June 7, 2009
Scripture: John 3:1-17
Sermon Title: “From Darkness Into Light”
Rev. George N. Miller
It was one those moments. A moment in which you have no choice but to be fully present. The sun was still out. The crowd was still there. Nicodemus and Joseph did not care.
After Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit, after the soldiers were sure he was dead, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could have the body.
It was an unusual request. Usually the body of criminals were left up for wild dogs and vultures to eat, sending a message to other troublemakers.
No one asked for the body of a crucified man.
Pilate, perhaps surprised at the man’s audacity, gave the OK.
Nicodemus had with him a mixture of myrrh and aloes, a hundred pounds worth. It was a testament to his wealth. It was a testament to his love for Jesus. And before the sun could set the two men began to work.
Usually a man such as Nicodemus would never touch a dead body right before the Holiest Day of the year, rendering himself unclean, but he didn’t care. What he cared about was showing Rabbi Jesus the respect he deserved.
Nicodemus and Joseph took the spices, applying it to Jesus’ hands: hands that healed the sick, hand that fed the hungry and reached out to the lonely.
They took the spices, applying it to his feet: feet that traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem, from mountaintops to water wells.
They took spices, applying it to his mouth: lips that proclaimed good news, lips that spoke words of forgiveness, lips that smiled upon the people.
They took spices, anointing Jesus’ entire body, a body that was indeed a temple, a living, walking, embodiment of God’s Wisdom, Torah and Grace.
When done, Nicodemus and Joseph wrapped Jesus in a linen cloth, filling it with more spices, and then, while still in the sunshine, for all to see, they lovingly placed him inside a brand new tomb.
And here they were, showing radical hospitality to a dead body. This Joseph of Arimathea who once secretly followed Jesus, afraid of what others would do. This Nicodemus, a Pharisee who once visited Jesus under the cover of night, when everyone else was asleep.
Somehow, even after the violence of the cross, these two men lost their fear and boldly displayed their love for Jesus in an act of profound grief. But what was it that made them do this?
We don’t know much about Joseph, but we’ve met Nicodemus twice before. The first time in John 3, when he pays Jesus a nighttime visit.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a once radical branch of Judaism.
Pharisees were the ones who took worship of God out of the Temple and brought it into the people’s homes. They declared that if people obeyed the ritual purity laws of the temple priests then any place could become sacred, the dining room table could become an altar, and no matter where a person wandered, God was right by their side.
In their beliefs the Pharisees found profound comfort, but over the centuries, the Pharisees began to gain power and to condemn those who didn’t correctly follow the purity laws.
Which is why Jesus bothered them so. Here was a new rabbi stirring up trouble: hanging out with unclean folk, turning water into wine for drunken party goers, and most recently driving vendors out of the temple. What would he do next?
Nicodemus wanted to find out, so he paid Jesus a visit. But to make sure no one else knew about it, he traveled under the cover of night, while everyone else was asleep.
“Rabbi,” he stated, “We know you’re a teacher who has come from God; no one can do what you do apart from the presence of God.”
It seemed like straightforward comment, but Jesus responded with what sounded like a riddle. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen.”
Anothen was a tricky word since it had at least two meanings: it could mean “from above” or “again.” Either way it made no sense. Nicodemus took his best shot: “How can an old man be born again? Can I reenter my mother’s tummy?”
Jesus continued the riddle “No one can enter God’s kingdom without being born of water and Spirit...the wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it goes.”
“How can this be,” the old Pharisee asked, to which Jesus responded “You’re a teacher, and yet you don’t understand?”
For Nicodemus it was a very odd moment, one that left more questions then answers. So as the moon still hung in the sky, he made his way back across town, pondering all that Jesus has said.
Though it didn’t make sense at the time, that late night meeting transformed him forever. The idea of being born again or from above giving him hours of deep religious introspection that brought him closer to God, introspection that brought him closer to Jesus, introspection that began replacing his nighttime fears with fearlessness and faith.
What Jesus said got under Nicodemus’s skin, into his soul, changing his actions. By chapter 7, as the Good Ol’ boys are trying to arrest Jesus, it’s Nicodemus who stands up and says “This is wrong: our law doesn’t give us the right to judge people without a fair trial.” To which he’s ridiculed and accused of being low class.
Truly, the wind of change was blowing in Nicodemus’s life, a wind that was bringing him closer to Christ even if it meant creating a division amongst his friends; a wind of change that allowed him to speak words of social justice in front of folk; a wind of change that Jesus had talked about one night not so long ago.
Knowing Jesus, having an encounter with him in the darkness of night was a turning point for our man Nicodemus. A moment in which he would never, could never be the same.
That can happen when we meet Jesus in the dark moments of our own lives. We’ve all had dark moments, haven’t we? Moments when the sun has seemed to set in our lives. Moments when it seems like everyone else is sleeping soundly and we have a restless soul. Moments when our mind just goes and goes, refusing to shut off.
Moments of darkness, when we are up late, worrying about how the bills are going to get paid. Moments of darkness when we worry about our health or the fate of a loved one. Moments when our past feels too broken and our future too uncertain and we can’t find rest.
Those are sad, lonely moments. When we don’t know what we can do, we don’t know what we should do, we’re not even sure if anything we can do will make a difference.
Those are moments that don’t seem to make any sense, forcing us to wrestle with the very core of what we believe, wondering if God could even exist. Some people get lost in those moments, wandering deeper into a wilderness of despair.
But you know what: those are often the moments when Jesus is the most present. Those moments of dark night, when Jesus our teacher, our healer, our friend, is right there, ready to speak to us, ready to reach out, ready to offer a chance of transformation.
Sometimes, like Nicodemus, we have to find a way to make it to where Jesus is. Sometimes it’s Jesus making himself known in an unmistakable way. And sometimes, like in today’s reading, Jesus speaks in a manner that may not fully make sense, but in reflection, brings about change.
I think of my life, my moments of darkness. The times of unemployment, the separation from family, and how in each of those moments I can look back and see how the face of Christ, the hand of God, the blowing of the Spirit was moving and transforming, even if I was unable to see it.
I think back to my ministry, of how much has taken place in the night. Back in April when Bev died and at 4 am in the morning Nila and I drove to the hospital to pay our respects.
An overnight at St. Louis Hospital in which I sat with a family as their son was on life support, eating cold hamburgers and soggy fries, talking about God, faith and “Touched by An Angel.”
My most powerful night experience was in 1996. My father has just died and I was working the overnight at St Joseph’s Home for Children. There was a baby who was born addicted to crack, and at 2 a.m. the child, going through the painful throes of withdrawal, began to cry and cry. In all my life it was the most horrifying sound I heard.
All alone, numb from my father’s death, I had no idea what to do. I went into the child’s room, picked him up, and sat on living room steps, cradling him in my arms, and singing a song.
It was one of those nighttime moments. I didn’t know what was exactly going on, but there was healing. It was as if by comforting a crying child the healing of the broken son inside of me began, and my wounded heart was able to comfort the withdrawal pains of that innocent baby boy. Soon his cries subsided and he fell asleep.
In that moment, Christ was present. Both Christ who heals and Christ who was crucified, both the Christ who wept for Lazarus and the Christ who said “Do not weep, for she’s not dead.”
It was at the darkest time of night, when no one else was around and it was one of the most real moments I have ever lived.
Jesus has the most amazing ways of making himself known. Jesus appears to us and speaks to us when we are least expecting it, and Jesus will speak to us in ways we may not understand or like to hear. But nevertheless, Jesus speaks, and in that moment, transformation begins.
Transformation that brings us from darkness into light, transformation that gives us the courage to speak even when others don’t agree.
Transformation that allows us to do what is right and what is true. We saw that transformation take place in Nicodemus.
After Jesus was humiliated and killed on the cross, when others would have left his body to the dogs, Nicodemus found a way to do something, to boldly act in the afternoon sun.
Nicodemus, with the help of Joseph, found a way to pay tribute to Jesus’ temple, by caring for it, bathing it in fragrant spices, wrapping it in linen and placing it in a newly made tomb.
And in that act of love, in that act of radical hospitality, they helped set the stage for God’s greatest miracle of all and the very beginning of our faith: the resurrection.
Because of Nicodemus’ journey from the darkness into the light, we too got to discover just how, on that Easter morn, no amount of darkness, no amount of secrecy can ever cover up the light that is Christ.
How has Jesus helped bring you into the light?
Thanks be to God the creator, Jesus our Savior and the Spirit which empowers us in each moment of the day.
Amen and amen.