Things That Go Bump in the Night
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Fourth Sunday in Lent
3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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 apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a 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 you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that 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. 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.”
Over the past ten years, I found myself a frequent worshipper and guest preacher at the local Episcopalian church in Nashua. When I left the Baptist church I had pastored for ten years to spend more time with my family, professional boundaries dictated that I find another church to attend in that community where I continued to live. So I ended up at the Church of the Good Shepherd, a place as good as any to figure out the transition from the pulpit to the pew.
Now though I loved being in that Episcopalian worship service, I found that as an outsider (if you scratch me, I bleed Baptist), I had a tiny bit of trouble knowing what was going on at any given time in the worship service. By the time I figured out what book we were in, which page to turn to, or what phrases to say, with or without Alleluias, the rest of the congregation had galloped off to another place altogether and I was left with the stark realization that we were not, in any sense of the word, on the same page. I was known to wander up to the ushers in the middle of the service, hold out my program or my prayer book, barely able to hide the panic in my voice as I whispered: “Could you please show me where we are?” Imagine my relief when the liturgy board showed up. As controversial as a Nicene council, the liturgy board was high and lifted up in the front of the sanctuary. It would light up with divine guidance about what was going on and where to find it in the right colored book. “Now:” the lights blazed “BCP page 365. Next: Blue Hymnal Page 461.” For me, the liturgy board was my hope and my salvation, a very present help in time of trouble. (Although I kept expecting it to say: “Your flight is now boarding at Gate 17 B.”)
Ever hopeful, I conceptualized my sojourn among the Episcopalians as a particular benefit to my spiritual formation. For there, Sunday after Sunday, in my liturgical lostness I was practicing the art of Spiritual Confusion. I believed that in some mysterious way it contributed to my spiritual growth to be thrown off balance, because befuddlement can lead to experiencing familiar things in a new way. I harbor this unshakably optimistic belief that confusion can be a prelude to new insight, a breakthrough, newness of life. Perhaps this is why I am so fond of Nicodemus, for in him I find a companion for those times when the familiar religious terrain suddenly drops out from under our feet, becoming strange and unknowable.
I suspect spiritual confusion came as a surprise to Nicodemus, a man who occupied a position of power in the tribunals of faith. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and most probably a member of the Sanhedrin, the “Supreme Court of the Jewish people.” He comes to Jesus at night, a time symbolic of mystery and uncertainty. Night time, when we are apt to grope in the dark and to pray with fervor that old Celtic prayer “From Ghoulies and Ghosties and long leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, dear Lord, deliver us.” Night time, where the edges are fuzzy and the way unclear. But Nicodemus speaks out of a position of confidence, knowing that he has generations of tradition on his side. “We know….” He begins, taking the posture of a wise old rabbi, taking the newer, younger rabbi under his wing in a conspiratorial fashion. “WE know…” Nicodemus speaks on behalf of a theological perspective that has long since worked out the kinks of uncertainty. Nicodemus appears to be confident, bold, self-assured, a man with all the answers, but there in the nocturnal meeting with Jesus, “where things go bump in the night,” his safe little world begins to unravel. Nicodemus does not fully grasp that underneath his certitude is the possibility of uncertainty, and that even though he thinks of himself as having it all figured out, below the surface, he is deeply curious, and perhaps a little uncertain, and so he gives Jesus an opening.
We see you making your way through the darkened streets, Nicodemus, and we wonder why you are here. The records indicate that you are a man of light and reason, a learned man steeped in the discipline of scholarship. Yet here you are, driven by your curiosity, pulled by your insatiable desire to answer the question “Who is this man Jesus?” You begin with a statement and set the stage for a speech. But underneath the questions are bubbling away.
Nicodemus, you are experienced in detecting the subtle nuances in the thought of a rabbi. You are skilled in finding the loopholes in logic, articulate in the intricacies of faith. Why is it that you stumble here? There is no liturgy board lighting up with answers or directions for you in this midnight meeting with Jesus. You follow your curiosity and find yourself walking on thin air. Jesus speaks and you fan at the words, trying to coax them into an intelligible pattern. Jesus says one thing: “you must be born from above,” yet you hear another. “What does it mean, you must be born again?” How on earth can such a thing happen?
Confusion is the unintended consequence of your curiosity, Nicodemus, but don’t stop there. Think about it: if you are born again, then you must grow up again. Think about your life, Nicodemus. What would you do differently if you had half the chance? How would you grow up differently? How would you re-edit the narrative of your life? As you enter more deeply into your puzzlement, Nicodemus, you’ll find that Jesus is inviting you to be curious about your life, and to rethink your assumptions and conclusions with an altered perspective. You are challenged not only to conduct an autopsy on your past, but to look to the future through the eyes of redemptive possibility. How might your life be different if you were born again? How would your life be altered if you truly believed, from the beginning, that God loves you with an unconditional love? For God so loves the world, Nicodemus, for God so loves you.
Nicodemus, patron saint of the curious, we see you in the flickering lamplight, your face an arresting mixture of confusion and interest. Jesus waits, the silence broken only by the sound of the wind banging the shutter against the house. You tug at your beard and rethink your life, seeing your past and future through the eyes of the One who loves you. You are dizzy with the possibility of it all. And so are we. Born again? The mere thought of it sweeps through us and sends us reeling. You mean to tell us that our lives might be different? Imagine, a fresh start, knowing from the beginning of our lives that we are God’s beloved creation. Surrounded always by a God who sees us and hears us and knows us and mirrors us as God’s beloved children: absent the shame, absent the mistakes, absent the wounds, born again and growing up again in such a powerfully reorienting way. No wonder Nicodemus was confused. No wonder we are confused, the thought of growing up in God’s love bedazzles us to our core.
In a moment Nicodemus, you will disappear from this story. It is as if you need time to think about what Jesus offers you. You will remain silent throughout the rest of the gospel. We will wonder time and again what happened to you after this night. As the story unfolds, and Jesus’ popularity grows and his message spreads and the drama builds and the crowd shouts “Crucify him,” we do not see your face, Nicodemus, but we know you are there in the shadows, watching it all, your safe, predictable world coming apart at the seams.
Later, we will see you one more time, for you will come again to Jesus, this time as the day is dawning. Along with your friend Joseph of Aramathea you come to the tomb of Jesus, your hands full of burial spices and your heart full of sorrow. The last of your clearly defined world crumbling around you, and finally, you discover you are wide open to a God you cannot reduce to a set of beliefs or lock safely away in your dogma. Your spiritual confusion leaves you open to a God powerful enough to re-work your life and make it into something altogether new. And you will turn your face into the breeze that stirs, faintly at first, but then stronger, and you will catch the scent of dawn, and turn your open, newborn face toward the day, full of possibilities you can not yet imagine. And we stand beside you, Nicodemus, we slip our hand into yours, we stand together, astonished by a future we can barely imagine. AMEN.