How do we begin again?

How do we begin again?

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘Youmust be born from above.’ The windblows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet youdo not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “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.

17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Let us pray. O Lord uphold me that I might uplift thee.

Today’s text is part of a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus that took place at night. I have spent this week really imagining what that encounter must have been like that gave birth to some of our most beloved words in Scripture.

I imagine Nicodemus telling his family he’d be back in a little while. Maybe someone asked him, “You sure you want to go out this late?” Maybe he gave a vague answer. “I, um, have to check on some things.” That at least was true. I doubt he went into details about his private meeting with this man, Jesus, who had caused such an uproar in the Temple that week, turning the tables, releasing all the animals, sending coins bouncing down the stairs. As a leader and scholar in that Temple, Nicodemus must have been playing clean up on aisle Jesus all week. And his friends probably had some choice names for Jesus besides Lord or Messiah.

But I think something had come loose in Nicodemus that week as well, seeing all those coins and animals run free. Something very deep within him. If there is one thing we know about freedom, it’s that it is contagious. Something in the dark recesses of Nicodemus’ spirit needed to venture out into the dark streets. After so much time around the 400 watt certainties of his Temple friends, he sought out Jesus by night, in a place where they could talk honestly. It’s like the folks who gather for AA in the basement of the church on Sunday nights because the bright light of a stained-glass Sunday morning is too much for the tender truth they need to tell.

 Biblical scholars, tongue in cheek, call this encounter Nick at Night. It contains echoes from the first chapter of John’s Gospel, which also talked about beginnings and God’s light and life coming into the world in Jesus and how the world simply could not comprehend it. But in the middle of today’s conversation, Jesus says it plain. God has only one plan. That plan is relentless, self-giving, world-saving love.

I imagine Nicodemus was a bit scared by the kind of love Jesus described. A love that makes the first move. A love that doesn’t flinch at death. A love that lays claim to all of eternity. It’s so much wilder than the transactional system he had known, on which he’d based his whole career. I suspect Nicodemus has been raised to expect a more controllable God, a God who would be pleased by a nice, donated dove and a sacred cow; a God who wanted people to say the right words at the Temple and not ask many questions. Nicodemus knew a God who was mighty and could be… smitey. But in Jesus, he encountered God as free as the wind. God able to bring about birth and rebirth. God who does not traffic in condemnation and perishing like people do. A God who loved the world. The Greek word is kosmos. A God with just one plan, to love us into eternal life through his son, Jesus.

This mystery man of Lent, Nicodemus, we see him two more times in Scripture. Can you remember when?

First, after this conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus would use his legal expertise to press the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, to give Jesus an actual trial rather than arrest him without cause[1]. Reminds me of John Calvin, who used his legal background to advance the Protestant Reformation.

And second, after the crucifixion, it was Nicodemus who anointed the broken body[2] of Jesus with an extravagant amount of oil. 100 lbs worth of myrrh and aloes. That kind of life change simply dazzles me. Nicodemus broke ranks. Then, he broke norms. Then, he broke open jars of oil to give royal honors to the king of kings.

And by virtue of the fact that we even know his story, I am guessing this Pharisee became a disciple. I am guessing he broke bread with them and maybe even built churches with them. Like those animals hoofing down the Temple steps into the world, it sounds like Nicodemus’ soul broke completely free.

This conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus reminds me of many parking lot conversations that happen at the church, you know, the meeting after the meeting, often when moths are swarming around the street lights and the stars twinkle through the trees and the truth someone needs to speak finally creeps out like a nocturnal animal. Someone decides it is time to start over at home or at work or with church. Someone decides to release that sleep-stealing worry or regret or pain or anger into the hands of God. Someone realizes that this dark chapter they’ve experienced has somehow curiously helped them see God in a whole new light.

Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor. She said “new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” 

Or beloved naturalist and poet Wendell Berry, who wrote, “Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

When I was studying this story, I learned that there’s a town in Kansas called Nicodemus. It was the town established by African Americans ministers after the Civil War, who sought a new life, a new start out West. Nicodemus from the Bible had long been a hero for enslaved people, his nighttime conversations with Jesus were like their secret worship services, where they sang and shared stories about a God who knew their suffering and moved toward them with love and freedom. So they named this town after him, a town for people wanting to start over. Well, that town grew. They built schools and businesses. It became an entire outpost for a new beginning. The Nicodemus spirit in that town spread across Kansas. And eventually African Americans in the state of Kansas pushed for equality in education and other areas of life. And then, nearly a century after the founding of the town of Nicodemus, Brown versus the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, would become the legal challenge to overturn the entire system of segregation in the country. That kind of change inspires me.

I don’t know what is keeping you up at night this year, as Lent moves along. Maybe a blur on the MRI or dark time for your family. Maybe an anxious fog settled over your spirit during the pandemic and hasn’t cleared yet. Maybe gloom from the headlines or the long shadow of the past or some silly stress make it hard to sleep. Maybe a question is on your mind and you don’t have perfect theological words for what you’re even asking. And you came to this place, like Nicodemus, willing to take a risk, sincerely longing for rebirth, hoping that what you’ve heard is true, following some kind of unused instinct, like the call of the wild on domesticated animals. If as far as you get this Lent is stepping outside at night and letting the arm on your arm stand on end before a God whose wild wind blows where it will and whose wild love sets us free, that’s a good start.

But maybe you believe. I mean that in the fullest sense of that word, not just information filed away in the brain, but more like the German word belieben which is the origin of that word Belieben is closer to belove. It means what you set your heart on. God has only ever had one plan, and relentless self-giving world-saving love in Jesus. Set your heart on that. Believe it and believe it. Be love in this world that God so loves.

[1] John 7:49

[2] John 19:39