Readings: Genesis 12: 1-4a; John 3: 1-17
`The streets were dark and deserted. Not a soul could be seen. At least he hoped not. There was one lonely figure, jumping from shadow to shadow, never using the major streets of the town, travelling only in out of the way places, hoping not to be seen. So, what`s he doing, jumping from shadow to shadow in the middle of the night? He is going to pay a call on Jesus who is staying with friends. He doesn`t want anybody to know that he, one of the leaders of the community, would be going to see this itinerant preacher.
Jesus is roused from his sleep, I presume, and meets Nicodemus. Strangers in the night...`
So begins a sermon by Eugene Lowry, known as one of the best in narrative preaching. It may be a really good example of a narrative or story sermon. Yet I can`t help feeling that, in this, and in other sermons I have heard, Nicodemus gets a bit of a `bad rap`. Portrayed as a narrow-minded, literalist, Nicodemus` so-called forbidden night-time liaison is often interpreted as skulking about under the cover of darkness. But is darkness all that bad? Or is it just that we fear the darkness when we are uncertain and cannot see with clarity what is before us?
`Hello darkness, my old friend
I`ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains - within the sound of silence.`
I wonder whether Nicodemus could have written these words that we now know so well from Simon and Garfunkel. We make an assumption that the darkness of night is a negative thing to be avoided. Even our attempts to reclaim the night, and up with catch phrases such as `Light the dark`. And besides, John is very clear that Jesus is the light of the world. One of my favourite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, released a book in 2015 titled, `Learning to walk in the dark`. She says this about her writing, `I have learnt things in the dark that I could never have learnt in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.`
The famous mystic St John of the Cross also spoke of a much-needed time on our spiritual journey called the dark night of the soul. I thought I understood what the Dark Night was all about until a few years ago. For me, the Dark Night was like a womb, a place of waiting for a time of birth. I am no poet, but I wrote this about that time.
The Dark Night
So, this is the dark night.
I stumbled into it first in fear
I cowered in the corner,
too uncertain to reach out,
dreading the unknown touch.
But now, it is named
and the grip has loosened.
I still cannot see my hand
in front of my face.
The darkness has depth,
substance and weight … and weight.
This thick, soupy air
fills my lungs
each breath a burden
I try to resist.
No light pierces
this pit of mystery.
What is there to do?
Searching my surroundings
it feels familiar and warm.
I stretch … I breathe … I rest …
and sleep, a deep slumber.
I breathe, rest and wait.
I am one with the dark.
The dark night is me.
I don`t know if this is the space in which Nicodemus found himself. However, we can view Nicodemus with suspicion as he sneaks around in the dark, or as my own personal theological journey encourages me, we could take another look at Nicodemus.
This is a story composed by the teller we call John. We only ever hear of Nicodemus in John`s writings. Much debate centres around this story and the storyteller`s use of this story at this point in the gospel. But I don`t want to concerned with this today. What should concern us is the way traditional Christianity appears to have used Jewish Jesus and Jewish Nicodemus. This is not new news for most of you here today.
Jesus was a Jew. A first century Galilean Jew. His prayers were Jewish. His thinking was Jewish. His `voice` is thick with Jewish history - personal and cultural. We sometimes miss that when we follow traditional Christianity and convert him into a proto-christian.
Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, says:
`With the stress in some churches on Jesus`s divine sonship, the cross, the resurrection, and the redemptory role of saving humanity from sin and death, his historical connection to Judaism gets lost along with his very Jewish message of the kingdom of heaven`. She goes on to point out that in popular Christian imagination Jesus is presented as:
against the Law,
against the Temple,
against the people of Israel,
as the only one to speak with women,
as the only one who teaches non-violent responses to oppression,
as the only one who cares about the `poor and marginalised`.
This `divorcing` of Jesus from Judaism in biblical stories and traditional Christian theology is neither honest nor helpful. Especially when we hear John`s story about Nicodemus. So, in light of these comments, let me offer some thoughts about the Jewish Rabbi we call Nicodemus, and his encounter with the Galilean sage we call Jesus.
I invite you to see Nicodemus as a pilgrim; a sincere religious seeker, a student who uses his precious study time to expand his search beyond the standard texts. I invite you to also hear Nicodemus, a member of the religious institution of his day, as a mover of theological boundaries. Willing to risk leaving behind past `truths` as he and his colleagues have been taught them and known them, in order to explore something new.
So instead of questioning his motives, as I feel Eugene Lowry and our general interpretive tradition has done, I think Nicodemus` motives need to be recognised as both open and honourable. For Nicodemus, as for us, must be allowed to respond to `the new` or `the different` in a variety of ways rather than prescribing a single way of thinking or believing. How else can he and we discover that our lives and our thinking might be different? Not just by re-shaping, but by re-thinking and reconstructing!
Nicodemus and us. Thinking about life. What would we do differently if given half the chance? How would we grow up differently? How would we re-edit the story of our life? Nicodemus and us. Thinking about God. Could God possibly be larger than my limited experience? How does God`s story intersect with my story today and the story of others?
The story of Nicodemus is an invitation to be curious about life. To rethink and re-construct assumptions. Not just to conduct an analysis of our past, but to look to the future through the eyes of new possibility. To be born anew, metaphorically! To consider how life might be different!
Nicodemus. We could call him the Patron Saint of the curious. If this is the case, what do we say of him? May he protect the curious in each of us. May he place us in the company of sincere and compassionate teachers, of whatever faith tradition, whose openness defines a new community of hope and grace. May he give us the courage to dare to know creativity - `God`, with heart and mind, with courage and strength, as traditional theological boundaries are pushed and pushed again, with honesty and originality.