a Homily for Lent 2A
Text: John 3:1-17
Under Cover of Darkness
We meet Nicodemus in Lent each year. Like Jesus, we receive him in darkness and confusion, wondering why he is here. Why does he come if he does not believe or even understand Jesus? Does he seek knowledge only? Is he gathering information for his own intellect? Or will he take his findings back in secret, too; given to others who like to meet in secret? The parking lot conversation before there were cars to stand next to.
Nicodemus hears Jesus speak of “birth” and instantly he thinks of mothers and delivery, amniotic fluids and blood. He so jumps to this (dare we say) literal conclusion with such eagerness and ignorance that the listener to this story wants to shout
Have you never heard of a metaphor? You’re one of the educated ones? What sham of a school did you you go to anyway?
He seems the English teacher oblivious to basic linguistics. Nicodemus is one who is supposed to know and shows an incomprehensible ignorance.
To us, the meaning is so crystal clear. No physical birth, but spiritual: a rebirth. Born here and born from “above”; a spiritual awakening and commitment to GOD. The very stuff of our sacramental rites of baptism, confirmation, and reconciliation of the penitent. And it is the under-girding that empowers our collective feast in holy communion.
And yet, Nicodemus’s example is so over-the-top, that we are prone to miss Jesus’s intentions. We will toss away what Jesus has to say about the physical world in our attempt to empty the bathwater. It begins with the beginning.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in secret, in the dark. He is trying not to be seen or found out. But he is also coming to Jesus as one who is blind to what Jesus offers; he can’t see it. And he asks Jesus to explain it for him.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
He can’t see, and isn’t going to see. It is too dark to see here, now.
To see the kingdom of God, he must have a spiritual awakening. And now it is too dark, too desolate. He can hear the wind, but he can’t see it. He can hear the Spirit’s call, but he can’t see her movements.
The secrets, the darkness, the ignorance. The fear, the blindness, the disinterest. How can we expect to see the Kingdom that is here, all around us, if we enter this space in our own darkness? In our own willful ignorance?
How Jesus responds to Nicodemus is instructive for us, because he doesn’t mince words. He tells him he ought to know better. He’s a leader, a teacher. No doubt one of the lucky few that can read and write, so he can read the Scripture and know what’s in there. He’s studied it and knows what the ancients have to say about it. And yet he fails the most basic of tasks: hearing that he is, in fact, blind to the Holy Spirit’s presence in the world.
We dare not take such an arrogant response as to assume that we are any different. Jesus is not speaking only of baptism and following the rules. Repeating back the liturgy with our noses in a book shows no less blindness to the Spirit. We may as well move our services to the middle of the night and get together in secret.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to take on a spiritual parentage. He needs to open his eyes to GOD’s work in the daytime, when it is active. When people are out and about. When all that the kingdom offers is alive and moving. When he can see.
For he will see.
When Nicodemus comes back in the gospel we call John, it is next to defend Jesus, and lastly to bring materials for embalming Jesus.
No more secrets. No more fear of the establishment. He does what the Spirit would have him do. For being able to see the Spirit’s movement helps us better recognize that the Spirit isn’t merely busy moving the world; but also us.
Revealing One’s Self
It is fascinating that Nicodemus would get hung up in the physical. It sounds exactly like we get hung up there. Like those few decrying the new series Cosmos for dealing with the nature of our universe, despite its own expression of deep spirituality; its own yearning and awe at the true beauty of all creation. The “flesh vs. spirituality” piece, like our own science vs. religion ridiculousness is the red herring that allows us to do the very thing Nicodemus does in this story and the very thing Jesus teaches this teacher not to do: namely to avoid opening our eyes to see the kingdom.
For us, we think we are seeing when we worry about our stuff: our building, our treasures, our place in the community. That isn’t the seeing Jesus has in mind.
It is seeing the Kingdom that is here. Seeing humanity. In our struggles and fears. In our joys and celebrations. It is seeing the beauty, the good, the joy that GOD has done and is doing here and now.
We can’t witness these things totally alone, isolated. As GOD does not abandon us, only we can abandon GOD; we can abandon one another. We can keep secrets and remain in darkness.
Or we can come out of the darkness and reveal ourselves. Like Nicodemus, we reveal that Christ is already in us, that we are full of the Spirit, when we stand up to injustice. Nicodemus doesn’t have to go looking for the Spirit that is already there. He just had to show up and be seen. For the great irony of the pursuit of GOD is that GOD is all around us already, in one another. We just have trouble seeing it when the people around us don’t reveal the Spirit’s movement within them.