A sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, Wisconsin
Text: John 3:1-17
I’m not much of a night person, but I wish that I were. Night time is enchanting. While the day-dwellers go to sleep, another world awakes, both people and animals. While we often think that it is only malice that is active at night — after all, I was always told that “nothing good happens after midnight” — this is not necessarily the case.
After seminary and before I came to Wisconsin, I worked third shift at a grocery/general merchandise store, comparable to Walmart. It was an interesting collection of people who come in the middle of the night.
Those who work second shift would run some errands before going home.
Weary parents come for cough and cold medicine for sick children who struggle through the night.
Those who could not sleep, those who are lonely, those who worry.
Regularly through the weeks, the common prayer was continually in my mind,
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep…
Not just for me, but for all those who passed through the doors.
Night is a time of secrets, of concealment. Night is when crimes are oft committed, but so much more. Night shrouded the underground railroad so that they could continue to move escaped slaves from places of bondage to places of freedom.
Nighttime provides a degree of strength and safety for those escaping abusive relationships. Night provided an opportunity for the ancient people of God to escape from slavery in Egypt.
Night is the place where the waking world and the dream world meet, and it is at this time that a man, a teacher of the law, a religious scholar, a rabbi comes to Jesus. We don’t know why exactly he comes at night. Maybe he is afraid of repercussions if people see him, maybe he was afraid of judgement, perhaps he finally was able to work up courage or strength to do something like this after the sun faded and the shadows grew. When we read about the Jews in the New Testament, particularly the gospels, so often we assume bad things. We assume that there is always malintent, and perhaps we can even have this tendency with Nicodemus.
However, nothing at all suggests that he had any malintent at all. In fact, I think that Nicodemus was quite genuine.
In this space, surrounded by darkness, a single lamp casting a dim light throughout the house, the two men leaning toward one another, not quite whispering, but keeping their voices down as so often happens at night even when there are no prying ears.
Nicodemus looks intently at Jesus, this teacher who has already caused so much upheaval, at least in John’s account of the good news of Jesus, the flame flickering, and not quite knowing how to put his questions into words, takes a deep breath and the words come out,
“We know that you are teacher who has come from God, we can see it from the things that you do, no one can do them without the presence of God.”
But before he could get his whole thought out, before he could get to what he was truly getting at, before he could reveal the reason for his visit, Jesus responds somewhat enigmatically.
“…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Interestingly, in the still darkness of night, Nicodemus did not ask about entering the kingdom of God, in fact, he didn’t ask anything at all. So why would Jesus respond in this way?
Perhaps Nicodemus came to Jesus seeking after that which Jesus had, that which he exhibited. Perhaps Jesus could see in his eyes that which he truly desired, the reason that he came knocking in the dark.
This statement appears to perplex Nicodemus. After all, who, after being born and old, can go back into their mother’s womb to be reborn again? In this late-night discussion, they appear to be missing one another in the conversation, speaking past one another.
Jesus then goes on and speaks of nature, and how the whole person, not just a part of a person, how the whole person, body and mind needs renewal and restoration. And if this isn’t confusing enough, Jesus continues,
‘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.’
Jesus, of course, is not trying to argue for the existence of God, which we so often misuse this scripture for, but he is speaking too about the fact that the movements of the Spirit can be seen in the renewal and transformation, not of souls, but of lives. Rather than trying to argue Nicodemus into believing something, he is trying to help Nicodemus to understand what he is saying. But rather than bringing clarity, it simply brings more confusion.
The old man nicodemus, still not quite understanding, furrows his eyebrows, and rubs his forehead as he tries to understand the dialogue that is in progress. Until finally, he looks up and responds, with, essentially, “Wait…what?”
I love to picture Nicodemus, someone was pretty sure that he had things figured out, this well known and well respected person, who went to visit Jesus at night, and was left scratching his head.
It is wonderful because, even though we like to think of ourselves as more enlightened than Nicodemus (after all, we throw around the phrase “born again” so often with so little explanation that it means almost nothing by this point), but I think that his response wonderful because it is the response that we, so often, find on our lips.
Today is is the day known by the church in the West as Trinity Sunday. So often on Trinity Sunday, ministers attempt at explaining away the mystery of the Trinity, that we worship one God in three distinct but unified co-eternal persons. So often we resort to common but grossly inadequate analogies, which often teach the old misunderstandings that the church declared to be not okay.
You know what I’m talking about. Water is liquid, solid, and gas. An egg is made up of a shell, an egg, and a yolk. I’m, at the same time, a husband, a son, and a pastor. And the analogies to on. So often, however, these serve to further confuse the issue rather than bring clarity, and no real understanding of the Triune God is gained.
But here, here we do not have neat and tidy explanations. Here we do not have an egg or the three states of water. Here we are surrounded with the mystery of the divine, with that which is beyond our abilities to comprehend. And here is the irony. Learning is important, we are to love God with our hearts and our minds. We cannot be satisfied with an uninformed piety. However, we cannot become so confident in our learning that we think that we have figured things out, that we have figured God out. The moment that we find ourselves in this place, we become like Nicodemus, shifting in our seats, scratching our heads, and trying to understand what is going on.
This is the freeing, and at times frustrating, thing about faith, that we are to learn, we are to study, and to grow in our knowledge of God and the things of God. But we are also to always be ready to sit in awe and wonder before the mystery of God, always being willing to be challenged in our understandings.
And so we are called by the triune God, we are called to a renewal, a restoration. We are not called to “accept Christ as our personal Lord and savior” whatever that means, we are invited to a complete and total renewal, inside and out. Water and Spirit, Jesus says. Outside and in, visible and invisible.
But how does this happen, we ask? It is a mystery, Jesus says to us, with one of those reassuring and comforting smiles.
But the beauty is that we don’t have to ultimately figure out the entirety of this mystery with our minds, we don’t have to be able to wrap our minds around it. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night, in the space between days. And it is in this dark that he has a close encounter of the divine kind. And perhaps we find ourselves in a similar space. A place that seems dark, a place where we cannot see. A place where we may feel alone, and we too can be confident of the presence of God in that space.