Under The Cover of Darkness

Under The Cover of Darkness

It happens more often then you would think,
but less often then most pastors would like:
Someone comes up to you and says:
“I want to read the bible.
Where’s a good place to start?”

Most often, at least for me,
when someone asks that question,
I direct them to the gospel of John.

I do this for two primary reasons.
First, when I was the one asking,
that is where the spiritual leaders in my life directed me.
And second, because John’s gospel
offers a fairly straight forward narrative
that is easy to understand without needing too much background.

For others who recommend John, though,
the primary reason may be because
fairly quickly in the gospel
you get to the point where it says quite clearly
“For God so loved the world
that he gave his only son,
so that everyone who believes in him
may not perish but have eternal life.”

This verse, John 3:16,
is perhaps the most famous verse of them all;
it’s sometimes called the “simple gospel,”
meaning that it is clear cut
and without any real gray areas.
Believe in Jesus and you get eternal life.
Short and sweet.

But in that rush of John 3:16,
in our excitement to plaster it
on billboards and bumperstickers
and t-shirts and neckties,
we can forget how we got there,
what it was that brought Jesus to say those words.

A Pharisee, comes to Jesus, at night,
under the cover of darkness,
not with a simple question but with a real struggle,
a faith struggle that was not going to be resolved
in an open debate in the public square
in the light of day.

John chapter three
is the first place we read about this Pharisee named Nicodemus. He is a religious leader,
a teacher of the people of Israel.
Beyond that, not much is known about him.

It is safe to assume,
based on the accounts of the other three gospels
as well as later passages in John,
that the conflict
between Jesus and the Pharisees is a reality,
even though prior to chapter three in John we don’t see any of it.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night
specifically because of that unspoken conflict.
Nicodemus is wrestling with thoughts
that are nagging at his mind.

He knows of Jesus
and all of the signs and wonders he performs.
He knows that demons have been cast out
and that the lame have been made to walk
and that great displays of divine power
have been made by Jesus.
He knows these things.

Yet his own beliefs,
what has made him who he is,
the faith in which he was brought up,
they are all telling him that Jesus cannot be who he claims to be.

This isn’t the Messiah Nicodemus was looking for –
but here he is, all the same,
doing things that only someone blessed by God
should be able to do. Nicodemus is truly torn.

His beliefs, his community,
his organization are all telling him
that Jesus is not from God.
But his own eyes and his heart
are telling him otherwise.
And so he goes to Jesus,
at night, so as not to be seen
by the other Pharisees.

He wanted to have a word with Jesus
when no one else was around,
when he didn’t have to worry
about appearances or rumors,
but he could simply talk to Jesus
and figure out what it was about this man
that had him struggling with a faith
that was once so rock solid and absolute.

Unlike other religious leaders,
those who approach Jesus in the light of day,
hoping to stump or embarrass him
before witnesses,
Nicodemus doesn’t start by asking Jesus
an impossible question.

He begins, rather, with a statement:
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher
who has come from God;
for no one and do these signs
apart from the presence of God.”

A simple statement of truth,
the truth brought Nicodemus here,
a witness to what he himself can see
and nevertheless is wrestling to fit into his faith
and the community around him.

I think that is something we can all relate to.
We all have crises of faith from time to time.
It isn’t always easy,
when we are confronted with a bit of data or a truth or a feeling
that contradicts a long held belief.

It’s hard when what we thought was certain
suddenly seems a bit less rock solid,
and it forces us to make a decision:
Do we trust the evidence in front of our eyes,
or do we cling to the past,
regardless of how wrong it may seem
in light of this new idea or evidence?

Many of you know that my first years
in taking my faith seriously were grounded
in very conservative and fundamental traditions.
Traditions that took seriously things like
not allowing women to be preachers
and that wives should submit to their husbands.

At some point, those beliefs were challenged.
Those ideas that I had clung to
and believed in with all my heart
were confronted by a reality
that didn’t adhere to those beliefs,
and I had to decide whether or not
to dig in my heels
or venture out in a direction
that was uncomfortable
but seemed like where God was leading.

Venturing in a new direction,
even approaching a new teacher
or openly wrestling with a new idea,
can be a risky and dangerous thing,
especially for a religious leader like Nicodemus.

Whenever I read this story,
I remember
something that happened at a conference
I attended a few years ago.

Some of you may know the name Rob Bell.
Over the last couple of decades,
Rob has written some books that have presented
a different perspective on the Christian faith:

He’s embraced science,
he’s challenged assumptions,
and what really got him into trouble
was about a decade ago,
when Rob wrote a little book called “Love Wins.”

The basic premise of that book is that,
given the God revealed in Christ,
given his own experiences of living faith
and deepening understanding
of a gracious and loving God,
Rob was starting to question whether or not
that loving, gracious God really would or could
condemn any of God’s beloved ones
to eternal conscious torment in hell.

You can probably imagine the outcry:
for many Christians,
many of whom might have agreed
with a lot of the things Rob Bell had to say,
now he was going too far;

Questioning the reality of hell was heresy,
and a dangerous one,
and it was a line they were not willing to cross.
But this isn’t a story
about the influence and followers
Rob Bell lost
when he spoke honestly
about his changing beliefs.

No, this is a story about how risky it was,
in those days,
to even appear to be intrigued
by what Rob Bell had to say.

I was very excited to hear him speak myself,
so it came as a shock to me to learn
that one of the other pastors
who’d come to the conference
actually received a call from his church –
while he was there – telling him
that he was being fired,
because he had chosen
to attend a Rob Bell conference.

There is something scary about the realization
that even our leaders in faith are still learning,
wrestling, and growing –
which is exactly why Nicodemus
chose to check Jesus out,
not during the day, but secretly,
away from prying eyes,
in the darkness of night.

In a lot of ways,
the crisis faced by that pastor
is the same one faced by Nicodemus
all those years ago.

It was a tension between the way
his own faith was growing,
and the expectations and pressures
of the religious people around him.

For Nicodemus, he was pretty sure
that Jesus was, well, Jesus.
That Jesus was from God.
He wasn’t exactly sure what that meant yet;
maybe he wasn’t the messiah
but at least a prophet,
someone that he, and everyone else
would do well to listen to.

But Nicodemus couldn’t just say that.
There is too much pressure
from the faith community
when you express your doubt,
especially when it challenges
someone else’s power
or the answers they’ve built a life on.

There is tremendous pressure to conform
or be cast aside,
pressure to be just like everybody else.

And so Nicodemus goes to Jesus at night.
When there would be less pressure.
In darkness, so that he could still
return to his community
without the stigma of being a sympathizer.

Although we all have doubts,
for some reason,
we tend to keep them to ourselves, don’t we?

Maybe we keep them private
because everybody else keeps them private,
and we’re actually convinced
that we’re the only ones.

Or maybe we fear that if we give voice to our doubts,
it will confirm our worst fears.

Maybe we fear that,
if we’re honest about our struggles,
we will find ourselves
kicked out of our community of faith.
Maybe we fear giving voice to our deepest doubts
because deep down
we think that God cannot handle our doubt.

And that’s why this chapter is so wonderful,
what makes John 3 so important, so vital for us,
is that it is all in response to doubt.
This is the story of one man’s doubt.

The first 21 verses of this chapter are devoted
to the doubts of one person.
By all accounts, this was one person
who was very faithful to what he believed,
but ultimately, he was more concerned
about being faithful to God
than to his system of belief.
Yes, he comes in the darkness:
but don’t forget the important thing
is that he shows up al all.

Nicodemus had been raised
to believe in God a certain way.
To see the world in a certain light.
Nicodemus was trained and schooled
to interact with God
and others in a certain and strict manner.

Despite all of that,
what Nicodemus had heard and seen in Jesus
caused him to question and doubt beliefs
that he had held since he could remember.

And for those who go through life
hoping for and clinging to that kind of certainty,
this doubt is a terrifying proposition.
But the reality is, that kind of doubt,
is exactly where faith lives.

With that in mind,
let’s take a look at how Jesus responds to
Nicodemus’s doubt.

Nicodemus tells Jesus
that he knows Jesus is from God,
but then falls silent,
not willing or able to take another step,
and so Jesus decides to move things forward
with a statement of his own.

“No one can see the kingdom of God
without being born from above.”

Other places translate this as being
“born again” or “born a second time”.

This, of course,
only serves to cause a bit more confusion for Nicodemus.
Leave it to Jesus to begin
by dumping some mud
into the already muddy waters.

But that’s Jesus –
he speaks in parable and metaphor,
and he challenges us to wrestle
with the hard words
and find the grace there.

And that’s what he’s doing here, I think,
with this idea of being “born again.”
Obviously, he’s not talking about literal birth –
like Nicodemus thinks – but what does he mean?

I could spend a whole sermon on those words – “born again” –
but for today, what’s important,
is that being “born again” isn’t the same thing
as being utterly destroyed
and rebuilt from the ground up.

It’s a new start, yes,
but one that continues our story
rather than erasing us completely –
which is sometimes how we Christians
talk about this idea.

Sure, for some of us, that coming-to-faith moment
represents a radical change in our identity
and in the way we live, but even then,
we carry with us the lessons and the scars –
for better or for worse – of our life before.

The moment we are born something changes.
In a moment we go from existing in a world
that is dark and quiet and warm and cozy
to a world that is bright and noisy
and cold and vast.

There is a profound change that happens
in that moment while a lot stays the same.
I think it’s the same way
when we talk about being born again:
the person we were is still the person we are,
though profoundly changed,
as we enter a much broader world
on the other side.

Nicodemus doesn’t have to let go
of everything he’s believed;
rather, he is invited to see it in a new light,
with a much broader horizon,
as a part of an even bigger story.

All that Nicodemus was and is
at this point is not for nothing.
All that he has learned and believed
is not thrown onto the fire for burning
but rather is merely the basis
for which to begin again
with this new birth, this birth from above,
the birth of the spirit.
This is what we all must do.
Take our knowledge and experience
of all that has come before
and learn it anew in light
of all that we experience in Christ.

And even though Nicodemus
is still having a little trouble
comprehending all of this,
Jesus seeks to set
his heart and mind at ease saying,

“God loves the world so much – 
 God loves you so much –
that God sent me.
All you have to do is trust in me
and you will have eternity to figure out the rest.

God didn’t send me into the world to condemn it,
to tell you how wicked you are
for not believing exactly
the right way,
to judge you for not getting everything right,
but so that the world could be saved,
so the world might be transformed,
so that lives could be changed
by that deep and unfailing love.

John 3 is about so much more
than simply getting people into heaven.
It’s about realizing that it’s okay to wrestle
and to struggle with our faith;
that when we search for God,
even when we stumble
and feel our way under the cover of darkness,
God meets us there,
not with condemnation, but with love.

God loves you, Jesus says;
that’s why I came:
so you might know that God loves you,
so you might believe it; believe in me,
and we have an eternity to figure out the rest.

We don’t get to see Nicodemus
anywhere else in the bible
except in the Gospel of John.

We see him in chapter 3,
the passage we just read.

And then we see him again sometime later
as the Pharisees are trying to condemn Jesus.
Nicodemus speaks up
and reminds the other Pharisees
that their own laws demand
that Jesus have a hearing.
He insists on justice, even for the perceived enemy.

And then we get to see Nicodemus
one last time in the gospel of John.
All of the disciples have scattered.
Jesus has been crucified
and is now hanging dead on the cross.

Two men – not two of the twelve,
but Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea
go to Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus
so they can bury him.
Joseph gives Jesus his very own tomb,
and Nicodemus brings 100 pounds
of myrrh and aloes
to prepare Jesus body.

There are no other Pharisees present.
In fact, most of them are probably
wiping their brows in relief
or celebrating their victory.

But Nicodemus – who is still a Pharisee,
still a teacher of Israel –
Nicodemus is honoring and laying to rest
one who he knew to be from God.
One in whom he believed.

He may not have believed that Jesus was God
or even the Messiah.
But he believed that God was working in him,
through him, anyway; he believed in the Spirit,
who cannot be seen but is working all the same;
so Nicodemus’ mind and heart
were opened enough
to take a stand for an innocent man,
to take the risk of showing kindness
to his broken body.

His encounter with Jesus helped Nicodemus
to grow into a larger faith than he’d ever dreamed.

For us it means very much the same thing.
As we live into our faith,
as we wrestle with our doubts,
as we engage with where we really are
and all the things we don’t yet know –
that’s where God meets us,
and that’s where our faith deepens and grows.

We may not have it all figured out yet;
chances are, we never will.
But there is so much more to life
then getting the answers right:
and we could do worse
than being known as people who honestly wrestle
with the truth, as people who call for justice,
as people who are willing to learn,
and as people who offer compassion –
even for those who we once called enemies,
and for those who will never be able
to pay us back.

God’s love changed Nicodemus.
And God’s love meets us where we really are,
and changes us, too.
May we be blessed, as we wrestle and as we grow. Amen? Amen.

John 3:1-17

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