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Readings: 2nd Sunday of Lent

07 March 2014

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Genesis 12.1-4a; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3.1-17

Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness: grant to all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ's religion, that they may reject those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

THIS year, the Lent readings are rich in stories, as we hear John's long narratives of some of Jesus's encounters, coupled with classic Old Testament stories.

This week's are the shortest, and in some ways the most enigmatic: Nicodemus just drops off the scene, back into the night from whence he came. Abram "went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him". I am reminded of books I read as a child, What Katy Did and What Katy Did Next. It is the "next" that counts.

John set the theological scene for his telling of the story of Jesus by speaking of light and darkness - the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1.5). He soon introduces Nicodemus, whose night-time encounter is the first of the events that John indicates took place in the dark.

Unlike other encounters where John is specific about body language, Jesus and Nicodemus could not see each other, look each other in the eye, or read each other's expressions. So words counted for everything.

Jesus bypassed Nicodemus's opening statement, and, by turning the conversation, wrong-footed Nicodemus, and forced him to ask a question rather than make assertions. Then Jesus seized the initiative, and indicated his high expectations of the teachers of the law.

On the other hand, perhaps the conversation verged on the humorous, as Nicodemus used the cover of darkness to risk asking seemingly daft questions without losing face in public, which would have been a serious concern for a Pharisee. Jesus responded to the absurdity of his literal interpretation, and perhaps made them both laugh, before he teased out truth, and ended with a touch of amused incredulity in his final question.

Either way, Nicodemus can be forgiven for being confused, and we hear no more of him after verse 9. By verse 16, we do not know whether he is still listening to Jesus, or whether this is John's summarised commentary on what happens when light shines in darkness.

It concludes that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, and John later puts this assertion on Jesus's lips (John 8.12). Here, Jesus says nothing to Nicodemus about condemnation, only about new birth.

What did Nicodemus do next? He reappears in two cameo roles. When other Pharisees wanted to arrest Jesus, he asked a question about due processes of the law as applied to Jesus. Whether an innocuous question, or an attempt to protect Jesus, it prompted his colleague's scathing criticism (John 7.50-52), which he deliberately avoided in this first encounter. Then, after the crucifixion, with another secret disciple, Joseph of Arimathaea, he brought large quantities of spices to embalm Jesus's body and place him in a tomb (John 19.38-42).

So this nocturnal encounter with Jesus bore fruit eventually, but it is never clear how certain or public Nicodemus's following of Jesus was. Perhaps he never committed himself wholeheartedly, or perhaps, like many people around the world today, his commitment was secure, but he had to be cautious about how public he made it. Whatever the ultimate outcome, Jesus tried to nurture and enlarge that faith rather than condemn him.

So Nicodemus remains an enigma. In contrast, we know what Abram did next. After his father's death - having previously moved from one urban centre, Ur, to another, Haran, in the Fertile Crescent - at God's call and invitation he risked everything by leaving his settled life for a nomadic existence.

The evocative phrase is "And Lot went with him." Lot, his nephew, was part of the extended family that Abram now headed, and later he caused Abram serious problems. Sometimes, the people who come as part of the package of obeying God are not our first choice of companions.

Paul adds a commentary to this. Abraham believed in the presence of the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. God did it by giving him an heir when he was as good as dead (John 4.19) and making him the father of all who share his faith.

Jesus invited Nicodemus to share that faith by believing heavenly things. Nicodemus buried Jesus's body, and so must also have experienced the empty tomb and seen the disciples reborn of the Spirit through the resurrection. What finally came of this nocturnal conversation: what did Nicodemus do next?

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