by Alex Raabe
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from the Holy Trinity. Amen.
On Monday, Dr. Hendel assured you that you’d hear a sermon based on the gospel text yesterday and today...and I’m not one to want to disappoint Dr. Hendel, so here you go:
Because the lectionary gods left out the last several verses of this story and in case you weren’t paying attention to the gospel reading, I’ll recap Nicodemus’s story a bit. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night and by the end of the story Jesus has completely baffled him, Jesus has called him out as a teacher who doesn’t know anything, and has just dismissed him entirely by the end of the story both not allowing him to get a word in edgewise, and by saying that those who love darkness do not come into the daylight so their deeds aren’t exposed...clearly placing a pretty major character judgement on Nicodemus--who came to Jesus in the darkness.
Personally, I’m glad he came to Jesus rather than the other things he could have gone to that night. Prostitutes, drug dealers, a rogue first century illegal weapons dealer, to a bridge with a can of spray paint. Jesus certainly seems like the least of all these evils, and obviously didn’t land Nicodemus in prison, and Nick’s night time journey to Jesus gives us a good place to find the gospel...something illegal weapons dealers often don’t help us with.
This week as I was thinking about Nicodemus’ journey by night to Jesus, I got to thinking about other journeys by night. Journeys that take a lot of risk to travel. The journey of a pregnant woman desperately trying to get into the United States to have her baby here before being assassinated by a vigilante in the desert. The journey of the homeless guy who has to find a place that the cops won’t kick him out of, but that is safe enough for him to sleep even a little bit. The journey of the businessman who takes an emergency transatlantic flight to get home to be by the hospital bedside of his wife who got hit by a car.
It’s trips in the night like these that could use a little light to show the way.
It’s trips in the night like these that take place at night because the light of day just can’t work. The light of day is too exposing, the light of day is not restful, neither the light of day nor the darkness of night is the right time.
I’m certain Nicodemus, too, risked something in his nighttime journey to Jesus. Traveling at night in the first century wasn’t something anyone recommended, the roads were full of thieves and bandits who were ready to pounce on the people who weren’t supposed to be there...we know what it would have been like...people got beaten, robbed, passed by on the road all the time, and that wasn’t even at night. The darkness brought out everything a guy like Nicodemus would want to avoid. Besides, couldn’t he have just waited till the next day, when it would be safe?
The thing is...John’s gospel doesn’t really work like that. Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night isn’t just him making a dangerous journey alone like the pregnant woman in the desert, it’s not just him avoiding the piercing eyes of the Jewish authorities like the homeless man avoiding the eyes of the police, it’s not just him reacting to a panic attack that wouldn’t let him sleep like the man who couldn’t wait to hop on that plane back home. It’s not just about night like the kind we prefer to sleep during. Nicodemus’ night means more than that. His night could have been during the day, it could have been any time at all...I think Nicodemus’s night might have been a metaphor-one of John’s favorite writing techniques-for our own lives.
We all have moments of night in our lives. I’m not talking about the ones where we stay up all night to finish an exegesis paper or write an endorsement essay or plan our green funeral. I’m talking about the dark nights of our souls. The ones we try so hard to cover up, piling layer upon layer of clay over them and painting them with gold leaf so it looks like day.
You know the ones...
When you aren’t excited about your internship assignment, your synod assignment, the fact that you only got into your 4th choice of CPE placements...and yet you feel like you have to tell your supervisor, or pastor, or bishop that you are “sooooooooo excited” to work with them.
or when you slap a smile on your face and say hello to everyone in the hallway...except the reality is that cracks are starting to form in that facade, and you don’t know how you’ll get the energy to fill in the cracks because you’re just so damn exhausted from not being able to tell people you’re depressed.
or when you try desperately to pastor everyone around you because you can’t admit to them that you yourself are the one in need of some pastoral care.
or when you’re in seminary, and you give up believing in God but can’t bring yourself to tell your faculty advisor or even your friends because you’re afraid someone will tell your candidacy committee, so you suffer in silence.
or things you can’t even admit out loud to yourself, let alone others...
These dark nights of the soul of doubt and shame and guilt and fear loom at all of us in different ways, maybe not in such drastic ways, maybe in more sneaky self loathing ways, maybe in ways we are even blind to.
Our trips in the night make us cry out for daylight because we’re sick and tired of walking.
Our trips in the night need more hope, and not the hope we get from quick highs or painted faces.
Our trips in the night, when we look into our souls and only see inky midnight staring back at us, our trips need a little light to show the way.
And you know what, thinking about being in the light is scary as hell when you’re so used to living the darkness. I mean, what if Jesus sees me in all my midnight glory, night time baggage surrounding me, nothing hidden from what I’m afraid will feel like a cold, harsh, CFL light bulb in an interrogation room shining right at me? What if Jesus’ light is too exposing? What if light is just what I actually need?
Nicodemus--in whatever moment of darkness he came to Jesus, also needed that light and was also probably scared to death to have his darkness exposed. Yet an ironic twist of fate, the dark dwelling Nicodemus runs smack into the light of the world. And he keeps on running into that light for the rest of the gospel. Jesus, in this story, delivers his infamous “John 3:16” line, which is where people think salvation exists. I think it comes just a few verses earlier when Jesus says that “just as Moses lifted up a serpent in the wilderness, so too must he, the Son of Man, be lifted up.” Jesus, the light of the world, when he is lifted up, he tells Nicodemus, he will banish the darkness forever.
I once went on a 6-hour spelunking tour of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. At one point, we all turned off our headlamps and sat in the cold dry limestone cave next to an underground river. There were no sounds other than ones we made, and no light at all, not even once our pupils got as large as possible could any of us see anything. Then our guide lit a match and everything was illuminated, we could see one another, we could see the water flowing, and we could see the cave crickets that had wandered onto our legs, confused about what was new in their world that rarely saw interruption. All from the light of one match.
You see, light has this funny way of pushing darkness back. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that darkness is scared of light--I took science classes after all--but it sure seems that way when you light a match in a dark cave and all of a sudden the darkness only exists at the corners.
Jesus, the light of the world, gets lifted up on a cross, according to John--not for some sort of evangelical altar call where we have to come to believe in him. Instead, Jesus the light of the world is lifted up onto a cross so that Nicodemus never has to walk around in the darkness again. Jesus, lifted up, pushes the darkness of the world, the darkness that makes women cross fences and homeless men hide, out and into the corners of the universe. Jesus, lifted up, pushes the darkness of shame about what we look like, the guilt about what we have or haven’t done yet today, the fear of ridicule for who we are, out into the farthest reaches of the stars.
Jesus, lifted up, as the great Bruce Cockburn sang, kicks at the darkness until it bleeds daylight. The light of the world, lifted up on a cross, blood pouring from his side, bleeds daylight onto us. Daylight that looks like finally looking in a mirror and not feeling disgusted. Daylight that looks like risking honesty and people loving you for it, not in spite of it. Daylight that looks like a professor, or pastor, or friend asking you how you’re doing...and meaning it. Daylight that looks a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness not overcoming it.
Daylight that looks like volunteers who refill neutral ground water stations in the New Mexico desert. Daylight that looks like emergency warming shelters in Chicago, or cooling stations in Phoenix, or churches that tirelessly host PADS shelters every month. Daylight that looks like knowing so deep in your soul that death is not the end, because Christ defeated death and we will one day gather with all the departed saints.
Jesus, the light of the world, the one who tunnels through darkness, who kicks away at it till it is no more, who grabs those parts of ourselves that we hate and hurls them into the ends of the earth...that Jesus illuminates us as his own beloved who fumble around in the darkness and loves even that most covered, most shameful pocketful of night you’ve been carrying around. The daylight Jesus brings pushes out the darkness so that we can see who we are--children of God loved for exactly who we are, still dark parts and all. Amen.