Below is the sermon I delivered at St James’ Church Parish Communion on Sunday 12th March 2017. It reflects on the Gospel reading about Nicodemus who comes in the night to talk to Jesus. One imagines Nicodemus as a little tentative, reluctant, perhaps even anxious, yet somehow drawn towards the strange, confounding, compelling, but non-manipulative, person of Jesus. In this, Nicodemus is perhaps a model for a number of us today who do not easily articulate a faith and yet through the darkness reach out to one who seems to speak to us of real things…
Nicodemus is described in John’s Gospel as a leader of the Jews, a senior figure among the Pharisees. He approaches Jesus at night. I rather wonder if in those times it was rare for people to venture out at night. In Ecuador, for example, I was surprised that in Manta, the sizeable city where I was based for much of the time, the buses all stop around 8 pm. It is insecure after dark which means fewer people are about which in turn makes it more dangerous: a vicious cycle that would be much more pronounced in an age without electricity and street lighting. But for Nicodemus, afraid to lose face with his colleagues and reluctant to appear in public among Jesus’ rather ragtag followers, the night is his cloak and confidant as he comes tentatively to enquire…
The darkness is also, surely, symbolic. Nicodemus, although well educated and well read, is none the less groping in the dark spiritually. In this he represents many whose lives may be outwardly successful enough. We succeed in convincing others, and even ourselves, that all is well, and well organised, and holding together – most of the time… Until, perhaps, a crisis comes: an accident, an illness (physical, or mental), a separation, a death close to us that catches us unprepared. Or it may be some apparently small thing, but it gets behind our defences, the dam is cracked and the flood overwhelms us. Until then, we get by well enough, most of the time…but when we encounter Jesus the world and the life we have known suddenly seems but a land of shadows compared to the light that beckons. To this degree, many of us, when we pray in bewilderment or cry out for help, are like Nicodemus, approaching Jesus at night. Many of us when we wonder where the years went and whether there is still time to recover our earlier love or a joy that once seemed close but now more elusive, we are like Nicodemus as he puts down his books, his candlelit face turned towards the door. We, when something prompts us, against all the easier and pleasant alternatives, to step into this Church, this holy place set aside as a space for meeting Jesus, we are like Nicodemus as he made his excuses to his family that evening and stepped anxiously, awkwardly along the echoing, empty Jerusalem alleyways to where he heard he might find Jesus…
The ensuing conversation between them, as related by John, is however, to my ears, perplexing. I think it is intentionally so. Nicodemus’ opening compliment – we know that you are a teacher from God, because the great works you do show us that – is countered by Jesus’ enigmatic No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. It is a reply worthy of the great Buddhist teachers, deliberately perplexing those seeking instant wisdom with words designed as much to unsettle and disturb the seeker from their usual, complacent way of thinking.
Nicodemus responds with the understandable, rather bleak question, How can one like me, old and set in my ways, be born anew? I think in this he probably speaks for many of us. We have tried before, perhaps many times, to change ourselves. It never lasts, never really ‘takes.’ And now my life is enmeshed far more in things, many of them good, which constrain my options: marriage and family, and work, house and mortgage and chairmanship of the Bowls Club. Jesus in his response shifts the perspective to a more fundamental level and speaks of a real or metaphorical baptism that comes from outside of ourselves: not just another well-intentioned resolve of ours, but a letting God in: no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. As one blown by the wind, such a person’s life is inspired (‘in-spirited’) in a way that no self-help book or lifestyle change can duplicate. We are back to a similar change of outlook that I spoke of last week when I described myself as just a speck of dust being blown by the draught in this tiny corner of the universe, and yet at the same time being the object of infinite, focused love. It’s not all about me, and yet God is all about me, and you, and him and her and each of those other specks of dust who inhabit our astonishing, tiny, unsearchable, miraculous world.
Nicodemus is reduced to a rather endearing simplicity and brevity, How can these things be? At this point Jesus points to an eternal pattern of God’s activity, which is and always has been Christ-like, always poured out for us, and which now has taken the next and unique step of being revealed in human flesh and blood. And he points to where that eternal Christ-likeness of God is tending: just as Moses lifted up the serpent (twined around a bronze pole, to bring healing to all who had been poisoned by deadly venom when they looked up to it) so must the Son of Man be lifted up (on the bleak wooden cross, so that all who are poisoned by the deadly venom of sin and selfishness may gaze there and receive healing and hope.) 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.
The effect of this escalating discussion, from Nicodemus’ opening pleasantry to Jesus’ conclusion that speaks of the whole world being saved through him, would be disorientating for Nicodemus – but is for us readers and hearers as well. Several of the dialogues between Jesus and others as related in John’s Gospel have a similar, disconcerting, almost cathartic manner: they don’t ‘compute’ in the way that is normal among our conversations one with another. But this, while perplexing, feels like a liberating step-change. So much of our interaction with others, so natural and so essential, can simply reaffirm our self-regard and our usual patterns of life and our prejudices. And the ego is so often uppermost. We can all identify, or identify with, the person who concludes a long account of their own concerns by saying ‘well, that’s enough about me. So what do you think about me?’ … And if we’re honest, some of us can admit a little discomfort amid our amusement. For Nicodemus, and all who meet Jesus, one senses there is no such option. The usual centre of gravity in our conversations is weighted towards ourselves and towards concealment of the awkward and the painful. When we meet Jesus the centre of gravity shifts radically towards truth and towards God and towards the reality that is each person in their incompleteness and need. The effect is both disconcerting and profoundly liberating, and as we hear of such encounters in the Gospels we can be caught up into Nicodemus’ and others’ experience. It is for this reason that our reading of the Gospel is often attended by ceremony and ritual. We stand, and turn to face the reader. There are lighted candles, perhaps incense, and singing before and after. Jesus’ words are not addressed to us as a ‘G’mornin’, how are you?’ and our response is not ‘Fine thanks. How are you?’ Instead we say ‘Glory to you, O Lord’ and ‘Praise to you. O Christ.’ We here – and I am reluctant to say my language here is only metaphorical – we here are entering another world entirely, we are stepping, even if only for a short but significant while, into the Kingdom of Heaven, the place where God reigns and where we are – as this year’s Lent course and the movie at its base put it – ‘finding our true voice.’
As always I want before I close to offer some practical or tangible way for us to respond and go forward.
First I will mention again the opportunities provided by this season before Easter. Put aside all negative associations with Lent. God isn’t too concerned about what you give up, I feel, and he certainly doesn’t want you to become discouraged or downbeat because of sin, he’s forgiven all that long since. But I think he is supremely interested in your restoration to health and to wholeness. The Praying Together booklets provide a simple but I think profound series of short readings, reflections and suggested responses. It is a way of tapping on the Kingdom of Heaven’s door each day. The Lent Course I have already mentioned and only so many can make it to one of the various groups and it isn’t going to suit all. But it will be a help to some, and that some might just include you.
Secondly, and if you don’t attend a course you may like to try this exercise during a suitable 40 minutes or so sometime, you can practise a kind of prayerful entering into the conversations of Jesus using your God-given imagination. Take almost any passage in which Jesus speaks with others, one that somehow calls your attention. Read it, slowly, and probably more than once. And imagine yourself into the scene. Feel free to join in. Ask your own questions, and your imagination, or the Spirit of God (or more likely both), will suggest some interesting and even surprising responses from our Lord. If you choose to be Nicodemus, for example, you might imagine what kind of darkness assails you right now. Tell Jesus about it. You will I think be surprised by the outcome – and if it is all too puzzling you can talk to me or Lewis or anyone else you can trust, who will listen and respond with prayer and understanding.
You know, Nicodemus (we hear elsewhere in John’s Gospel) spoke up for Jesus among the other Pharisees, and was there on hand to help Joseph of Arimathea in lifting and anointing Jesus’ dead body. He played his part and so can each one of us. We just have to ask, and listen.
I sat in for a short while this week with someone completing a big, difficult jigsaw. After much fumbling and disappointment I finally added one piece and punched the air with pride. We have a God who is slowly and determinedly putting together the disordered fragments of our lives. He sees the bigger picture. And if we will let it be so, we can let go of our misguided efforts and let God in and let God inspire our being made anew. For, as Jesus concludes his words with Nicodemus, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.