"By night"-Sermon for Lent 2, John 3:1-17
Our Gospel reading from the 3rd chapter of John begins, “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night...”. Way back around the turn of the century…in the summer of 2000…I was participating in a Lectio Divina Bible Study with the staff of a large Episcopal Church in New Orleans, where I was interning for the summer while in seminary. Lectio Divina means divine listening and it is form of Bible Study, that we often practice even now at St. Julian’s, that includes multiple readings of a piece of scripture with silence following each reading for the express purpose of listening…listening for what God’s own Spirit coupled with our own intuition, shared knowledge and experience is seeking to say to us through the given passage. As I like to say…what is jumping off the page at you…what word, verse, phrase, thought, question or image…stands out to you…speaks to you…raises your interior antenna…as the words from the passage wash over you, fill you up, and inhabit your soul. And once identified…in the time of silence…you are invited to let that which jumped out at you rumble around in your heart…consider how it is making you feel…just begin to discern what that “thing”…again that word or verse or phrase or thought or question or image…is trying to say to you, point out to you, challenge you, even change you…the way you think, live, and love. And the passage we were studying in that Lectio Divina Bible Study at that staff meeting in that church in New Orleans, was the very passage that sits before us today…the story of Nicodemus’ night time visit to Jesus…and the very thing that jumped off the page for me in that Lectio Divina…the thing that quickened my heart…that spoke to me was the phrase “by night”. And it still does…two decades later…almost half a lifetime later for me…it still does.
Though the phrase comes at the very beginning of this passage, to this day I still have to stop reading when I come to the phrase “by night”…stop and think…why by night…why not by day…why mention the time of day at all? To set it in some sort of chronological context…to say this conversation really happened…in fact it happened at night…at a particular time on a particular day…thus by placing the encounter in time…John is perhaps attempting to place the conversation firmly in reality…well maybe. I think the gospel writers are concerned with the historicity of Jesus’ life…such that Jesus’ life and teachings…his healings and miracles…his death and resurrection…happened…in time and space…are in a historical a material sense true…and are worthy of our consideration as such. But I don’t think that is all there is to be said about the choice to include what could be considered a relatively inconsequential detail about this encounter and the substantive conversation that follows. And, to this end, as the phrase “by night” has rumbled around in my soul for the past two decades or so, I have come to the conclusion that “by night” is a profoundly important note…with far reaching implications.
To begin with, it seems, as simply as I can say it, that Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness to very intentionally not be seen. Why? Because, as John begins, Nicodemus is a Pharisee…and more so a leader of the Pharisees…that is a leader of the religious, social and political elite…a person of quality…of standing…of power and privilege. He was among those who benefited immensely from the status quo…a status quo that Jesus is profoundly shaking up. Thus, Jesus is “persona non grata” among Nicodemus’ own people. You see, Jesus comes among us to say that God’s love is for everyone and is accessible to everyone. God’s love does not need to mediated by a religious elite that then spoon feeds the masses with just enough of God’s blessing to keep them quiet and satiated. Further, Jesus empowers, as God’s own emissaries, regular sorts of people…fisherfolk and carpenters and farmers and lepers and prostitutes…those on the fringes…those living on the margins…the displaced and dispossessed.
And, Jesus does so, not to somehow place them in positions of power and privilege in order to make the current ruling elite, like the Pharisees, a new servant class…just reorienting who’s on top and who’s on bottom…those who live with abundance and those who suffer from having far too little. No, Jesus’ message of love is way more disruptive and entirely more transformative than that. Flipflopping insiders and outsiders is just reshuffling the deck…just the old way of doing things with new winners and new losers. Instead, Jesus is casting an altogether new vision that imagines a whole new way of being human community, of being God’s own beloved, where love alone sits on the top as the only ruling principle and arbiter in all things…such that all people are honored, heard and seen…where all people receive the love, healing and support they need to live a life with dignity and meaning. Jesus creates a vision for a world in which God’s love is not mediated by a religion, which is first and foremost a set of rules dictated to the rest of us by some priestly and kingly class. Instead, Jesus shares a dream of life with God best described as a relationship experienced most fully in the life we live together, the love we share with each other…which is God…for God is the very love we share.
And here’s the thing…this may sound great and all…why would anyone not wish for this sort of world? Well the answer, in part, is that it requires something of us. It requires, most especially from those like the Pharisees who currently sit on the top of the heap, a losing of control, a relinquishing of power, a sharing of resources, a less lavish life-style, a wiliness to listen to voices that we may not agree with and that have long been silent…and I could go on. And, if we believe that is somehow an easy to do, we kid ourselves…as Jesus said himself it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. And as further proof…I need look no further than my own life. For if I am completely honest, I have to acknowledge that as a part of the priestly class and a white man living in the wealthy west…it is hard to imagine letting go. Sometimes it’s hard to share. It’s hard to serve one master alone…that being love alone.
And to this end, at least for me, Nicodemus is a hero of sorts. Yes, he goes to Jesus under the cover of darkness…for he is understandably afraid of what his friends might think of him…what his choice to cavort with the enemy might mean for the safety of his family and those he loves. Yes, he is worried if he can let go or, at least, radically reorient his life and life-style. He is afraid of having all the certainty in his life all shaken up…having his sense of privilege questioned…that he deserves all he has even if it is built on a fundamentally inequitable system…and, again, I could go on. But, here’s the thing…despite all of that…he went…he went to Jesus by night…yes…but he went. And what Nicodemus received was not judgement or condemnation for the life he lived or the company he kept. Jesus did not accuse him of being out of touch and unaware of the suffering of others. He did not decry his propping up of and participating in unjust social and economic systems that reward the few while harming the many. He did not tell him he was old and washed up…incapable of change…or living differently moving forward. Jesus did not say to him come back in the daytime you coward and own up to the life you have lived…and then we will talk. No…Jesus spoke to Nicodemus of God’s love for the whole world…that God does not condemn…that God created us and continues to exist among us to bring us life…abundant and eternal life. And most wondrously of all…I mean this is such a sweet scene…Jesus invites Nicodemus to be born again…born again into the very life that he was made to live from the very beginning of time. Born again by water and the Spirit. I hope that sounds familiar…we now call it baptism…that is to die to sin and death…to wash away all that makes us less than human…all that seeks to control and inhibit us…all the fear that lead to our misguided sense of self-sufficiency and need to hoard. And then…and then…be born again to a whole new life with love alone on top…so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit…says Jesus. And though it took some time for Jesus’ words to sink in…some explaining, I imagine that Nicodemus heard from Jesus that which his heart hoped for more than anything else…which is the chance to begin again…that it’s never too late to live differently moving forward. For his night time jaunt to Jesus suggests, at least to me, that Nicodemus knew something needed to change in him and in this world…or he never would have risked the trip in the first place…even by night.
And, we should do likewise. Go to Jesus…even if by night…meaning in the privacy of our own prayer time…in our own safe and sacred places…in our homes after everyone else has gone to bed…or, as my theology professor called it, in the necessary room…the only place we ever really get to be alone. No one necessarily needs to come to the altar and confess here in front of all of us that something needs to change in your life. We are, after all, Episcopalians…the frozen chosen…just the idea of such a thing makes me very uncomfortable. But go to Jesus, under the blessed anonymity of darkness…whatever that might look like for you, and have a conversation. Then, speak of your fears…where the world’s brokenness is breaking your heart…speak about what keeps you up at night…what you’re terribly sorry for…what you feel like needs to change. And, I believe, for I have heard him myself with the ears of my own heart, Jesus will speak to you…words of love not judgement…a vision of an abundant and eternal sort of life for which you were made…words providing you your very own wondrous opportunity to be born again into a while new life…a whole new way of being human…a whole new way of living in life-giving relationships with God and each other…side by side with love alone on the very top…so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit…says Jesus. Amen.