Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night, hoping to escape the notice of his friends and family. I suspect that Nicodemus had been spending a lot of time at night awake since hearing about Jesus, what he’d done and what he was saying. The passage right before this is the cleansing of the temple, when Jesus enters the Temple in Jerusalem and chases out the moneychangers and says “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace!” and claims that he will be able to raise up the temple in three days. I wonder if Nicodemus was there that day and heard his words and even as he disapproved of the outburst, thought to himself, “He’s right. We’re doing this wrong.” And he’s been thinking about it since.
Night can be a scary time. In the darkness we lose the ability to control and focus our minds and slip into doubt, shame, fear, guilt. I know that the night is when I have my darkest moments, the thoughts that won’t stop circling around, the fear or guilt or anxiety that takes hold every time you close your eyes and say to yourself, “I am going to fall asleep right now.” I wonder if Nicodemus had been having those nights for a while. Wondering if this Jesus was the answer to the prophecies, if he might be the Messiah. Knowing full well during the day, when he was safe with his Pharisee colleagues that this Jesus was a dangerous man, but then at night, at home, at 2am, feeling the twinge of doubt. Waking up and not falling asleep so he lights a lamp and goes to read his Torah and fill his mind with words so that it will chase away the doubt. But eventually he goes to see for himself. Surely once he’s actually met the guy, this mysterious hold Jesus has on him will stop, he’ll be able to sleep, because then he’ll know that Jesus is just another rabble rouser, just another Messianic nutcase like all the other ones.
Nicodemus arrives, is appropriately humble, and Jesus responds by spouting really confusing words. They debate about being born from above —it must have felt good and familiar to debate theology, Pharisees loved to debate. Nicodemus takes the part of the realist: I cannot climb back into my mother’s womb, I cannot be born again. As they talk past each other, you can hear Nicodemus sighing with relief. This guy’s crazy. I will be able to sleep tonight.
And then Jesus says something very different, something outside the realm of debate. “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.” He is speaking not as a Rabbi, not as a debater, but as one with authority. He’s speaking the way a son speaks about his father, with knowledge and confidence. God gave his only Son. Suddenly Nicodemus is thrust out of the safety of theological debate and into a different part of reality; I’m sure he had a son; perhaps he had an only son. And he loved him. And he would not give up his son for anything. But God was giving a son. And it sounds like that son is Jesus. It still doesn’t make sense, but it holds his attention in a new way.
What is it about John 3:16—and verse 17, which is less well known, but an important development of the themes in verse 16—so memorable and essential to our faith? A colleague at my Bible study this week said that his mother grew up singing a song with the chorus, “John 3:16, John 3:16, John 3:16”… it has been meaningful long before televised football games with posters and In-and-Out Burger cups with citations on them. It is a verse that can cut through darkness and bring light. John 3:16 and 17 testify to our value to God. God loves us. A lot. Enough to send us Jesus to illumine God’s love for us. God loves us enough that God wants to save us, to give us eternal life, to bring us into glory with God. Jesus is not here to condemn us—that would make God a horrible trickster—sending his son just to prove how bad and undeserving we are. God loves us and desires good for us. That is profoundly reassuring.
It’s not that what happens in the first part of this story isn’t important—it is vital. To be born “again” or “from above”—the Greek word means both of those—is a central part of Jesus’ good news. And Nicodemus’ insistence on thinking literally is one of the hallmarks of our misunderstanding of Jesus—Jesus talks about spiritual things and we respond with earthly things. Jesus speaks in metaphor and we respond with literalism. Belief in Jesus will change us. Belief in Jesus will bring us from darkness to light; from the womb to birth.
So what if we stick with Jesus’ metaphor of rebirth, and think of this darkness in which Nicodemus comes not as an anxious night, or a place of evil, but as a womb? It is dark. It is confining. But it is nourishing. It is giving him the strength, the food, the growth that he needs in order to go through a traumatic but ultimately necessary and worthwhile process of birth.
I know that I’m not a fully mature, fully formed Christian. And I suspect that most of you are not, either. Have I been born again? Maybe— when someone asks me that question in the grocery checkout line, the answer is always “yes, I was born again at my baptism.” But that might be thinking like Nicodemus a little too much. The person of today who asks you, “Have you been born again?” is asking about a salvific moment—did you have the experience, the moment, the encounter that saved you? But being born again isn’t a moment, it’s a lifetime. Certainly in the literal sense of having been baptized, received the holy Spirit, and believing in Jesus. But I’m not sure if I can really, truly, fully say that I have been born “from above.” In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m still in the womb—rather like Nicodemus.
Nicodemus makes only one more appearance in the gospel of John. When Jesus is taken down from the cross on Good Friday afternoon, Nicodemus arrives with a hundred pounds of oils and ointments with which to anoint his body. He is carrying all the expensive oils that a father would give to his only Son, if his son died. The disciples are all gone, hiding in their own darkness, but Nicodemus shows up, in the light of day, and stands in for God the Father as well as for Joseph and tenderly honors the body of this son. Nicodemus has been born from above, and also born into the light. He has been born into dramatic action and witness to Christ as God’s son, the beloved. So can we, if we let the birth process unfold.