It is night. Some things are easier under the cover of darkness. Daylight suggests accountability—not always welcome when we’re uncertain about our choices. Darkness provides room for indecision and exploration. It’s after dark when Nicodemus slips out of the house, and walks through the quiet alleyways of the city. A gentle breeze stirs the branches above him. Silently, he climbs stairs to the roof terrace where he is told Jesus is staying. To his surprise, he finds the country rabbi expecting him. And so, there is no hesitant pause, no time spent in small talk. Nicodemus goes right to the heart of the matter, but in a circumspect way.
“Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher from God. For, if God wasn’t in you, you could not do all the God-revealing acts that you do.” Jesus unexpectedly responds to him with an invitation. He says, “Hear me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to — which is God’s kingdom.”
Nicodemus hungers to see God’s kingdom. He wants to see it so much, he arrives in the middle of the night to talk about it. Yet, Nicodemus wavers, not only finding security in the darkness. He also hides behind the furtive safety of a rhetorical question: “How can a person be born who has already been born and grown up? Please tell me: what are you saying by this ‘born-from-above’ kind of talk?”
In the light of the moon, and that of a flickering lantern, Nicodemus observes a knowing smile spread across Jesus’ face. He perceives that Jesus is not talking about mothers and babies. He’s talking about God, and grown-up people, just like Nicodemus. But to acknowledge this, the senior Pharisee must concede an awkward fact. Having come by night, he will have to admit that—in more ways than one—he is ‘in the dark.’ He’s looking for a light he doesn’t yet have. So Jesus says to him, “I don’t think you’re listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to God’s original creation (—the kind of ‘wind hovering over water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—) it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within, is formed by something you can’t see and touch. The person within becomes a living spirit.”
Leaning back on the cushion against the low wall of the terrace, Jesus raises his hand in a sweeping gesture. “Don’t be so surprised, my friend, when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’ — from out of this world. Listen to that breeze, stirring through the branches of the trees above us. We feel it and know it’s there. But who can say where it’s come from, or where it’s going? That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by God’s Spirit.”
This image comes from Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1899 painting, Jesus and Nicodemus on a Rooftop. As an African American artist who lived well before the Civil Rights era, Tanner moved to Paris, a context he found more congenial for the development of his significant talent. This posting is based on my sermon for the second Sunday in Lent (referencing John 3:1-17), which can be found by clicking here. Please note: the text of this posting, as well as of my sermon, contains many quotations from John’s Gospel that involve a mixture of source material from the NRSV translation, as well as that of The Message translation by Eugene Peterson, some of which has been adapted for this context.
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