This is the story of a man named Nick who seeks out Jesus in the dark part of the night.
To see him.
To hear him.
To find out what Jesus is about to do.
But when no one’s around.
Nick has a lot to lose, after all.
He is in charge of the elite class of lawyers and scholars and religious mucky-mucks.
He has power.
He has made good choices in his life.
He has his stuff together.
He should be at home.
With his wife and kids.
Putting them to bed.
Tucking them in.
Singing them a lullaby.
Not out on the street looking for someone or something he can’t understand.
By night the streets of Jerusalem are damp.
The stones are slippery from the evening mist.
They are covered in trash and excrement and the unsold crops of the day.
The hubbub of the day is quieted to a hush.
You can hear only your footsteps against the stone and your heartbeat in your chest and your breath as it goes in and comes out.
You can feel only the wind that sweeps between the alleys across your face.
It’s not a safe hour to be out, at least not alone.
But there is something to be asked.
Something to learn.
Something that just can’t be rationalized or made sense of.
It was just the Passover Feast in Jerusalem. Nick remembered, that Feast we remember every year where we tell our children and our children’s children how God saved us from slavery in Egypt and brought us to freedom. That our freedom comes from God’s hand.
But this year’s celebration was not as nice & quaint & simple as it used to be.
There was a raucous.
Tables being over turned outside the Temple.
A strange man saying that this Temple that took
46 years to
build, that it would be destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days.
It sounded like a threat.
Even more, he began to do these signs that no one could do unless he
was God or from God.
Everything he did pointed to God.
Could it be a man sent from God?
But he doesn’t do it the right way!
…How can he be from God?
I mean…doesn’t he know that we people of God meet only on Fridays and discuss things in civilized ways and we certainly don’t overturn tables or make a scene.
Religious folk need to be much more civil than that.
More domesticated than that.
Who does he think he is?
Nick says to himself, “I’ve just got to talk to this man. See what he is about. Everyone is talking about him behind his back; I’ve got to let him know that what he is doing will only piss off a lot of people and get him killed.”
So Nick finds this man Jesus at night. What Jesus was doing out at night, in the dark is unknown, but Nick uses the cover of darkness to ask his questions.
“Jesus,” he says, “rabbi, teacher, we know that you come from God, for no one can do what you do unless God is with them.”
A humble acknowledgement from a well-respected man. A faithful acknowledgement even though Nick has come by night, in the dark. The dark is a representation of separation from God. The dark is a symbol of disbelief.
Yet Nick’s first words are, “we know you come from God.” We know…
Nick was seeking out an answer, his wonder and amazement at what this man Jesus was doing couldn’t be contained in his theology or dogma or creed. Jesus was doing a God-thing outside of the realm of the accepted religious behavior and Nick couldn’t contain his curiosity.
But Jesus doesn’t answer Nick’s question. But it really wasn’t a question but a statement of assumption. Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t
say, “why, thank you, I try. I…I just really want to be faithful.”
Jesus says something that still rattles our wonder like wind whipping through the narrow streets of Jerusalem at night:
“Amen and amen,” Jesus says “you are right [I do come from God]. But get this, no one can see what I am pointing to, the kingdom of God, unless they are born anew from above.”
“Born again? Born anew? Born from above? How can this be?!” Nick wonders. It is an impossibility to him. After all, once we’re born, we’re born and that’s that. We can only be born once. No one, least of all a grown man can crawl back into his mother’s womb and be born again, what is going on here?! How can it be?
Jesus tells Nick not to take him so literally. No, not again from your mother’s womb, but again, anew, and from above, in water and Spirit. In skin and soul. Living in your same flesh, but reformed and reshaped and remade in God’s Spirit to live in God’s kingdom.
But this Spirit is not something that can be controlled. It whips around where it wills. You can hear it coming and going, but you do
not know where it will go and what it will do. So you never know what being born again, anew from above will look like.
But Nick can’t quite grasp what Jesus is saying, not yet anyway. He will, eventually. Later in John’s Gospel we read of his faith in Jesus. He comes to the cross in the light of day rather than by cover of night, but that’s getting ahead of the story.
For now, Nick is confused. Jesus tries to teach him.
So Jesus tells Nick a story that he already knows, this time with a twist.
A story about snakes in the wilderness.
A long time ago, the people were delivered from slavery in Egypt to freedom, but they had to go through the wilderness, led by Moses. They had to be reformed and reborn and renewed by God.
But it wasn’t easy.
The people complained.
They said they preferred slavery in Egypt over this new freedom in God.
Well, one day snakes appeared in the wilderness and bit some of the people.
And the people who were bit died.
And the people pleaded with Moses to help them.
So Moses turned to God and God told Moses to find a pole and to put a snake at the top of it. Those who were bit, when they looked at the snake on the pole that was lifted up, they would not die from the snake bite, but live. And so it happened.
Then Jesus says that he is that snake and he will be lifted up for all people who have been bitten by the snake, bitten by sin, bitten by death, for them to see him and live. So that anyone who sees him and believes in him will have eternal life. Not only after death, but now. Because sin is a real consequence to our life now. Because pain needs to be healed now. Because this life matters. Because eternal life starts now.
Jesus continued: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not be destroyed, but may have eternal life. Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not judged; but those who do not believe are judged already.”
Finally, Jesus says, “You, Nick, are in the darkness. Physically now in this dark night, and spiritually now on your journey, you are not ready yet to live in the Kingdom of God, but God is at work in you in ways you cannot imagine and cannot control. You come to me now because you have seen the signs I have done by God’s power. And you wonder if I could be from God. Faith is more than signs Nick. Faith is more than knowledge. You know that I come from God. Faith is dynamic. Faith is trust in God. Faith is trust that your life comes from God and goes to God. That it is seen by God. That nothing is done in vain. That it continues in the life of the world to come. You believe the signs you have seen, but I tell you that you haven’t seen anything yet. My greatest sign will be when I am lifted up on the cross to cure and save all who are sick and in need of a healer for the sake of the world that God so loved.”
How can it be God, that you loved us and the world, the world that did not love you, the world that rejects you, how can it be God that you would choose to die for us, to come to us, to be lifted up on the cross to save us from our sin and our death? We do not deserve it. We can’t fully grasp what it means. We are thankful for the life of faith you give us, faith that is a relationship with you, faith that trusts you and your love for the world, even the parts of the world that we can’t understand and can’t get along with. Some of us, like Nicodemus in this story, are not yet ready to understand you, to live out the faith you call us to, we come to you from the edges, in the darkness, but we know you are up to something and that you continue to work in us. Some of us can’t believe it for we have heard a different story from the world, we need to know that your graciousness is bigger than our experiences and bigger than our choices. Some of us believe in you already and live in the now and not yet of eternal life that has already begun in our lives in your Kingdom. All of us you meet where we are and send your spirit where you see fit.