The Word This Weekend – March 11, 2018
“Nick at Nite”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus,
a leader among the Judean people,
and he came to Jesus by night.” (John 3:1)
Easter is drawing ever nearer – April 1st this year – earlier than usual. And that means everything else is on the way as well – Palm Sunday (March 25) right on through to the Vigil of Holy Saturday. In my experience, even a relatively late Easter crashes down before we expect it -- “ready or not,” here it comes. The Passion of Jesus, the depth of divine love, the shadow of the victorious Cross. What image might we use for this Passion season-come-early? With this Sunday’s gospel text from John 3, the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus, I’d suggest a phrase drawn from the world’s fascination with nostalgia on cable TV: “Nick at Nite.”
Now I’m not speaking of “Green Acres” reruns, or “Leave it to Beaver,” or any of the thousands of recycled 60’s or 70’s era sitcoms one can see any night on cable. I’m referring to Nicodemus himself, that night-owl Pharisee, who comes to Jesus in the dark of a Jerusalem night.
Nick at Nite. Religious leader, one of the elites, nestled comfortably in the neat, non-challenging world of “just sit comfortably within your dutiful religious box, and God will sit safely in the conventional jailhouse you’ve built for Him.”
Yet Nick goes out from the safety of his safe world, to the scary role of religious inquirer. Teacher in the day becomes disciple in the night. Why?
Many of us have been there from time to time. “Here am I; send me, send me”... there must be something more... “Listen! God is calling!” From time to time, we, like Nick, set out to meet Jesus outside the safety of Sunday, questing for the elusive something more.
Nick begins as we so often do – with flattery. “We know you are a great rabbi..." An apple for teacher. Platitudes and piety. A comfort-zone faith that Jesus is about to obliterate, so that the Word of the cross might take its place.
Jesus’ challenge to Nick: “Be born again!” Nick hears “born again” as essentially sequential – back into the womb, and out again. Jesus seems instead to mean “born from above” as referring to the character of that rebirth – not of the flesh any longer, but newly birthed of the water and the Spirit! A birth which is death – death to the comfortable, to the predictable. Death to the merely conventional Christian experience, giving way to a fresh windblown new creation in the wake of Cross and open Tomb.
Listen to the voice of German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic Discipleship, written years before he would experience them in person, in prison, on an SS gallows, ordered by Hitler himself and conducted by Gestapo operatives who would sneer their disdain not merely for him, but for his Christ as well:
The cross is laid on every Christian. It begins with the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death -- we give over our lives to death. Since this happens at the beginning of the Christian life, the cross can never be merely a tragic ending to an otherwise happy religious life.
When Christ calls a person, there will be a death. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther's, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time -- death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at His call. That is why the rich young man was so loath to follow Jesus, for the cost of his following was the death of his will. In fact, every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and His call are necessarily our death and our life.
I think this may well be what scandalizes old Nicodemus as Jesus announces his life-changing Gospel to him there in the glow of the oil lamp. It ought to scandalize us too, as full partners in the watery way of Baptism. Not the sideshow of endless uncomfortable disputes over “born-again-ism” vs. “Protestantism.” Nick’s "How can this be?" is the move from living on a slightly different spot on the comfortable religious map, to the drowning of the old Adam, that a new creation might be birthed into the world. Nick the seeker comes looking for a sprinkling at Messiah’s font; instead he is drawn kicking and screaming into the flood. Like Isaiah’s vision – experiencing God’s presence at the edge, in all its awesome, transcendent, holy and dangerous beauty, at the razor’s edge of enlightenment and the precipice of oblivion. A glimpse of the HOLY, HOLY, HOLY beyond the easy bargain of “adult ed.,” and the slide into the religious Order of “Woe is Me! A man of unclean lips, from a people of unclean lips! I am lost, for mine eyes have seen the Glory of the LORD!”
Nick’s nighttime search is ours as well: an invitation to the maelstrom, to stand stripped bare before the Slayer. To meet the Holy One. To encounter Grace.
And that’s what Nick hears that night: that God so loved the world (all the creation, and all its children) that he handed over his only Son, that whoever would trust him would not suffer destruction, but live forever! That’s what Christ promises, and that’s what he strides to the Good Friday cross to insure and guarantee – the rescue of all flesh!
And Nicodemus gets there all right: before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate (see John 19:39). Claiming Christ’s Body and declaring his Lordship. “Give him to me! He is mine – and I his.” Speaking to power, claiming the Christ at the risk of any persecution or death, even when the poser to which we speak is power we’ve been taught all our lives to worship and obey.
That’s what the Cross, in its darkest night and blazing-est Day is finally all about: challenging the Church – you and me -- to confess the Christ anew, to be Born Anew, in faith toward God and in fervent love toward the world God loves so much. May your Passion journey be such a walk of transformation and new life!
With You in God’s Good Work,