Year A; Lent 2; 3.8.2020
I love this guy! A learned, upstanding religious official lurking in the darkness like a teenager meeting with Jesus in secret so “the popular kids” wouldn’t see how serious he was.
I first fell in love with him in the 1970s Franco Zeffirelli mini-series, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Some of the very greatest actors starred in this series. Sir Laurence Olivier played Nicodemus as a searching, sensitive, wealthy, learned man of authority. He did not appear in the dark of night as in the story we just heard. But he appeared to deliver an important argument for the arrested Jesus in the court of the Jewish authorities, the Sanhedrin. There, he calmly and reverently shared his faith in the arrested holy man standing before the court. Later, after the crucifixion, he and James Mason, another great actor who played Joseph of Arimathea, took care of the body with anointing oils and loads of expensive spices.
We are introduced to Nicodemus today in the dark of night. Something about Jesus caught his soul. All the authorities saw the signs, heard his words and understood that Jesus was a holy man, a man of God. But Nicodemus dared to want to know more. We can’t blame him that he wanted to sneak out in the dark to meet Jesus. He was afraid to be seen; afraid to be associated with this holy man who was already raising eyebrows claiming to be from God. One scholar calls Nicodemus “…the original night stalker.” Maybe he had been stalking Jesus at night for a while.
But THIS night he made sure he would have a conversation. Jesus saw his curious soul and obliged. Whatever aroused his curiosity about Jesus and prompted him to act, he put himself on a path that moved him forward in faith even if he had set limits on going too far with Jesus that night.
Over the years, Nicodemus has not had a very good reputation. One theologian writes, “He hovers on the margins and in the shadows of John’s story.” He is accused of being insincere and wanting to have his religion both ways – in safety as a wealthy learned leader AND secretly desiring to follow Jesus.
John Calvin, the 16th Century Protestant reformer “…referred to those who sympathized with the movement for reform of the church but who were reluctant to be publicly identified with it, as ‘Nicodeem-ites.’” But I see Nicodemus as a seeker. I see him as someone whose faith Jesus wanted to nurture, to set free, to come alive as in a rebirth.
I believe that Jesus wished to “win” Nicodemus and share with him the power of God’s love: “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. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This, on the lips of Jesus speaking to Nicodemus the seeker, is great news: God loves YOU, and you are not condemned for ever. You are saved.
Sitting in the dark or meeting up with Jesus in the dark is a good thing. Sometimes all we have is the dark. I remember after my father died in May of 1984, I would go out after dark in the back yard and sit and cry. Sometimes, I would drive around in the dark and cry. I felt a closeness to God who gave me a sign in the moonlight that I was not alone in my grief. It is easier, I think, to talk to Jesus in the dark, than in the daylight when who knows who might overhear the sorrows and doubts of a fledgling faith.
Recently, I ran across a series of direct Facebook messages from friend of mine from high school. I saw him this summer at my mother’s funeral. He and his wife came to Kansas from Oklahoma City where they live. My friend Ralph had begun correspondence with me a few months earlier when his daughter was diagnosed with a rare intestinal tumor that was malignant. He asked for prayers and a private place to write about his worries.
Ralph and I used to be in the high school youth group and we would talk philosophically about religion as if we were intelligent and theological grown-ups! We weren’t. We loved the rock opera “Jesus Christ, Superstar” and that was “proof” to us that we were religious.
Ralph and I stayed in touch during college, and even after we married and started households. He became an “Ad Man” and worked for companies like Coors, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Sonic. I’ll never forget his description of the day his daughter, his first child was born. He donned the hospital gown, gloves and surgical mask. He described being so overcome with joyful emotion, so moved by the miracle of his daughter’s birth, that he cried so hard that the tears and the, excuse me, his word, “his snot” filled his surgical mask. I remember him telling me that he was surprised by his reaction and knew that he had experienced the miracle of new birth.
But it is this daughter who now has two little children of her own whose life is in jeopardy and whose future is uncertain. Ralph contacted me with his worry about the tumor she had growing in her abdomen. He wanted to tell me everything. He asked for prayers before the surgery. He was heartbroken to learn that, after surgery she would not allowed to lift her two-year-old. This broke Ralph’s heart because he knew the child couldn’t understand why mommy couldn’t lift her.
Throughout the summer and into the fall, there were major victories and major threats. The uncertainty was really getting to him. One night he wrote me these words, “Sitting in the dark. Big T storm in OKC. [Daughter’s] update…6 weeks ahead of schedule they are allowing her to lift her daughter a little. MRI this week to see if disease is re-forming somewhere else. Pray to God – not, of course. What else can you say?”
As he waited in the Atlanta airport to come home from an “Ad Buy” in New York around Christmastime, he wrote to me of another threat. “Somehow I feel like God has put me in time-out for a few hours. This waiting for another biopsy result, with the uncertainty of what happens next with a few different treatment options for the oncologist…if it is another…tumor…working really hard to look at it in a positive light…we thought she might be dead six months ago…I’m crying for her on the inside now.”
My friend, the “Ad Man” is seeking, struggling to connect with God in the dark days of doubt. But he connected to me with a gift, his real, human struggle, honest and clear, hoping to hang on to a shred of faith. His was the uncertainty of the future of this precious “child” of his – this child whose miracle of birth caused his surgical mask to fill with tears and snot, whose life now is threatened with cancer. This good “Ad Man” struggles with his desire to know that God is near and that God is listening to his anguish and that God is not forsaking him.
GOD DOES NOT PUT US IN TIME-OUT! Yet, that is exactly what it feels like sometimes. The story of Nicodemus reminds us that even the most successful, best educated, and most important people among us, hope and search and want to connect with God.
Imagine sitting in the dark. Imagine asking Jesus to come near.
Imagine Jesus saying right in our ear, in the dark, without judgment, without condemnation, “God loves you and is always near. Now, child, go and walk as a child of the Light.”