The Second Sunday in Lent
In his brilliant novel, A Mass from the Dead, William Gibson tells the story of what happened just after the death of his mother: “ I was in my mother’s home, I picked up her gold-rimmed glasses and held her worn Bible. I sat down in my mother’s favorite chair, in the midst of dim light, and in a moment of curiosity, I put my mother’s spectacles on my nose, opened the Bible to the passage that had been read over and over again.
“I tried to imagine what my mother would be thinking as she read this text. I said to myself: ‘I was reaching out in my grief for my legacy; for a slender thread of my mother’s faith. But in a moment’s time, I realized that all the Bible-reading in the world, all the church-going, all the religious training, meant nothing if those words of Jesus weren’t personal. It was there in the dark that Jesus met me.’”
The night is a metaphor for something beyond its designation of the time of day. It presents an image of confusion and misunderstanding. It is not unusual for someone to be afraid of the night and its piercing darkness even as adults. When we hear the story about Nicodemus, we must remember that there were no street lights to illumine one’s path in first century Palestine. It was very, very dark. Here was a secret, private meeting away from the crowds that usually hovered around Jesus. But for Nicodemus, the night meant safety. After all, he was a Pharisee and the Pharisees were the enemies of Jesus. If he were seen cavorting with Jesus, he would be disgraced, shunned, maybe even thrown out of the Temple.
Here he was, an educated man, a rabbi, a leader of the Jews, dealing with an experience that was totally new for him. “I’ve heard some amazing things about you, Rabbi,” he tells Jesus. “I have seen your miracles, your signs, and wonders.” But still Nicodemus does not know what to make of all this. It is so new to him. He is struggling to make sense of it. He has many questions for Jesus.
Our thinking process is heavily reliant on past experience. When we encounter an experience or situation that is truly new, we struggle to figure it out and, if it there is no memory bank to help us, we are at a disadvantage. We feel like we are in the dark and we often articulate our feeling in those very words.
I find today’s Gospel story very relevant and timely. We are living at a time when a pandemic virus has appeared in our world, one of which we have no past experience, and we all feel very much in the dark. Indeed, panic is setting in. Do we have all the correct facts yet? How widespread is it in our own cities and towns, our businesses and schools and stores unbeknownst to us? How well prepared is our health care system to deal with it? All unknown pieces of a scary equation so far. We are much in the dark. We are much like Nicodemus in his search for answers.
Have you ever been in a thickly wooded campsite on a moonless night when the fire has burned out and the batteries in your flashlight have died? Could there be any place darker? I don’t think that any of us have escaped the density of seemingly impenetrable darkness when we have felt utterly helpless. Perhaps we have known black confusion or stood in the grim shadow of depression or wallowed in some midnight we have allowed to wrap itself around us.
If this Sunday in Lent finds us in the dark, even as the warm sun breaks through our windows on what is a beautiful spring like day, if we are moving in the direction of twilight to midnight; let’s learn something from our friend Nicodemus. We have a savior who keeps evening hours. We can come in out of the dark—ask him whatever it is on our mind, be assured that we have the kind of God who wants to be with us, who will speak to us, listen to us, even if we can’t fully understand the whole truth God offers.
The good news of this Gospel today is that Jesus is always willing to meet us where we are—in the bright light of day or the shadowy dark of night— and still invites us to follow even when we don’t understand him. That’s what Nicodemus did. The next time we hear about him in the Gospel is on Good Friday. When most of the disciples had deserted Jesus out of fear, Nicodemus was one of the few who stayed to the end and lovingly helped to bury Jesus. He had become a disciple, a friend and follower—even though he didn’t have Jesus fully figured out. And that works for us as well. We are all, like old Nicodemus, a work in progress.
Writing about the Jesus in her book, In Search of Belief, Benedictine sister Joan Chittister, says ”Jesus stands before us, the clearest, sharpest, most abundant picture we have of the face of God. And how can we be sure of that? Because Jesus is what we know in our hearts God must surely be: compassionate, just, merciful, loving, and on the other side of every boundary.”
I would imagine that is the same Jesus who Nicodemus met that night in the dark and why he decided to follow him.
Maybe Nicodemus, sneaking around in the night, wasn’t looking for theological information as much as he was searching for a way into a relationship with the living God. And it was in that searching where God met him in the dark. How about you? How about me? Haven’t’ we all sought God in the dark? In the dark times of our lives—stumbling, doubtful, broken, and fearful, groping our way in the dim light only to come face to face with grace. Maybe that’s where we are right now. And that is exactly where Jesus is waiting to meet us.