Nicodemus and the Teacher

Scripture: John 3:1-21

Let us pray:

Light Eternal; illumine our darkness with your bright and shining truth. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts guide us as we learn your way of everlasting.

This morning we venture into a very different literary and theological world[1] with the first of several Lenten readings from the Gospel of John. The text for today covers huge theological territory, so I encourage you to read and re-read the entirety of John chapter 3 this week in your own devotions. You will find some familiar verses, but I suspect you will also find some surprises that are often overlooked. Your assignment, if you will, is to discover something new from this chapter that gives light and hope to your journey of faith as set within our contemporary socio-political context today. I will lift up a few things to begin this week’s journey.

“Of the many images in John’s Gospel, two major ones are light and darkness. Nicodemus emerges out of the night’s darkness, seeking light from the teacher he believes to be sent from God. Just as suddenly as he appears, Nicodemus disappears back into the night from whence he came. Before he does so, Jesus tells him one must be born anew in order to see the kingdom of God, and the last we hear from Nicodemus is, “How can this be?” (v. 9).”[2]

I wonder, if we were to take a look at ourselves from the misty halls of future’s history, if we will be like Nicodemus, who appears for a moment searching for truth, only to disappear again to wrestle with his conscious as he ponders the ramifications of Rabbi Yeshua’s praxis approach to faith; or will we be seen as fervent disciples, constantly at Jesus’ side, whether we fully understand him or not.

Why does Nicodemus hide in the dark? Perhaps he wrestles with questions such as: What would it do to his social standing if he lived his faith in this new way? What would it do to his role as a leader of the Jews? Would he lose his job? Can he live divided between the Pharisaic way of life and this new understanding of the faith put in to practice, or is it more of a black and white decision? What repercussions to his family might be looming in the near future from the choices set before him?

At the heart of the matter are the questions: What does it mean to be “born from above” and to believe in the Son of Man? What does it mean to live either in darkness or in light? To be born from above is to come into the light; whoever comes into the light lives by truth, whoever lives by truth is identified by their actions in the world.

“In John’s Gospel, being born from above and believing in Jesus are clearly not so much about what one does with one’s mind as about what one does with one’s heart and one’s life. … Nicodemus lives in the darkness and the shadows of this story until its conclusion, when he emerges publicly with Joseph of Arimathea, who is also a “secret disciple,” to bury Jesus.”[3]

Now let’s apply that to our contemporary life in the world as we find ourselves in it. Will history look back on us and put us in the same camp as the German Christians who tried to accommodate the gospel to the racist anti-Semitism of Nazi ideology?   Or, will we stand true with the Confessing Church of Germany, which gave us the Theological Declaration of Barmen, stating, “As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life.[4]

Will we become some new variant of “Nicolaitians” as John of Patmos in the Book of Revelations called those Christians who were willing to offer worship to pagan Gods so they’d stay “off the radar,” so-to-speak in unfriendly times? Or “Nicodemites” as John Calvin called those who stayed hidden from view, even if sympathetic to the cause, during the Reformation? Will we be “secret disciples” like Joseph of Arimathea, or will we stand with those who are being marginalized, sacrificed on the ethnocentric altars of fear of the other?

Political commentary aside, I wonder what it must have really been like for Nicodemus. After all, he comes to Jesus at night and remains hidden throughout most of the rest of the gospel after his visit. I wonder what must have been going on in his mind? Commentator Deborah Kapp looks at him this way:

“If any character from the Bible can be regarded as representative of twenty-first–century church members, it might be Nicodemus. In many ways he is a sympathetic character. A successful and self-confident man, he plays a leadership role in his community. He is spiritually open and curious, yet also rational. He approaches Jesus directly and tries to figure out Jesus’ actions and social networks. He is committed and curious enough that he makes an appointment to talk with Jesus face to face. However, Nicodemus is not ready to go public with his interest in Jesus, so he makes the appointment in the middle of the night, when he can keep his faith secret, separated from the rest of his life. His imagination is caught by Jesus, but he wants to compartmentalize whatever faith he has. Nicodemus is not yet ready to declare his faith in the light of day, not prepared to let it change his life.”[5]

I wonder sometimes if I am just as guilty of compartmentalizing my faith. It took me at least four months to admit to the other parents of children in Sarah’s class that I was a pastor. Why? Is it because I am a member of one of the Pacific Northwest’s minor religions and want to keep a low profile so I might be more accepted by social peers in an increasingly pluralistic Portland? Wouldn’t that make me a Nicodemus, too? Perhaps. If indeed light in John’s Gospel represents the realm of belief and darkness represents the realm of unbelief,[6] then it is my fervent prayer that I might make it through current darknesses able to step into the light at last, even as, perhaps, Nicodemus finally did.

And you? Do you wish to walk in the light? What does that look like for you? What darknesses do you hide in? How might stepping into the light forever change your life? May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Powell, Mark Allan. Fortress Introduction to the Gospels, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN ©1998.

[2] Stroup, George W. Feasting on the Word—Year A David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky; All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[3] Ibid.

[4] “The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” in the Book of Confessions: Study Edition of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 1996), 311 (8.14). Italics added.

[5] Kapp, Deborah J. Feasting on the Word…

[6] Lewis, Karoline M. Feasting on the Word…

Questions for Reflection

Consider a time when you felt uncertain. Can you see how God was at work in your life at that time? What from Abraham and Sarai’s story, or from Nicodemus’s story, is a help to you as you look for evidence of God’s presence in your own life?

Household Prayer: Morning

Loving God, you have given me the gift of this new day, and you send me out to live it fully and well. Help me to be attentive to your direction and leading. If you should call me to go in some direction, give me courage to try this new thing. If you present me with a mysterious truth or grace, help me to understand, or to seek understanding, with a sense of wonder and faith. Whatever this day may hold, I trust that you will keep me in all my comings and goings. In your Son’s name, I pray. Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

Gracious God, as the evening comes and the light fades, I look for you even in the shadows. Your love and protection stay with me through the night hours, and I rest in your promises. For the day as it has been, I give you thanks. For the gift of rest, I offer a hymn of praise. You love me and the whole world so greatly that you offer us salvation. After a night of rest, bring me into the light of a new day. In gratitude, I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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