Nicodemus: under the cover of darkness
by maggi dawn
“You must be Born again!” It’s a phrase that, ripped from its original context, is more associated with demanding preachers than kind friends, more with overnight conversions than of secret conversations. Many a preacher has waved a finger in the air, insisting that you *must* be born again – right now, without delay, and *you* must decide to do it.
The story hangs on two main metaphors. The first is darkness: Nicodemus came to Jesus “under the cover of night”. Why? Perhaps Nicodemus was simply thinking that he needed a one-to-one with Jesus; he was always surrounded by crowds, and Nicodemus had serious questions he wanted to ask. Or perhaps he was afraid of the consequences of being seen with Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious leader, and according to John’s gospel, his colleagues were pretty antagonistic towards Jesus. The “darkness” imagery does suggest an element of covert activity – but it also alludes to the idea that Nicodemus is “in the dark” in the sense of not understanding what is happening to him. And despite what preachers often make of this story, the conversation ended with Nicodemus disappearing, still under the cover of night, still confused, still not understanding.
The second metaphor is birth. Again, the subtlety of the imagery is lost with an insistence that the listener *must* be born again. I don’t know how “you must be born again” ever got turned into an evangelist’s demand. Maybe it takes a woman to notice this, but babies don’t get born all by themselves. Someone else does 90% of the work. And if God is offering us new birth, then it’s God who is going to do the heavy lifting.
What’s more, babies don’t choose when to be born. An actual, real-life birth is a process not an instantaneous event, and the baby is the one who does the least work. Perhaps in spiritual re-births we put too much emphasis on the intent and effort of the recipient; perhaps we need to recover the image of spiritual midwifery; perhaps we need to recognise that the birthing effort of the mother might be deemed to parallel the work of God. “You must” – in the mouth of Jesus sounds like something that will happen, sooner or later. In the mouth of the insistent evangelist it just sounds like a scheduling demand – only “right now” can be the right answer. But when in all of history was a baby born just because someone decided it was time? Babies have their own timing, and for the best outcome they shouldn’t be born until they are ready. If you aren’t ready for a spiritual rebirth yet, stay in the dark with Jesus a while longer. When the time is right, it will happen.
Nicodemus left that conversation with Jesus still “under the cover of darkness”, and still in the dark over what was happening to him. There was no overnight conversion for Nicodemus, but we do have a couple of clues as to the outcome. In John 7, we find him with a group of his Pharisee colleagues, in conversation with the Temple police. Once again Jesus was causing the kind of controversy that made the Pharisees anxious and annoyed. They discussed whether to silence Jesus, or evict him from the Temple. But then Nicodemus spoke up. “Isn’t it in our law,” he said, “to give someone a fair hearing? We shouldn’t silence him, we should listen to him.”
Later still when Jesus died, most of his disciples – including his closest friends – fled for fear of what might happen to them. But two men came to take him down from the cross, removing him from the disgrace of a criminal’s death. One of the men was Nicodemus, who arrived carrying a large package of incense for the burial, showing that he, at least, believed Jesus to be worthy of a proper burial. And this time, Nicodemus did not come by night, for bodies had to be buried before sunset. Here at the most controversial and dangerous moment in the gospel story, Nicodemus appears, not under the cover of darkness but in broad daylight, fearlessly associating himself with Jesus.
Nicodemus’ story is like two bookends around the life of Jesus – he appears right at the beginning of the gospel in secret, hiding from view; he reappears at the end, no longer confused and fearful, but clear and open about his faith. In between there is time for him to process his faith and his response to Jesus, not under insistent pressure, but in his own time. His new birth took place over time, initiated and worked in him by God. No altar call, no claim that he made a “decision for Christ”, no basis for demanding single-moment conversion experiences, but a personal process that led him over the course of three years or so from fear to faith.
This morning in Marquand we explored these ideas, following a little exegesis, using three stations. The first
was in a dimly lit corner of the Chapel, underneath the balcony. We created a kind of “den” by suspending fabric banners from the pillars. Inside the den were tables with materials to write a question to Jesus, and then seal it up with sealing wax.
What question would you ask Jesus if you had a secret one-to-one conversation with him? What would you like to ask God that seems an unacceptable question to ask in Church? Write it down, then fold it over and seal it. Take it with you in your bag. No-one else will see this except you and God.
What is stopping you? Our second station was a washing line of baby clothes (I made these by sketching a baby suit and photocopying the sketch). We asked people to consider whether there is something stopping them from embracing new life. Are you too angry to listen, too afraid of what might happen, or of what people might think?
This time we invited people to pin their response up on a washing line with old-fashioned pegs. Each person took a (paper) baby suit and wrote down on it what was stopping them from taking the next step with God.
Are you ready? Our third station was a canopy in the side chapel. In this shadowy, dark womb-like structure, people had the opportunity to consider whether they were ready yet. One of the interesting things to me about the way the Nicodemus story is preached is the way it is usually presented as a decision to be made right now: be born, and do it now. Yet real births don’t happen on schedule. They happen when the baby is ready. No-one wants a baby to be born too soon; all kinds of problems follow. Nor too late either – a delayed birth can be just as bad as an early one. But even a birth at the right time is a process, not the work of a moment, and when the birth happens it isn’t the baby that does most of the work. Demanding of a baby that he or she be born right now, as if it’s a decision that can be made in a moment, is senseless – and the same is true of spiritual birth. All we can do is continue to grow, and – as far as we are able – get ourselves in the right position.
The language of birth is helpful here – the baby has to be “engaged”, and for the best outcome the baby needs to be in the right position. The point, when speaking of God’s grace in salvation, is that the initiative is God’s rather than ours – we cannot save ourselves by making a decision. But that doesn’t make us passive in relationship to God – between the active and passive modes of speech there is another mode there is a limited amount we can do for ourselves. But we can make ourselves ready as far as possible, so that we don’t obstruct God who, like a mother, will do the work for us of bringing new things to birth.
Inside the canopy, then, we asked people “are you ready yet?”. A large cord lay on the table, and a basket of small cords beside it with some pairs of scissors. “Take a cord. If you are ready, cut the cord. If you are not ready, don’t cut the cord. Take it with you, in one piece or two.”
Then we gathered to pray for each other, and to sing – and to remember that some time later Nicodemus emerged with his faith in broad daylight. We added a piece of incense to everyone’s bag as a reminder of that, and left Chapel with a blessing for patient hope that God will work new things in us, all in good time.