Genesis 12:1-4a+Psalm 121+Romans 4:1-5, 13-17+John 3:1-17
My husband Tim’s Grandma Thomas used to say to her teenaged grandsons as they went out for the evening, “Remember, nothing good happens after midnight.” In the Cleveland, Ohio of the 70’s and 80’s, she may not have been far from wrong, but she also knew that people do things in the dark of night that they might not otherwise do: things no one can see, things hidden by cover of darkness.
Our old friend Nicodemus understood the power of the night to cover his tracks, too, as he undertook an errand that could have gotten him into deep trouble with his fellow Pharisees and the temple authorities. I have, over the years, developed a strong affection for Nicodemus. He is sort of a stand-in for anyone who is kind of sort of interested in this Jesus character, but when he tries to get some answers is met with church-speak-words like soteriology or eschatology or exegesis. To someone not on the inside (and even to some who are), what do those things even mean?
I don’t think Jesus was intending to be misleading or malicious. But this was a leader of the Jews who launches this conversation with the statement that “we know that you are a teacher,” but who is this “we” he’s talking about? In the chapter before this one, Jesus cleanses the temple of the money-changers, one of the significant differences between John’s gospel and the others. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this episode comes as the final straw before the religious authorities have Jesus arrested. John, on the other hand, puts it at the beginning as Jesus’s inaugural proclamation. The religious authorities know from the outset that this is someone they need to watch.
So maybe Jesus was a little suspicious of this Nicodemus character when he arrived at night to ask questions of him. Maybe he was having a little fun at Nicodemus’s expense. I mean, Nicodemus was the authority. Jesus was just a barefooted goober from Galilee. Yet here Nicodemus is, the “expert” seeking instruction from a (probably) uneducated handyman from the north country.
It is not an entirely satisfying conversation for Nicodemus. But whatever it was, it was enough for him to defend Jesus – not very enthusiastically, but at least half-heartedly – four chapters later when the authorities want to arrest him (John 7:45-42). And, in the end, it is Nicodemus who helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus, bringing enough burial spices for an army of bodies (John 19:38-42).
Something happened to Nicodemus over the course of John’s gospel. He hears all of this about being born from above and perhaps the most famous words in the bible:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
(I just don’t think Jesus could have imagined that the words “John 3:16” would end up on placards and billboards at sporting events worldwide in the 21st century.)
I also can’t imagine that Nicodemus could possibly grasp the importance of those words. And we don’t know if he had any other contact with Jesus, but it seems pretty clear that something about this encounter worked on him, began to nudge him. Why else would he stand up to his temple colleagues and finally come out into the open to bury Jesus?
Conversion is a funny thing. It isn’t about being “born again” in one brilliant flash. Sure, some people have an ecstatic experience of God, but it can be a long and winding road for that flash to come into some kind of substance. Abram may have pulled up stakes and left his home and country to go where God told him to go without any questions, at least according to Genesis, but it was a long and winding road for Abraham in his walk with God. He wasn’t at all sure God’s promises would be fulfilled. He fathered Ishmael with his wife’s servant, Hagar, just to make sure he would have an heir. That led to all kinds of trouble when Sarah finally conceived as an old woman and gave birth to Isaac. He bartered with God for the lives of ten righteous of Sodom and obeyed God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. By the time he died and was buried next to his beloved Sarah in the cave at Machpelah at Hebron, a hundred years had passed in biblical time. It was a long and winding road for Abraham and God.
We don’t know how things end for Nicodemus, but I think he walked a long and winding road, too.
I don’t think Jesus tried to save Nicodemus. I imagine that in some way they encountered each other enough that they could walk in something like love together until the end of Jesus’s life.
This is why I’m such a fan of Nicodemus. We don’t know if he ever showed up for one of those meals Jesus had with everyone, and we don’t know if he made a pledge, or came to Sunday school, or participated in any programming, but he had enough of a taste of what Jesus had to offer that he kept showing up.
If I am honest, I admit that sometimes I find myself in Jesus’s presence and have no clue if I understand what he’s talking about or what the right theology is or even what the Church says is the proper interpretation or practice. But something about this Jesus invites me to keep showing up, to keep asking the questions, and to walk in love with all of you.
I invite you to keep showing up, too. Keep asking the questions. Don’t worry so much about the answers or about whether you’re doing it “right.” Just keep showing up, and Jesus will meet you, right where you are.