I’d like to do a little bible study with you this morning. There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night. That is a great line. There is an entire story in that one sentence. Of course, we have to fill in the blanks, but that’s what makes bible study so interesting. Maybe you remember that Ernest Hemingway was once asked if he could write a story using only six words. Certainly, he said. And he wrote this now famous line, “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never used.” Amazing isn’t it, how much depth and pathos, how much potential for elaboration he managed to pack into only six words. They are a feast for the imagination. That’s why Japanese Haiku poetry can be so powerful. It isn’t the number of words we use that matters. What matters is the richness of the imagery those words trigger for us.
In much the same way, the visit of Nicodemus, to Jesus, at night, is also a feast for the imagination. John didn’t see fit to fill in many of the details for us, so we are free to wander around in our wondering, which is what a good story always does for us. So, why, do you think, would a prominent Jewish religious leader seek out Jesus by night? There are lots of possibilities. Maybe he was curious. Jesus was certainly a sensation. He was a big stone dropped in the pond of Jerusalem, which sent ripples out in all directions. He made a big splash. Certainly, everyone was talking about him. Surely, Nicodemus could have formed an opinion about Jesus without dragging himself out of a warm bed. But perhaps Nicodemus was the kind of man who wasn’t satisfied with hearsay. Maybe he wanted to see for himself. So, he sought Jesus out for a private conversation.
But, why come at night? Well, maybe he wanted to avoid the crowds. Maybe Jesus’ popularity was just too hard to push through, since he was so often surrounded by his admirers and well-wishers. But that doesn’t quite wash. There are plenty of stories of Pharisees coming to Jesus and talking to him in broad daylight. When a Pharisee appeared, the crowds just seemed to open up, like the waters of the Red Sea for Moses. No, if Nicodemus wanted to get to Jesus in the daytime, I don’t think he would have had much trouble. I’m sure he was curious, and he may have been just as glad to avoid the crowds, but that doesn’t really explain why he came at night.
It’s possible, Nicodemus was sent by the Sanhedrin to check Jesus out. The Sanhedrin was the supreme Jewish council at that time. It was made up of Sadducees, who were wealthy and well-connected politicians, and Pharisees, who were both deeply religious and meticulously observant rabbis. The gospels tell us many stories about Sadducees and Pharisees coming to Jesus, usually “to test him.” They seemed to think he was a threat, and they were always trying to find ways to trip him up. Maybe Nicodemus was on that kind of a mission. But that doesn’t quite ring true either. As his conversation with Jesus unfolds, Nicodemus comes across, not as someone out to get Jesus, but as a man who was asking serious questions; a man who, though already a religious leader, had not yet found peace with his idea of God.
Bottom line, I think Nicodemus came to Jesus because he wasn’t satisfied, because he was hungry for a deeper faith. And, I think he came at night because he didn’t want his brothers in the Sanhedrin to get wind of what he was doing. I suspect that he was flirting with the very dangerous idea of claiming Jesus as his own Messiah. Why would someone like Nicodemus do that? We don’t know a lot about him, but we do know that he was wealthy, from a distinguished family, and that he held a position of great authority in the Sanhedrin. We know that he was a Pharisee, which is to say a member of the most highly regarded, most highly disciplined religious group in all of Israel. By the standards of his day, he had it all. Yet it seems that it wasn’t enough. It reminds me of the story of the rich young ruler, who had kept the law from the days of his youth, but still wanted Jesus to tell him how he could be right with God. Nicodemus was a man at a spiritual crossroads.
So, what happens? Jesus presents Nicodemus with a spiritual paradox, a type of koan, if you’re familiar with the Zen tradition. A koan, like a parable, is a statement or a story that, on the surface, doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was talking about conventional verses unconventional wisdom a couple of weeks ago. Koans, like parables, are very much on the unconventional side. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a well-known example of a Zen koan. If we don’t get it, that doesn’t mean it’s a stupid question. What it means is that we are not thinking about it in the right way. The idea behind a koan, or a parable, is that it invites us to look beyond the surface of our conventional wisdom to a deeper, more spiritual understanding. What Jesus tells Nicodemus is that he must be “born again,” and it sails right over his head. One can never enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit, Jesus says. The wind blows where it chooses. And Nicodemus, who probably came to Jesus looking for answers, in the middle of the night, is left shaking his head in wonder.
Sometimes people look at this story and say, “Am I missing something or isn’t Jesus being just a bit rude here?” Nicodemus wasn’t stupid. He was just confused. And Jesus, let’s be honest, treats him with contempt. “You call yourself a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” I’ve heard people trying to explain this away, trying to defend Jesus. After all, this is Jesuswe’re talking about. Jesuswas perfect. He couldn’t be rude. He was probably just tired after long day.
But no, the story is pretty clear. Jesus was definitely rude to Nicodemus. I take it though, that there was a method in his madness. I take it he wasn’t being rude simply for the sake of rudeness or exhaustion. He was being rude for the sake of providing Nicodemus with, what we would call, a rude awakening. You can bet Nicodemus wasn’t used to being treated this way. He was used to being treated with deference and respect. He was used to people seeking out his every opinion and fawning on his every whim, so I imagine. And Jesus, intentionally I believe, brought him up short, took him down a peg. At which point, Nicodemus could have gotten all huffy; could have gathered up his bruised, over inflated ego and stormed out. But apparently, he didn’t do that. Apparently, Jesus’ rude awakening got through to him, because later in John’s gospel, we find this same Nicodemus tending lovingly and carefully to Jesus’ dead body after the crucifixion, in broad daylight no less. Nicodemus, it seems, came out of the shadows to stand openly as a disciple of the man who had made his rude awakening possible.
My friends, like it or not, this is always the first step in any genuine spiritual journey. We have to get over ourselves. We have to get past all the things we think we know, all the comfortable little truths of our normal human lives that blind us to the incomparably greater truth of God. And believe me, there is no time like the present. We have all kinds of things these days that are presenting themselves to us, at least potentially, as rude awakenings. But the truth is we would much rather sleep. We would much rather sleep through the rising tide of violence. We would much rather sleep through the crisis in our government. We would much rather sleep through the gradual destruction of our environment. With a common voice, what we seem to be saying these days is, “Wake me when it’s over.”
Yet, down inside us, we know something is missing. Down inside of us, we are hungry for the Spirit, just like Nicodemus. We are confused, as he was, because the answers we have always trusted don’t seem to be working for us anymore. We have it all, so it seems, at least compared to most of the world. Yet it isn’t enough. At times like this, I often find myself returning to my favorite quote from Anthony De Mello, from his book called Awareness.
Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep. They live asleep. They marry in their sleep. They breed children in their sleep. They die in their sleep, without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence. You know all mystics, Catholic, Christian, non-Christian, no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion, are unanimous on one thing – that all is well, all is well. Though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox to be sure. But tragically, most people never get to see that all is well, because they are asleep. They are having a nightmare.
My friends, it has always seemed to me that helping people wake up, spiritually speaking, is what the church is, or at least ought to be, all about. It may seem rude to you, this idea that we might be asleep, but the rudeness is not for the sake of being rude. It is for the sake of providing the rude awakening we all sometimes need. And even though waking up may be something we have become afraid of, we need to remember, as they say, that FEAR simply stands for: Forgetting Everything’s All Right.
Besides, this is Pentecost. This is the day we celebrate the birthday of the church. This is the day we recognize that the Spirit that blows through our fellowship has kept us spiritually alive for more than two thousand years. When we awaken, when we are alive to that Spirit, what we awaken to is the blessed assurance, the absolute conviction, the sure and certain knowledge, that we are not now nor can we ever be separated from the love of God, except in our own dreaming minds. And what we awaken for, is the joyful living out of that conviction in loving service to all humanity and indeed all God’s creatures. We awaken to the reality that our plans, our hopes and dreams are not always what God has in mind for us. The future we envision may not be the future we eventually come to inhabit. But nonetheless, God is with us. The wind, of God’s Spirit blows where it chooses. Our job is to raise our sails. Our job is to wake up. Our job is to live faithfully in the knowledge that we can never be separated from the love of God, no matter what happens. As strange as it may sound, all is well, all is well.