The Reverend Kathleen Killian
March 5th 2023
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night. Why did Nicodemus come to Jesus by night? Perhaps he came secretly under the cover of dark not wanting to be seen or criticized by his fellow Pharisees; after all, he was a leader of the ruling religious elite, many of whom were looking to be rid of Jesus once and for all. Or perhaps his coming at night evidenced his own state of unknowing and the darkness his ignorance and unbelief. What might Nicodemus have been seeking to learn? For he addressed Jesus as Rabbi, a sign of respect and recognition, saying: 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. But as their conversation ensued, eager though he may have been, Nicodemus didn’t understand much of what was said to him.
When Jesus and Nicodemus converse in the dark, it would seem that two conversations were had; one literal and one spiritual; one factual and one creative. Jesus says to him: No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. Perplexed, Nicodemus asks: Can anyone be born after having grown old? Jesus responds: You must be born from above; through water and the Spirit. Nicodemus volleys back: Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? Jesus continues: 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. Astonished, Nicodemus pleads: How can these things be? Jesus answers him: Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Confusion sat next to enlightenment; tension to grace; Nicodemus to Jesus.
Fast forward two thousand years later, and the world still sits next to the kingdom, doubt next to faith, and we to the Lord. Might Jesus say the same to us: are you a disciple of mine, and yet you do not understand?
We get it though, don’t we? that to see the kingdom we must be born from above, baptized with new life; and that the wind is unpredictable and blows where it chooses. Yet rather than unfurling our sails to catch the wind, we baton down the hatches against the gustiness of the Spirit, comfortably complacently becalmed. Though Jesus tells us otherwise, many of us who are “born of the Spirit” remain entrenched in the flesh of what ifs, buts, and how can it be?
I’ve always loved this story about Nicodemus; because like him, I too have come to Jesus in the dark; unknowing, fumbling, blinking to see, conflicted, hopeful, a night-rider carrying a heavy load of questions mysteriously compelled through the night. In the final analysis I think this is how it must have been for Nicodemus; that he was pulled by the divine gravitational force of Jesus, whose whole work is to draw forth new life; from the darkness of the womb, the soil, the tomb, a child, a seed, the Christ is born. Though Nicodemus didn’t fully understand, neither did he wholly resist; he allowed his body to walk through the night, despite his status; despite his fear; despite his uncertainty.
The season of Lent is our metaphorical forty-day night through which we journey into the dark corners of our conscience and shadowy regions of the heart, pulled by love and blown by the Spirit into a wilderness of faith. We are drawn by an unmapped love, ever enticed and encouraged, through what may be for us the blackness bleakest darkest of nights; but the darkness is not dark to you O Lord; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139:12) As St. Augustine aptly put it: Unto Him who is everywhere we come by love and not by navigation. No GPS needed, as any direction we set off in, there is Christ. By love we come, by love we are drawn.
We do not have to be clever, powerful, or successful to be born from above and through the night; but rather like a child, innocent to God’s alluring love; like our ancestor Abram who went when God said go; like our psalmist who so readily trusts in the help of the Lord, and that the maker of heaven and earth is watching over our every step; like Nicodemus, who didn’t know from whence the wind blew or precisely where it was going, yet let himself be moved by the Spirit of God.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, and then as we read in the gospel of John, twice again; he came to Jesus’ defense and disputed his arrest; and later still he came bearing about one hundred pounds worth of burial and anointing spices to Jesus’ tomb (John 7:50-52;19:38-42). So too we mostly come to Jesus one step at a time; our conversion to Christ is ongoing and gradual more so than sudden and striking, and a life-long call. There is indeed a cost to metanoia, the transformative change of our hearts and minds brought about by repentance and forgiveness, as there is a greater cost in mutinous opposition to God’s new life.
With trust in the mercy and love of God, and by the bright hope and fierce grace of the Spirit, let us continue to walk in faith through the desert of Lent to the new life of the Resurrection—our resurrection; for God so loved the world he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. As Jesus testified, the Son of Man descended from heaven and was lifted up on the cross that we may have eternal life. May we so believe; that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
In closing, let us pray: Lord Jesus, in thy face, I see God and know myself. I believe; help thou my unbelief.