Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017 Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: John 3:1-17
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Came by night
Let us pray. Heavenly Father of light, send now the Holy Spirit to give us the light we need to banish the darkness which prevents us from truly seeing and knowing Jesus who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
I want to begin this morning by sharing three quotes that relate to what we will ponder, digest, and apply from this morning’s gospel from St. John.
Recently, Canon Terry Wong of St. Andrew’s Cathedral of the Diocese of Singapore wrote a short article, entitled “I want to be a Christian in my heart.” Here is some of what he said.
“So, when we say a Christian is mature, what do we mean? Does this mean that we cease to read the Bible regularly and yet we are able to articulate spiritual solutions for society? Does it mean that we cease to be loving, kind and considerate towards those dearest to us, while we reflect on the deepest ideas of sacrifice for mankind and society? Does it mean that we try to save the whole world but lose our own family? Do we think of overseas missions but are clueless about sharing the gospel to an inquiring neighbour or colleague. (Titusonenine 2-5-17).
As to regular Bible reading the reformer, Martin Luther wrote, “You should meditate, that is, not only in your heart, but also externally, by outwardly repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them. And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding. You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that.” (Martin Luther in the 1539 Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of his German Writings)
Lastly and to lighten it up a bit is this quote—author unknown. “A grandfather was digging potatoes alongside his grandson. After several hours of hard work, the little fellow looked up into his grandfather’s face and asked, ‘Why did you bury all these things in here?’” Indeed, we might ask the same when it comes to reading the Bible. Why is so much buried there or is there? If so, then Martin Luther’s advice about meditating on scripture and seeing what the Holy Spirit means by its words are worth not only listening to but applying.
Granted, there is no question that reading the Bible can at times be challenging. Should we take what we read at face value or are there more potatoes, to be dug up? If taking scripture at face value were the criteria, then how should we take the meaning of what we read in Psalm 98:8? “Let the rivers clap their hands; Let the mountains sing together.” Are we to believe that rivers can clap or mountains sing? Is this poetic metaphor or might there be a spiritual depth to be discerned not only in this verse but other verses in the Bible? Might there be a depth, a credible depth of understanding that we have not considered or seen before, despite having read a particular passage any number of times?
This is the question I would like us to entertain as we begin to look at the reading from John’s gospel this morning. Because if we take what he says at face value, we will miss some good sized potatoes and deprive ourselves of their psychological and spiritual nourishment. So, let’s begin.
John does indeed have a way of using everyday terminology that can be tricky. In today’s gospel we heard, “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night.” Seems clear enough, no mystery here. John is merely telling us the time of day, right?
Emily and I are always amused when her brother, who lives in Birmingham, AL, which is in the central time zone, leaves a message on her voicemail. Invariably, he will begin by giving us the time. It is 6 PM here and 7PM were you are. He always gives us the time, noting the one hour time difference; as if we did not know.
Are we to assume then that John, like my brother-in-law, Buck, is merely giving us the time of day when he says Nicodemus came by night, or is there more to it? If we dig a little more, we will discover that John has more to offer us here—more and bigger potatoes. He is asking us to have ears to hear and eyes to see.
For example, we can read at the last supper when Judas leaves to betray Jesus, where John (13:30) has written, “So, after receiving the piece of bread, (Judas) immediately went out. And it was night.” This is more than a mere statement as to the time of day when the sun sets. Rather, darkness, the blackest of nights has now descended upon Jesus and His disciples. The disciples will desert Jesus and He will be crucified. This night of the last supper is more than the time of day. It is the darkest of all nights.
Having acknowledged that John might mean more than the time of day, let me suggest that there are at least three levels on which we are to understand this night by which Nicodemus came to see Jesus. There is the literal; there is the state of Nicodemus’ mind; and there is the spiritual. We will look at them at that order.
First, we need to acknowledge that indeed it might have been night when Nicodemus came to Jesus. It might have been night because the cover of darkness was needed. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and for him to consort with Jesus would be something tantamount to an Auburn fan consorting with an Alabama fan or a Democrat consorting with a Republican. You just don’t do that sort of thing. I am exaggerating here, but you get the picture.
Secondly, this night by which Nicodemus came to Jesus, says something about Nicodemus’ state of mind. His minded is darkened when it comes to understanding Jesus and who He is. Nicodemus is basically sitting there going, “Duh.” He doesn’t get it. “Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10 Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’” In all fairness to Nicodemus, what Jesus had said, well, it really does not make much sense—a man being born again.
I would suggest, however, that when it comes to understanding Jesus and who He is, the question of what it means to be born again is not foremost in our minds. What darkens our minds is more personal. We might wonder whether Jesus was a real person. Why should we believe in Him? How could He have died for our sins? Was that really necessary? Does He still perform miracles today? Wasn’t He just a man and a good teacher? We are intrigued, perhaps reluctantly, by this man (is He a man or more) and would like to ask Him why bad and tragic things have happened in our lives and the lives of others.
The challenge to any of us in this question is innot making God a god of our own making, otherwise known as idolatry. This in part might explain Nicodemus’ darkened mind. The savior he expected based on his miss-understanding of the Torah or OT did not look quite like Jesus.
You know, in a very real sense we all come to Jesus by the dark of night, by the night of our lack of being informed, our lack of understanding, our lack of belief, our lack of faith, and our lack of experience. Like Nicodemus we might even be a teacher, well informed, about the Christian faith, yet still we come to Jesus by night, not understanding and not quite believing in Him.
For the third and spiritual meaning, which John wants us to understand in Nicodemus coming by night; we need to back up to the beginning of John’s gospel. It is here that we start to understand that this night, this darkness, is something more than the time of day or a darkened mind. We read these words: “What has come into being 4 in him (that is Jesus) was life, and the life was the light of all people. And without him not one thing came into being that has come into being. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” We cannot stop here, however. What John is referring to by darkness, by night, requires us to go back even further in scripture. John expected his first readers, as scripture literate Jews, to recall an antecedent parallel to the words that I just quoted from his gospel. You will remember. They are from Genesis chapter one, the very first book of the Bible.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” In other words, when we heard in this morning’s gospel that: “a Pharisee named Nicodemus [. . .] came to Jesus by night,” we are to be alerted that this night to which John refers is something exceedingly profound and spiritual. By spiritual is meant spiritual substance and not some poetic metaphor. What might that be? What is the deeper meaning (allusion is more like it) of this night by which a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to Jesus, asking questions, serious, deep, and profound questions.
We have to return to Genesis chapter one or we will miss it. Listen again. “2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”
Did you catch the Genesis parallel to the beginning of John’s Gospel? Actually, it is vice versa. Along with Jesus being the light, Nicodemus being in the dark, there was the presence of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. About what is Jesus trying to teach Nicodemus? It is about being born again of the Spirit. Hearing this should excite us. Jesus in effect is taking Nicodemus all the way back (re-winding if you will) to the beginning of creation, offering him, offering us the opportunity to be born again, born of the Spirit. This is the original creation event being rebooted and humanity being poised for re-creation.
Another scripture parallel between the Old and New Testament makes this abundantly clear. We read in Genesis 2:7: ‘then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Then is John 20:22 we read where “[Jesus] breathed on [the disciples], and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Humanity is rebooted. God in Jesus breathed, not just the breath of life, but the breath of eternal life into the nostrils of the disciples.
This insight should blow our minds. It is a cosmic event. Not only are we through faith in Jesus given the opportunity to be born again and all that means—the redemption of the misery, the failings, the sin in lives (Do you hear that? Maybe, you can’t believe it.). Not only that, we are also given the opportunity through being born again of the Spirit to sidestep death (what could be a darker night than death) and fully come into the light. Whew! Can I have a halleluiah in spite of it being Lent?
By being born again of the Spirit through faith in Jesus we come out of the dark, the dark of our hearts and minds, the dark of the void (call it nothingness), and into the light. Wouldn’t we love to leave all the darkness we have known behind us and be healed of it? Nicodemus had to be born again of the Spirit in order to have eyes to see and ears to hear what Jesus meant and to find the biggest potato of all if you will. It was by the light of the Spirit that Nicodemus would be able to see, as we know he eventually did. Coming out of the dark of night for him and for us was not, is not necessarily an overnight process. Gradually, we come out of the dark and begin to see Jesus for who He truly us. As John tells us, “In [Jesus] was life. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). In these words we hear comfort and encouragement. No darkness can overcome us because of our faith in Jesus.
In these seventeen verses from John 3 the re-creation of the world is anticipated and foreshadowed. There is the light, which Jesus; there is the dark of night, and there is the Spirit. All these dynamics are found at the original creation except one, which is profoundly different in the re-creation. That different dynamic is the redeeming, shed blood of Jesus—something the original creation did not have. God in Jesus came to earth with the mission to re-boot, restore, renew, and re-create us, you and me.
When Jesus went to the cross He re-entered where it all began—the void and the darkness at creation. Remember Genesis 1:2: “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” By modern reference, think of a black hole in space where there is no light and where time stops. Jesus the creator for the sake of His creation, His fallen creation, let Himself be uncreated; that is die so that we might not die, but live. With the resurrection, Jesus successfully comes through the void and the darkness—the black hole. The new creation begins; the Holy Spirit of which Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, was poured out at Pentecost and wham, there was re-birth—the disciples were born again of the Spirit.
God’s love for is truly amazing. It is as if the manufacturer of our old cars, which had been giving us all kinds of trouble, were to show up at our houses with brand new cars to replace our old ones, at no charge, and he guarantees they would never, ever give us trouble again. Wouldn’t we be thrilled out of our minds? Wouldn’t our hearts burst with joy?
In a few moments Emily Grace Marie and Everett Byrnes will be coming to Jesus by night, as did Nicodemus, as did we and perhaps still do. They have yet to see Jesus for who He is and be born again of the Spirit. In time they will increasingly grow out of the dark and into the light of Christ.
They will not do it on their own, however. They have their parents, grandparents, godparents, and the church, you and me. You and I, all of us, are charged with guiding these two individuals into the full inheritance of the Spirit. No, it will not be an easy journey, but the light of Christ has and will overcome whatever darkness that they, that we, will encounter.
We know this through our personal experience (this is our testimony), we know it through the testimony of others, and we know it most importantly through scripture, which if we keep digging into, we will find no shortage of potatoes on which to dine—fat-free.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.