Lent 2 | New perceptions in familiar places: Darkness



Texts: John 3:1-10, Genesis 12:1-4


One of the advantages of having a sanctuary with very little natural light is that we can make it unnaturally dark in broad daylight.  It can actually get quite a bit darker than this, but we decided to make it a little more user friendly for kids who like to draw or anyone who needs to move around.

It’s dark, (ish), because we are dealing with a text containing a conversation that happened in darkness.  In John chapter three, we are introduced to Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night to ask him questions.  That “by night” part is fairly easy to miss and might not seem all that important.  But John’s is a highly symbolic gospel, and giving these kinds of details is one of the ways he shapes the meaning of these stories.  You may call to mind certain conversations you’ve had in the late evening and night hours, and how the tone and the content differed from daytime conversation.

Knowing that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and that he comes to Jesus “by night” means he already has two strikes against him.  Even though Pharisees shared much in common with the Jesus movement, they are one of Jesus’ chief opponents in the gospels.  Nicodemus is one of them, even a leader.  And in the realm of spiritual symbolism, “night” and darkness aren’t exactly known for their positive connotations.  Psalm 27 declares, “The Lord is my light, and salvation, whom shall I fear?”

If Nicodemus doesn’t have anything to hide, why not speak with Jesus in the light of day?  Who should he fear?  The fact that Nicodemus doesn’t seem to quite get anything Jesus is saying seems to further his identity as a not-quite disciple.

When I got together with the group of people presenting the scriptures during Lent to discuss the passages, Berit J. brought up something related to Nicodemus that I hadn’t been aware of.  During the 16th century, when the Reformers were making their critiques of the Catholic church, there were people who sympathized with the Protestant churches but chose to remain in the Roman Catholic church.  They were called Nicodemites.  A full conversion could have included moving away from a territory, separating from family, even risking one’s life.  So they stayed within the mother church, some of them trying to make small reforms from within.  John Calvin especially had it out for the Nicodemites and wrote and spoke against those who would privately believe one thing but not stand up for it publicly.

Since we are inheritors of the Radical Reformation, those who openly critiqued the Catholic church and the Reformers, we might also be inclined to set ourselves against those Nicodemites, and maybe Nicodemus himself.

But I’d like to invite us to take a sympathetic look at Nicodemus as one who journeyed into the darkness with Jesus and eventually journeyed through the darkness with Jesus.

John’s gospel is the only place Nicodemus shows up in the Bible, and we meet him on three different occasions.

We don’t know what motivated him to initiate this first contact with Jesus at night, but it’s fairly safe to say that if he had the intention of picking a verbal fight and trying to win an argument, he would have brought a few of his friends with him, as so often happened with the Pharisees.  The fact that he came alone speaks to other motivations.  That, and the cover of darkness, also highlight that he most likely didn’t want anyone else to know what he was doing, perhaps especially those friends of his.  Nicodemus was being a Nicodemite.

He is a trained, educated religious leader, but he is also a seeker.  He refers to Jesus as Teacher.  “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.”  After these words of greeting, Nicodemus has nothing but questions.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born again?”  “How can these things be?”

Jesus is not exactly helping him out with concrete language.  “You must be born from above, born again.”  “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  “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.”

It is dark, and Jesus is offering no easy way into the light.  No set, defined, clear path to follow toward this Kingdom of God Jesus has been speaking of.  In fact, being born of Spirit, Jesus says, makes life all the more unpredictable.  If you yield to the Spirit it is like yielding to the wind.  You don’t know where you’ll be going next, or what will blow your way.  Almost as if you’re walking blind, in the darkness.

For this well-trained leader, these are new thoughts.

The words from Jesus hang in the night air, “Born anew,” “Spirit,” “Wind,”along with that final question from Nicodemus:  “How can these things be?”

The conversation is soon over, and the gospel shifts focus, and we don’t meet up again with Nicodemus until four chapters later, in 7:45-52, when this Galilean named Jesus is causing some trouble in Jerusalem because of his teachings.  John tells it this way:  “The guards returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked, ‘Why didn’t you arrest him?’  The guards answered, ‘No one has ever spoken the way he does.’   The Pharisees replied, ‘Have you too been deceived?  Have any of the leaders believed in him? Has any Pharisee?  No, only this crowd, which doesn’t know the Law. And they are under God’s curse!’  Nicodemus, who was one of them and had come to Jesus earlier, said, ‘Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?’   They answered him, ‘You are not from Galilee too, are you?’”

In other words, “You’re not sticking up for this guy, are you Nicodemus?”  Another question, unresolved.

If you’ve been reading denominational news you know that these are difficult times for Mennonite Church USA.  The credentialing of an openly lesbian pastor in Colorado has resurfaced some of the divisions within the church.  Several of us who are a part of this congregation who are ordained signed a letter to denominational leadership a couple months back asking that there be space in the church for those of us who are ready to bless and be blessed by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons who wish to marry and minister in the church.   There were over 150 signers and, of course, it would always be nice if there were more, but living with Nicodemus this week has given me more understanding for those who may sympathize with this perspective but who may not be as free to speak as publicly as others of us on this matter – the Nicodemites in the era of the LGBT debates.  The Nicodemus of the first encounter with Jesus is confronted with new ideas of what it means to be a spiritual person.  The Nicodemus of the second mention in John stays within the framework of his group, but appeals to its best self – even the law of the Pharisees doesn’t judge someone before hearing from her and learning about her, right?  It’s not an easy statement to make surrounded by a seemingly unanimous group against him, but Nicodemus speaks up.  In that moment, he yields, if even just a little, to the wind, and the Spirit speaks a word through him.  Where could the wind be blowing next?  We’re all on a journey in the dark.

The Genesis passage for today testifies that it is never too late to start a journey, whatever that journey may be.  Abram is 75 years old, making Sarai 66, and I’m not saying that’s really old, I’m just saying it’s not exactly young.  They hear a word from God, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”  We can read this as either a journey on foot or a journey of the soul, or both.  Though you are no longer young, leave the familiar, even though you have no idea where you are going, though you will be walking in the dark, go, and you will be a blessing.

They head out, destination unknown, and this act of obedience, this trek, is the hinge of history that leads to the creation of the Jewish people.

This week I saw a Facebook post from an acquaintance, more like a mini essay, that was not meant to have anything to do with these lectionary passages, but connects, and I want to share it.  It is from Richard Kauffman, who has spent much of his professional life in church publishing, so he has a knack for good writing.  He has given me permission to share it, and this is what he wrote:

“Years ago when we lived in Scottdale, PA we had a rather large yard. The kids in the neighborhood would convene in our yard with our kids and play whatever sport was in season. In the summer they wore base paths in the lawn from playing baseball. I said then, ‘We’re growing children now. We’ll grow grass later.’

“Many years have passed since then. Indeed, we’ve had lots of opportunities to grow grass…Now we live in a condo community and other people take care of the lawn.  I neither have to grow nor cut grass.

“So what are we growing now?  I guess you could say we’re growing old.  Don’t you like the figure (of speech)?  – Growing old.  Not winding down or going over the hill.  Growth signifies something natural, something that must be nurtured and attended to.  We have to work at it.  In my old age I hope to keep growing.  That’s both a challenging and a pleasant thought, wouldn’t you say?”  (Richard A. Kauffman, 3/11/14 FB status post)

Another question.

In research this week, it appears that even though John Calvin abhorred the Nicodemites, he didn’t like the term, because Calvin had a rather high view of Nicodemus.  Calvin once wrote: “Here then is the true way of Nicodemising. It is to grow stronger with time, advancing daily to the glory of God.” (Come Out From Among Them: Anti-Nicodemite Writings of John Calvin p. 119).

The gospel of John does not cover a long enough span of time for Nicodemus to grow old, but it does allow us to meet Nicodemus for a third and final time.  Jesus has just been crucified under the command of Pilate and is now dead on that Roman instrument of capital punishment and torture, the cross.  Toward the end of chapter 19, John writes:: “After this Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could take away the body of Jesus.  Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because he feared the Jewish authorities. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and took the body away.  Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night, was there too. He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe.  Following Jewish burial customs, they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the spices, in linen cloths.  There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.  Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.”

What began as an invitation into the symbolic world of rebirth and wind and Spirit, what continued as being the only voice in a hostile group to speak up for a hated man, continues again a little further down the road.  All of those official disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, and the crew – have fled and are nowhere to be found, for fear that they will meet the same fate as their master.  And so Nicodemus takes one more step forward in the darkness, and joins one who himself had been a secret disciple, to perform this risky but necessary and holy act of caring for a bruised and tormented body.  He and Joseph of Arimathea would have grasped and carried this body, held it, felt its dead weight, laid it down on level place, and begun the work of touching the spices to the arms, to the legs, to the face.  Gently but firmly wrapping the linens, according to the burial customs of their people.  Jesus’ people.  How long did it take?  Who was watching?  Were they looking over their back the whole time or had they stopped caring what others thought?  They laid him in his tomb and left the scene.  Did they feel love, relief, or a heavier kind of darkness than they’d ever known?

I won’t give the spoiler here at the end, we’ll save that for Easter, but after they leave the very next verse says this, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdelene came to the tomb…”

While it was still dark…