Sunday, March 8, 2020
Come into the light
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Second Sunday in Lent
We see an important theme in John’s gospel in today’s story of Nicodemus. That is the theme of light and darkness. The prologue to John at the very beginning of the gospel ends with “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” In the beginning of Genesis, we read of the wind of creation the ruach blowing over the void that was covered with darkness and God says. “Let there be light and there was light.” Part of the original creation is light, even before the sun, there was light.
John’s gospel sets the story of Nicodemus immediately after two major events. Jesus turns over the tables of the money changers in the temple right after he turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Notice that the scene at the temple is at the beginning of John and not the end like in the other gospels. This means that in John’s gospel Jesus is already in trouble with the priests, the scribes and the pharisees from the very beginning.
Now we have the setting for today’s passage. Nicodemus comes in the night because he is afraid of what the others on the Sanhedrin will say or do if they find out he has come to speak with Jesus. Most of what Nicodemus does is in shadow or out of sight for fear of how it will be viewed by others, especially those in power. He is taking a huge risk by speaking with Jesus and yes, he is afraid. Yet Jesus does seem to reach out and touch him, pulls him in and ultimately turns him into a follower willing to risk taking care of his body after he has been crucified.
It is interesting to contrast this with the gospel we will hear next week of the Samaritan woman at the well who meets Jesus in the daylight and runs to tell everybody all about him and the entire town believes. She, one who is rejected by the Jews is open and excited about meeting Jesus. Nicodemus the great scholar lurks in shadows out of fear about what others will say and what this might mean for his power and status.
Now remembering the importance of light and dark to John let’s look at this story. We have a relatively well-known character at least in John’s gospel, Nicodemus. From what we can piece together he was a fairly important person. We know that because he is named in the gospel. This meant that he was well known enough that the author thought it important to mention him by name. He appears only in the Gospel of John. He is not mentioned in any of the synoptic gospels. He is a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin that much we know. He appears three times. In this passage, in defense of Jesus and his followers in chapter 7:50 when he tells the others that they should ask him about what he is teaching before condemning him. His last appearance is with Joseph of Arimathea after the crucifixion when he brings a hundred pounds of spices and to anoint Jesus’ body in the tomb as Joseph prepares him for burial.
If I was to put this on stage, it would be something like this. Close your eyes and imagine a completely dark stage. A single spotlight comes up and Jesus is standing there surrounded by the darkness. The spotlight widens just a bit and Nicodemus steps into the light. Then you have the conversation between the two of them. Somewhere around verse 10 or 11, more lights would come up and you would see the disciples and others standing there. The Greek changes from you (second person singular) to y’all second person plural which we don’t have in English. Nicodemus then melts into the crowd as Jesus does the teaching to the gathered people which is the second half of the passage. The next time we see Nicodemus is when he is defending Jesus in a backhanded way to the Sanhedrin.
Nicodemus is a fascinating figure for many. He is interested in speaking to Jesus, even willing to take this chance to meet him in the dark, but then he melts back into the background for most of the rest of John’s gospel. When he re-appears, he defends Jesus, but doesn’t really risk very much. He just says, listen to him before condemning him. John 7 51 “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” He doesn’t really advocate for him, but I sense a faith in Jesus that prompts him to defend Jesus. Ultimately the last time we see him he is bringing a 100 lbs. of spices for Jesus’ burial in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb.
What gives me hope about a character like Nicodemus is that we get to watch him grow in his faith. Yes, he was still stuck in the dark even at the end of John’s gospel as he brought the spices for Jesus’ burial, but he was there! He had just enough faith in him to get him to show up. That is what gives me hope. There is just enough light in him to make a difference. Now I wonder what happened to him in the following years. I will take a guess that he played some part in the early church since he is named in John’s gospel and that means people would have known him even 70 years after the crucifixion when this gospel was written his name was important. There is a light in all of us and a few weeks ago I asked what does your light look like?
In the Way of Love calendar last week’s focus was on light. If you have the calendar on Monday you were asked to watch the video which I had posted on our Facebook page (Here is a link to that video). Calendars are in the narthex for the rest of Lent and I will post the link to each of the videos as they go online each Monday.
At one point they talk about the Great Vigil of Easter. We will celebrate the Easter Vigil again this year and light is a major part of that service with the lighting of the new fire, the procession and lighting of the pascal candle and everyone in the congregation lighting their candle from that light.
In the video each of the brothers from the Society of St. John the Evangelist speak of the power of a single candle. Something I love to do is enter into a church at night and leave the lights off and look for that one light, the sanctuary light or the light of the presence. It is the one over the tabernacle where the reserved sacrament is kept. That one small candle that says Jesus is here, always seems to bring so much light. They all spoke of that same experience. Even that one light overcomes the darkness. Try this at some point, go somewhere without any light and then light a candle in the darkness and see how much light it can give.
We live in a world with a lot of darkness, not literal darkness but spiritual darkness. Darkness that brings despair, poverty, violence and hatred. Lent is a time to explore that light that is in each of us, to encourage that light, help it shine brighter. But we cannot stop there, with caring for our light. We have to do that first, but then comes the next step. I again go back to idea of letting your light shine, bringing the light of Christ into the world. For we have the promise that in the end, the darkness will not overcome the light. Like Nicodemus, we are called to come out of the shadows, be bold and share our light with the world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. A people who have sat in darkness have seen a great light. Invite the Nicodemus in you into the light and then take that light out into our world.