08 Mar Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year A
Sunday 5th March, 2023
‘Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.’
Have you ever wondered about the street lighting in 1st Century Jerusalem?
Were there torches in brackets burning along the streets? Even if there were, they probably wouldn’t give off a great deal of light.
How late was it? Were the streets still crowded or were they fairly empty?
How did Nicodemus know where to find Jesus? – where was he staying?
He came by night because he wanted his visit kept secret – so he must have been very discrete in asking.
Had he witnessed the episode in the Temple when Jesus caused havoc by overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers and so on, or just heard about it? Had he witnessed any of his so-called ‘signs’ – or heard him teach? We aren’t told.
So many questions. But we know the story well. Have we ever wondered why John is telling us this story?
It is John’s Gospel, so everything has deeper meanings to be explored.
Nicodemus came by night – when it was dark. You might say that he was ‘in the dark’ about who Jesus really was. Perhaps John is encouraging us to ask ourselves: ‘To what extent we may be in the dark, too?’ Nicodemus was one of the leading Pharisees and ‘a religious leader’ and a man of faith, and he had obviously made a link between what he had heard of the ‘signs’ Jesus had performed and God, and he wanted to know more. He was serious in wanting to explore further.
He was curious – is this the reason Jesus didn’t respond to him immediately by entering a serious discussion? – why he seemed to tease him about being born ‘from above’? Was he testing him to see how ready he was to engage with what God was demanding of those he called to follow Jesus? Was Nicodemus really interested in understanding the way the ‘signs’ were pointing and ready to follow them?
We are here because we, too, are people of faith, and all of us at a different place on the faith journey. John may be suggesting that we, too, pause and ask ourselves how ready we are to go deeper into what God is asking of us now? – could this be why the liturgical commission has chosen this passage to be read as we settle into Lent?
Nicodemus realises he is onto something important – this is why he has come, but he isn’t ready to rock the boat. He knows the authorities, the ‘establishment’, are wanting to silence Jesus, and he doesn’t want to be on the wrong side.
Jesus challenges him to get off the fence: Jesus himself is ‘THE sign’ and, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, he himself will be lifted up to open the way to eternal life…and the challenge to those whom he calls to follow him is to risk being ‘lifted up’ – crucified – one way or another.
We don’t hear how the conversation with Nicodemus ended – John’s readers are left in suspense to ponder their own call. We do, however, hear of him later in the Gospel. Nicodemus is still one of the leaders of the establishment when the Temple police fail to arrest Jesus, and Nicodemus speaks up for him when the others decide he must be killed. They jeer at him and ask whether he is a Galilean too. Nicodemus was still pondering what it might mean to be born again. He had asked Jesus, ‘How can these things be?’ – and was still asking.
Where have we heard that question before? At the Annunciation, it’s Mary’s initial response to Gabriel’s message. What is lacking here is Mary’s ‘Let it be, according to your word.’
Like Abram in this morning’s first lesson, we are called to leave behind the familiar and safe, and set off, not knowing where we will end up.; and as we do, like the disciples, we will get hold of the wrong end of a lot of sticks; like them, there may be times when we run away – but God keeps on loving them and inviting them back; calling them to allow their lives to BE the sign of God’s kingdom on earth – and 2,000 years later God is still calling us to that radical conversion of life which we don’t understand and which only makes sense as we try to live it. But the more we do, the less self-centred we become, the less self-seeking, self-serving, and discover more joy in giving ourselves to whatever or whoever each new moment asks of us. We won’t ever know where the wind of the Spirit comes from or where it will take us, but it will lead us deeper into the righteousness the second reading spoke about —-
— and something I learned only recently is that while in current English, the word ‘righteousness’ has come to have rather pious, religious overtones, but the Greek word used in the New Testament – dikaiosune – also means justice.
…and we know what happens when justice stands up to corrupt or mistaken power: ‘I, when I am lifted up…’
In so many parts of society and in so many countries – and very obviously in the Church – the Establishment is being challenged. We are all being challenged to ask ourselves whether what we may have taken for granted really is of God, of the Kingdom, is this as we understand it should be. It does seem that there are gusts of the Spirit of Truth blowing all over the place, and we need to be humbly alert to the promptings of the Spirit – realising that we may well be ‘in the dark’ over some things and, like the disciples, have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.
Like Abram, we’re on the journey and we need to remember that “Faithful is the one who calls us.” Nothing, in heaven or on earth can separate us from the love of God. This is a truth we need to root into deeply so that when we find we disagree with someone, rather than want to kill them as the religious leaders did Jesus, we pray for grace to strengthen our respect and love for them, remembering Jesus’ prayer in John 17: ‘Father, may they all be one, with you in me and me in them, may they be so completely one that the world may believe.”
We may continue to ask, ‘But how can this be?’ The important thing is not to foreclose on the answer but hold onto the promise that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth – if only we will allow ourselves to be led!
Image: JESUS MAFA. Nicodemus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48385 [retrieved March 8, 2023]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).