Our story for today about Nicodemus is familiar yet mysterious. It is full of metaphors and symbolism – light/dark, born anew/born from above, Spirit/wind, being lifted up or remaining rooted in the world, and reminds us of the signs that Jesus performs that are so central to the Gospel of John.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a prominent, well-educated member of the Sanhedrin council and teacher. The author makes a point to say that he came to Jesus at night. He might have been trying to avoid detection because such an important religious leader should not be seen seeking out a rabbi whose radical teaching was causing unrest among the people. Or maybe he came at night simply because night was the traditional time to study and he simply chose to do his research with Jesus on this particular night. It was common and not prohibited for Pharisees to seek out all kinds of teachers and sources of information.
Nicodemus states that the signs Jesus performs indicate that he has come from God, so it seems natural that he would want to ask him some questions. Since he was an intelligent and competent person, as well as a person of faith, it makes sense that Nicodemus wanted to know and understand what Jesus was presenting as a new way of believing in God. In the Gospel of John, the symbolism of night is very important – to be with Jesus is to be with the light that shines through the darkness, whether it is the darkness of ignorance, of sin or of unbelief.
In the past 40 years or so the term “born again” has been used to refer to a particular kind of faith whereby an individual has some sort of life changing experience that makes them feel as though they have been born again as Christians. When Jesus says, we must be “born from above,” he is talking about a spiritual quality; but Nicodemus takes him literally and wonders how a person could be physically born again. It is certainly possible and completely authentic to have some sort of dramatic “born again” experience, whereby a person can attribute their new-found faith to a specific moment in time that proves to be life changing. Some of us are seekers, constantly searching for that moment of insight, like Nicodemus. Others may just be living life as usual, not particularly engaged in seeking a relationship with God, when out of nowhere we see the light, hear the voice, or experience the power of the Holy Spirit.
The author C. S. Lewis is well known for his fiction, including The Chronicles of Narnia, (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) as well as adult fiction and non-fiction, all written from a Christian perspective. Yet he did not truly believe in God and Jesus until the age of 32. He grew up in his grandfather’s church in Northern Ireland, but it seemed to him that the main point of Protestantism in Northern Ireland at that time was not so much what they believed in, but emphasizing that it was not what Roman Catholics believed. College, army and the first world war all provided him with negative experiences of the Christian faith. As a brilliant young scholar, he accepted a vague sort of theism, believing in an “Absolute Power.” He was perfectly content in that state; he was not on a search for religious truth.
On a sunny morning in September, 1931, Lewis was riding in a sidecar to the Whipsnade Zoo. During the ride, he had his great moment of spiritual insight. As he wrote in his memoir, Surprised by Joy, “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.” That sounds both strange and almost unbelievable. Lewis emphasizes that his new faith was not an intellectual achievement, nor was it his solution to a theological argument; it was pure gift, grace, the result of a great surprise from God. Probably the most well known quote from Surprised by Joy is “night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him Whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. (On the night of his “aha moment”) That which I greatly feared came upon me…I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England…a prodigal who was brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.”
Lewis was the opposite of Nicodemus, who was seeking a closer relationship with God. Lewis wasn’t worrying about his fate or his salvation, he wasn’t searching for anything, yet God surprised him by joy. His ultimate conclusion was that “the hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.” Jesus was trying to convey the same thing to Nicodemus, that he could not achieve his own status or salvation with God, but that everything from God is pure gift. If we have any doubts, we are not to worry, doubt is part of faith. The wind blows where it will, the God who gave us life will give us new life time and again, until we finally become the creature God intends for us to be. God doesn’t worry about class or status or any other distinction such as place of birth, God gives the same honor to all God’s children.
For some of us, it is difficult to accept all that God has to offer as pure gift, and to acknowledge that faith can only come when we are willing to accept mystery. Like Nicodemus, we prefer to have an intellectual approach, we want to understand and see everything clearly. Yet Jesus tells us “the wind (the Holy Spirit) blows where it will.” Our gospel reading concludes with the famous verse John 3:16: “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.” We love that verse. Generations of Sunday school students have memorized it. Sometimes we forget that it is followed by verse 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.” Jesus was sent to save all, and it isn’t about who’s in or who’s out, but rather about God’s consistent intent to love, save and bless the whole world. We who have experienced that love in Christ are called to see persons of other faiths, even those with no faith, through the lens of that profound and surprising gift of love from God.
We hear about Nicodemus once more in the Gospel of John, when he helps Joseph of Arimethea prepare Jesus’ body for burial. It seems that he was able to accept the mystery and pure gift of God in Jesus, just as C.S. Lewis did. Amen.