Consider the thoughts that keep you up at night. I think those thoughts give us real insight into what is important to us, what really concerns us, or what must be confronted in the day/s ahead. What are the insights that come to you in the wee hours of the morning, the ideas – like skittish deer that creep up to the creek at dawn? One sound, one distraction and they’re gone again. Do you write those ideas down?
I always used to get really frustrated about waking up in the wee hours of the morning, trying to force myself back to sleep. (I still do sometimes, thinking about all the things for which I need my rest when the sun comes up.) But I once had a colleague, a friend when I was on my internship in St. Louis, say to me—when I was complaining to her about being awake the night before against my will—say, “Oh, don’t you just love those nights? Holy time. I thank God every time I am awakened in the night for no external reason. That silence, that peace, that time alone with God. I write, I sit in the darkness, sometimes I just walk around the house. It is such a gift.” I always try to think of her perspective when I wake up during the night, mind churning.
Nicodemus, in our Gospel text, must have had one of those rough nights. I wonder if he couldn’t sleep. Something was keeping him up too. This episode follows the dramatic scene last week where Jesus overturns the money tables in the temple. In John, already in Chapter 2, Jesus is driving out the money changers. And Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees, one of the good teachers and keepers of Jewish law had seen it all. And something about what he saw or what Jesus said, was keeping him awake. [pause]
Nicodemus was a lot like a good Lutheran, by all cultural standards. He had been in the church for years, he had family that had been in the church for years. He was one of those legacy members. He had roots. He could tell stories about his father and mother and their faithful involvements with the church…the Jewish equivalents to altar guild, choir, confirmation. He knew all the traditional songs, he had watched all the new trends come and go, he had been on councils and committees, he understood the flow of the religious calendar, and he had long eaten the traditional dishes – the ancient Jewish versions of carrot jello, cheesy pasta casserole, lemon bars. He really knew everything there was to know about religious life. And the more he thought about it, in those wee morning hours, the more he felt like he really should be the one instructing and inspiring and impressing Jesus. His words and actions ought to be keeping Jesus awake at night, not the other way around. Do you know anyone like Nicodemus? Are you like Nicodemus? Nicodemus was like a good, salt-of-the-earth Lutheran. (And if I was preaching to Presbyterians, I’d say he was like a good Presbyterian.) He was one of the charters, on all the boards, the keeper of memories and customs and the great “how we’ve always done it.” There was a formula for being religious and Nicodemus knew it.
But something has rocked his safe and familiar world. There’s something that shook him a little the day before, and he needs to iron it out, clear it up, smooth it over, so he can get back to sleep. He probably just misunderstood Jesus in that big public display the day before. “Jesus couldn’t have really meant what it seemed like he was saying, could he?” Nicodemus just needed to clear it up, a little one-to-one time oughtta do the trick...
Do you think we uber-faithful types could ever have our boats rocked, our tables turned, by Jesus like that? Could we, who have heard before the message of salvation like 1000x, we who have sung the hymns of the faith, and sampled the potlucks and congregational meetings through the years, like Nicodemus, really have anything more to learn…from one of the most popular passages in the entire Bible – John 3:16 and surrounding verses?
You know, on a few occasions I’ve had people say to me, regulars, salt-of-the-earth Lutherans say, “You know, I wish [so-and-so] could have been here to hear this message today. They would have really benefited.” [pause] I think I understand that sentiment…usually comes from a place of concern and love for a close relative or friend, but sometimes it’s almost as if John 3:16, for example, isn’t really for the good church people anymore. “Yeah, yeah, we’ve already heard this; wish all those others could hear it.” But “God so loved the world...” is for all of us! There is more room for all of us to grow in faith, thanks be to God. Kierkegaard said that the hardest people to reach with the Gospel are Christians. Either we think we already know it all, maybe like Nicodemus, or we just can’t seem to trust that it’s for us too – the gifts of God. And the gifts of God are life in the Spirit, unconditional love and grace in the face of our faults. Rebirth – a gift from God…this is what Jesus discusses with Nicodemus. Life in the light.
Rebirth is really all about baptism. What a great day to baptize Landon and Sofia! [pause] In fact, “being born again” was always a reference in the Christian church to being made new in Christ by water and the Spirit (i.e. baptism)...until the 20th century when some made it into a formula. Some Christians, mostly in the United States, felt that Christianity was being seriously threatened by the Enlightenment and other philosophical movements in Europe, and started talking (and making threats of their own) about being born again as a formula to avoid the fires of hell. Every single one of us then grew up in -- at least the remnant or the ripple, if not the center -- of that early 20th c. theological reaction.
But we aren’t “born again” by decision or formula. Decision and formula has nothing to do with Jesus’ main thrust in the Gospel of John! Rebirth in Christ’s love is what God decides to do for us, and we mark that in baptism with words and water and oil. God (subject) so loves the world (object). All we can do is open our hands and trust – “whosoever trusts that God so dearly loves this world, that God was made flesh and embedded into this earth”…all we can do is trust that, and then life in the Spirit is ours. Trusting that God so loves this world, we then have joy – not “surface joy”, deep joy. Not just after you die…you will live joyfully and eternally starting now. Trust is a journey (Lenten theme this year is “walking”), it takes the community of faithful people around you. And it takes openness, willingness to quiet ourselves and receive a gift (like welcoming a sleepless night). Sometimes, those of us church folks have the hardest time receiving gifts. We’re used to giving gifts, not receiving them. We’re used to offering of ourselves our time and our money. But this gift of faith, this visit from Christ, is for us too. (And it comes long before we do any offering.)
I love the honesty of Nicodemus. And I give thanks for this Gospel story of him struggling with Jesus under the cover of darkness. Darkness gives us some space to be honest. In other words, thank God for the night. Sometimes there are things that are difficult to say by day…even to my spouse Heather. But if we can lay in the dark at night and say what we need to say, I give thanks for that space, that darkness, to be honest. Night time and darkness is not just for wickedness and deceit, as it’s often imaged. The shadows give us some space to be honest before God. Pillow talk with God.
Once again, we may say in the safety and silence of darkness, “God here I am, a sinner, you know my thoughts and my wrongdoings. And you love me anyway. I am struggling to be honest about who I am. Put me back together, God, in this safe space, in the cover of night. Put me back together to be the human being that you made me to be. Give me courage. Give me wisdom. Give me the willingness to trust in you.” And God responds to us once again, “I so love you; I so love this world. Trust and know that I am your God. I will not forsake you. I will give you peace.” AMEN.