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"
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
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
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
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
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?