“In the Dark”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

March 16, 2014 – Second Sunday in Lent

Scripture:  John 3:1-17


What keeps you up at night?

Do you lie awake worrying about finances?  About how you’re going to make this month’s mortgage payment?  Or about how you’ll be able to replace your increasingly unreliable car when it inevitably dies, which seems like it’s going to happen sooner rather than later?  Or about how you can possibly afford to pay your child’s tuition when she starts college this fall?

Do you wake up in the wee hours with loved ones on your mind?  The brother who can’t seem to find his way in the world?  The parent whose dementia is getting steadily worse?  The friend whose cancer is in remission for now, but lurks in the background of every monthly PET scan?  The child whose nightmares are so frightening that you have to sit on the edge of his bed, rubbing his back for hours, until he falls deeply enough asleep that you can slip out of the room?

Do you keep yourself up late into the night doing homework, or planning lessons, or writing reports, or crunching numbers?  Do you get caught up in a book you’re reading, unable to put it down?  Do you find yourself captivated by ideas that are too exciting to let go of?

Do you sit up in bed suddenly, gasping for breath, not sure of where you are, still convinced that the dream is real?  Do you lie in bed, kept awake by the pain in your back, or your joints, or your heart?

What keeps you up at night?  And when you find yourself awake in the dark, unable to sleep, what do you do?  Where do you go?  To whom do you turn?


Nicodemus, the story says, turned to Jesus.

We don’t know what was keeping Nicodemus up at night.    We might assume, since we are told that he was a religious authority, that he had questions of faith on his mind.  We might guess that he was up late studying the Torah, or offering counsel to a temple-goer, or that some theological paradox or doctrinal dilemma drove him out of his bed.  And that may be.

Some say that since he was a Pharisee, he had to go to Jesus at night because that way he could go in secret, unseen by those who would criticize his visit.  And that may be.

But it could just as easily have been something else—a nagging worry about a family member, say, or a regret that brought him unspeakable guilt, or a need for healing deeper than even Nicodemus himself fully understood.

Whatever it was, he went to Jesus.  He left his bed or his study, and he put on his cloak, and he went out into the night.  He walked the dusty streets by the light of whatever moon and stars shone that night, and he made his way to the place where Jesus was staying.  He pounded on the door until someone let him in.  Maybe Jesus came to the door himself, or maybe a disciple opened it, then went to rouse the rabbi from his bed, tousle-haired and rumpled, to talk with this sleepless Pharisee.

Nicodemus fidgeted and wrung his hands and opened his mouth to speak.  But it’s hard to jump right into a tender, anxious question.  Sometimes you have to work yourself up to it.  So Nicodemus started with small talk, with niceties.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” he said.  Nicodemus had evidently felt the presence of something holy around Jesus.  He had sensed that perhaps Jesus could help him.  He hoped it was so.

Before Nicodemus even got a coherent question out, Jesus laid his hand on Nicodemus’ arm to stop his babbling, because Jesus already understood.  Whatever the specific issue might have been, like so many people who came to Jesus, Nicodemus needed to know how to get a fresh start, a new beginning, another chance.  And so Jesus spoke of new birth and of the power of the Spirit.

It was an enigmatic answer, to be sure, one that seemed as convoluted to Nicodemus as it does to us.  No offense to Lib’s reading, but did you really follow what Jesus was saying?  He spoke of being born from above, being born anew, being born again—all of which turn out to be the same word in the original Greek.  He spoke of the blowing of the wind and the movement of the Spirit—both of which turn out to be the same word in the original Greek.  Very truly I tell you, he said, and then proceeded to offer lofty metaphors and complex ideas that make our heads spin, and must have done the same to Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was a scholar.  He was an authority.  He was accustomed to understanding what was going on.  He was accustomed to being the one who interpreted the scriptures and teachings of the faith.  He wanted to know more, to parse and deduce and infer and prove.  He wanted to figure it all out.  So Jesus’ convoluted rhetoric did not begin to satisfy him.

“How can these things be?” he asked.  Make it plain, Jesus.  Help a guy out, won’t you?  Please, for the love of God, I need some answers!  But Jesus stubbornly refused to give a straightforward answer, an answer that fit what Nicodemus was looking for, an answer that would clear up his confusion in a jiffy.

I don’t know about you, but this experience Nicodemus had is starting to sound pretty familiar to me.  So often we turn to God with an anxious, tender question.  We want to understand.  We want to know more.  We want to figure it all out.  A bad thing has happened to someone we love, and we want to know Why?  A terrible thing has happened in the world, and we want to know How can this be?  A long hoped-for dream has been deferred, and we want to know When?  A surprising or startling or disconcerting thing has come our way, and we want to know What does this mean?

So often we turn to God with an anxious, tender question.  We want immediate, straightforward answers, answers that fit what we are looking for, answers that will clear up our confusion in a jiffy.  We come to church, or we hike to a favorite hilltop or lakeshore, or we get down on our knees and bow our heads, and we ask God to explain why our loved one is sick, or what we’re supposed to do with our lives, or how we can make it through another day.  And sometimes our minds are illuminated in a flash of clarity… but more often, we get no discernable answer at all, but are left to wonder and ponder and worry some more.

That seems to be what happened to Nicodemus.  John’s gospel leaves the conclusion of this episode to our imagination.  We see Jesus and Nicodemus talking, and then the scene just fades out behind Jesus’ narration.  It may be that Nicodemus let out a great Eureka! and skipped home, illuminated and inspired… but I think the story would have mentioned it if that’s the way it happened.  More likely, Nicodemus went home much as he came—scratching his head, or shaking his fist, or shrugging his shoulders, or dragging his feet.  More likely, he went home still confused, still tender and anxious, and now frustrated and disappointed, too, because the answers he thought he was going to get did not materialize.

I don’t know about you, but this experience Nicodemus had is starting to sound pretty familiar to me.  The questions of our faith are manifold, and answers, no matter how much we want them, are often elusive.

But here’s the thing about Nicodemus.  He may have gone home that night still tender and anxious, frustrated and disappointed, with his questions unresolved—but that doesn’t mean that his visit to Jesus was fruitless.  A seed was planted that night that did eventually blossom.

Several chapters later in John’s gospel, when Jesus was riling up the crowds in Jerusalem and had fallen into trouble with the temple police and the religious authorities, Nicodemus spoke out, preventing his colleagues from imprisoning Jesus without due process.[1]  And later still, after the events of Holy Week, Nicodemus went with Joseph of Arimathea to anoint Jesus’ body and prepare it for burial.[2]  Whatever Nicodemus’ original question really was, what answers he eventually came to, it is clear that he found some meaning in what Jesus had said to him, so much so that he was willing to publicly demonstrate his allegiance, first in strong words to stop a travesty, and then in the tenderest of deeds to respond to a tragedy.

You might say Nicodemus had a conversion experience—but it wasn’t a lightning bolt from the blue, an all-at-once transformation that happened in a single, blinding flash.  Rather, it unfolded over time, over months and years and lifetimes, as he gradually discovered the meaning of what Jesus had said, what Jesus had done, who Jesus had been.  Much like many of us, he learned and grew and changed over the course of his lifetime, moving step by baby step toward understanding, toward insight, toward discipleship.

Not all conversions happen in a flash.

Not all answers come in a moment.

Not all clarity comes in a jiffy.

Not all insight comes in an instant.

But neither does new life.

Much as a baby must grow for nine months in the warm, fertile darkness of her mother’s womb, so wisdom also needs time to gestate before it emerges.

Much as a baby is not born by his own effort, but brought forth by the labor of his mother, so newness of life is not achieved by our own striving, but received as a gift through the labor of the Spirit.

So if you were up all night worrying… if you feel like you’re in the dark… if you’re full of tender, anxious questions… if you are desperate to find some answers… take heart, because Nicodemus is your guy.  If this bright, clear morning finds you scratching your head, or shaking your fist, or shrugging your shoulders, or dragging your feet… take heart, because for you as for Nicodemus, clarity will emerge, and several chapters later, you will find that you know what to do and how to do it.

In the words of the poet:

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”[3]

[1] John 7:50-51

[2] John 19:38-42

[3] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet