Monday, March 6, 2017

Out Of The Dark?



FOR THE Second Sunday in Lent, we read our lesson from the Gospel According to Saint John. The writer revealed God’s plans for redemption through this well-known, telling lesson. The discourse related the created order’s transition from sinful darkness into divine light patterned for those who would believe. God promises reconciliation only through his only begotten Son.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him." 
 Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." 
 Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" 
 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 
 Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born anew.'  The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit." 
 Nicodemus said to him, "How can this be?" 
 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." 
 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 
                                                                                              (John 3:1-17)

Just Curious!
We note that today’s lesson begins with a visit to Jesus from a representative of the Sanhedrin, which was a college of religious politicians. In a wonderfully skilled telling, our author related that the man came at night to see Jesus. He was a member of the Pharisees, with privileges granted within that very high council on religious matters and civil rule. He was a respected teacher of the Law. We wonder why did he inquire? Was he coming to Jesus on his own? Was he sent by others? Or was he driven there by the Spirit of God?
 We might also consider why Nicodemus approached at night. Did he not want to be identified? Was he ashamed of being seen with Jesus? Was it a desired time for an uninterrupted, at-length discussion? Or, in today’s vernacular, was he just an over-zealous liberal among conservatives?
 We can only guess at answers to these many questions since we cannot look into the inner motives of the man. As well, we cannot assign to him the suspicious political motives of his court. We can only guess! But think of this…“Was it simply that the questions posed in the reader's mind stand as a scribal tool? I offer that the author is using the man's questions as a conversational tool to relate a tension… one that was formed by Jesus presence. John’s emphasis on ignorance and darkness is dramatically setting the stage for the reader as to what is to be illuminated.
 For me, the man’s approach at night is very interesting. His name’s meaning in the Greek is brightly defined as ”Victory among the People”, yet he first went to our Lord at a dark time. It is night as told of in the days when persons needed candles, hearths and bright companionship. Night was and still is... a time when vermin, scavengers and bandits roam. Night is a time when the vulnerable among us often need light and friends to guard them safely along their way. A master of the written word, it seems John set for us a threatening stage.
 Nicodemus addressed Jesus with collective respect… “We know…” he said. This tells us that in spite of his singular appearance... unless he expressed leadership using the royal “we”... he was representing more than himself. The question arises, “Does this mean he was there for himself, just a few persons, or the whole seventy in the Sanhedrin?  Or, by being one very interested in “victory among the people”… was he truly noted in John’s writing as a person far more than we can fathom? We see, as we read... the night gets even more mysterious.
 Nicodemus treated Jesus with respect. He called him “Rabbi” and acknowledged that Jesus was “sent from God.” He spoke that the “signs” he performed were evidence of his station. But, by the question asked we must also understand, that Nicodemus was lost in the darkness.



The Switch Goes “Click”
Jesus spoke and the Truth came to Nicodemus. With the statement “Truly, truly (amen, amen…), Jesus established authority even while the man was still mired in darkness. John highlighted that when God... speaks darkness is cast away. We cite…

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.  (Genesis 1:2-3)

 Jesus' words enlighten us. They broke through darkness to gather both Nicodemus and John’s listeners.., both then and now.  However, like Nicodemus... we who walk now in modern times still struggle with these meanings. For example, we of the Church yet grapple with one another over the meanings of one specific word of this reading. The word we wrestle in the darkness with is “again”... which comes from the Greek word., “anothen”. This Greek word may mean either that you must be "born from above”… or you must be “born again”.
 Given that the usage confused Nicodemus, even as a wizened sage of the Law… should make us feel a bit better. But it doesn’t. We still remain in the dark. Thus Jesus clarified the statement further by adding… “what is flesh is flesh, but what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
  According to the worldview of that day, the Spirit comes to us from “above”. Also, as the gospels attest, the Spirit descended and rested upon the shoulders of Jesus at his baptism. Sent from “above” therefore, God comes also to us so that we may be spiritually “born again”. For John then, the power for spiritual redemption comes to our finite beings from above (ref: John 19:11). The result is that we are born again. The first is the cause, while the second is the effect.
 Nicodemus most likely shuddered a bit in the darkness, grappling with demons of preconceived notions… and Jesus was astounded that he still could not see. Our Lord admonished the man’s unbelief. We recall that the scriptures of the day which recorded words of the prophets, spoke of the spiritual illumination that can suddenly occur…

Then the spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man.  (1 Samuel 10:6)

A most certainly, the power of God from came from above to bring Light. Again from the days just before the exile of Israel comes….

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  (Jeremiah 31:33)

In that moment, Nicodemus was being enlightened and called by Jesus to believe. He was asked to look at things with new light, and to… “turn around”... which also means “repent”. He was to turn around and return to Genesis... and begin to see the eternal Light of God’s love poured out.
 Nicodemus and the people of the Law were being invited to see that the Light had entered the world and was placed right there before them. Nicodemus was called to immediately step out from the darkness. The Son of man and “only begotten” Son of God was revealed. Light was sitting before him amid a dark and hostile world.



Life Changing!
Though it was likely that Nicodemus tried to walk farther in faith according to the Law, like the rest of us today who still stand with one foot in the darkness and the other in the Light, it is historically recorded that after the death and Resurrection of Jesus… Nicodemus did follow Jesus. He did so by proclaiming the faith. He eventually did come to believe.
 Maybe the words of prophecy reminded Nicodemus that Jesus had predicted his being lifted up, to be displayed like the healing snake held by Moses on a pole. In this, the cross must have become a sign of victory for the victoriously named. Consequently, Nicodemus was witness to the crucifixion, and was present to help take our Lord from the cross of Calvary to be buried. To Nicodemus it may have seemed that his own light had gone out. However, the Truth was soon revealed… the eternal Light of the world had come and even the darkness of death would not overcome it.
 We might wonder, “Why this high drama from John?” I believe that blessed John could not help but be emphatic here. This gospel was to be told before his community as a marvelous illumination of the Truth. This wonderfully interwoven story unfolded before the newly formed church and called them to not be cast aside, (apoletate = perish).
 Subsequently, all who have been gathered by the Spirit in all times to read and hear these words… are to realize that we have eternal life through faith given from above. Like our predecessors, we are to repent and be born again. We the hearers of this gospel then and now… are the readers… the receivers... who are called from darkness into Light. We are in many ways... those who walk in the footsteps of Nicodemus.


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