Depth in the Darkness
March 12, 2017
Prayer for Illumination
Eternal God, source of all light,
by your Word you give light to the soul.
Pour out upon us
the spirit of wisdom and understanding
that, being taught by you in Holy Scripture,
our hearts and minds may be opened to know the things
that pertain to life and holiness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b]4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] 8 The wind[f] 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you[g] do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[h] 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[i] 16 “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.
17 “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.
It’s a familiar passage, of course. Ubiquitous in some communities. This passage from John is one many folks who are church insiders and even those who have never opened a Bible or attended worship are familiar with. Maybe you’ve seen John 3:16 written in spray paint on a highway overpass. Last year this verse was featured on Pensacola’s graffiti bridge around Easter, with a picture of Jesus bounding out of his tomb, the stone rolled away, and “Have a Blessed Easter” added to the message. In his heyday, Tim Tebow wrote John 3:16 on his eye black, proclaiming the good news as he threw passes and attempted touchdowns first for the Florida Gators, and then for the Denver Broncos. John 3:16 is widely known as one of the most popular verses of scripture, as the Gospel in a nutshell.
For me, it holds a different significance in my faith journey. It reminds me of failure. Yes, failure, a concept we don’t discuss often in this competitive college town with academic and sports prowess around every corner, award-winning faculty, and highly acclaimed healthcare. See this is the exact text of the one ordination exam I failed, back when I was trying to complete my journey towards being ordained in the Presbyterian Church.
There are five exams each candidate must pass, and for the Biblical Exegesis exam, I choose the John 3 passage because I preferred the final context: we were tasked to write an outline of a sermon preached at a youth conference. At that time, most of my ministry had focused on youth, first as an intern and youth director at a local church, and then as a chaplain at a K-8 Episcopal school. I spent hours researching and reading commentaries, and wrote for many hours and long into the night before it was due. And I failed. It was a time of darkness and vocational doubt I don’t bring up in interviews. Two readers found enough problems with my work that I did not pass. Both said I came close, but I failed. I was working at Union Presbyterian Seminary at the time, so I sought out the advice of three trusted professors: Frances who taught me New Testament, Beverly who taught me homiletics, and—because I’m a glutton for punishment—Brian, the president and my boss at the time, who is a New Testament scholar and one of the three best preachers I’ve ever heard. I don’t remember what each said exactly, but their advice went something like this:
Frances said my analysis was good, but I didn’t stick to one idea.
Beverly echoed this; you offer different ideas to different questions. They are looking for consistency, Kate. Next time, just give them one response, the same response on every page.
Brian was more direct. “Ah, this is not the time to be creative. You have a creative spirit, but your ordination exams are not the time to let that shine through. It’s a great sermon, and I think youth would like it, but you can’t get creative with John 3:16, Kate. That makes folks nervous. Be as bland as possible next time.”
So…I was…I bored myself by writing the same thing over and over the next chance I got to take the exam, and I was praised for my consistency and passed. And that’s good news for you today, because now I have a failed sermon on this text already out of my system.
But regrettably, I’m not the only one who’s found flailing in the dark here. Nicodemus failed to understand what Jesus was trying to explain that night. With every “truly I tell you,” Jesus uttered, Nicodemus seemed more confused than before. He kept responding with further questions, wondering just how one could be born from above or born of the spirit. As a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, Nicodemus was confident and clear that Jesus was “a teacher who had come from God,” due to the signs and miracles Jesus performed. He knew that Jesus was special and someone who could teach him well. But he was nervous; he was scared to be seen with Jesus, so he came in the night, covered by darkness, shrouded by secrecy. Nicodemus was seeking answers and Jesus responded with questions of his own and the poetry of God’s love, grace, and eternal life.
Poor Nicodemus kept getting caught up in the logistics. How is a grown man born again? How is anyone born from above? How does it all work? I can’t tell the tone Jesus takes in the back and forth, but there are times when I think Jesus might have been exasperated. And yet, I feel the need to take up for dear Nicodemus; bless his heart, he’s trying his best, and this whole business of being born from above or of the Spirit is complicated stuff. Adding the parts about the wind, earthly things, and heavenly things doesn’t help clarify matters either. As part of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit is a complicated theological concept, for Nicodemus to understand and for many of us today, as we struggle in the dark ourselves.
Writer, theologian, and preacher Frederick Buechner sheds some light on the concept of Spirit in his book, Wishful Thinking. Buechner defines Spirit by writing:
Like its counterparts in Hebrew and Greek, the Latin word spiritus originally meant breath (as in expire, respiratory, and so on), and breath is what you have when you’re alive and don’t have when you’re dead. Thus spirit=breath=life, the aliveness and power of your life, and to speak of your spirit (or soul) is to speak of the power of life that is in you. When your spirit is unusually strong, the life in you unusually alive, you can breathe it out into other lives, become literally in-spiring. …[Buechner continues] God also has a spirit—is Spirit, says the Apostle John (4:24). Thus God is the power of the power of life itself, has breathed and continues to breathe himself into his creation. In-spires it. The spirit of God, Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost, is highly contagious.
And ultimately, that’s good news for all of us. Even when we, like Nicodemus, can’t completely comprehend how the Spirit is at work, or how to discern the Spirit’s current call on our lives individually and collectively, it’s contagious. Sometimes we can’t help but catch it as Christian folk. Even when we are clueless or bumbling in the dark, the Holy Spirit will find us and won’t leave us alone. Even when we have more questions than clarity, the Spirit is still in play, drawing us into the love, peace, hope, and joy of the Holy.
In many respects, Jesus was just getting warmed up with all the talk about the Spirit, wind, and being born from above. Today’s text ends with three statements about eternal life and salvation. Jesus jumps right into the heart of the matter, enlightening Nicodemus about the love in the kingdom of God and why being born of the Spirit can make all the difference here and now and ever after.
“And just 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, 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.”
As we continue through this season of Lent, we know where Jesus is going; we can follow. We know what’s going to happen in Jerusalem, when the Son of Man is lifted up. We know the depth of God’s love and the depth of the darkness Jesus faces on the cross, so that the world might be saved. We know. We know the depth of that love and the depth of the darkness in our own lives. As we put away our alleluias, and cling to repentance and ashes, dust and death, we know. Even though Nicodemus is still in the dark in so many ways, we know. We know the radical gift that God gives the world through his only Son. We know the extent of God’s grace and mercy. We know it’s not cheap grace, not a simple gift.
Returning to Buechner’s writing, I appreciate how he defines grace:
Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid [God says]. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.[Buechner reminds us] There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.
Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
Jesus brings us home by declaring that the world is saved through him, through the love of God. We don’t hear from Nicodemus any more in this chapter, but Jesus continues teaching, shedding light on the gift of grace and eternal life. Jesus makes the grandeur of the grace plain, what many consider an incredulous gift of life everlasting clear. God loves the world. God loved the world at its creation, and continues to love the world so much, that God gave his only Son to show us the depth of God’s love and the depth of our own darkness, to show us just how we can love God and love our neighbors.
Jesus realizes that Nicodemus can’t see it now, but he knows he’ll understand the gift of the love in the darkness later. Later, after the crucifixion. Later, when Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea to bring spices to bury Jesus. Later, when he laments how Jesus died for the sake of the world, for the love of God, for the gifts of grace and eternal life. And even later, after over two thousand years, when we still see this story of love and grace, of death and eternal life, of hope and heaven, cross-stitched by grandmas, spray painted on bridges, on bumper stickers and t-shirts, and even the eye black of athletes, later Jesus’ words—about the love of God for the world, and the gift of the Son of Man, and the grace of eternal life—will still shine a light in the darkness.
One of my favorite faith writers tells a story about grace and darkness. In her book, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott describes grace in the darkness like this:
We moved into our current house six years ago, when Sam was ten. In the old house, our bedrooms had been very close, but in the new place, we were separated by two rooms and two short hallways. He started coming into my room in the middle of the night, curling up on my bed with his own blanket. I tried the obvious ways of helping him get his confidence back—a night-light, bribes, Power Ranger sheets. Nothing worked.
Finally, Sam and I came up with a solution: The first night, he put his sleeping bag and pillow right beside my bed, where our old dog, Sadie, could peer out at him tenderly. The second night we moved the sleeping bag three feet away, to the foot of my bed. The next night, he moved three more feet away. On the fourth night, he made it to the door. He slept there two nights before he was able to put his sleeping bag in the hall. I kept the door open.
“Are you okay?” I called to him in the dark.
“Yeah,” he said, in his small buy manly voice. The short hallway to the living room took three nights to master. Then there were four nights in the living room, as he crept overland closer to his own room, with four three-foot scootches, one stall, and on night when he had to drag his sleeping bag back three feet. Sometimes he would call out, “Good night,” again to hear my voice. There was one valiant worried night in the hall between my study and his room.
“See you tomorrow, Mom.”
“Love you, Mom! Doing okay out here, Mom.”
A few times he called for me to come sit with him. My nearness lifted him. Sometimes grace works like water wings when you feel you are sinking.
And then, at last, he spent his first night in his spooky new room, bravely, on the floor.
That’s me, trying to make any progress at all [Lamott claims] with family, in work, relationships, self-image: scootch, scootch, stall; scootch, stall, catastrophic reversal; bog, bog, scootch. I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kinds of things; also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, [with grace] it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in silence, in the dark.
Jesus met Nicodemus in the dark, he broke the silence, and shared God’s radical love and abundant grace—grace enough to include the whole world. We may find ourselves scared of the darkness like Sam, or nervous of the implications to be seen with Jesus, like Nicodemus. God still invites us anyway, to experience the grace and love of the divine, through Christ, with Christ, in Christ. It’s not a small gift. In fact, it may change your life. Before you understand what’s being said or what’s happening around you or where the wind is blowing, that grace, that love, that very depth may save you too.
 Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, revised and expanded. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993. 110-111.
 John 3:14-17
 Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking. 38-39.
 LaMott, Anne. Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. New York City: Riverhead Books, 2007. 49-51.