My family was Southern Baptist for about half of my childhood, and to this day, I can’t quite read this passage without hearing echoes from those first ten years. Maybe you know what I mean. I spent those ten years waiting, hoping, praying to be born again, to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, and be propelled by that feeling down the aisle and into baptism. And this passage, and what follows it, were central to my understanding that I should be born again–after all, Jesus says so right here.
But then my parents became Presbyterian and I was baptized at confirmation without a bit of fuss. They even offered to baptize me before confirmation, just do it on the day my family joined the church, but my young Baptist heart felt like that would be wrong somehow. Even though these Presbyterians were certain that God’s grace enveloped me and sustained me each moment of my life, whether I knew it or not, and that baptism was a sign of that prevenient grace, I really thought baptism was something you should have to work for, or at least wait for and anticipate. After all, I understood that in baptism I would be washed of my sins, I would be born again, this time as a Christian, and the rest of my life would be different because I had turned away from the darkness of sin and come to walk in the light of Christ.
Now, this isn’t a sermon about the theology of baptism. Hear me clearly. Both the Baptists and the Presbyterians are on solid theological ground.
What I want us to think about today is that no matter when and how we baptize, there’s no getting away from the darkness–the darkness of doubt, the darkness of sin, the darkness of narrow certainty, the darkness of fear and grief and pain. Whether we describe ourselves as born again or not, we will have to continue to face darkness, at least as long as we live in this world.
And as I return to this story, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I think we may be missing something essential about what a life of faith means if we think we’re looking for a land of eternal light.
After all, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark. It’s right there in the very first verse. We often say that this means that Nicodemus was embarrassed to be seen with Jesus. And then we talk about how true faith is to claim Jesus in the light, for all to see. If Nicodemus hadn’t been such an uptight Jew, we say, he would have been able to be a good Christian.
Of course, that’s forgetting completely that Jesus was Jewish, that Nicodemus was a respected leader in their community. Though Jesus had his issues with the leaders of his day, I think it’s fair to imagine that he had serious respect for Nicodemus’s learning, his love of Torah, his commitment to the Jewish people. Nicodemus’s love of Torah will save Jesus’ life in chapter 7 of John’s story. And for now, Jesus apparently respects him enough to sit and talk with him at length.
So if Jesus takes Nicodemus seriously in the dark, maybe we should too. After all, that darkness allowed Nicodemus to be truly himself–to be a person seeking for Jesus. Darkness has a way of doing that, doesn’t it? Revealing who we really are, showing us things we can’t see by daylight.
I am terrified of the dark. I am often too scared to get up and go get a drink of water in the middle of the night, and I just lie there, awake, so thirsty and too scared to get out of bed. That irrational, maybe even silly fear, is a real part of me, and it doesn’t go away in the daylight–it’s just harder to see. Fear in all sorts of settings is one of my demons, one that I can see most clearly in the dark.
A lot of our demons come out in the dark–when we are grieving or when we are in physical pain. Our worries come out at night, keeping us up as we fret. In the dark we feel how small we are, how alone, how deeply we need God.
And of course good things come out at night too. Night is the time when we speak truth to those we love–catching up on a day spent apart, whispering words of love to a child as we tuck them in, trading confidences with a roommate or spouse, sharing secrets that would be impossible to say in the daylight. In the dark our hearts open; we see with different eyes.
The dark opened Nicodemus’s heart and he found himself seeking living water, encountering Jesus in a way that would have been inconceivable in the light. And of course, it seems almost too obvious to point out, but Jesus was there, in the dark, waiting for Nicodemus, longing to speak to Nicodemus’s heart.
And then, even when Nicodemus meets Jesus he doesn’t see the light. He really stumbles around in this conversation. I’ve come to love him for it.
Here he is, coming to meet this great man. How his heart must have been beating! How much he must have wanted to impress him. “We know you are a teacher from God,” he begins, “because no one could do the signs you do unless it’s by God’s power!” He desperately wants to show Jesus that he gets it, he knows what Jesus is about. After all, he’s a very good religious person.
We are like this sometimes, aren’t we? Certain that we know what Jesus is about. At the very least, we hunger after this certainty, thinking that if we were better Christians we would be able to say with absolute certainty what Jesus means in our lives.
Jesus, however, is unimpressed by Nicodemus’s certainty, and plunges him back in the dark. To Nicodemus’s confident statement about who Jesus is, Jesus responds with bizarre talk of being born from above or born again in order to see God. Not only does this seem intended to confuse Nicodemus, but it’s not even clear what Jesus means. The word for how we are to be born has two meanings. It means both, born from above and born again. Jesus seems to have no interest in being clear here.
But Nicodemus, grasping after that clear light of certainty, sputters, “but, but that’s crazy. That’s not possible! You can’t be born again.” Unsettled by this ambiguity, he wants to clear things up as quickly as possible. Jesus is no help. Jesus stays in the dark where we can only glimpse the outlines of things–you have to be born from above and again, you must be born of water and spirit he says, and the Spirit is like the wind, it blows wherever it wills, we can catch glimpses of it, hear echoes, but we can’t comprehend it, this is what life with me is going to be like, this is what it will mean to be in the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus is so confused. You can almost hear him thinking, what on earth are you talking about? How can that be possible? Jesus almost laughs at him, you’re a teacher of Israel, you’re supposed to be so wise, and you still don’t get it, do you.
We are so often like Nicodemus here. It makes my heart ache. Earnestly searching for Jesus, and yet trapped by what we think we know, trapped by certainties about what is and is not possible with God. What certainties are you clinging to or longing for?
Are you certain that we are right and everyone else is wrong? Are you certain that God works one way and not another, that God loves justice that looks like this and not like that, that this kind of prayer pleases God and not another? Are you certain that if you were really a good Christian you wouldn’t act the way you do? Are you certain that if you were a really good Christian you wouldn’t doubt, you wouldn’t question, you wouldn’t live in this darkness? Or maybe you’re certain that knowing anything about God is impossible and we should all just go home? Maybe you’re certain that you’re saved. Maybe you’re sure that you’re a sinner. What certainty do you hold dear? How does that certainty keep you from seeing Jesus?
Nicodemus was so certain–that he knew who Jesus was, that he knew what was possible with God and what was impossible. He was so certain and yet we can see in this story how much that certainty was a stumbling block for him. So much so that Jesus laughs a little.
But Jesus doesn’t leave him. Jesus stays with Nicodemus. Jesus doesn’t shake his head and say it’s no use. Instead he calls him deeper into this holy darkness of unknowing. He tells Nicodemus who he is and why he came, even though Nicodemus doesn’t really understand. Jesus sees Nicodemus and loves him. He sees this person in the dark who is searching, and he loves him and talks to him of truth.
Nicodemus listens in silence. I imagine it was still dark when he left Jesus, and he was still living in the darkness, but it was darkness of a different kind.
No longer was the night simply a cover for his embarrassed searching. Now the night was where his true soul opened up. No longer was Nicodemus flailing about in a darkness caused by his certainty–certainty that limited his vision. Now he found himself in a darkness that was as large and incomprehensible as God Almighty, a holy darkness of humility and not knowing, a darkness where he could see stars.
Nicodemus’s story doesn’t end here. Later he will intervene when his colleagues want to put Jesus to death. And at the end of Jesus’ life he will come to bury Jesus, tending his body and anointing it with finest oil. Nicodemus is a follower and a lover of Jesus. The darkness of this holy night was but the beginning of his journey.
We would be completely missing the point if we thought that after this conversation with Jesus Nicodemus “got it.” Remember? He ends this story in complete silence. There is no evidence that he emerged from the darkness into the light once and for all, born anew from above, never to walk in darkness again. That’s not how faith works. If you find yourself in the darkness today, take heart. You are on the right path.
Just as each day the sun rises and sets, and in its passage fills our days and nights with countless shadings of light and darkness, so our life of faith is always being made new. Nicodemus thinks at first that Jesus is talking about a rebirth that will be as definitive, as clear, as black and white as our birth from our mother’s wombs–something we can put a date on and call our birthday. But Jesus says this birth he is talking about will be a thing of the Spirit, like the wind–it’s hard to say where it comes from, or where it’s going, where it begins, or where it will end. Unlike the faith with which Nicodemus arrives, a faith that “gets it,” that seeks a clear light of certainty, Jesus sets Nicodemus free for a faith that lives in both the light and the dark. A faith that finds unknowing and doubt to be as holy as certainty; a faith that questions and searches; a faith that may stumble some but that also looks up and finds that we are surrounded by stars as far as the eye can see and that trusts that God’s love is as infinite as those stars. It is a love so deep and so wide that it sent its very self into the darkness of this world to love and lead and save us. A love that meets us in the light of day and in the dark of night, a love that knows the glory of heaven and the gloom of the cross, a love that will save us each day, and indeed, each night.
Sarah Wiles Taiwanese Presbyterian Fellowship Ann Arbor, MI 03/20/11