By night…

This is the homily I offered up today for Red Door Healing Service at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.  It is all about proximity, though (as everything seems to be this Lent…my intention is doing what it was intended to do!).  So, I offer it up today as my daily reflection….

John 3:1-17 

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.”


Sometimes, the stories that pull us in are about the characters: rich description of those who are heroes or villains where we love to love them, or love to see them get their just rewards. Sometimes, the stories that pull us in are about the plot, the adventures, the interesting twists and turns that happen along the way. But sometimes, the stories that pull us in are because we have stood in the very same place in which the story takes place. The reason why the story of Nicodemus and Jesus sticks with me is because I have stood in the same place as Nicodemus,…well, at least metaphorically speaking…searching for truth in the night. Maybe it’s a familiar place for you, too.

I think what might help us really hear the words that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through this Gospel today is to try to stand in the same place as this story begins, standing in the shoes of Nicodemus.

Now, Nicodemus is a good guy, respected among his peers. He’s been elevated to a position of authority as a Temple leader among the Jewish community. That means he has been educated, and that he has talked the talk, and walked the walk. The Pharisees were a group who intentionally lived out the teachings of the temple in the world in which they lived and worked. By day, Nicodemus was doing everything that was asked of him to live into his calling and vocation. I respect that in a person, and clearly the other temple leaders respected him, too.

But what we read between the lines is that something else was gnawing at Nicodemus’ heart and soul. He was moved by the teachings of Jesus, and in spite of his understandable doubts about what it might mean for his life and work he wanted to know more. So, Nicodemus did what many of us do. He decided to follow the lead of his questioning, searching soul and sought out proximity to Jesus. But (also like many of us), he did so in the most stealthy way possible, by night. This had to do with his real soul-searching, and his real fears. I imagine Nicodemus thinking: I want to know more; I want to know this person Jesus. But I do not want to rock the boat. I have to be cautious. Maybe, I can go at night when no one else can see me…

Like I said, I understand exactly what it feels like to be Nicodemus.  I also can imagine how eager he was to have his fears assuaged, to be told that yes he could follow in deep discipleship and still remain safe and certain of his day job. That would be great, wouldn’t it?! But, Jesus offers up language that is challenging and mysterious. He uses the analogy of birth, of the entry into the openness of new beginnings in order to teach Nicodemus about the power of living openly and authentically into where his soul was leading him. Jesus doesn’t tell him that the way will be easy, or that he will be safe and secure. Jesus invites him to an experience of new life in spirit, fraught with all of the potential for growth and all of the potential for pain. This life, from above, is the life of spirit.

We often hear the end of this story quoted without its context: John 3:16

“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.”

But it takes on the life of the spirit, as Jesus invites Nicodemus…and us…to embrace, when we hear it in the footsteps of this story of Nicodemus and in the lovingly imparted gift of God echoing in the next passage:

“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.”

In our cloak of darkness where we try to protect our own safety even though our heart is longing to be transformed by God, Jesus meets us. Jesus reminds us that the whole reason that we are drawn to Christ isn’t because we are being condemned or convicted, but because we are drawn to the light of salvation, of new life in this world in which we are living. Like every kind of growth and development, it requires something of us. What is required, as we hear Jesus speak to Nicodemus, is for us to receive open-heartedly and know that we will begin to change, to transform, to be a part of God’s movement in the world. We can’t do that sneaking around in the cloak of darkness. We do that by living in the transformed light of Christ.

The Gospel of John is the only one of the four Gospels with this story of Nicodemus. Although we don’t know exactly what Nicodemus does after this encounter with Jesus, it isn’t the last time we will hear of him in the Gospel according to John. He will resurface, along with Joseph of Arimethea, to take the body of the crucified Jesus to the freshly-hewn tomb. Nicodemus will bring a wealth of myrrh and spices to the tomb, befitting a king.  The poetry and images of John often speak of the light in the darkness, the Word made flesh, dwelling with us. We are invited, through this story of Nicodemus, to share in a journey where we don’t start out powerful and safe. We begin small, new, in an infancy of potential becoming where the light of God’s love invites us to move step by step into our full stature. That is what it means to be born of the Spirit, to follow Christ deeply in the open light of possibility. I wonder what thoughts of light and darkness, of safety and spirit remained with Nicodemus after that late-night conversation. I wonder how those thoughts formed in his mind when he laid Jesus in the tomb. I wonder what his response was when that night of crucifixion and death was broken by the eternal light of resurrection.

Like Nicodemus, we are invited to follow our hearts that have brought us to this place of proximity with Christ so that we can learn to become fully who we are, living in the light as we grow together more fully into our eternal life in Christ.



About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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2 Responses to By night…

  1. JVB says:

    Love this, Sarah. Very well done! I’m preaching this Sunday, and Nicodemus is at the heart of my homily as well. He is one of my favorite Biblical figures. It’s interesting to note that where John’s Gospel leaves off, the Talmud picks up the story of Nicodemus 35+ years later as an old man and a highly respected tzaddik (“righteous one”) who strove valiantly to use his ample wealth and influence to prevent the Romans – incited by the uber-nationalist Zealots – from destroying the Temple in the year 70. Nicodemus is honored by both Christians and Jews, and I think his encounters with Jesus changed him forever.

    • harasprice says:

      I love this! Thank you for adding the Talmud continuation of Nicodemus’ story. I really felt that draw to him, preparing this homily during this lenten season where “proximity” is my intention. I will be keeping you in thought and prayer as you preach on Sunday. Peace, and thanks for your comments 🙂

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