Conversations Before the Cross 2: Nicodemus
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
Second Sunday in Lent, Year A • March 12, 2017
Nicodemus Speaks – A Monologue
I know you must be thinking, is it really him? Yes, it’s me: Nicodemus. My name isn’t in any of the lists of disciples, it isn’t on the board with those who understood right away, those he called that came. But I came to him too—only I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t understand him, not then and sometimes, not now. He was a strange man, Jesus was, strange in a way no words can describe. It wasn’t the way he looked, it was the way he looked into you, the way his eyes saw down deep into the soul. I’ve never forgotten his look, I’ve never doubted he saw through me, into me. Has anyone ever looked through you, really looked?
I was younger then. I worked hard and made a place for myself in the community. Some called me a ruler and many consulted me, I wasn’t rich like a Roman but we did ok; my family never wanted for anything. When they asked for help at the synagogue, I was glad to have my name right up there on the list of the “Angels” who built the place. When the school needed scrolls, I helped out, and I sat on the Board of Trustees for a while and later the City Council.
People respected me and it felt powerful. Yet, with all the good things, all the powerful things, I sensed there was something more. I was successful at business—but that only made money. The shekels flowed but my soul was still restless. Then I searched for something more in the respect of others—but that only meant people nodded to me in the market and I got a better seat in the synagogue.
One day I heard about this rabbi. Some said he was a revolutionary; some said he was a healer. Some said he was dangerous and others said he was just a disciple of John the Baptist who had set out on his own. There was a whisper too, a whisper never openly mentioned but there nonetheless that he was the Messiah.
Do you know about the Messiah? The Messiah is really a story for children. Someday, it is said, God will send someone like Moses and David who will—what? It’s never clear, never concrete. Someday a Messiah will come and lead a revolt against the Romans, some say, or perhaps the Messiah will come and everyone will be rich, or perhaps the Messiah will come and we’ll all go on another exodus out in the wilderness. Who knows? But this man—this Jesus—he didn’t seem to be raising an army like some did, he certainly wasn’t getting rich, and as for leading, he seemed more bent on getting to Jerusalem than out back in the desert. But the whispers came, again and again, and my soul was restless and somehow, in some way that made no sense, I wanted to meet him.
It was impossible, of course. The scandal would have been too much; I could have lost not only the respect of the others on the council but a hefty bit of business too. Still, I wanted to see him. I heard he was traveling with a group and I wondered what it would be like to be part of that group. Finally, I knew I couldn’t resist; I had to see him. One night, when it was dark, when no one would know, I snuck out.
Finally I found him. I don’t know what I expected: someone bigger, certainly, someone grander. The truth is, he was just a man, like you or me. Except: he had those eyes, those eyes that looked through you. His eyes held me while someone who didn’t seem to be a slave washed my feet. We’d never met, but he wasn’t interested in all the things I usually say, the things we all say, when we meet someone for the first time. Things that would let him know…well, who I am…how important I am. I tried being very polite, called him Rabbi although he didn’t look like he was educated. “We know you’re from God,” I said, and complimented him on his work: gotta be God to do healing.
But he wasn’t impressed. He said the strangest thing: that you had be born from above, from heaven, to see God. I stood there, thinking, this is it? this is the great Messiah? this is his best shot?—born from heaven? I tried to point it out: “How can anyone be born again,” I said, and I said you can’t go back, you can never go back. It’s that way with all of life: there’s no going back. One chance, that’s all you get, one, no more, no do-overs, no second chances. People say they forgive and forget but they really never forget they forgave. Born again from heaven indeed! It was ridiculous.
He sat there…quiet, quiet like a dark night when you sit alone, quiet like a morning before the day starts. He sat there and finally simply said, “Don’t be astonished.”
How could I not be astonished? How could anyone? He began to talk about the spirit, the breath of life, blowing this way and that, blowing where it will, as if God is as aimless as a toddler at play.
He didn’t just talk either, suddenly he began to move, almost like a dance and it seemed as if I was dancing. Only for a moment but there it was that moment, and in that moment I remembered when I was young and we used to dance and play in the square, when we were children and I caught the spirit of it. And then it was gone, gone like the light from a candle snuffed out, just the smell of smoke to remind you it ever was.
That was it. We argued a little more. He acted like he was the one who knew things and that I was—what? a child? I’m wasn’t a child then. I went home and when the door slave asked how my night went, I told him to shut up or get sold and the next day I snipped at my wife. I thought it had been a waste of time, all of it, the walk, the visit, the conversation.
But somehow I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I’d remember bits of it at odd times. One day a guy that’s rented some fields from me for years came to see me. Behind in his rent, of course, he always is, and he stood there with his hat in hand, cringing and suddenly, mumbling how he knew me, knew what I would say, what I would do, suddenly I started to laugh, I laughed so hard and I said, “Go in peace, friend, go in peace, you owe nothing this year: payment for the laugh.” I don’t know why I laughed, my accountant was stunned when I told him about the whole thing. But it felt good: new, that was it, it felt new, like I was new—just for a moment. There were other days like that, and, to be honest, a lot where I was the same old me. It seemed like there was something in me, something I couldn’t explain, something I could only express.
My wife said after a while that she didn’t know me anymore, it was like some stranger had been born in me and immediately I thought of his words, born from above. I began to lose money in the business; I couldn’t bear to throw anyone out of their home, and word got out, rents stopped coming in. They threw me off the council at the synagogue after a meeting where I suggested we leave the building open in case someone needed a place to sleep at night.
My kids are furious: they say I’ve spent their inheritance on the food pantry I helped start. I don’t know, I’m not sure what’s happening. I only know that my life has changed. It’s what he said, it’s a new birth. And every day I get up now and—I’m like a kid again. Like a child!—
Is he the Messiah? I don’t know—I only know I met him one night—I only know, it’s like I’ve been born again.
Conversations Before the Cross 2:
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
The black and white flickering picture on the screen highlights the dark points of farm implements, makes the wrinkles on faces stand out, tells us the movie is sometimes long ago. It’s the beginning of the Wizard of Oz, but it begins with the dust and dreary farm and the harsh black and white light. We’re in Kansas in the depression. Dark clouds forming a funnel, an image burned on everyone who’s ever lived in tornado country as disaster in motion, and suddenly the house is lifted, Dorothy with it, whirling through the air. When it lands and she opens the door suddenly the world is transformed: it’s now in color. Perhaps you know the story, how Dorothy sets off to find the wizard and a way home. Along the way she meets the Scarecrow, who wants a brain, the Tin Man, who desires a heart and the Cowardly Lion who begs for courage. Each is invited to come along and each has to ask the same question this conversation asks us: do you believe in the possibility of transformation? Can the world change color, can the leopard change his spots, can the whole world change—can you change?
Nicodemus Comes to Jesus
That’s the question Nicodemus is left pondering. He comes to Jesus at night, when good Jewish men are locked up in their gated homes. He is a substantial man, well off, presumably married with kids at home. He’s respected, a leader in his community and his synagogue. Yet something brings him out, some need, some emptiness. Long after Nicodemus, St. Augustine would write, “Lord, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” [Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1] Perhaps he has a restless heart. Perhaps he’s just curious.
He comes to Jesus with courtesy, calling him Rabbi, a term of respect, roughly comparable to “Reverend” or “Teacher”, and he says that he knows Jesus “came from God”. He’s been impressed by the signs Jesus has done. Presumably, he means the healing which was an important part of Jesus’ ministry. He doesn’t ask a question; he simply comes. What would you have asked? What do you want to know from Jesus?
Perhaps Jesus is used to such seekers; perhaps he simply sees the restless heart before him. He says, simply, directly: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
What do you hear Jesus saying? We are so used to American cultural religion with its emphasis on what we do, on the gospel of achievement applied to salvation, that we may hear the familiar phrase, “You must be born again.” But that’s not what Jesus says. First, he doesn’t command anything. There’s no imperative here. It’s a simple, flat statement: “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”
I think Nicodemus must have heard the born again part, as we often do. Because he immediately focuses on the physical: no one can be born again he says. We apply the same thought, often, to ourselves. Nicodemus makes the obvious argument: grown up, grown old, we can’t go back ad start over. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Can We Change?
Isn’t this really what most of us think? You are born, you grow up, you learn things, you experience things. You have some tough times; you have some good times. At times you prosper, at other times you don’t. Through it all you accumulate all those bits and pieces that make you, you. And among them are some scars, some injuries that left a mark. Maybe it was a marriage that didn’t work out; maybe it was a loss, maybe it was a friend who isn’t a friend any longer. Maybe you never quite lived out some dream you had earlier on. How do you go back and restart after all that?
I’ll tell you a secret only two people in the world know: I wasn’t that great a parent to my oldest child. I didn’t know how to be a parent, I certainly didn’t know how to parent a girl. I didn’t tell her how proud she made me nearly enough, and I wasn’t kind enough, and I didn’t know how when she raged to think, “Well, she’s 13, it’s just hormones,” and walk away, so I yelled back. I’d give a lot to go back and change that. But I can’t.
Maybe you have something like that, something you wish had been different but never will be. So maybe you agree with Nicodemus: you can’t go back. If you do, then it’s so important that you listen closely to what Jesus says. Because you and I and Nicodemus have all misunderstood Jesus if we thought he was talking about going back. He says,
’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.” [Matthew 3:8]
Born Again or Born from Above?
Jesus isn’t talking about being born again at all. He’s talking about being born of the Spirit: being reborn. Jesus isn’t talking about undoing the past: he’s asking about the future. The wind blows where it will: it’s hard to predict, it’s hard to see. So is the future, and the question isn’t what about the past, but what are you going to do about the future? Can you live as someone born new today from God’s Spirit?
This starts with seeing. How many of God’s blessings do you see each day? How do you see other people. We are being asked today by a great political movement to see people of other faiths, Muslims particularly, as fearful. Do you see others, strangers, as children of God, the same God who loves you? Can you see this way? Can you start, not over, but fresh each day, freshly looking out for what God is doing. There was a moment when Western surgeons learned to treat cataracts which were often the cause of people being blind from birth. Annie Dillard talks about some of these people in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, concluding with this case.
…a twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but ‘the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features. She repeatedly exclaimed, ‘O God! How beautiful!’ [Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 30f]
Jesus invites Nicodemus to a new life, not to a do over of his old life; not to be born again but to be born from above, into a new spiritual life.
This, he says, is his purpose:
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.
The first step is to believe and begin the journey.
What happened to Nicodemus? We don’t know; the gospel never mentions him again. But sometimes it takes a while for the seeds of the spirit to sprout and blossom and bear fruit. There is a moment when the Tin Man, the Scare Crow and the Cowardly Lion think the gifts they seek, the new life they hoped to find, will never happen. What happens then? The wizard gives them each a gift to recognize the gifts they already have. The Scarecrow gets a degree, the Tin Man a heart and the Lion a medal for courage. What about you? What would it take to change your life? What would it take for you to believe that’s possible, that you can be born from above?
Perhaps it is to simply to see God’s love, the way that girl saw the world. Maybe one of your wounds is that somewhere along the way, someone suggested God was sitting like a judge, writing up everything you’d ever done wrong. Maybe your list is long. Then listen: God is here, not to judge, but to love; God is here, not to judge, but to save. God is here, inviting you to start fresh today. God is here: how beautiful.