A flash of panic flooded the back of his mind. There’s something strange about this rabbi! It’s like he’s harboring mystery. It’s like he sees some part of ourselves that we don’t even see. Here Nicodemus was lying awake in bed, trying to sort this out so he could go back to sleep, but as you can guess, that’s not gonna happen.
Nicodemus gets up and puts on his shoes. As he makes his way through the dark streets, his mind is racing, and his heart is pounding. Here it’s the middle of the night, and Nicodemus is knocking on the door of God.
When Jesus answers, he waves Nicodemus inside and puts the kettle on, but Nicodemus stays standing in the doorway. “Rabbi, no one else could do the signs that you have been performing. We know that you come from God, or that you are—? I mean, how could that be?”
Maybe this makes Jesus smile. He brings cups for tea to the table, and Nicodemus slowly sits down, and that’s when Jesus tells him. If it’s the kingdom of God you’re seeking, verily verily I say unto you, you must be born again. And oh my goodness, Nicodemus doesn’t understand.
The writer of the Fourth Gospel is shining a light on the problem that keeps happening. Like Nicodemus, people keep taking things too literally. Jesus explains, while scaring up some toast, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit… And the Spirit blows where it chooses.”
Now Nicodemus doesn’t get up and storm out of the house. He leans over his tea and asks what all of us are wondering: Right, but how are these things possible?
Jesus begins to reveal himself to Nicodemus; he invokes the story of Moses and the snakes in order to indicate what’s going to happen, but Nicodemus is still confused. Pretty soon we get to one of the Bible’s greatest hits:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
For generations now, Christians have latched onto these words and gotten tripped up in literalism just like Nicodemus. We’ve decided this magic Bible verse means: You had better believe in Jesus if you want to get into heaven when you die. And really, that’s not it! That’s not how heaven works. What Jesus is doing is telling us how God loves the world.
It’s like this: God so loved this hurting, broken world, they choose to become human and go with us. They become one of us, even though we are violent, even though we condemn each other! In the heart of God’s heart, she wants us to come back to life.
Maybe Jesus puts out butter and jam for the toast, he’s happy to talk all night, he wants Nicodemus to get it! Nicodemus is more perplexed than he was before, but he’s also more fascinated. Now it’s late, and the toast is too much. Even though there is something in Nicodemus that wants him to stay, he’s not used to being seen like this. He makes a hasty goodbye and begins walking home, early in the morning, while it is still dark.
I will tell you, my heart goes out to Jesus! Here he was starting to make a friend, and who knows if he’ll ever see Nicodemus again. My heart goes out to Nicodemus. Bible scholars are quick to blame him for failing to understand what Jesus is teaching, for walking home still in the dark! I hear a trouble in his soul that I know well. It’s not just that Nicodemus doesn’t understand; it’s that he wants to, and maybe this wanting is everything…
These days, it is no small feat to make it to church. Only you know why you are here today, but if I had to guess —if there were some Family Feud style survey with the top reasons on the board— here are the ones I’d name:
-We’re all looking to feel better; we’re hoping this worship service will give us comfort and renewal.
-Maybe we’ve come out of a sense of responsibility. Some of us have a job to do this morning and we don’t want to let anybody down.
-We come for each other. Chances are, there are actual people here you need to talk to, people you’re worried about, and wondering about, and wanting to see.
-We choose to come to church because in each of us, there’s a yearning for justice. We know the world is hurting and broken, and ours is a faith that won’t let us ignore the suffering of others.
And it could be this. It could be there’s something in your heart and in mine that is longing for Christ.
This is the same impulse that brought Nicodemus to Jesus’ door; the same mystery that brings us to church because— who knows?— this might be the moment that shows us something we never saw in Jesus. And we don’t want to miss that! If you asked me what are we really doing here, I think it’s this:
I think we are longing to bring the part of ourselves that we don’t fully understand into harmony with the part of God that we don’t fully understand.
In the heart of your heart, you are drawn to the mystery of the Love that gives its life to give more life.
If I’m onto something here… What if everyone in all the world is harboring this longing? What if this is what made Nicodemus sit down at the table. It’s what made Jesus wonder if he found a friend…
Because here’s the truth. If one part of our spiritual condition is that each of us are longing for a mystical connection with the Holy Spirit, another part of our spiritual condition is this: Just about every person you’ll talk to this week is lonely.
So many of us are so deeply lonely.
Nowadays the isolation of the pandemic is bringing this problem to light, but even before the pandemic, loneliness was on the rise. In our world, it is particularly hard for older men to find a group of friends. It’s also not uncommon for older women to outlive their partners and find themselves newly lonely.
Loneliness is a concern for middle age adults who find themselves pulled between caring for children and caring for parents. Of course, for anyone living in an institution, for anyone dealing with addiction or depression, loneliness is raging at the core.
Loneliness is rampant among young adults and teenagers. Followers on Instagram and subscribers on YouTube are not the same as actual friends. Even our children are lonely! Carol A used to ride the school bus when Bill worked as a bus driver. She talked about how the kids would clamor to sit next to her, to have her attention for a few precious minutes.
It’s not that we all need to be around more people. What we’re missing are relationships with people who will take seriously our wondering.
When you find yourself awake in the middle of the night… When you hear the prayer rising in your soul that goes: How could you let this happen? How could forgiveness ever be possible? When the panic is flashing in the back of your mind and the trouble is stirring in your conscience, what I want to know is: who are you going to wake up? What friend can you call?
Because the right answer is Jesus. And the right answer is any one of us here.
Only you know why you showed up today, but imagine if this is what it is to be the church. Imagine if we could be a people who will hold holy your worrying and your wondering. Now when all you can say is: I just don’t get it! We’ll come alongside you and join our prayers with yours. Then we’ll come before Jesus with one of the best prayers we could ever say:
O Lord, I don’t understand. But I want to.
By looking for Christ, we will meet up with each other, and even our loneliness will not protect us from being seen. It goes the other way too. When we make it our mission to look for each other, to find a new friend at church, well, there’s no way to try that and not find Jesus.
You know Nicodemus gets a lot of flak for failing to understand what Jesus was teaching, for walking home still in the dark. But I don’t think Nicodemus just gave up. I think his heart was moved. Look, even if he struggled to make sense of the information because who wouldn’t, Jesus was a friend to Nicodemus when he needed someone to call in the middle of the night. And you and I know. Friends like these will change your life.
Sometime later, the religious authorities tried to arrest Jesus in front of everyone. That’s when one of the Pharisees stopped them and said there hasn’t even been a fair trial. And if you’re thinking this Pharisee was Nicodemus, you’re right.
Sometime later, Jesus did get arrested and abandoned by his friends. He was tortured, and executed, and despised as a criminal. That’s when two men came to claim Jesus’s body and lovingly prepare it for burial. If you’re thinking that one of these was Nicodemus, you’re right.
Come searching for friends and you will find Christ. Come searching for Christ and you will find us. Nicodemus didn’t understand all of this when he was walking home in the early hours of the morning. But he knew there was more to the mystery. He knew there was more to the Love that gives it life to bringing life into the world.
Nicodemus sees his house up over the hill. And would you look at that— why the sun is beginning to rise.