Nicodemus at Night; Born Again and Bumper Sticker Theology
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus 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?”Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.“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. “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.
There are two New Testament characters who are especially near and dear to my heart. One is the Woman at the Well, (John 4) and the other is Nicodemus. Both stories associated with these characters could be classified "conversion" narratives, but that isn't the reason I find them so appealing. They are stories that glimpse a part of ourselves (or at least my-self) that we don't much like to acknowledge.
Through Nicodemus, I glimpse the questioner, the doubter; the part of me that doesn't have all the answers and is brave enough to admit it. An even more important, I glimpse the part of me that is open to being taught by Jesus.
That second part, I know, seems like it should be visible all the time. After all, aren't I open to Jesus' teaching when I pray, or when I study for sermons or Bible study, or even when I hear God's word through the hands and feet of Christ- the 'disciples and angels sent to minister to me,' that we spoke of last week?
Mostly, when people minister to me, or when God speaks through one of these brave souls willing to approach the great and powerful Oz, I pretty much keep up the holographic image of the wizard that I project so well to the world. I do whatever it takes to keep the curtain from being pulled back, revealing who I really am. I protect myself that way. I protect my position that way. People come to me for answers, not the other way around.
So when I see Nicodemus the Pharisee, the keeper of the answers of all things God for the Jewish people, the one who, after this evening tete-a tete with the divine would have to return to his place of privilege and power, back to being the answer man... when I see Nicodemus visit Jesus in the middle of the night with all of the stuff he keeps behind his curtain right out there in the open, I rush to his side with every ounce of support I have. I need to learn from him.
One of the articles I read on this text explained Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night as a metaphor for Nicodemus's insecurity. Maybe... but to me, he goes to Jesus at night because that's when the burning questions of his heart have room to surface. In the middle of the night when the light is turned off, and the booming sound of my voice quiets, the projection of my big head disappears, and the flames lit on either side of that huge image meant to intimidate and keep people from coming too close are extinguished... when I'm lying in bed and my night vision reveals everything I've kept hidden from the world... they surface...
What makes Nicodemus so inspiring is that instead of taking a sleep aid, or assuring himself that he has to keep up that image in order to keep his job, or deluding himself that he really IS all knowing and the rest of the world just doesn't get it, or lying to himself that his addictions are under control, Nicodemus gets up, walks out his front door, dragging all his questions and issues behind him like tin cans tied to the bumper of a wedding car, and he makes his way, clinking and clanking across the town square, to the place where Jesus was sleeping. You know what I'm talking about here- those of us especially who struggle with addictions- when you finally do get up the nerve to go for help, whether its to your first meeting, or rehab, or even inside the door of a church, there is some noise involved, amen? When you finally stop hiding, it feels like the whole world may be looking at you- "everybody knows!" In fact, it is that fear of people finding us out that keeps so many people a prisoner of their own addictions- the shame that comes with admitting that we might actually have a problem- that we might not be perfect.
Now the interesting thing is, that when Nicodemus reaches Jesus, the first words out of his mouth are not "forgive me Jesus for I am a sinner," or "God, I really have messed up my life- do you still love me?" Nicodemus simply acknowledges who he is talking to: " 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.” It was a simple step- deciding to be taught... but one many of us never take.
Many of us want to jump ahead to the end of the conversation -that our will and our lives will be turned over to God- that we will understand all of the deep truths of the divine. Yet we skip over the part where we actually have to drag all of our clinking clanking stuff out, maybe not even knowing everything that is there, and decide that we will look and listen to God for healing. That's what happens so many times when we are talking about step 3. "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God." Many people think that the Third Step says that we turn our will and our lives over to the care of God. What it says is that we MAKE A DECISION to turn our will and lives over to the care of God. Deciding something is very different that figuring out how we live out that decision.
Nicodemus was deciding to stop relying on his own knowledge, his own position, his own projected image that he had in fact created, and to invite Jesus to tear down his curtain of protection and shame. Only then could Jesus start to instruct Nicodemus and direct his will. He had to cut through his own ego, his own "I can figure this out myself" or "I can look it up on google" mentality and decide to put his life into the care of another... to be dependent on someone else's lead... ugh!
Now if you find this story resonating with you, I invite you to take a deep breath- and take a big gulp of grace.
We live in a world that tells us that we must project an image of having it together. Of knowing 'the truth.' Of being a source people can come to for the answers. And God help you if you don't have an opinion on something- so pick a side. Our society has become one of black and white- one way or the other- democrat or republican- liberal or conservative- gay or straight- in recovery or not in recovery, everything and everyone polarized and labeled and packaged and whatever you believe can be slapped on a bumper sticker or posted on FB for the world to see, sometimes before we have even thought it through; because middle of the road people are thought of as "soft" or "weak" or even "un-involved." 'You either support us or you don't!' we say.
But that kind of thinking is exactly why Jesus was killed. People had labeled and bumper sticker-ed everything in sight- here's right- here's wrong- you're in or you're out- and people were not open to hearing a new way, an interpretation that was different from their own. So they made him an enemy- and they demonized him- and finally crucified him... because he was asking them to think about what they knew to be true in a different way.
My friends if healing is what we are after, as individuals, as a community, as a nation- we need to begin opening ourselves up to be taught- deciding to allow our lives to be changed- whether its away from our addictions or just listening for understanding to someone who may think differently from us!
And as a not so small aside, that's exactly what being "born again" is about- a willingness to understand- and opening up of the mind and heart to the presence of God.