Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
Trinity Sunday, Year B
May 27, 2018
In the name of God, Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.+
As some of you know, Paradise, for me, is an old bookstore, a place of dusty shelves and worn covers. Never mind that the titles are out of order—that just adds to the mystery of the hunt for the treasure I know is there.
Besides, the outsides of books—of anything—including people—can be deceptive. Gilded covers and fine typography may hide reprints; threadbare covers may cradle special editions, small universes of intricate designs and fine sketches inscribed on the lovely texture of linen paper.
New books, too, are magical, giving you the joy of pages crisp in the binding. And the words on those pages! So many different type fonts—like Garamond, Baskerville, Lucida— mysterious names, each carrying the history of literacy itself. How astonishing, that these tiny shapes of ink actually form words, carry meaning; amazing, that they fit together in unity, that things so different should be a marriage of mind and spirit.
Some of you are teachers, and as all teachers know, real students are the ones who see words come alive on a page; they reshape those words into new and wondrous creations, and they themselves are changed.
I think Nicodemus was one of those. He was, after all, a student of the Most High; he sought for the word that God wrote on the tablets, the heart, the forehead of Moses. As a Pharisee, he held strict traditional beliefs; as a member of the Sanhedrin, he served on the highest legal and ecclesiastical council. These ones knew the law; they tried the wicked, they guarded justice. Their lives were ordered, their laws were ordered, and . . . they ordered the lives of others. Nicodemus ate with them, praised God with them, sat in court with them. He danced at their weddings; he knew the dogs that licked the crumbs from under their tables.
And yet, this man chose to shut the gilded covers of the Book of the Law. He turned his back on the Sanhedrin, the ones who followed the road to a Judas kiss. Instead, he risked walking through the night to Jesus—to the one who had offended all the religious leaders by overturning the tables in the temple, exclaiming “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
It was dangerous for Nicodemus. It took courage—it always does—to seek the truth.
On top of it all, when Nicodemus found Jesus, sitting as a light in the darkness, he said, “Rabbi.” And with that word of honor, he had conceded the argument—although perhaps he didn’t realize it. “Rabbi—O great one,” he said; “O distinguished teacher—you made water into wine, you overthrew the money-changers—God must be with you in these signs!”
I imagine that Jesus looked at him intently and realized that Nicodemus was a seeker, one courageous enough to open a new book, to begin a new chapter in his life. And so he replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
“Born from above” . . . what on earth does that mean? Nicodemus, a good man, a learned man, pushes the issue, a typical pharisaical tactic of the times. He focuses on the tangible, on what he knows: and so he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb? . . . How can these things be?”
How many times have we asked that ourselves? The sign is right in front of him, of us, the very Word of God himself, not carved in stone, not as a blazing bush, but as an ordinary person. The very Word of God, sitting on the grass, reaching out to touch Nicodemus, blowing the breath of the spirit his way.
There He is, speaking about the way the Old Testament foreshadows the crucifixion and the Resurrection that are to come: as he says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up . . . God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him . . . may have eternal life.”
There He is, God’s own Son, offering Nicodemus a new way to understand the old law, to see it reshaped into a wondrous creation. Here is the answer, the Word that Nicodemus came for: he has indeed found the light that has come into the world.
And there the passage ends, with no mention of Nicodemus’s reaction. Don’t you wonder about that? It’s only later that we find out that this Pharisee, this student of the Most High has read the Word; he has closed the old book and opened the new.
We meet him again at the Feast of the Tabernacles, when Jesus enrages the Sanhedrin by his teaching. That is when Nicodemus himself becomes a light in the darkness. He strides through the milling crowd, past wealthy friends, clothed in linen gowns; past the rabble, dressed in ragged hand-me-downs, all crowding against Jesus, shouting for blood.
That is when this courageous, upright man calls for justice at the risk of his life. “Why are you shouting?” Nicodemus demands. “What has this man done? Does our law judge a man without proof? Give him a hearing!” It is as if he heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send?” “Who will go for us?” And he answers, “Here am I; send me!”
We see Nicodemus once more at the end of the journey, when he joins Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus. It is Nicodemus who brings myrrh to the entombment, his hands overflowing with the spice of life, the oil of anointing; he carries the same gift the Magi brought to a tiny child in Bethlehem.
The end of the journey is really the beginning. It is a rebirth, the light at the end of the tunnel. Christ is the herald of a new age, a new way of living. It is the Resurrection that gives us the courage, the spirit to walk through whatever darkness there is, to follow the truth, the life, the way. To follow the Word.
In Jesus’s end is his beginning,
the distillation of all the readings, all the laws.
It is the meaning of the Word, the Spirit behind the flesh.
When the wind blew on Nicodemus that night,
the Spirit of God opened his eyes to the Word.
May it blow on us as well,
that we may have the courage, the honesty, the humbleness
to follow Nicodemus through the darkness into the light.
In His Holy Name. + Amen.