John 3:14-21 Numbers 21:4-9 Ephesians 2:1-10
My name is Nicodemus. I am a Pharisee. Sorry to get all political, but that is my party. Pharisee means “separated.” We keep ourselves separated from Gentiles and from less observant Jews than ourselves. That’s the reason I went to Jesus by night. I didn’t want the other Pharisees to see that I was going out to meet Jesus.
I was curious about him, after the commotion he caused in the temple, when he overturned the tables of the money changers and chased the sheep and cattle out. That was a pretty bold and dramatic act, but one I thought might be warranted. I’d participated in things I knew weren’t right, even though I say I keep myself separated. That’s just the way things were. But I had seen people getting cheated in the Temple. I was less than pleased that coins that bore the image of the emperor were being exchanged and that these coins said right on them that he was the Son of God. It troubled me to participate in this temple system. So when I saw this man, Jesus, take a stand, I was impressed, and a little afraid. What alternate system would come in its place? How would people in power respond to this disruption? Was this a one-time event, or would this man continue to disrupt?
So I went to see Jesus. It was late as I made my way to the place where he was staying. My little lamp barely shown enough to get me through the streets. The moon offered no assistance—it was barely a sliver. That’s partly why I chose this night. I didn’t want to be seen. Every time I thought I heard someone near me, I ducked out of site. It was very quiet, for the most part. Every once in a while a dog barked or a sheep bleated. Other than that, all I heard was the sound of my own footsteps and breathing.
I thought about what I would say as I walked. I wanted to draw him into my confidence, if I could. I wanted to be sure not to offend him or frighten him. I rehearsed a number of different openings, hoping he wouldn’t take something I said the wrong way and chase me out like the sheep. I was so nervous when I finally got there, I barely sat down across from him when I blurted, “I know you are of God. The things you do are not like any human I’ve ever met.” He said to me something about how to see the Kingdom of God. I wasn’t sure right then if I was seeing glimpses of it, or missing it entirely. But I wanted to know more, so I asked some follow up question. Jesus told me about another way of seeing and another kind of birth, a re-birth to eternal life. Being a Pharisee, I was all about eternal life, but another birth was confusing to me.
Then Jesus started talking to me about the light and the dark. Of course I felt ashamed that I had come in the dark. He knew I cared more about what the other Pharisees thought, than what he thought. He didn’t really have a lot of reason to trust me. But he still he spoke to me with patience and tried to help me understand. I understood the kind of darkness that existed in the temple, that secrets kept people in power and made people wealthier at the expense of the poor. And I rather welcomed the light, exposing those who had hurt others, and even my own transgressions that were eating me up when I let myself think of them.
At first when he spoke of rebirth, I was thinking literally. But as he spoke, I thought of the process of birth, going from the darkness of the womb, into the light. Of course the womb is a place of protection and nourishment, but it is a place of preparation, not a place one could stay. It is not the point of life to stay safe and in the dark. Was that what Jesus thought of us Pharisees. Safe and in the dark? Immature? But maybe some of us were ready for new life, a whole new reality.
He mentioned Moses and the people of Israel complaining against God, in total anxiety and despair after the death of Aaron, Moses’ brother. Having taken a look into the promised land and deciding that they were too afraid of what they saw there to enter it, being bitten by snakes and dying from the venom. I thought of what God might be trying to give to us that we were too afraid to take hold of, and how much more desert wandering we would subject ourselves to before we were finally faithful enough to trust God to lead us to something new and life-giving. Maybe you wonder that, too. What are we afraid of, that we stick with what we know, even though it is dark and puts up a barrier between us and God, or us and abundant life. What was it that was killing them? Was it the poison of the snakes, or the poison in their hearts? So what was eating at my heart? What was keeping me from truly living and contributing to the life of others? Was it something outside of myself, or was it something poisonous within me?
But in that story of the snakebites, God provides a cure and the people apologize for their lack of faith. They look upon the iron casting of the snake upon the pole and their life is restored. Somehow when they looked upon the serpent, the remembered something that brought them healing. Maybe they remembered to be grateful that God was leading them to freedom. Was I grateful that God was leading me to freedom? Maybe looking upon that snake reminded them of their sin, got it out into the light, so they wouldn’t live in that kind of captivity again. What errors of mine did I need to get out and really face, so that I could move beyond them?
As I sat there in the dark, I realized I was sitting with the one who was bringing light into the world. It was a light that would expose the evil that we all participate in, but not to condemn us, in order that we might have new life. It was not going to be comfortable to be exposed, but I had to face what I’d done and what my political party was doing. I hoped that in the future I would stand in the light, that I would speak against evil, that I would do the kind thing, the loving thing. I walked home wondering who I was and who I would be. Would I take hold of new life, or resist it?
So when I heard he had been arrested and was sentenced to crucifixion, I ran those same streets I had walked that night. I was in a complete panic. How could someone so full of light, who spoke so patiently with me, who brought God’s love so close, be treated so cruelly? And as I stood beneath the cross and looked up at him, I remembered the serpent on the pole bringing healing to the snakebitten people. I heard him say, “Forgive them Father.” Then I knew that somehow this man on this pole would bring healing and new life. I didn’t know how, but the light was already dawning, the new birth had already begun. There was no going back.