with an announcement made to a young virgin that she will bear a child. And then with a voice Thundering over the waters of baptism in the river Jordan. And then a dazzling transformation on a mountain top. And then last week, as the tempter tried to get Jesus to return to the old pattern of falling into sin…

The movement of God became clear. God has moved towards creation and there is no going back. Jesus moves to Nicodemus, giving him the assurance and good news he needs to hear.

And Jesus makes the same move towards us.

Jesus assures us in our Nicodemus moments, that he is indeed the real thing.

That when we are worried about looking foolish to the world, that Jesus will accept our foolishness without hesitation.

That when we are worried that believing in Jesus may mean we have to accept people we don’t want to love, Jesus will love us and forgive us regardless.

That when we are worried that this whole faith business may mean changes in our lives in how we live, what we do, who we serve and what we value, that Jesus will keep moving to us, making up the difference in our half heartedness.

Nicodemus moments are something we cannot avoid. We will as people of faith have our questions, our doubts, our fears that would only dare ask in the darkness. But Nicodemus moments are also the moments when Jesus changes course and makes a move towards us. Jesus moves toward us in our darkness, in our confusion, in our hesitation.

And Jesus gives us what we need…. the Good News that God so loved the world, so loved us, that God gave his only Son.