It’s sort of like the jock surreptitiously talking to the geek in the locker room after everyone else has changed for the day. The jock glances around to make sure the coast is clear, he cautiously steps over toward the geek’s locker, and says, “Hey. I’ve just sort of realized that I’m not going to make a sports scholarship for college, and I’m surely not going to be able to play professionally, so I think I need to rethink how I’m going about life here. You know stuff, you’re going to do well in life, I can tell. I think I need your help.”
The wise geek is willing, but the jock isn’t quite finished drawing the boundaries, “So, no one can know anything about me asking for your help; don’t get me wrong, I know I need a major overhaul on my life to be able to make a living, but it’s got to be secret. I have a reputation to uphold, and I can’t be seen even talking to you, you know?”
If life is high school, then Nicodemus was a jock. Nicodemus—let’s call him “Nic,” for short—was a Pharisee, one of the religious rulers of the Jews, as the first verse of our Gospel lesson outlines for us today. I don’t imagine that he was a bully, indeed, as he shows up a few more times in John’s Gospel, we get to see that he’s really a gentle, sincere sort of person. So this compassionate, questioning man, fighting against his reputation and his responsibilities, comes to Jesus under the cover of night.
In the verses just after our lesson (John 3:1-17) ends, Jesus offers an interpretation of what’s going on in Nic’s life; through the these verses, we can see much more clearly what Nic’s struggling with, and perhaps what we, too, might be struggling with here today, in Lent, and in our lives:
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. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
Nic comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, he’s too afraid or too ashamed to approach Jesus in the light of day. Partially, he’s looking out for his reputation, but maybe another part of him is afraid of Jesus seeing him in the full light of day. In verse 2, Nic says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” He recognizes who Jesus is, or he at least sees Jesus more clearly than most of the other jocks—I mean Pharisees—of his day. Knowing that this man, or this God-man, has special power to heal and teach and convict and cleanse, Nic might be afraid of facing him when the shadows can’t help cover up some of the shortcomings Nic sees in himself.
Lent is the set-aside season of the church year when we look especially hard at ourselves in God’s mirror. We peel away distractions in order to listen to God better, and perhaps we take on a practice or commitment that demands more of us—it makes us see how much we depend on God.
This week, I was talking to a friend of mine who was reflecting that Lent had turned out to be a lot harder than she’d counted on—she’d decided to give up worry this year. It was a sort of relief at first—“No one by worrying can add one hour to his life,” so Matthew and Luke’s Gospels tell us, but when the novelty wore off, the hard, daily, hourly work of resisting worry set in. She discovered that worry had been a sort of security blanket, a way to escape the present by concentrating on the future and giving us a sense of power over a given situation. Though worry, with its hand-wringing and stomach-tightening and worst-case-scenario-making seems unpleasant, it’s often a tool that lets us stay alone in the dark just a little bit longer.
In the dark, Nicodemus is still counting on the security of his own reputation; he’s curious about Jesus, but not curious enough to risk his social reputation or his hard-earned place of respect.
God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn people who are stuck in the dark, but to save them—to save us. Clinging to worry and reputation, our back-up plans or our carefully-constructed public image, keeps us in the dark, unable to learn from God the way that the first disciples of Jesus did.
Peter’s always shooting his mouth off in broad daylight, the sons of Zebedee are grasping for places of honor in God’s kingdom—they’re just as faulted as NIcodemus, but they’re humble enough to follow Jesus in the broad light of day.
What if we talked about Jesus as if he was actually still here? What if Jesus is still here with us through the Holy Spirit? What if we lived every day knowing that God sat next to us, supporting us, loving us, always ready to pick us up if we fall?
God so love the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.