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Stumbling in the darkness with Nicodemus

February 11, 2012

“Nic at Night!: A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, delivered March 20, 2011, in the chapel of Methodist Charlton Medical Center, Dallas, Texas.

First Reading: Genesis 12: 1-4a

Second Reading: John 3:1-17


When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I was awakened late one night by my head hitting a wall. It was so dark that I couldn’t see an inch in front me. In that moment of confusion, I didn’t know where I was or how I got there.

But then I heard a voice from my parents’ room, across the hall. They had been alerted by the noise.

“Matt, what are you doing?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Let me see if I can figure out where I am.”

I felt along the wall in front of me until I finally found a light switch. When I turned it on, it was clear that I was in my own bedroom, and as you have probably figured out, I had been sleepwalking.

That was the only time I ever sleepwalked, and it is memorable event. When I reflect on it now, I can still recall the sense of fear, confusion and frustration, as well as the relief that followed when I heard the voices of my parents – and, ultimately when the light came on, illuminating the entire situation.

I thought of that experience this last week when reading about Nicodemus’ nighttime visit to Jesus. After exploring a number of commentaries related to this well-known passage, I have come to believe that Nicodemus may have gotten a bad rap.   Let me tell you what I mean:

_ Often, for example, he is portrayed as cowardly, someone who snuck away in the dead of night to talk to Jesus so that he wouldn’t get in trouble with his buddies on the Sanhedrin. He wouldn’t want anyone to see him with Jesus in the light of day.

_ Or, Nicodemus is identified almost exclusively with the darkness from whence he came – as a part of it. It is hard to escape the fact that darkness is a heavy symbol in the Book of John for evil, or the absence of the light of God. Jesus declares at the end of this passage that even though the light came into the world, people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

_ At other times, Nicodemus is remembered simply as someone too hard-headed to understand that the new birth of which Jesus speaks is not a literal birth, but a spiritual one – a birth that “comes from above.”

Frustratingly, for the reader of John Chapter 3, Nicodemus quickly exits this encounter with Jesus without us receiving any specific indication whether he ever “got it” or not – presumably slinking away into that still, dark night. There is no explicit resolution. For some, this means his eternal fate was left hanging in the balance, too.

But I want to suggest an alternative way in which we might come to understand Nicodemus, this intriguing religious leader of whom little is written in the Gospel of John.

I believe a careful reading of scripture shows he is less an agent of the darkness than someone who is confused by it — perhaps like a 10-year-old boy who sleepwalks.

Nicodemus is not the kind of person who is content to remain comfortable in his confusion. He ventures out into the darkness, purposely moving toward the light, feeling around for the wall.

He must have been intrigued by Jesus’ message, and he saw something deeper than his own understanding, or what he had been told. Jesus led Nicodemus – and leads us today – to consider a richer encounter with divine than we believe is possible.

This new way of thinking invites a deep, thinking, questioning faith that involves both the heart and the mind.

Look at the richness of this passage – the teachings of Jesus that are prompted by Nicodemus’ questions. There are layers of meaning to describe the life of faith:

_ We find that encountering the Lord reveals that life is not simply about physical birth and death but involves being spiritually born, from above. There are earthly things, and heavenly things.

_ One begins to take part in the Kingdom of God, which refers to a now and future world – working for peace and justice in our own time and looking ahead to the day when all will be fulfilled.

_ We look to a Redeemer who suffered and died for us –brought low in this life, and lifted high, exalted on the cross for our sake.

Especially, now in the second Sunday of the Lenten journey, it is important to remember that, in the midst of our own darkness, we must hold closely to the promise of that light. Even as we are brought low, we are lifted up by the Lord, and with the Lord.

African-American slaves in this country had a special place for Nicodemus in their religion. During the daytime, missionaries were sent to the plantations to preach an authorized American Christianity – that is, a religion that was designed and approved by the slave master: If you do what the master says, get all your work done, never cause any problems, then one day – when this life is over – you would receive your reward in heaven. This was a religion that exalted the slaveocracy rather than the living God.

The slaves knew better. For them, real religion happened at night, where they explored a deep rich connection with the divine that illuminated God as a liberator from the forces of bondage and destruction — not just in the next life, but in this one as well. In their secret meetings in the woods under the cover of darkness, away from the watchful eyes of the slave owners, they saw, like Nicodemus, that it was possible to come to Jesus on their own, even when those in power forbade it.

Nicodemus was not an agent of darkness; rather it was a condition in which he found himself. Others refused to ask questions. But unlike those who loved darkness rather than light, Nicodemus moved toward the light, which shows he was on the right path.

If we are to live a real, multi-faceted faith, we will not be content to stay in the darkness, either. We will keep feeling along the wall, looking for the light.

There is not a lot written about the life of Nicodemus, but interestingly, he is mentioned two more times in the Gospel of John. From what we see of those passages, it appears that Nicodemus continued to ask questions – and we know that the encounter with Jesus in John 3 wasn’t the last time he found himself in the dark.

In John 7, he speaks up and raises questions about the arrest of Jesus, pointing out its lack of fairness.

Then, later, Nicodemus returns again to the text for the last time, to help prepare Jesus’ body for burial in the tomb.

That, for him, must have been the darkest of days.

But as he learned, the darkness doesn’t last forever.

There are glimpses of hope – glimmers of light – even on our darkest days.

And someday soon, the darkness will give way to a bright and beautiful Easter morning.

Then we will join Nicodemus and all the saints, to proclaim together in one voice: Thanks be to God, Amen.

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