John’s Gospel begins with the primal symbols of darkness and light, and these are interwoven into descriptions of the physical settings of Jesus’s ministry as well as spiritual conditions. There is a difference between night and day, and John’s Jesus insists that the reader, the hearer, the believer must choose. There are no shades of grey in this test of discipleship or in this familiar text from John 3. “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil.”
William Temple wrote: “Don’t wait till you know the source of the wind before you let it refresh you, or its destination before you spread sail to it. It offers what you need; trust yourself to it.” Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, perhaps so that he won’t be seen by his highly critical Pharisee brothers, but perhaps also in a state of intellectual or emotional obscurity. Cautious, concrete, literal-minded, entrenched in his beliefs and practices, Nicodemus is genuinely curious and humble in light of Jesus’ signs.
In his encounters with people, Jesus finds the weak spot as the locus of transformation. For Paul it is the mysterious “thorn” in his side. Paul begs God to remove it, but hears instead in 2 Corinthians 12, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” For Peter, it is his threefold denial. After the Resurrection, Jesus will ask three times, “Do you love me?” (John 21). For Nicodemus, it is his knowledge: “How can?” “But?” Jesus meets the Pharisee’s literal-mindedness with a frustratingly wild metaphor. “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, a respected leader and teacher, comes under the cover of darkness to ask the hard question: “Is it possible that everything I know is wrong?” He clearly recognizes the signs of God in Jesus; he knows wisdom when he hears it, but that wisdom is making a fool of him. He’s an old teacher who is still hungry to learn, but he doesn’t expect to be demoted to preschool. Jesus doesn’t make it easy. He uses the one word for “birth,” anothen, that has two different meanings: “born again” or “reborn” and “born from above.” Nicodemus goes for the literal, turning the Spirit’s work into a laborious affair.
John’s Jesus is a code talker, using symbolic language to distinguish between those who are children of light and those who have chosen the shadowland. If we draw back from this dramatic staging between this teacher of the law and the One who is Wisdom, we can also hear the post-Easter community of John speaking to the religious authorities who were colluding with Rome to ostracise converts to Christianity. “I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony.”
Leaders like Nicodemus may be the spiritual guardians of the holy of holies, but they resemble the Romans trying to guard an empty tomb. “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” It seems that Nicodemus doesn’t appreciates the lesson or the question. He simply slips away into the night, disappears from the Gospel scene.
But in the darkest moment for the followers of Jesus, Nicodemus shows up again. It is Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who anoint and wash Jesus’s body and prepare it with spices for burial. It’s an intimate and courageous witness. Near the Gospel’s end, Nicodemus steps out of the shadows into the public square of Rome’s empire and choses the Light.
The images of pilgrimage and the language of the Spirit’s new birth are linked in these scriptural texts in the season of Lent. Both present the reader/hearer/believer a choice. Do you trust the One who is the Way? Will you begin a pilgrimage of faith, filled with assurance of the God who guards and shelters? Have you been born by water and the Spirit?
Both scripture passages offer the believer life filled with assurance and the power of the Spirit. This theme of assurance connects this Lenten gospel and this psalm. Fanny Crosby’s hymn “Blessed Assurance” would provide the musical affirmation of faith in a trustworthy God and Jesus, the Christ. This is story filled with assurance of the God who guards like a mother and shelters like a father. This is the song of a child of God, an “heir of salvation” in and through Christ. We are “born of his spirit” and this is our story and our song.