Genesis 12:1-4a Psalms 121 Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 John 3: 1-17
John begins the story abruptly. We aren’t told where the story takes place, but we know that Jesus is in Jerusalem during the Passover feast. John does little to introduce Nicodemus. We are told that he is a Pharisee, and a ruler and a member of the Sanhedrin. We also know, because we know the rest of the story, that Nicodemus will reappear to intercede for Jesus with other Pharisees and finally with Joseph of Arimathea, bringing spices to bury Jesus.
Here we meet Nicodemus as the original night stalker. John uses many images in his gospel, one being light and darkness. Nicodemus emerges out of the night’s darkness, seeking light from the teacher, one he believes to be sent by God. Just as suddenly as he appeared, Nicodemus disappears back into the darkness. Before he goes, Jesus tells him one must be born anew in order to see the kingdom of God. The last we hear of Nicodemus saying, “How can it be?” Jesus’ last words, “Those who do what is true come to the light, so it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” It will take Nicodemus a long time, till the nineteenth chapter of John, to come once and for all out of the darkness into the light.
Nicodemus hovers in the margins and in the shadows of John’s story. He is not the first, nor the last to follow Jesus. No doubt, it was dangerous for him to follow Jesus publicly, during the bright light of the day. He was, after all, someone who was part of the Jewish establishment, for whom Jesus seemed to be more of a nuisance, Jesus who became a political problem and a threat. Nicodemus had to be careful, cautious, to use discretion.
Light and darkness move in and out of our own experiences. I can remember when I was 8 or 9 years old and my grandmother got a color television. Each week I looked forward to going to her house on Sunday evening and watching Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza. Toby Tyler, Hoss, Little Joe, Adam, Ben and Hopsing were such a part of my days. My grandmother’s house was diagonally across the street and three houses down from our house. So, walking there before the shows, it was light and I had no problem. But after the shows it was dark, and I was your basic chicken. I would call my mother on the phone when I was about to leave. My grandmother would stand on her porch and watch me and my mother would stand on our porch and watch me come home. There was such comfort in knowing that loving eyes watched each of my steps. That is what our journey with Christ is like. God oversees our journey through those dark times and those times we are in the light.
There is such comfort in being covered by God’s grace and love with each step we take. Nicodemus had to wait to experience that comfort – that grace. Michael Horton writes, “On grace, God gives nothing less than Himself. Grace, then, is not a third thing or substance mediating between God and sinners, but is Jesus Christ in redeeming action.” But, we know…In God, we grow in grace.
Waiting patiently on the Lord is not something we are comfortable with. We wait for test results, for answered prayer, for affirmation, for treatment to work, for upcoming surgery, for the other shoe to drop. We talk a great deal about waiting on the birth of the Christ Child during Advent. But in Lent – aren’t we also waiting – waiting in darkness and not just because it is winter. In the darkness, there’s no clear vision, the outlook is bleak. Every year, the earth lies fallow for a season. While it appears that nothing is happening below the surface, we know that’s not true. Lent can be the fallow ground we crave for our spiritual growth…time to stop, to listen, to be still, to rest and let the wisdom of God’s season work below the surface of our hearts, of our lives.
Each year as Lent approaches, I have this fantasy expectation, that this year I will get it right – to have the right balance of work, prayer, study and worship – perfect and proportional in my life of prayer and worship. Well, I have yet to achieve that. In Robert Benson’s book, Living Prayer, he says “when you are empty enough, you may begin to hear God’s word for you.” Lent is a time of emptying, of listening. We are to become empty vessels, like those on the altar, for God to fill. When we hear what God is saying to us, we embrace the light, and then you can go out into the world to spread the Good News.
We read several places in Acts about our participation in God’s mission. As recipients of grace we are privileged to serve as agents of grace. Believers receive grace (Acts 11:23). Believers are encouraged to continue in grace (Acts 13:43), and are called to testify to the grace of God (Acts 20:24). Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). God’s mission and God’s grace are for the entire world. In God, we grow in grace.
Lent is the time to simplify our lives, to be touched by God, so that we may touch the lives of others. To enter into another person’s pain breaks open the heart of God. Lent calls us to listen to the voice of a loving God everywhere. The holiness of Lent lies more in our forgiving others than in not sinning ourselves. Lent calls us to examine our lives for pride, hypocrisy, impatience, and self indulgence.
In standing in the light of Christ, we are continually challenged in our attitudes and actions. Jesus wants us to choose to follow him rather than being separated from God. Jesus wants us to stop trying to control our own destiny and to let him direct us. God in the face of Christ knows better than we do what real life is about. When we choose the light of Christ instead of the darkness of doubt and fear, we choose life. Each day, each action, each interaction, each voiced response calls us to make a choice.
Nicodemus admits that Jesus could not have performed his signs unless God was with him. Not only is Jesus the presence of God, but those who are born from above – recreated in the water of baptism by the power of the Spirit – will see in these things Jesus has done, the presence of the kingdom of God. Nicodemus does not understand what it means to be “born from above.” Jesus tells him that to be born of the Spirit is to believe in Jesus and in believing in him to have eternal life. To be born from above by water and the Spirit, to believe in Jesus, is to leave the darkness and to come into the light. To come into the light – to be born from above – is to do “what is true”, to follow the one who is himself, “the way, the truth and the life.”
For many Christians, the gospel is summarized by the words in John 3:16. Everyone who believes in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life. Some Christians understand faith to be simply what one does with one’s mind. In John’s Gospel, being born from above and believing in Jesus are clearly not so much about what one does with one’s mind as much as about what one does with one’s heart and one’s life. “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”(v.21)
In John’s Gospel, believing and doing can’t be separated. Nicodemus lives in the darkness and the shadows of this story until it reaches its conclusion. We have a choice. God works hard for us and our faith. God conceives us as Christians and nurtures us in the wombs of our faith - safe, warm and secret. At some point, God wants us to come into the light of greater maturity, into the fullness of life, into a faith lived wholly in the world. That is what Jesus is talking about. Jesus thinks that it is time for Nicodemus to come into the light of God’s love, grace and mercy, to step out in acknowledging the signs and wonders, to grow in statue and in truth – to grow in faith. Jesus calls us to grow in our faith. The good news is that God is ready, God is prepared to do the hard, messy, sweaty work that will bring us to maturity and new life. All we need to do is to come into the light. In God, we grow in grace. Amen.