John 3:1-17 – The Second Sunday of Lent – for Sunday, March 12, 2017
“Nicodemus said, ‘How are these things possible?’” (John 3:9)
So began a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, between a “Jewish leader” and the upstart from Galilee. The established order and the disrupter meet. The one with questions on how to live seeks to learn from the One asking questions that lead to living now.
For this second Sunday of Lent, did you notice that two words were absent from the verse quoted in the opening sentence?
He came to Jesus at night and said to him . . .
Do those two words make a difference?
It was at night, while making dinner, when I asked my wife to marry me.
It was at night, in a phone call with a frightened voice, when a church member once called me. He wanted me to be with him after his house was burglarized.
It was at night when my older sister phoned and told me Dad had died.
It was at night that a nurse called, informing me that Mom had died.
It was at night . . .
How many have had—in those darkest of hours—conversations, phone calls, tweets, texts, and (for those old enough to recall) telegrams that changed your life? Some changes were for the worst, while others were for the better.
Oh yes, these moments happen in the glow of the dawn, the glare of the noonday sun, and under the fluorescent lights at work. And yet isn’t it different for that phone to ring late into the evening? Maybe you’re dozing in front of the television. Maybe you’re sipping tea and have disappeared into a novel’s page-turning story. Maybe you’ve already trudged to bed, warm and toasty beneath the blankets. Then the ring—how loud it clangs in the soft stillness of the night.
Or perhaps it’s a knock on the door.
And you answer. Fearful? Apprehensive? Cautious?
Nicodemus stands there. Nervously, he smiles.
Why did the “Jewish leader” come in the night?
I wonder . . .
Was he afraid of Jesus? Was he afraid to be seen with Jesus?
Was he ashamed or guilty?
Did he dread becoming tongue-tied, unable to openly express the statements and questions that troubled him? Wasn’t it easier to be embarrassed at night with (hopefully) only Jesus present?
In most of my long ago, far away sermons or lessons on John’s third chapter, I’ve assumed Nicodemus arrived at night because of fear. He feared failing if he said or did the wrong thing with Jesus. He feared his peer’s reactions if they discovered he’d visited this country bumpkin who’d supposedly healed a few losers, low-lifes, and liars. Nicodemus may have even feared that Jesus would refuse to see him . . . unless he just showed up at his door.
But now I think differently.
What if it’s unleashed faith rather than unsettling fear?
+ + +
I actually asked my wife to marry me on two occasions. The first was on a church youth backpack and, truth be told, we still hardly knew each other. We’d been dating. There was a connection, a spark. I felt it. I (mostly) knew she felt it. She was one of several adults I’d asked to help lead a group of youth into the Sierra wilderness. And on one not so fine mountain morning, between rain showers, with the sun momentarily glinting through the clouds, with the surrounding trees dripping with moisture, some strange words tumbled from my mouth.
I asked her to marry me!
She didn’t say no.
She didn’t say yes.
Let’s wait. Ask me again. Please.
We were both divorced. Both wounded from past relationships. Waiting made sense. Waiting was adult and mature.
And waited. Yes, I worried. Yes, I feared rejection. Yes, I couldn’t stop thinking about a future together. Fools we humans are.
And then one night, months after that first rain-drenched question, I was at her apartment. We were fixing a simple dinner. I probably had a church meeting later, or had just come from one. And then, without plans, without rehearsal . . .
I couldn’t not ask her the question.
That’s how I believe Nicodemus felt. That’s how I believe faith at its purest and most hopeful and most reckless and most intense can feel. The questions that matter the most roil our minds. They flutter in our hearts like butterflies with wings of steel. We long to ask them. We try, but can’t suppress them. We doubt that we can say and do the right thing at the right time with the right person. We hope we’re articulate. We fear mumbling and bumbling and ruining the moment.
I believe Nicodemus could no longer be silent. He couldn’t keep the questions of life trapped in his self-doubting mind. He had to see Jesus . . . NOW!
At the worst time.
At the best time.
In the time we can never tell is right until it can’t be wrong.
I recall we were frying triangles of tortillas to make chips for a semi-Mexican meal. They sizzled and popped in an iron skillet and I turned and asked the question.
My future wife said, “Yes.”
Because I could no longer be silent.
Faith demands a voice. Demands to be heard.
Nicodemus couldn’t not be with Jesus for another moment of his meaningless, but now magnificent, life. He had to ask the questions.
Faith is the irresistible expression of truth that cannot remain silent.
[Image of painting– the “Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” (1899)–by Henry Ossawa Tanner was found here.]