It was dark when Nicodemus visited Jesus.
That is where the story starts – with a small detail of timing – and yet for John, Nicodemus’ arrival in the dark is significant. This is the kind of detail that catches his writerly imagination and he spins it out theologically. Darkness and light. The hidden and the clear. If we extend the lectionary just a verse or two, we find John’s passage about those who do evil hating the light and hiding in darkness so that their deeds may not be exposed. Perhaps he wants to see Nicodemus as one who wants to be hidden. He comes, concealed by darkness, to confront Jesus.
And yet I wonder.
Night time is also a time of quiet visits. In our home, night time is the time for steps in the hallway. Blue tends to fall asleep easily most of the time – though he assures me that it takes him years and he really is awake until at least midnight – but Beangirl often takes longer to settle. After the bedroom light is turned off and her brother is snoozing, she is alone with her thoughts, and it is then that something will surface that will make her worry or feel afraid. Something will make her come and look for me. Sometimes, I am in the kitchen when she finds me, typing or washing dishes, tidying away the day one way or another. Often, all that is needed is a glass of water and a hand to hold on the way back to bed but on other nights we go into the living room and sit down together on the sofa. We might discuss a worry or we might not. Sometimes it is enough to be together in the light.
I wonder what it was that brought Nicodemus through the dark streets to the place where Jesus stayed.
He begins their conversation almost formally.
“Rabbi, 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.”
There is no challenge here. No debate. You might even call it a confession, although Nicodemus seems to be keep Jesus at arm’s length by saying “we know” instead of making it personal.This use of plurality conceals as much as the shadows do.
But Jesus answers him directly, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
This passage is often read as one akin to the conversation with the rich young man, with Nicodemus painted as yet another Pharisee come to challenge Jesus. But in the passage, I don’t find that seeking or confrontation at all. Just quiet footsteps in the dark.
Nicodemus has seen something and he has come to Jesus, trying to put it into words. And then Jesus does the same for him. He shows Nicodemus what is going on in his own heart. Jesus sees Nicodemus as the one who can see the kingdom of God in his signs and teachings. Jesus tells him that this if proof that he has been born again.
But this is too much. Nicodemus can’t understand this kind of poetry. He is a man of logic – a theologian and an interpreter of the law. Jesus’ words are unsettling. Nicodemus is not used to standing in a place where reason fails. But this is a place where we all must stand at some point in our lives. In joy or in sorrow. In pain or abandon or grief or loneliness or moments of calling and clarity. Moments when we are blinded, unsure if we are standing in the darkness or in the light. Dazzled and blinking. Like birth itself. And all of life flows from there.
Jesus sees Nicodemus struggling with this paradoxical image so he tries a different angle. He offers a bit of Jewish wordplay with the wind and idea of the Spirit that goes right back to the beginning of Genesis, and when Nicodemus struggles with that too, Jesus suggests historical images – Moses in the wilderness, the serpent with the ability to save. Perhaps these images from their shared religious imagination might open Nicodemus’s eyes again. Like the signs and stories of Jesus, these many images are also places where the kingdom of God might be glimpsed.
It is perhaps ironic that this quiet conversation is remembered for its loud blockbuster-bumper-sticker conclusion.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
It is a bright, loud verse, ringing with certainty. I wonder how Nicodemus heard it. Was it for him the moment of clarity? Or was it the layered images that worked their way into his understanding and brought him, in the end, to the foot of the cross?
In these Lenten days, perhaps we need both. We need the quiet darkness in which we can approach Jesus. And we need the bright light of clarity. We need Jesus’ encouragement to look more broadly, to see what troubles us, what makes us question and what we need to share. We need the thousand images Christ offers – signs and wonders in the natural world, poetry from our history, words of promise and lasting life, and we need these bright, bright words of Christ.