We know ... nothing

May 26th, 2021

John 3:1-17

You are a day or two from graduation, and the registrar grabs you and tells you there is a math class you signed up for and forgot to attend, but you have to pass the class to graduate and you have to take the final to pass and you have not been to class all semester and you run to find your place in a chilly, hard seat in a room as cold as a morgue. The professor glides toward you like the grim reaper, the exam in his hand as good as a scythe, and you look at the exam and it could be hieroglyphics or the extra-credit question for Honors Chinese for all the sense you can make of it, and you look up to see all the other students staring at you, laughing at you. Your chest heaves, your heart all but stops, you feel incredibly vulnerable, exposed . . . and then you wake up. Night terrors, they are called, and all of us have them.

I do not know for sure, but I imagine that is something of what Nicodemus experienced that night he came to see Jesus.

The story is a familiar one, perhaps too familiar. How many times have we read or heard this story? How many sermons have been preached on this nocturnal encounter between Jesus, the up-country Rabbi, and Nicodemus, the representative of religious education, authority, and tradition? Many times, I would venture to say, and rightly so. It is one of the crucial stories in John’s presentation of his Gospel. There is no way that any one sermon can do it justice: there are just too many important details in this text. Every word makes a difference. But sometimes we just race by as we read and hear, imagining that we already know what Jesus is saying here and to whom. Let’s slow down.

Nicodemus, a ruler or leader of the Jews—a Pharisee, himself a teacher and a powerful one too, a recognized religious authority—comes to Jesus by night.

Why “by night”? My father, a weekend preacher, opined that, as both men were busy, perhaps night was the only time they could meet. A New Testament professor said the meeting time indicated Nicodemus’s caution: What would other officials, and even the common folk, think of him if Nicodemus were discovered conversing with Jesus? Could be. There could be other explanations as well.

In the Gospel of John, however, “night” tells more than time. The evangelist uses “night,” and also “darkness,” to reveal something deeper and truer than a clock could. Night is a metaphor as well as a marker, and in John, many people are in the dark (John 13:30).

“Rabbi,” Nicodemus says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God . . .” (John 3:2).

Who is “we”? Other Pharisees? Members of the Sanhedrin? Closeted believers? Possibly. Or maybe Nicodemus uses the cover of “we know” for what is far more likely the truth of the matter: “I don’t know.” Nicodemus is “in the dark,” does not know who Jesus is or what Jesus’ words and miracles mean. They must mean something—“No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2)—but Nicodemus cannot make sense of it all.

It turns out Nicodemus is much like Jesus’ other followers, those who saw him command the wind and sea and exclaimed, “Who then is this?” (Mark 4:41). Nicodemus, in the dark, comes with a protest of knowledge that belies the truth: “I do not know who you are.” He is trying desperately to fit Jesus into his view of things—to fit Jesus into the long line of teachers, prophets, whatever—one more in the sequence.

Jesus’ response sounds like an answer even though Nicodemus has yet to ask a question. Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). It is with that statement most sermons on this text begin and end, an evangelistic word offered (sometimes arrogantly and almost always condescendingly) to unbelievers, atheists, skeptics, pagans.

But look at the titles Nicodemus holds. In verse 10, Jesus calls Nicodemus a “teacher of Israel”—like preachers and Christian educators are teachers of the church. In verse 1, Nicodemus is called a “leader of the Jews,” which is to say an elected official, an administrative officer. He has responsibilities in the day-to-day operation of the synagogue and Jewish governance—not altogether dissimilar to our trustees, or church council, or other elected officers.

In verse 1, Nicodemus is identified as a “Pharisee,” which is to say he is recognized as a faithful person. The Pharisees studied, tithed, prayed, made God a part of their everyday lives. Does that sound like anyone you know?

Jesus says to Nicodemus—not to an atheist or nonbeliever, not to a skeptic or pagan, but to a faithful Pharisee, to a leader of the Jews, to a teacher of Israel—unless you are born again, you will not see the kingdom of God.

Familiar as this text is, and as comforting in a way, if we look deeply, we find it to be frightening as well, for we are the ones who so often come to Jesus saying, “Lord, I know who you are . . . I know what you want.” When I say such a thing or think such a thing, I prove only that I too am in the dark, that I do not know at all.

I am unprepared for the exam, I admit it. I have missed too many classes, and maybe you have too. I look at this book and it might sometimes be hieroglyphics, advanced Chinese. I do not understand the first thing, can’t answer the first question, and the final exam is looming. And yet in Jesus we just might have the opportunity to experience God’s grace. God help my unbelief.

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