by Anna Ballan
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.
It seems particularly fitting to be sharing reflections with you this week – this week, in which we encounter Jesus in the darkness. Because, last January, I went from “my country and my kindred,” my home here in the States to Sweden for internship – Sweden, the land of the long, dark winter. My Minnesota sisters and brothers may call it the Holy Land; some know it as the land of great artists like Bergman and Strindberg; others just love its stylish, yet affordable, furniture, its tasty meatballs. But, friends, from November to March, Sweden is the land of deep, beautiful darkness, the land in which this darkness somehow manages to seem ideal. This darkness, in which northern lights and illuminated stained glass and small steady candle flames become center.
I imagine that it is into just this sort of deep, beautiful darkness that Nicodemus moves carefully and quietly toward Jesus. Nicodemus: a leader who probably spends a lot of his time pondering the scriptures and discussing the law with his colleagues, debating the politics of the community in which he has some power…he’s really not so different from you and I. Hearing about this Jesus, this one who turns water into wine, who overturns the moneychangers’ tables in the temple and speaks of its destruction, its restoration…hearing about this One from God, Nicodemus wants to see, he wants to understand.
And, so, he goes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, creeping carefully and quietly…he wants to see, wants to understand. But he doesn’t want to be seen. This learned leader, a man of power, wants to see without being seen…and he comes to Jesus – who John has just told us “knows what is in everyone.”
“Teacher, I’ve heard about your signs!” Nicodemus says. I want to see, I want to understand.
In the face of his curious excitement, Jesus peers through the darkness at him and says – rather calmly, I imagine – “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus, aren’t you a religious leader? Don’t you understand?”
This very question seems to taunt us in the here and now, we theologians, we learned religious people – seminary laborers, pastors, educators, soon-to-bes. We make it our business to try to understand what Jesus is saying about earthly things, heavenly things – holy things.
“Don’t you understand?”
We hear this question as we push through that dense reading or class discussion that challenges our assumptions. We sometimes hear it as we struggle to discern our vocations. We hear it as we look for hope amid the uncertainty of the candidacy process, or an unanticipated site assignment, or the fear of unemployment. We hear it as we struggle to articulate what it means to be “born from above,” as we struggle to articulate in real and meaningful ways the gift of this water.
And we can’t help ourselves – we hear a tight disappointment in Jesus’ voice as he asks this question: “Don’t you understand?” And, so, with this disappointment in ourselves, we stand alongside Nicodemus. Alongside Nicodemus, who is, at the end of this exchange, silent in the darkness. And we listen to Jesus.
Jesus, in this darkness, becomes center. And he pushes through our disappointment. He speaks of the wind. “It blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it…but you do not know where it comes from. You do not know where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus speaks of the wind…and of the water. That deep, dark water where God meets us, where God breathes new life into dusty lungs.
Jesus speaks of these things with clarity and intensity, and then he recognizes that they are mysteries to us. God has entered the world, has met us in darkness, and this incarnation – it is the beautiful manifestation of God’s deepest mystery: God’s unchanging love.
During these forty days, and in this story of Nicodemus, we are invited to encounter Jesus as one unknown, to embrace the mystery of God’s love – a reality unchanged by our knowledge of it. We are invited to slow down, to be silent, to listen to the One who speaks to us through simple, earthly things: the rustling of the leaves, the breaking of bread, the pouring of wine, that glorious trickling of water in the baptismal font. We are invited to slow down, to be silent, to listen as Jesus challenges our own disappointment at not knowing...even as he calls us, again and again, to this deep, beautiful water. Where he encourages our faith, encourages our seeking, encourages us saying, “God did not send me to condemn; I save.”
This time last year, my Lenten journey in Sweden involved something that seemed, at the time, to challenge the spirit of the season. One of the congregations in which I was serving invited public school children in the area to visit the church. And they did – hundreds of them. They came in small groups to experience the Easter Story – a sort of time-warp dramatization of the Three Days, in which the children encountered various eye-witnesses as they made their way through the echoey, centuries-old church building. And, so, part of my Lenten journey involved reenacting the joy of the resurrection in winter darkness, three times per day.
At the end of each reenactment, we gathered by the Easter display and the children had an opportunity to ask questions. Our final group was made up of children between the ages of eight and ten. They called out questions like “what kinds of games did kids play during the time of Jesus?” and “how old is this church, anyway?” Finally, one little boy raised his hand gingerly. When I called on him, he whispered his question…and I had to ask him to repeat it because he spoke so softly. “Where is Jesus now???” he said then.
Though I had prepared myself for this very question, as I looked into his little face, I saw this honest desire and yearning that stopped me in my tracks. For a moment, his eyes – eager, full of fear and hope – were those of Nicodemus. “I have just heard about your signs, Jesus…I want to see. I want to understand.”
Friends, we all have this yearning. We, too, want to see. We want to understand. And, in the face of this deep need of ours, Jesus – who “knows what is within us” – Jesus is not silent. He speaks; he meets us in darkness and speaks God’s promises.
Thanks be to God.