From Darkness Into Light (and shades of gray)

Homily 3/14/21
Epiphany Parish, Walpole

Loving God, give us ears to listen, minds to inquire, and hearts to discern, and help us to have the courage to move from darkness into light. Amen.

When we arrive at today’s gospel in our lectionary, we enter in the middle of a conversation that Jesus is having with Nicodemus, a Pharisee. It’s like we’re in a movie theater (remember those?!) and decide to step out to quickly get more popcorn and we get back moments later yet somehow we’ve missed an entire scene that ends up being incredibly important to the plot. Anyway, moments before the serpent on a stick verse in today’s scripture, Nicodemus has come to Jesus in the cover of night with some questions. Nicodemus willingly admits that he believes Jesus was sent from God but he just can’t wrap his brain around some of Jesus’s abstract teachings. Some preaching commentaries about Nicodemus paint a picture of a dimwitted old man who’s set in his ways. I prefer to think of him as someone who’s accustomed to the way things have always been but who also knows, in his heart of hearts, that there’s more. He’s searching and asking Jesus for guidance.

This gospel lesson, made up of polarities: believe, don’t believe; be condemned, don’t be condemned; love light, hate the dark; good, evil and so on, can be overwhelming when I imagine most of us feel like we live somewhere in the middle with shades of gray, not black and white or either/or. And this is precisely why we have Nicodemus. Nicodemus is our shade of gray. We might be on our way out of the dark into the light, but many of us are moving along in the gray.

By the time we get to chapter 3 verse 14, Jesus has already talked to Nicodemus about what it means to be reborn in the Spirit, and what it means to have faith. He has also managed to insult Nicodemus’s intelligence by saying, “You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?” Jesus is knocking Nicodemus off his pedestal a bit. He’s shaking him up. Trying to get him to be vulnerable enough to search his own heart for what he likely already knows to be true. And then Jesus ends his teaching of Nicodemus by ribbing him a bit about his sneaking around in the cover of darkness by implying he’s a lover of darkness, not the light. It’s not an incredibly comforting gospel passage but then, the gospel writer didn’t write it for our comfort. However, there is hope when we consider the totality of John’s gospel as it relates to Nicodemus.

Nicodemus shows up two more times in John’s gospel. First, he sort of defends Jesus by pointing out that Jewish law states that a person can’t be tried and found guilty by a crowd but rather one should first be allowed to have a hearing and then be judged. He’s obviously hesitant to defend Jesus outright because he could lose his job and what would the neighbors think?! Then the final time we hear about Nicodemus is following Jesus’s crucifixion when Nicodemus joins others in helping to dress Jesus’s body for burial. To the tomb, Nicodemus brings an enormous amount of expensive myrrh and aloe. This was clearly an act of deep love and adoration. He had been transformed by Jesus’s ministry and was no longer that questioning, rigidly law-abiding Pharisee sneaking around in the dark.

By following Nicodemus’s path we can see that, while this part of the gospel deals in dichotomies, or black and whites, there’s space for believers to come to their own conclusions. Nicodemus was transformed. And for us, this is a really important point. 

God, who loves us unconditionally, invites us to grow and change. God wants us to ask questions. To desire better understanding. And God meets us where we are. Each of us is on our own journey. Sometimes venturing out into a deeper way of following Christ means that we’re afraid and so we step out slowly. When no one is looking. Under our own cover of darkness. And that’s ok. Under the cover of darkness is how it needs to begin sometimes. 

Nicodemus went from only being brave enough to engage with Jesus under the cover of darkness, to coming as close as he possibly could to standing up for Jesus without getting himself in trouble with his fellow Pharisees, to finally demonstrating outward and visible love and affection for Jesus. 

It’s hard to know where we might end up when we start out in the cover of darkness but as long as we keep asking questions, wondering, seeking the truth, and being open to the work of the Spirit, we will eventually make it past the gray area and into the full presence of the light and love of God.

© Margaret Lias 2020