Genesis 12:1-4a † Psalm 121 † Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 † John 3:1-17
After I became a parent I remembered what a midnight knock on the door meant. Someone is scared, confused, needs to be reassured. Someone I care about has questions that are troubling them, needs to talk something out, needs a safe place.
Many have said that Nicodemus comes at night because he is important. He is a leader among religious leaders. His role carries authority and speaking to Jesus during the day would not have been the “done thing”.
I think that could be true, although frankly I imagine he could have found a way to pull it off if he had really put his mind to it. But even if this explanation carries some truth, it remains the case that to go during the night means that something is really bothering him. Something is unsettling him. He has questions that won’t leave him alone, that visit him when the world is quiet, and that need to find some space to be explored. Nicodemus’ imagination, his sense of what is true is caught by something in Jesus, but who he is - this Jesus - and what he does doesn’t fit, doesn’t align with how Nicodemus has come to expect the world to work. He cannot settle and so he goes knocking on Jesus’ door in the middle of the night. And Jesus lets him in.
The question that Nicodemus brings is one that we will witness other’s wrestling with as we make our way through these ancient texts this Lent. As we move with Jesus towards the cross and that Easter dawn, we will be with others as they ask: What is true? What is real? What can I rely upon?
Next week we will find the Israelites in the desert, negotiating wilderness, and rethinking whether they can trust this God who brought them from the harsh world they knew into this new place with all of its own demands upon them. We will find the Samaritan woman at her well asking Jesus, a foreigner, a member of a hated race, “Why do you talk to me? And who are you that you know and understand my story?” In weeks to come members of the religious leadership to which Nicodemus belongs will struggle to accept God’s extravagant mercy as dished out by Jesus to obvious sinners. We will listen in as Martha asks Jesus, “Are you the one who can bring life to the dead.” and then Pilate “Who are you?” “Are you who they say you are?” “What is the truth of all of this?” Some that we will journey with find a way to move through these questions to life and promise of life, and other’s will respond in ways that result in terrible pain and death.
What is true? What is real? What can I trust? It’s a question we face daily today as we read the paper’s, as we watch the news, as we go about our days. It’s the question on which teeters our movement towards justice and peace – glimpses of heaven - or our fall into to oppression and war - the descent into hell.
And what is God’s answer? What does God, in the leadership of Moses, in the life of Jesus, and through the Spirit that accompanies us here and now, say to this question? This God gives the same response that a wise parent will give to the kid who comes knocking on the door after dark. You know, says the divine voice. You know. The answer is inside you. You need some time to tease it out I get that and I’ll be here for you as you wrestle to bring it to light, but you know. You remember. You can see and judge what is true and good, what is compelling and hopeful. There is an age-old goodness that has a hold of you, there is an age-old connection to the sacred source of this universe that pulls you towards mercy, towards kindness, towards justice, towards Life. It’s this knowing that drove Nicodemus to Jesus in the middle of the night. Don’t tell me you are a leader in God’s church, Jesus challenges him and don’t know there is a spirit that asks us to follow it to wholeness. You know it’s real. This God has made a promise to God’s people to bless, has broken in to our world in Jesus’s mercy and forgiveness, and you know the call and the force of this when you see it. It is the force that connects us to each other and to creation in love, self-sacrifice, and humility. We know it because we are part of it. I want to suggest that as we wrestle with this question, there is in fact another question that is entwined with it and upon which the story hinges. You know you are a part of this love, you know everyone is a part of this love. You know it’s true and real and compelling so “what are you going to do about it?”
Nicodemus answers this question by going on a little later in this gospel to do things a just a little differently from the other Pharisees in John’s gospel. Later we will see him advise the Pharisees to at least give Jesus a hearing when they move to arrest him and then after Jesus death he bring spices to care for and to honor his dead body.
The Pharisees as a group answer this same question in a decisive way. They see a powerful truth in Jesus and they are threatened by the expansiveness of the love he preaches but they decide they have too much to lose by allowing it. You see the system from which they derive their worth is based on a clear delineation between who is in and who is out, what is good and what is bad. What on earth would it all mean, who would they be, if they dare to accept, really accept, the truth that Jesus wants to remind them of, that all are worthy, all are equal in the eyes of God. So how will they respond? They will choose to try to destroy Jesus rather than understand him.
The woman at the well she is much more bold. She responds to her encounter with truth in Jesus by shouting about it from the roof tops. I have found God. He knows me. He doesn’t look like us. He is from a people we distrust and revile but he speaks with an authority I know I can trust and that I know I need. Won’t you come listen to what he has to say. And the passion of her call draws them. Martha? She trusts her sense of who this Jesus is and what he can do. She follows it and she sees a brother brought back to life. Then there is Pilate. He sees what is right. He knows the truth that Jesus is not worthy of punishment, should not be destroyed, but he too cannot follow it where it might lead. He also fears there is too much for him to loose and so he will not stand up for Jesus. He will hope to pretend that it’s out of his hands as he hands Jesus over to the religious authorities who want him dead. I would be surprised if this choice didn’t come back to him in the wee small hours of the morning gnawing at his sense of what is right and what is wrong. But a choice is made and an innocent man is killed.
These ancient guides, all of them, they know what goodness looks like and so do we. The Spirit of God, the heart of compassion that lives in us and amongst us tells us. Sometime we will recognize it easily, it will take our breath away in the kindness, the grace, the understanding of a neighbor. Sometimes we will know it in the darkness and the quiet as we reflect about who we are and what we want. And our companions on the way this Lent have an important question for us – “what will you do with what you know?” Will we let considerations of power and fear convince us that we did all we could. We will be paralyzed by a fear that there is just too much to loose or will be we give ourselves to it? Will we open ourselves to it and let this goodness take us where it will even when it comes in unexpected and foreign places. Will we be like Nicodemus? Will we show up and ask our naïve and embarrassing questions? Will we listen to the wisdom that comes back to us? Will we try to exert any influence we can? Will we speak up for this truth, trust in it, care for it? Or will we snuff it out, find ways to ignore or destroy that which we do not yet understand.
Come with us, these Lenten companions are saying. Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman and Martha, even Pilate and the Pharisees. They are calling to us from these stories. Come with us, we know the way, let us guide you, let us teach you, let us help you look and listen to what is true. Come with us and let our story be an encouragement to you to go with faith, respond with trust, and live into the hope that binds all people and that will lead to eternal life.
St. Andrew Sermons