Questions in the Dark

Teachers often tell us that there are no dumb questions, but Nicodemus, himself a teacher, waited until it was dark to ask Jesus his questions. What questions would you ask Jesus in the dark?

Watch the entire worship service here:

Read John 3:1-17, Psalm 121 here.

I don’t know if you’re a fan of popular music, but if you are, then you probably know the Ed Sheeran song “Perfect” in which he sings about dancing in the dark.[1]  Even if you don’t know the song, maybe you’ve done some dancing in the dark yourself.  The idea of “dancing in the dark” could describe this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3, when Nicodemus comes to talk to Jesus at night.

Nicodemus comes to see Jesus because of what he’s seen and heard.

  • John the Baptist had already been telling people the messiah was near, and even pointed him out.
  • People had started to follow this man to whom John was pointing.
  • Jesus had changed water into wine at a wedding in Cana—the first of many signs.
  • Jesus had just caused a ruckus in the temple and challenged the temple authorities.

Something new was happening. Something different.  Something that was exciting some people and scaring others.

Some say Nicodemus came at night because he was afraid.  But it’s more likely that night was simply when he had the best opportunity to have an uninterrupted conversation.  I know for me some of my deepest conversations with Jesus happen in the dark when there’s nothing to distract my eyes or my ears.  It’s just me and Jesus dancing in the dark.

Besides, Nicodemus wasn’t exactly afraid of new things.

  • The name Nicodemus wasn’t Jewish, it was Greek. Many Jews had refused to adopt the Greek culture that had swept through Israel with Alexander.  There was political division between those who did and those who didn’t.  If Nicodemus were a purely old school Jew, he wouldn’t have a Greek name, he’d have a Hebrew one.
  • Also, since Nicodemus was a Pharisee, he was already a part of something relatively new, the synagogue. Synagogues developed during the time between the end of the OT and the beginning of the new, so synagogues were recent in Bible terms.

Nicodemus saw something new and came to see for himself, up close and personal, who Jesus was.  Nicodemus came to do some dancing in the dark.

Nicodemus was a rich and powerful man.  We know he was rich because he would be the one to help Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus and he would use very expensive spices to anoint Jesus’ body.  And we know he was powerful because he was one of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council.

  • Maybe Nicodemus was intrigued by Jesus because he saw something in Jesus that he hadn’t found in having wealth or power.
  • Maybe Nicodemus yearned for something new, just like we yearn for something new. And the newness that we hunger for the most is the work of God.

Maybe Nicodemus knew from studying the Hebrew scriptures that God the creator is always doing something new. God said in Isaiah 43:18-19:

18 “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.
19 Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?:

And in Ezekiel 36:26:

26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.

Nicodemus would have known that Psalm 40 says: “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” (Psalm 40:3)

Nicodemus had seen the signs of something new, and wondered, and come to learn more about what was happening. And Jesus tells Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit, who blew over the waters at creation when everything was new.

Jesus’ point to Nicodemus, at the risk of over-simplifying, was that the heart of the matter is not seeing signs, but having faith.  Jesus talks about new birth because the work of the Holy Spirit takes what is old and makes it new.  Faith in Jesus Christ makes each of us new.

Some think that Nicodemus and Jesus are having a bit of fun with each other.  Jesus says you must be reborn, and Nicodemus says, “How can an old man be born all over again?”  He sounds like Sarah when the angel told Abraham she was going to have a baby (Genesis 18).  Sarah laughs and says, “How can old people have babies?” Nicodemus says, “How can old people become like babies?”  It sounds ridiculous, but is anything too hard for God? (Gen. 18:14)

Through faith in Jesus we receive the Holy Spirit who renews us—helps us change our thinking, changes our hearts, helps us care about what God wants and what God is doing, and helps us see the world and all that’s happening in it in new ways.

When we accept this renewal by faith, the interaction of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in our lives is not a static, stationary thing.  It involves movement.  Like a dance.  We cannot always see or understand how this works, so faith is sometimes very much like dancing in the dark.[2]

  • Asking Jesus about what we’re experiencing and seeing and reading.
  • Asking Jesus about what we can’t yet see and what we don’t understand.

Stepping out in faith means we go forward even in the dark, trusting God to guide us as Jesus walks beside us and the Holy Spirit dances along with us.

Jesus was helping Nicodemus to understand that knowledge alone, the law alone, was insufficient.  Focusing on knowledge alone makes us dependent on ourselves and our own abilities, focused on what we know and understand.  But Jesus was showing Nicodemus and us that we also need to trust in the work of the Holy Spirit, whose work can be unpredictable.  We cannot always know what the Holy Spirit is doing, just as we don’t always know where the wind is blowing.   When we’re dancing in the dark, we have to let the Holy Spirit take the lead.

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, we had some very windy days, just like we have here in Kansas.  During recess, the wind made it hard to do some things, so on those days we would put our jackets up over our heads like a sail and let the wind blow us around.  We let the wind take us.  Dancing with the Holy Spirit can be something like that.

Guidance – G = God, U and I dance[3]

John is the only gospel writer who tells us about Nicodemus. John was giving hope to his first-century readers who were trying to hold on to their faith in the midst of change, encouraging them…

  • To trust that God our creator is always creating and renewing.
  • To trust that new things can and do happen wherever God is working, wherever the Holy Spirit is working.
  • To trust that things will change in good and bad ways, but faith will survive, just as it has from the beginning. God is always working things out according to his purposes.

In telling us about Nicodemus, John is also giving us an opportunity to see God’s plans more clearly.  Nicodemus’ name Nike Demos means “power of the people.”[4]   God cares about people.  And Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God sent his son for all the people. Verse 16 says God so loved the world.

In Nicodemus time, that’s not what some Jewish leaders were teaching.  Their focus was more on how God had chosen and rescued Israel.  That’s why the Pharisees in Nicodemus’ time were doing their best to hold Judaism together in the midst of changes.  They were doing their best to preserve tradition, and to keep Judaism intact despite the way things were changing.

Jesus was rocking the boat.  Nicodemus came to Jesus because he saw that Jesus WAS from God and Nicodemus wanted to understand more about what he was seeing.

Jesus explains: “Whoever believes in the Son of God will be made whole and have new and everlasting life.” (John 3:16) In the first chapter of John’s gospel, he says something quite similar, “. . .to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.  They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.” (John 1:12-13)

Nicodemus came to Jesus to see for himself what new thing God was doing. It’s not always easy to see.  And it’s not easy to trust what we do not see. I think like Nicodemus we can tell that God is doing something new. We’re not quite sure exactly what God is doing or how it’s going to come out. But we can trust that God is working.

Haven’t we prayed and asked God to work?

Maybe Nicodemus prayed the psalms and had said, “Put a new song in my mouth and in my heart.”

Maybe Nicodemus had friends that weren’t Jews and he had asked God, “What about them?  What will happen to them?  Do you love them, too?”

And here was Jesus telling him, “God so loved the WORLD that he sent his son that WHOEVER believes might be saved.”

When Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead, everything changed. Everything changed for Judaism, too, in year 70 when the temple was destroyed.

I think change happened even sooner for Nicodemus.  Maybe on that very night he met with Jesus, Nicodemus himself was changed.

God is always doing something new. We Presbyterians often say we are reformed and always reforming.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are renewed and always being renewed. What is God doing new today?  In the world?  In the church?  In you and me?

Often when we see things changing, we’re afraid.  What if instead we ask God to help us see how he’s working amidst these changes?  Where might there be new opportunities for ministry?

There was a woman who was busy sewing one day.  Next to her was a bin of the fabric scraps that had been cut away from her project.  Her three-year-old granddaughter was fascinated with these scraps and was digging through them.  The young girl wandered off with some of the scraps, and when the grandmother went to see what she was doing, she found that the girl had taken the longer scraps and was taping them to stick.  “I’m making a banner for a procession,” she said. “I need a procession so that God will come down and dance with us.” With that she solemnly lifted her banner to flutter in the wind and slowly she began to dance.[5]

Nicodemus came to Jesus asking questions in the dark because he wanted to know more about this new life he saw happening.

May God help us to see the Holy Spirit and want more, too, and to trust that the Holy Spirit is always doing something new.  Let’s join in the dance!

[1] https://youtu.be/AjfPRUHk6Kg the line “dancing in the dark” happens at 1:12 in this video.

[2] Perichoresis https://www.gotquestions.org/perichoresis.html

[3] Robert Smith in “God that Dances” as found here: https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon-illustrations/75625/doing-god-s-will-by-curry-pikkaart?ref=TextIllustrationSerps

[4] https://www.behindthename.com/name/nicodemus

[5] Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration, (Paulist Press: New York, 1986), 3, found at https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon-illustrations/71423/discovery-by-anne-benefield?ref=TextIllustrationSerps

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: