The Second Sunday in Lent
The night is a metaphor for something beyond just being a time of day. It represents a state of confusion and fear, even a time to dread It is not unusual for someone to be afraid of the night and its piercing darkness. When we hear this 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. This was a secret, private meeting away from the crowds that usually hovered around Jesus. For Nicodemus, however, the night meant safety. After all, he was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees were the enemies of Jesus. If he were seen talking with Jesus, he would be disgraced, maybe even thrown out of the Temple.
You and I are able to make some sense out of this world because of our intellect. Everyday we encounter images and stimuli of all kinds and our brain scrambles to reach into the warehouse of past experience and label or categorize them. We spend much of our time figuring out and defining our experiences—even though we may not do that consciously.
We are on I-95 and an object seems to be veering into our lane. We don’t need to pause and think, “Hmm. Now I wonder what that could be? I’ll have to do some research and see what this is and how I should respond.” No, we see the object and we say, “That “so and so” in the SUV is moving into my lane and is going to hit my car!”
The point is that 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 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.
Such was the case with Nicodemus. He had heard the stories of the amazing things Jesus did—healing the lame and paralyzed, restoring sight to the blind, calming those tortured by evil spirits, changing water into wine, walking on water, even raising the dead. “Who is he?” Nicodemus wondered. Was it possible that this human being is the incarnation of God? Did he really do all these miracles he had heard about?
These are questions we might ask as well. Faith does not always come easily. Now some denominations profess to have all the answers and probably look suspiciously at poor old Nicodemus. We’re Episcopalians and we know we don’t have all the answers. In fact, we usually have more questions! There are times when we find ourselves coming to Jesus in the darkness, groping our way, stumbling, confused, and questioning.
Just picture 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 that has wrapped itself around us. Yet the psalmist tells us that darkness is not dark for God, the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light are to God both alike.
Maybe the daylight is shining for us right now, maybe not. If, per chance, this Sunday in Lent finds us in the dark, if we are moving in the direction of twilight to midnight; if, perhaps, we feel like we’re living in night-time because things are not what we want them to be, we can learn from our friend Nicodemus.
We have a savior who keeps evening hours. We can come in out of the dark—and ask him whatever it is on our mind. We have a 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. Even if we don’t really know how to define who Jesus is.
Novelist Flannery O’Connor once said: “I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”
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 didn’t ask any questions then and he risked being seen with 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 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 be. I would imagine that is the Jesus Nicodemus met in the dark of night and why he decided to follow him.