You can listen to this sermon here.
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal Priest, a college professor, and New York Times Best Selling author. Some of you, I know, are familiar with her work.
But to those of us who regularly have to stand up on Sunday morning in search of some Gospel Medicine to prescribe to this waiting room, if you will, full of people, she is the Patron Saint of Preachers. Mostly because she consistently performs what can only be called Homiletical Healings – or sermon miracles. If, late into the week, you pray to her, and by pray I mean google her name plus this week’s gospel text, you just might be blessed with a quotable sermon on the very text you are preaching on – and poof, your sermon is saved, healed, resurrected.
This week, I didn’t find a sermon of hers but I was reminded of her most recent book – Learning to Walk in the Dark.
Learning to walk in the dark – it is her current metaphor for what it is like to be a person of faith right now, but it is also her effort to redeem what the world, and especially the church, has demonized – the darkness.
So often we have associated light with all the good things – and darkness with all the bad and dangerous things.
But can’t God work in the nighttime? she asks. Can’t God teach us things in the dark? In fact, I know people who will only go to church during Lent and on Good Friday (which could be described as some of the darkest services in the church year) because it is the only time in the church year when the mood and the minor key worship mirrors what’s inside their life and their heart. There is a reason why some wouldn’t miss a Wednesday evening vespers service – there is just something life-giving and soul-saving about worshipping in the dark.
Then why have we demonized it so? And how is this polarity between light and darkness infecting our conversations around race in this country?
It is easy to see how the church has fallen into this ditch of equating light with good and darkness with bad. Jesus is the light of the world. A light no darkness could overcome, John’s gospel tells us. Or in the First John – God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.
But while those parts of Scripture are true and vital to the gospel – the opposite is also true. God dwells in darkness. And too often we’ve missed or ignored those texts when darkness was God’s preferred stage. God makes God’s covenant with Abraham in the dark of night. Jacob wrestles with God and receives not only a new name, but also a blessing from God at night. When Moses climbs Mt. Sinai and when Jesus is transfigured on top of a mountain, God comes to both of them in a dense cloud.
And then there is today’s gospel text with Nicodemus. Or Nic at Night, as my childhood pastor used to always call it. Did you catch that? That this whole scene happens at night and under the cover of darkness. It’s easy to miss with the light of these All-Star Scripture verses blinding our eyes – “Truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Or “born again” as some texts translate it – creating the verse for the born-again movement. And then the most famous of all – For God so loved the world, the God gave God’s only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
I don’t know about you, but these infamous verses generate more anxiety in me than they do comfort. I know that might be a strange thing to hear from your pastor. They are so critical to Christian history and tradition and yet I just don’t know that I understand them. How do I get born again Jesus? And how will I know it’s happened? Where is your verbal emphasis in John 3:16? Is it: For God so loved the world, the God gave God’s only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
Or is it: For God so loved the world, the God gave God’s only Son.
Which is it, Jesus? Because it matters.
So, I just don’t know that I get them. I’m in the dark, you might say. But then again, so are they. Spoken at nighttime to a man who doesn’t get them either. With Nicodemus, we are not alone, but are in good company.
How easy it is to forget that these words were spoken to Nicodemus at nighttime and in the dark.
Now, some will peg Nicodemus as the religious elite who is only there to condescend this uneducated peasant Jew. Meanwhile, others will swing to the other side and simply paint him as the dolt who just doesn’t get it. But is there another way to see Nicodemus? Could we see him as a man who is desperately learning to walk in the dark?
More often than not, if we are leaving the comfort of home at night, it’s because we are desperate for something.
When do you bring a child to the ER in the middle of the night? Only when you are desperately afraid that the fever is too high and won’t break.
When do you drive across town and tap on your high school girlfriends window at 1am, risking not only looking like a neighborhood burglar but also running into her parents? Only if you are desperate to know if she will still be your girlfriend in the morning after the fight you just had.
And that’s how I see Nicodemus – as someone who is desperate. The lights of everything he has worked for and everything he thought he knew in his life have gone out. The things he once relied on are no longer reliable. His compass is spinning, he’s lost his way and all he can do is use his hands and his feet to steady himself and find a path forward.
If you are like me, when you are desperate, you think you need more information, more resources, more answers. Something you can master and learn and perfect and get a good grade on and then stand upon having conquered it, just like you did before with the thing that just crumbled beneath your feet. Nicodemus is no different, I think. He is looking for answers. Why else would he call Jesus “Rabbi, teacher,” if he weren’t looking to gain something, receive something from him, something that will fit that huge, oddly shaped hole in his life that has opened up.
Standing in the dark, Nicodemus is looking to be enlightened by Jesus. But what he doesn’t understand quite yet is that isn’t the kind of teacher Jesus is. Jesus isn’t The kind of teacher who, when asked a question, gives a straight answer.
Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that while Nicodemus has come to be enlightened by Jesus but perhaps that is not Jesus’ purpose. Instead, Jesus has come to endarken him so that he loses all confidence in his ability to master the subject matter, all ability to achieve anything, and was driven instead into the arms of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus wants Jesus to give him something. And in the end Jesus takes something from him instead. “Nicodemus, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above… Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 And Nicodemus stands there with his jaw on the floor and all he can say is, “How can these things be?”
Nicodemus got nothing of what he was looking for and he left with less knowledge than he had when he arrived. More questions, fewer answers. And perhaps that is the gift. For him and for us.
That’s what being born again, born anew, born from above does after all. It takes something from you.
To be born again is to become an infant child. It is to have everything you think you know taken away from you. Nicodemus, this elite Pharisee and leader, thought he knew all the rules about how God works. But Jesus said to him, Nicodemus, The wind, the Spirit, blows where is chooses. You do not know where it comes from or where it goes. You do not know, Nicodemus. To be born again, to be a child in need is to have your precious and hard-earned independence and knowledge of how you think this world and God work taken away from you. In its place, to be born again is to be given only one thing – the promise that you are held close to the bosom be held and taken care of by the One, the Creator, the Spirit of God who loves you and the entire world.
Nicodemus came at night. Standing in the dark, knocking on Jesus’ door. To quote civil right activist, Valerie Kaur, “Perhaps this darkness is not the darkness of a tomb – but the darkness of a womb.”
Which means God is a birthing mother – both not ready to let you go, for you are like her very own heart, beating twice as fast as her own, and to let you go, to give you to the world would be like giving up a piece of the puzzle that makes her complete. And at the same time, she is so ready to send you out into the world. Because things can’t stay as they are, and the world will be better off with you than without you.
Perhaps this darkness is the darkness of the womb.
The problem with Jesus is he tends to give us the opposite of what we want, because he knows better of what we need. When we want to wield revenge, he puts the weapon of forgiveness in our hands. When we want peace and comfort, he disturbs us with and calls us to the needs of our neighbors. When we want the joy and power of trusting in ourselves and our ability to make it on our own, he puts us back in to the dark womb of God so that we can be stripped of everything we thought we knew and trust solely on the love and care of God our Mother, and then to be sent back out into the world once again.
Perhaps we have gotten the famous texts wrong. These texts that have been used to get us to know something, to give us something – the right way to be and become a Christian, or the path to salvation and a ticket into Heaven through believing in Jesus. But what if they aren’t meant to get us to know or understand anything but instead are designed to blow all of our circuits and scramble our hard drives of everything we think we know about God and about the world, and as a result, send us rushing back into the arms of God who not only bears you, but bears with you, over and over and over again.
If Nicodemus is the creature who needs to be born, all he needs to do, all he can do, is wait – while someone else, the Someone Else, bears him. Bears with him.
Did Nicodemus ever figure it out? Was he ever born from above? The Scriptures don’t say. All we know is that the day Jesus died on the cross while still in love with this world, Nicodemus was there too to take his body down. And he had with him one hundred pounds of anointing oil for Jesus’ body. One hundred pounds, when two pounds would have done just fine. Did it make any sense? No, it didn’t make any sense at all. But when you’ve learned to walk in the dark, you find your way with your hands and your heart and not just your head. Sure, thoughtful reason might tell you that two pounds of anointing oil would be enough. But your swelling heart knows only the love that has been given to you by the One that has given birth to you.
And for that?
Two pounds is not nearly enough.