Will you pray with me: May the words that I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts open the door to where you are, O God, so that we may be astonished and made new by your word for us this day. Amen
It is early in his ministry, but already Jesus is shaking things up.
In the previous chapter, in the Gospel according to John, Jesus first changes water into wine at the wedding in Cana — which was pretty spectacular. But then, upon coming up to Jerusalem for Passover and going straight to the Temple, he is so infuriated by what he finds there — people selling cattle, sheep and doves and money changers seated at their tables — that he makes a whip of cords, and drives all of them out. He pours out the coins of the money changers and overturns their tables and commands at the top of his lungs: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market place!”
That certain shook things up a bit! Can’t you imagine the buzz in the religious establishment of the day, of which Nicodemus was certainly a part?
“Who is this man? What is his problem? Who does he think he is?” Can’t you imagine how some must have felt dismissive of Jesus; others alarmed by him? I bet that some were convinced that Jesus was crazy. “Best thing to do is ignore him, don’t play into it, best not to give him a second thought.” I bet they said.
But Nicodemus — couldn’t.
I imagine Nicodemus sitting there in his home that evening, at the table, long after the supper dishes had been cleared, sitting there as the last light of day faded, trying to dismiss Jesus, trying to work up some righteous indignation as his peers and colleagues had done. I can almost hear him muttering to himself “He is just looking to make a scene.” “Calling the Temple HIS father’s house? Talk about arrogance!”
But try as he may, Nicodemus just cannot seem to dismiss Jesus. Try as he may, he just cannot seem to let Jesus go.
And so knowing that he will never sleep if he did not set it straight for himself, he reassures his wife that he will be not long, wraps up in his cloak to guard off the chill of what is now night, and sets off through the streets of Jerusalem to where Jesus is staying.
Now scholarship tends to look down on Nicodemus for coming to Jesus in cover of darkness, seeing in it a metaphorical hiding of himself, yet I find myself identifying quite a bit with Nicodemus and I am not willing to judge him quite so readily. There is something to be said for darkness, for maybe the cover of darkness is what afforded Nicodemus to engage his questions and doubts in a way that the bright light of day would not have.
I imagine the conversation Nicodemus must have had in his head as he made his way through those darkened streets that night. I can hear him muttering to himself: “What am I, a respected leader in the community doing? I’m risking my reputation going out like this. What if I come upon someone I know? I could never tell them that I am seeking out that man Jesus. People look up to me, after all, being learned, I am to be the one with answers, not the one troubled by questions of my own. And, my God, what if my colleagues saw me creeping out like this in the cover of darkness, what would they say?” All of this, I imagine, was running through Nicodemus’ head as he made his way under the cover of darkness across the city. .
Nicodemus, after all, was not like the ones about whom my Minnesotan compatriot Bob Dylan sang, when he sang “When you ain’t got noth’in, you got noth’in to lose”
Nicodemus was not like blind Bartemaus who called out midday at the top of his lungs “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Nicodemus was not like one of those ten lepers who cried out “Jesus, Master have mercy on us.” (Luke 17:13). They cried out, loud in plain day because they had nothing so they had nothing to lose. But Nicodemus? Well that’s a different story all together. He had a lot and so he had a lot to lose.
So, Nicodemus must have sighed with relief when undetected he finally reached that house where Jesus was staying. Hoping to slip in from the street he knocks. Immediately the door is opened and there is Jesus, looking very much, I imagine, like he had been expecting Nicodemus all along.
Nicodemus hastily enters the house and wastes no time. He launches right into it, for now he cannot wait to be done and return to the peace of his life and the warmth of his bed. “Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
And then Jesus speaks. And when he does all that Nicodemus has prepared and rehearsed begins to unravel. Like those jugs of water that were transformed into wine at the wedding in Cana, Nicodemus too is unexpectedly caught up in what will be the beginning of his own transformation.
Nicodemus came hoping for clarity and explanation. What he got instead was challenge and astonishment. Nicodemus came with questions he wanted to be answered, with confusion that he wanted to be clarified, with uncertainty that he sought to be made clear. Instead, what he got was “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus’ message to Nicodemus was that Nicodemus must be re-born. To be reborn, I believe is to be willing to move from certainty to astonishment; from answers to questions; from knowing to not knowing. Birth for the one being born, the one receiving the newly born or the one doing the birthing is astonishing. There is nothing like birth, to shake things up. Maybe that was Jesus’ intention — to shake up Nicodemus so that something new may be reborn in him.
I have debated with myself whether or not I should share with you how I was shaken up this last week; how the wind of the Spirit blew into my life. I have been wondered, like Nicodemus of what others may think.
It was about 5:30 in the evening. I had had a long day and it was going to be a long night of back to back committee meetings. I was feeling depleted and rather dispirited and even found myself wondering about what was the point of all this busyness and meetings and doing.
Then the buzzer range announcing the arrival of the pizza that I had ordered. I let the delivery man in and then followed him up the stairs to my study asking him to please just leave the pizza there on the table. I turned to get my purse in order to pay him and when I turned back to give him the money, he was transformed. Ok, he was still the same man but he had changed. Honestly there was a radiance about him and he looked at me with a calm, but intense gaze and said, “You must know, it is all real.” And then he went on to tell me the most astonishing things. He told me of a vision he had had about Heaven and Earth and about how God so loves the world. As he talked I was filled, not with alarm but with wonderment. Then after ten minutes or so though I must say I lost track of time, he said that he had better get back. So he picked up the red pizza delivery bag and left.
And there I stood, dumbfounded, wondering. “What just happened? Is he crazy? Am I?” I found Nicodemus’ question on my lips “How can these things be?” I was having my own Nicodemus moment of astonishment, my own little moment of rebirth. For right there in my study with the smell of pizza all around, I not only felt refreshed and full of energy again, but I felt peace and even joy rise in my heart.
I met the Jesuit Priest Dean Brackley not long after his arrival at the University of Central America in San Salvador. He came to the university, to step into the void there his six Jesuits colleagues were brutally murdered by members of the U. S. trained Salvadoran military. Dean would often meet with delegations of foreigners that came to El Salvador on mission trips to learn about the country and to do some service work. And he would say to those who were trying to make sense of the questions on their hearts:
“Have the courage to lose control.
Have the courage to feel useless.
Have the courage to listen.
Have the courage to receive.
Have the courage to let your heart be broken.
Have the courage to feel.
Have the courage to fall in love.
Have the courage to get ruined for life.”
And what I think he meant by that was that once you fully see the reality of all that is still not yet right in the world, you can never again close your eyes to it. There will be shift deep in your soul. But this shift, this loss of naiveté of innocence is in essence a re-birth. Ruined for life in order to really live, to live fully and to live boldly – ruined not for despair but so that there may be the construction of new life built of truth, and love and peace. And that I think is what began to happen to Nicodemus that night. I believe things started to fall apart so they could be put together again in a new truth filled, life giving way.
After church today, Brita and I will be facilitating a conversation about this very thing. About the Nicodemus moments that may have happened to us when we engaged in mission/outreach activities whether overseas or right here in our back yard. How we may have been surprised or shaken up or even ruined for life and reborn in wonderment by that which we experienced. I hope you will consider joining in this conversation.
So I wonder, how might we be like Nicodemus and what “Nicodemus’ moments” might be waiting for us? What doubts, uncertainties, questions, and confusions are troubling us? Do we shy away from engaging them because somehow we think that doing so would diminish us in the eyes of others? Are we so invested in competence and control that letting go of certainty feels too uncomfortable if not down right scary? Do we worry what may be asked of us, how our lives may be changed and challenged? Do we fear that we too may have too much to lose?
If so, I wonder, could Lent be this time of the cover of darkness for us as that night was for Nicodemus. Could we dare to make our way to where Jesus is staying and open our questions to him and dare to be astonished by what he might say to us? What word is waiting to be spoken that will begin the labor pains of our own rebirth? What wind of the Spirit is waiting to blow where it choses stirring in us and the world to new life, new hope, new love and new possibilities beyond our imagining? Thanks be to our wonderings and to our God that is waiting to astonish us, even now. Amen.