Lent 2 A
After reading today’s gospel lesson, you just have to feel sorry for Nicodemus. He just isn’t getting it, is he? He is so close to understanding what is happening, but he is missing that little piece of faith that will help him figure it all out. He is so close to understanding but he cannot let go of the world he sees around him long enough to grasp the world that can be.
Really, we should not be too hard on Nicodemus; we really can’t expect him to be right on top of things. Christianity isn’t even a religion yet! He doesn’t have the benefit of the New Testament to help him to understand. All he has is what he has been taught in the past, all that the world has been telling him throughout his life, all that his colleagues expect of him, all of these thing. Things he is familiar with and can understand. But then there are these odd signs he has been seeing. And try as he might, he can’t seem to make all the pieces fit together. His teaching, his worldview, and his colleagues, all seemed to make sense. But these signs, he can see them and they were presenting problems.
I can imagine poor Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a man of God, having a crisis of faith. He knows what he learned as a child. He knows what he was taught. He believes with his whole heart the teachings of his past. But things have changed. Things are now different. Things he had learned in his past no longer seem to fit. This Jesus was giving signs that seemed to point to him being the messiah, the anointed one, but this Jesus is not acting very orthodox. He cannot seem to make the situation into one that works with his world view. Nicodemus would have liked to write Jesus off as just another of the street preachers of the time, but his conscience won’t let him do it. He would like to disregard it, he may even had gotten a bit angry about all the things happening, not wanting to change; but the signs are just too strong to ignore.
So Nicodemus decides to go to the source (something we should all do) and speak with Jesus himself. Now, in going, we cannot be too sure what Nicodemus expected. Possibly he was expecting a rousing discussion and debate between two equals. Perhaps he was looking for something to discredit this man he was about to see. We do not know what he expected, but we do know that he was ashamed to be seen with Jesus. We know this because he would only see Jesus at night. Nicodemus would not go to Jesus in the day when people could see him. But whatever he was expecting, I am sure Nicodemus was expecting some kind of respect for his status in society. So Nicodemus was expecting a discussion between equals, but instead of a discussion between equals, Nicodemus gets much more than he bargained for.
Now the person that I do give credit to in this situation is Jesus. The first thing Nicodemus does when he meets Jesus is he tries to flatter Jesus by proclaiming him a teacher who has come from God. But we can assume that Jesus would have seen through the flattery by the sole fact that Nicodemus was ashamed to be seen with him. Jesus would know that Nicodemus’s role in society would proclaim that Nicodemus was above Jesus but also because Nicodemus is coming to talk at night. Remember, Nicodemus was a Pharisee, it would not look good for him to be seen associating with the street preachers.
Now if I were Jesus, I would ask Nicodemus why, if he says I am from God, is he afraid to be seen with me? If he truly believed I was from God he should be proud to be seen with me! I would have booted him out of the door. Good thing for Nicodemus I am not Jesus!
No, Jesus does not boot Nicodemus out the door. Jesus takes the time to teach Nicodemus. Nicodemus asks Jesus questions and Jesus answers them. Now, I am also sure Nicodemus was expecting some straight forward answers to his questions, but that is not what he gets. Fortunately for Nicodemus, Jesus does not give him the type of answers he is expecting. Fortunately for Nicodemus, Jesus gives him answers that make him think. In his response, Jesus is moving Nicodemus onto a different road, into a different way of thinking. Jesus was moving Nicodemus from just looking at the superficial aspects but to move onto searching for what is deeper.
I believe Jesus answered Nicodemus in the way he did so as to engage Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a man of thought, so if Jesus had just answered straight out, Nicodemus would have made a decision, judged this street preacher and that would have been the end of it all. But Jesus gave Nicodemus a puzzle. Jesus gave Nicodemus something to think about; something to get stuck in his head and make him a bit uncomfortable. And it is this sort of frustration with the answers that plants the seed of faith.
Are we frustrated with life? Are we feeling like we pray for answers but all we get are riddles? Are we feeling like life just isn’t going the way it should and God is doing nothing to help? This can be frustrating! When we pray, we want answers. We want Jesus to tell us what the signs mean so we can judge them and be on our way. If we know what the signs mean, then we feel we can control them. But so often Jesus will not give us the meaning we are looking for. So often when we pray it feels like all we get in return is just a bunch of random mumbo-jumbo. When we pray, we probably often feel a lot like Nicodemus must have felt.
But let’s not lose track of what really happened in this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus didn’t give Nicodemus the answer because Jesus wanted Nicodemus to move in a new direction, Jesus wanted Nicodemus to travel down a new road. Jesus wanted Nicodemus to stop and think about his life and to ponder the answers he did get from Jesus. Jesus wanted to nudge Nicodemus out of his complacency and get him moving.
We know this method of Jesus’ did, in fact, work. The next time we encounter Nicodemus in the Bible, it is day. Nicodemus is now publicly defending Jesus when the Pharisees want to arrest him for speaking in the temple. Nicodemus has gone from seeking Jesus in the night to defending him in the day. That is quite a change.
The final time we hear of Nicodemus, he is helping to care for Jesus’ body after Jesus was crucified on the cross. This was not just some social nicety. Nicodemus was threatening his whole way of life by caring for Jesus. He was giving up his position of power. He was a Pharisee caring for an executed criminal. Our friend has gone from seeking Jesus in the dark, to defending him in the light, to publicly honoring Jesus through ministering to the dead.
We are not told whether Nicodemus and Jesus ever talked after this meeting in the dark. All we know is that in allowing Nicodemus to struggle with the answers to the questions, his faith in Jesus grew immensely. He went from worrying about himself to placing his life, or at least his livelihood, on the line for Jesus.
It is frustrating when it feels like our prayers are going unanswered. It is difficult when it feels like all we get for our faith in God is some twisted riddle or convoluted pathway. We get tired of God being hidden. We may feel like Nicodemus and feel like we just want to know the answers. Like Nicodemus gong to Jesus, we may feel that when we go to God in prayer that we are batting around ideas with an equal. We may think we know the way of the world; we know what we have been taught. We know what God should be doing. But God often doesn’t seem to want to play by our rules.
What I wonder is, can we let the words of Jesus make us uncomfortable enough to deepen our faith? Even if we don’t readily understand what is happening in our lives, can we trust God to lead us down a new road to a deeper faith? Can we continue to be faithful even when things look dark? Can we trust, knowing that in the end, the Lord of Light will reign victorious? Can we use the dark times in our lives to strengthen us to proclaim Jesus in the light of day?
Unlike Nicodemus, we have the Bible to help us. We know the story and how it will end. We know that God will reign supreme. Christ will be Lord of all. And even though we know this, we still become lost. But we can rest assured. Even though we may feel lost, even though we may not see the way, we know we can trust that where God is leading we can follow.
We, as a congregation are moving into places that are confusing. We may not like the answers that we see before us. But we are challenged to trust in God and struggle with the answers. We are challenged to look beyond our own understanding and place our faith in Christ. We are being prodded to travel down a new path, to where? We don’t know. But we can be assured that no matter where God leads us, Christ has already traveled there first.