God Loves Our Troubled World
Bible Text: Isaiah 6: 1-8; Matthew 3: 1-17 | Preacher: Earl Zimmerman
Summary: Nicodemus is an enigma. Is he a spiritual seeker or a spy sent by the religious leaders to see what he could find out? We don’t know. It’s telling that he came to Jesus at night. John’s Gospel loves the word play between light and darkness. It’s not so much a matter of what we catch Nicodemus at but what we catch him in. Like all of us, he’s caught in the darkness that shrouds humanity. Even so, God loves our troubled world, not some abstract, ideal world.
What do we make of Nicodemus? Was he a spiritual seeker or was he a more ambiguous character? He was definitely a bumbler who took it literally when Jesus told him he needed to be born again. But there appears to be a darker side. Why did he come to see Jesus at night?
We know that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council that condemned Jesus to death. Did he come secretly because he didn’t want to be seen with Jesus. Was he even a spy sent to see what he could find out? Thomas Long raises the possibility that Nicodemus was a faking:
The clues are all there: his oily flattery (“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”), his feigned amazement (“How can anyone be born after having grown old?”), his studied ignorance (“How can these things be?”). To the alert reader, then, Nicodemus comes across as fake news, a liar and a sneak.
John is a master of ambiguity, and he makes it difficult to assess clearly Nicodemus’s motives, to discern his inner character. I think for John the real issue is not what we can catch Nicodemus at, but what we catch Nicodemus in. Whether at this point in his life he’s a struggling soul or a conniving manipulator is almost beside the point. . .
Unfortunately for Nicodemus, his problem is not a lack of education, low self-esteem, or an imprecise theological outlook. His problem is . . . the power of the night that shrouds all humanity. Dissembler or saint-in-process, it hardly matters. He’s a creature of the night and even though he finds his way into a conversation with Jesus, he cannot find his own way into the light.[i]
Let’s push this out a bit further because, like Nicodemus we’re all caught in that dark night that shrouds humanity. Referring to Jesus, the first chapter of John’s Gospel proclaims, “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (1: 3b-5).
The writer of John’s Gospel loves such imagery and such play on words. It therefore catches our attention when he tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, indicating that he is a person of the night or darkness. We live in a troubled world and to a greater or lesser degree, that darkness engulfs all of us.
This week I went to Robert E. Lee High School as a representative of Student Peace Awards of Fairfax County to present a peace award to a Lee student at their senior awards ceremony. I find it a bit ironic that I’m presenting a peace award at a school named after a Confederate general. I’ve done this for several years and I’m always the only person there giving a peace award.
The bulk of the awards and scholarships are given by the different branches of our American military. They put lots of effort into this. The student body cheered when Marine recruiters presented one young man with a symbolic check for $56,000. It’s their way of recruiting poor and minority students. And that makes me feel incredibly sad and lonely.
I certainly don’t want to denigrate the brave and dedicated men and women who serve in our military. Still, there’s something horribly wrong when so much of our nation’s wealth and talent is spent on war and preparing for war. I try to imagine a world where the bulk of the awards and scholarships are given to young people dedicating themselves to careers in diplomacy and peacebuilding.
The prophet Isaiah is completely undone when he receives a vision of the majesty of the Lord and he is cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” His vision gave him a glimpse of how our world could be and he became distraught by our world as it is.
We live in a troubled world in crisis. Like Isaiah, try as we might, we cannot evade our complicity in the evil that surrounds us. None of us are innocent. Yet, we have ways of hiding this truth from ourselves. A common human response is to posit evil in our enemies or those who are different from us. We Americans unconsciously buy into the myth of American exceptionalism.
A possible silver lining in our present political climate is that it exposes this myth as a lie we tell ourselves. If we’re number one, why is it that (unlike other countries) we have so many school shootings. Why is there so much sexual harassment and violence? And why is social inequality growing so rapidly and why can’t we overcome the ugliness of white supremacy?
Don’t get me wrong. I love America but that doesn’t make me think we’re better or somehow exempt from the troubles that other countries grapple with. Furthermore, God loves us as we are. As Thomas Long explains:
Jesus came because God loves the world, and not the lovable surface world of delightful music, literature, and art, the world of carefree laughter tinkling on the verandas of the privileged, but Nicodemus’s world. Though respectable on the surface, it’s still the underbelly world of night, the God-hating world of violence, torture, rebellion, and sin. Mysteriously, God loves this world.[ii]
While loving us as we are, God also recognizes that we’re a world in crisis and responds by sending Jesus. We learned the Bible verse as children, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
We unfortunately tend to spiritualize it as a matter of giving our hearts to Jesus while ignoring the crisis our world is in. Such world-denying theology raptures saved souls to heaven while allowing the world to go to hell in a handbasket. No! No! It’s quite plain. God so loves the world—our troubled world in crisis.
Writing on this text years ago, Everett Falconer observed that “the most superficial thing that can be attempted in the name of religion” is to call on someone “to turn over a new leaf, to be better, to be different”—and that is not what Jesus suggests. In fact, he suggests that Nicodemus needs not to re-tool but to be reborn, and no one, of course, is in charge of one’s own birth. Birth—new birth—is given to us, not achieved.
“Whether people serve themselves or serve others is not in their power to choose,” said theologian Arthur McGill.
“This is decided wholly in terms of the world in which they think they live. In New Testament terms, they live or die according to the king that holds them and the kingdom to which they belong.” What Jesus offers Nicodemus—and the rest of humanity—is a new birth, a new kingdom to which to belong, and salvation from . . . the power of evil.[iii]
The hymn “Beyond a Dying Sun” eloquently expresses Jesus’ vision and the light that he offers to humanity shrouded in darkness:
Beyond a dying sun I saw a vision of the sea
of golden sails full billowing in the wind.
And echoing above the waves a voice called after me,
“God’s dwelling place is with you till the end.”
I see a new world coming when everyone is free!
And all shall be God’s people in justice, love, and peace.
Near the end of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus makes another appearance as he and Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body and bury it in a garden tomb. John tells us that Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple—but in secret. Nicodemus brings a huge amount of spices, weighing about 100 pounds, in which they tenderly and lovingly wrap Jesus’ body.
Is Nicodemus also a secret disciple or is he unwilling to even take that step. John leaves the question hanging. Perhaps he’s too much a creature of the darkness and that world has such a tight grip on him that he’s unable to step into the light. Does he have too much invested in the world as it is to be reborn into God’s new world coming?
I suspect that John purposely doesn’t answer that question because it places the focus on me as the reader. Am I like Nicodemus? In what ways am I trapped in the darkness? And what does spiritual rebirth entail for me?