The Curious Incident of Nicodemus at Night
Passage: John 3:1-17
Date: March 12, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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In my daughter’s class at school, if you want to put someone down in a light-hearted way, you say to them, “You look like stairs.” It is the height of clever insult in Ms. Johnston’s 5th grade classroom.
To the rest of us, “you look like stairs” makes no sense. We’re a bunch of right angles? We’re a passageway from up or down? If you were to say to me that I look like stairs, I would hardly be hurt, just perhaps a little concerned for your well-being.
Groups have their own use of language. One of the slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement is the encouragement to “stay woke,” that is, to continue to be aware of issues of racial injustice and the social dynamics of racism. But if I were to say to Gregg “stay woke,” he either would think I was offering him a Diet Coke at 10 at night, or he would correctly presume I was using language that didn’t really belong to me.
The question “When were you saved?” means different things in different contexts. If you were rescued at sea, it would mean one thing. In religious circles, it means a few things. It usually means someone who has an evangelical theology is asking the question; it also indicates a person having a change of heart and soul that can be pinpointed to one moment when that person accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
“When were you saved?” is not actually what this scripture from John is about, although many of our Christian kin who are of a more evangelical ilk love this story, especially the words of Jesus in John 3:16. But this passage is more in line with Ms. Johnston’s fifth graders saying, “You look like stairs.” It is confusing to the ordinary hearer. It was confusing to Nicodemus, as it was supposed to be.
John is using something that sociologists call “anti-language.” Anti-language is normal vocabulary and phrases co-opted by a group that feels alienated from a main group. That group often feels oppressed. It’s not exactly code language but it is related. We see examples of anti-language throughout John and in this passage: born again, spirit, the world, life, believe – the author John uses anti-language in his story about Jesus as he writes for his group that has felt oppressed by those in power in mainstream, 1st century Judaism.
Last week I said that the point, or a point, of John’s gospel is to reveal something about who this Jesus the Christ is. This week I would amend that: John is writing his gospel, his story, to let his specific, outsider community know something about who Jesus the Christ is and how Jesus brings life.
Nicodemus is one of the powerful elite of 1st century Judaism. He’s a Pharisee, a strict adherer of the law. He’s supposed to follow the rules, perform his duties at the temple, and follow the law and not some strange, mystic, itinerant peasant who is gathering disciples and speaking in strange ways about God. But there Nicodemus is, seeking out Jesus. He visits at night because he knows that in the confines of his social and religious mores, this visit is inappropriate. There is no good reason why Nicodemus should want to speak to Jesus, but he does in a fitful conversation that leaves no one with a satisfactory answer.
The conversation begins well enough. Nicodemus comes to the teacher Jesus and offers him a worthy compliment, noting that he – Jesus – must be grounded in God in order to do the things that he does. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He switches the conversation. He moves it to a totally unanticipated level. If it weren’t so dark, we could see the look of confusion on Nicodemus’ face.
We have to give Nicodemus credit. He soldiers on, trying to understand. But he doesn’t and he won’t, because while the vocabulary is familiar to Nicodemus, the meaning Jesus gives to the vocabulary isn’t.
Now we could let well enough alone and just say that Nicodemus and Jesus have a weird conversation that doesn’t really go anywhere but thank goodness we have the last two verses about God so loving the world because those are really the point of the story and redeem all that nocturnal confusion.
That doesn’t do this story justice, but if we were to focus on those last two verses, it might be helpful to understand what Jesus as shown in John’s gospel means when he says “the world,” “eternal life,” and “save.”
The world, in John’s view, is the people of Israel – not only John’s in-group, his audience with whom he uses this anti-language, but everyone else too, including Pharisees like Nicodemus, the people who have alienated John’s group – everyone who is an Israelite. “Eternal life” is not a new life that starts after we die but the continuation of this life we began when we took our first breath. Death doesn’t stop that. More than that, the life that Jesus offers is not about endless duration but about a quality of life – living that has been animated by God.
The word “save” is tricky in John as well. For John, when Jesus promises that God’s Son will “save the world” he means that God’s Son will extend this high-quality, spirit-filled life even to all the Israelites from whom John’s audience is alienated.
You may be feeling as confused as Nicodemus at this point. Trust me, I understand.
I would suspect that most of us, though not all of us, in this room today do not believe we are part of a group of people who feel alienated from society as a whole (except maybe as Christians in the Pacific Northwest). We don’t use anti-language for our in-group. We don’t look like stairs, as it were.
Maybe most of us in this room are more like those mainstream Israelites, the ones who live quite happily in the mainstream. Maybe we’re good with the rules. Maybe we’re not feeling particularly oppressed or on the margins. Why then would we need Jesus?
That is a question in this story: why does Nicodemus go to visit Jesus? As a Pharisee, he would have no need of him; Jesus couldn’t grant him any privileges, and Nicodemus asks for nothing, no healing, no anything.
We could imagine all sorts of reasons why Nicodemus would go to Jesus; the writer John never tells us. But there does seem to be something significant about this leader guy creeping around at night to see this rebel guy who may well be offering something that Nicodemus desperately wants but cannot find in the light of day around all those mainstream people and customs and rituals.
However you feel about your life – if you’re comfortable and happy or if you’re alienated from something and angry about that – do you ever get that sense that there’s something more? Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and have a sense that you’re searching for something that you cannot name, that you still haven’t found what you’re looking for?
Some people get tired of the rat race. Some people tire of the free-market system. Some people get tired of having so much when others have so little, for no apparent reason other than circumstance of birth. We sense that being comfortable and having all of what we need and much of what we want isn’t all there is. As we struggle with that nudging of a hope yet unknown, we might get a glimmer that what we cannot name has something to do with God.
It often feels like God’s desires for us are different from the world’s. Jesus’ teachings about God and the life abundant that he offers don’t really make sense in the world where competition has the final word. The meek won’t make it very far. Bread and cup won’t sate the appetites of those whose life goal is to dine at as many five-star restaurants as they can. He lived for thirty-three years in a corner of the world that wasn’t even as big as the northern half of Oregon. He was hardly a world traveler. He received no formal education, had no degrees to hang on the wall, and as he was an itinerant, no walls at all.
Still, I seek a quality of life in him, something that inspires me to be my best self and inspires my community to be our best selves together. It has something to do with seeking the light rather than the dark; with choosing love and not hate; with finding things that lead to life and not death, not just for me but for everyone.
Jesus says something to me about love, too – not just his love but the way he describes God’s love for us – a love that desires salvation and not condemnation – a love where everyone wins and no one gets thrown into hell. It’s a relentless love that is not contingent on how good we try to be, a love that is never withheld no matter how bad we think we are. It’s a love we will only taste bits of in this life.
Some of you are here because of that love. Some of you are here because of Jesus. Some of you are here because you have a sense that there is more breadth and depth to life than mere success in worldly terms. You’re here because you want to be reminded of the love that saves the world, the love that you are called to live. You’re here because in some way Jesus claimed you. You probably can’t recall the time or place and that really isn’t of any importance. But you are drawn to his teachings, drawn to his Spirit, drawn to the way he tells you again and again that you are loved, drawn to the way he tells you again and again to go out and love others as best as you can.
We never learn what happens to Nicodemus. He shows up at the end of the gospel after Jesus dies. He comes again at night, to help dispose of the body in the proper way. But we never learn if he took in what Jesus said, if he understood anew what God’s love meant.
But Nicodemus is not the point of the story. You and I aren’t the point of the story either. And in John’s gospel, in a way, Jesus isn’t even the point of the story. Jesus points us to the story, which is about God’s love for this world – for the people John wrote to and the Israelites who alienated them. We jump ahead 2,000 years, and in our wanderings we discover that God’s love for the world extends to our time and to our people too.
A friend of mine in seminary loved to quote a line from the hymn “My Song Is Love Unknown,” a few words which for him summed up the gospel. “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.” May we bear light to that hope, and live out God’s love for the world.