Out of the Shadows
Our text this week: John 3:1-21 - Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Read the full text here.
In my experience, strangers send you Private Messages for one of two reasons – to connect on a deeper level, or to insult you. People have sent me messages because they want to know what’s the right language to use around a particular matter of gender or sexuality and they don’t want to inadvertently make a fool of themselves or cause someone harm. People have sent me messages telling me I should be ashamed of myself, my family should be ashamed of me, my church should be ashamed of me, my dog should be ashamed of me, and that I am spouting ungodly craziness.
Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night, under the veil of shadows. He essentially shoots Jesus a PM – a tool used by those who seek privacy for the sake of honesty and understanding, as well as by those who seek privacy to hide shameful behavior that mocks and disparages. The nighttime setting is a tool used by the Gospel write, John, thought his writings to symbolize misunderstanding.
It seems, at first, as though Nick and Jesus agree. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” To which, Jesus replies, “yup! And since we surely speak the same language…you’ll get that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” “Ok, Jesus, you lost me.”
Nicodemus can’t compute Jesus’s words within his existing worldview. I’m not sure if Nicodemus is just being sassy or is genuinely confounded when he asks about how someone can literally physically exit from a womb a second time. Nicodemus WANTS to take Jesus seriously, but his attempts to take the Word literally keep getting in the way. We can be so focused on getting God “right” that we miss God right in front of us. Or we want God and God’s Word to us to be crystal clear and certain so that we miss the wonder and mystery that make the Word worth hearing.
So Jesus tries to explain it a couple different ways, but none of them seem to satisfy Nick’s desire to pin the message down with tangible certainty. God speaks of water, spirit, wind - things that resist capture and containment….elements which can be known in some ways and yet so much of them remains unknowable. Ironically, Nicodemus resembles a fetus in utero – He has senses - Hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting? But everything is a bit garbled. We know that growing babies can hear us in the womb, but it isn’t until after they are born that they can connect the soothing familiar sound to the face and name, the concept of parent, nurturer. It’s the same way with the little mermaid discovering the dinglehopper. Sure, a fork could be a hairbrush in an underwater world where saltwater is somehow also a detangler. When all we have to go by is our own limited experience with our own assumptions, the voice of God which goes beyond those limits can feel confounding. Nicodemus can see Jesus doing wonders and speaking hope, but can’t connect the dots, doesn’t know what it means because it doesn’t fit cleanly into defined categories.
Jesus invites Nicodemus into a new way of seeing the world, a new way of being. Even if we can’t wrap our minds around it fully, it surrounds us still. Like the wind, which can’t be seen or grasped, but still affects us, still moves us. Jesus reveals that the Word, the Word made flesh, is so much more than face value. Jesus reminds us that we can not make faith and belief a matter of the head only, while neglecting our soul. We are both – born from above and below.
At some point while reflecting on this text it occurred to me that the folks who might best understand this idea of a second birth are those who have had the experience of coming out or of transitioning. They know profoundly what it is to move from mere existence to identity and personhood. In this way, the LGBTQI community reveals God to me in ways I wouldn’t otherwise understand.
When we focus too much on people’s anatomy being right or wrong or their fitting cleanly into the defined categories we hold as standard, we are blinded to the divine love echoed in the careful creation of our bodies and in the intimacy between beloved partners.
Jesus didn’t come to mock Nicodemus or condemn him, but liberate him from confinement, there’s a place for him at the table too. There’s even a place for me, who gets so stuck on getting it right, or wanting so badly for God’s vision to just be a little bit clearer, a little bit more certain. For, in this way, God loved the world – in flesh and in spirit, in relationship, through the wrestling and confusion… in order to bring about light, illumination, epiphanies, revelation, life and life that begets life.
So I don’t fully know what’s going on with Nicodemus at the end of this scene, but I do know this is not the last we see of him. While here we see him questioning Christ, later in the Gospels we also see him defending Christ and the Gospel. He’s even there at the end, working alongside Joseph of Arimethea to lay Christ’s body to rest. Through Christ, people can and do learn to see what was hidden. We are given a new birth with new eyes to see and ears to hear of God’s goodness all around us. God makes a way out of no way, and loves us even when we just don’t get it. Thanks be to God. Amen.