This morning, we heard about a Pharisee named Nicodemus, (John 3.1-17) who comes to Jesus under cover of darkness. Now, the fact that it was dark allows St. John to set the scene for us with his usual aplomb. What I mean, is that John, (you may recall) proclaims Jesus as the `light of the world`. And so, very cleverly, he`s hinting that this conversation is happening on several levels.
Firstly, Jesus is speaking with someone who not only waits until it`s dark outside because he`s embarrassed to be in Jesus`s company; and secondly, what we`re meant to infer is that Nicodemus is someone who, to all intents and purposes, was blundering around in the dark. Nicodemus needed, in other words, to come to the light. But of course, John is saying, “this is the journey we all need to make”.
Now, let`s be clear, Nicodemus is no fool. He`s a highly respected figure in the community. But clearly, on that more fundamental level, this `teacher of Israel` is totally at sea. We might say, he`s entirely clueless about the ways of God and the real nature of things as Jesus speaks of them. And to make matters worse, Jesus doesn`t mince his words, does he? “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” he says. So, if like me, you have memories of being laughed at in school for getting the answer to a question completely wrong, then it`s easy to sympathise with Nicodemus, isn`t it? It`s easy to recoil from the Lord who seems so very forthright.
But this is probably why John recorded this story anyway. Perhaps to emphasise the seriousness off things. You see, elsewhere in his Gospel, John tells us that the Lord, “came to his own and his own received him not”. And this rejection also works on two levels. Yes, there is the outright malice which nailed the Lord to the Cross. But Nicodemus exemplifies that second feature which we again might call an `utter cluelessness`. It`s that deep seated ignorance of the things of God among God`s own people for goodness sake.
Which is why this is such a good theme for this Lenten season. We might say that this incident with Nicodemus is an invitation for us to pull our socks up; and to pray with the Lord`s rightful expectations of us. I still laugh at a sketch from Monty Python`s flying Circus; that comedy series from a good many years ago, where a man going into a cheese shop. He asks for some cheddar and is told they have none. He then proceeds to ask for an incredible list of cheeses; and each time he`s given an excuse as to why they have none for sale. The punchline, as you may anticipate, is when the customer says: “You do sell cheese here, don`t you?”
Well, this to some extent, illustrates what`s going on here. I mean, the Lord comes among his own people and they haven`t a clue what he`s talking about. It`s as if he`s saying, “You do, `do God` here don`t you?” There is a chasm here. There`s an air of tragedy here. The God who these people worshipped and professed to follow comes into their midst and there is either outright rejection or utter bewilderment. I mean, it comes especially hard when Israel; the one called to be a light to the Gentiles (the whole world) is effectively declared to be darkness itself. That`s what Jesus `s words about hiding the light under a bushel basket were all about.
However, having said all of that, we can turn things around. That is, we could see Nicodemus as a friend and ally. I mean, here`s Jesus describing the Lord God in ways that seem designed to disconcert the likes of Nicodemus. “Wind blowing where it wills” “You need t be born from above” I ask you! It gets us all riled up even now, doesn`t it? But here`s the thing. Might it not be that any real encounter with the Lord is going to be experienced as stretching in this way? Isn`t this why so many of Jesus signs involved the restoring of hearing and sight and limbs made well so that someone can follow? And can we not see that Jesus is opening a window on a whole new world (literally!) so naturally speaking we`re going to struggle?
No, we can`t get there on our own. We can`t do it all for ourselves. We need- as Jesus insists – the intervention of his Holy Spirit. But let`s be clear (and this is made explicit in the Gospel reading) Jesus isn`t in the business of condemnation. Simply put, this encounter points out how something vital has been missing in the faith of Nicodemus and his people. `Vital`, not just in the sense of being `essential` (though that`s true). No, I mean `vital` in the sense of living; immediate and energised. Rather like we talk of a body having `vital signs`.
You see, poor Nicodemus gives the impression that God is some kind of historical artifact. Yes, he`s big on keeping the rules (he`s a Pharisee after all). But as he says to Jesus, in the signs that he was doing (the water into wine, for instance) Nicodemus had begun to get a glimpse of something more.
So, he cautiously sidles up to Jesus by night. But instead of warm reassurance, he`s met with this inflammatory language. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above”. In other words; “Teacher of Israel, have you never realised that you need to lay yourself open to the work of his Spirit in your life; if you are ever going to become part of the Kingdom?” Poor Nicodemus gets both barrels. But here, as I say, he stands for us. We who haven`t yet stepped into the world according to Jesus.
But here`s the good news. You see, I think Nicodemus shows us the way forward. Because the real blessing is that Nicodemus didn`t skulk off back into the night. Again, he heard the Lord`s words not as judgement or condemnation but as an invitation. Now, Nicodemus, the disciple, doesn`t seem to have had a blinding flash of light. I get the sense that his new birth into the Kingdom actually took some time. But we know that it happened. Notice how Jesus reminded Nicodemus of that Bible story where Moses lifted up a serpent on a stick for the healing of the people. He said, ”Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”.
Well, Jesus would give Nicodemus a very visual aid. You see, we all remember that after the Crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea (a secret disciple of Jesus) went to Pilate, to ask for the Lord`s body, in order to give it a burial, don`t we? Well, we sometimes forget, I think, that Joseph was accompanied another secret disciple: by the name of Nicodemus. Again, despite getting both barrels from Jesus, Nicodemus didn`t skulk off back into the night; or shrink from the hard things Jesus had told him.
No, he took courage and he learned to live with the astonishment and the incomprehension which accompanies an authentic faith. He kept company with Jesus until the truth of what Jesus was saying was finally revealed to him. Where? Well, on Good Friday. It was on Good Friday that the penny dropped for Nicodemus. Because, Nicodemus saw the Son of Man lifted up. Nicodemus went to the cross and the grave; and from there he was born anew. So, it`s to the foot of the cross that we ned to go if we are to be born anew. Nicodemus illustrates the kind of Lenten journey we all need to make. So, let`s all agree to meet up on Good Friday, shall we?