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Nicodemus by Night
Revd Sue Lucas, Sunday, March 16th, 2014

There is a story about one of the Mirfield Brethren being on holiday in some seaside resort in some distant time.  I don’t know if this is true, by the way – but I do long for it to be true!  The story is that, sitting, perhaps in cassock and scapula in his deckchair, the Father was accosted by a somewhat enthusiastic beach evangelist who asked him – ‘are you saved, Father?’ – the young man received the somewhat tart response, ‘I haven’t been in yet!’

In the Catholic tradition, we get a bit embarrassed about being saved, or born again – we squirm a bit at such phrases, perhaps. Yet, here they are in today’s Gospel; and here they are in the Fourth Gospel, on which much of our sacramental tradition draws.

So – what is going on? Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus under cover of night is sometimes represented as something of a hero of the faith – a disciple, albeit a secret one; in fact, he is a bit of a shifty character – his coming to Jesus by night echoes his later role of burying Jesus by night – Jesus’ burial is hastily arranged by the authorities, of which Nicodemus is one to avoid scandal.

And, in today’s Gospel, he’s a shifty character because he’s a Pharisee, one of the Temple elite,  one of the religious authorities; opposed to Rome, it’s true – but supportive of Herod’s Temple religion because it kept them materially comfortable and spiritually powerful.  And he’s come to spy out the opposition – to suss out the turbulent Galilean preacher that keeps stirring up the crowds. He begins fairly shiftily with a bit of flattery: ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.’

But Jesus isn’t soft and fairly quickly sends him packing.  Predictably, he doesn’t get it. You just don’t get it, says Jesus. You don’t get it because you’re part of a structure that stops religion from being life-giving.  You are part of a structure that makes impossible regulations and demands and that keeps ordinary people out.

Jesus sees right through Nicodemus – and addresses the religious hierarchy Nicodemus represents – half way through ‘you’ shifts to the plural – you lot, in other words. New life comes not through the corrupt temple structures of the rich and the powerful – but through the life-giving, affirming spirit. Life-affirming, life giving, yes, but at times a bit uncomforting, a bit challenging. Because Jesus is clear that life in all its fullness, in all its abundance comes by the way of the wilderness and the way of the cross.

The God who with breathtaking directness finds us in Jesus comes to us not in the structures of the Temple – but in the wilderness, into which, as Abram was in our Old Testament reading, the Sprit sometimes unceremoniously boots us; God meets us in the wilderness, and in the man on the cross.  And it is here above all that we see the God who is transcendent – that means the God we can’t negotiate with, the God who will not be conformed to our structures– the God who is in the wind that blows where it chooses. That God chooses to find us – in order that we might have life, life in all its fullness.  That is why the one on the Cross in that moment draws all people to himself – he refuses to lose his humanity in the face of the worst that the powers of this world do to him.  So in Jesus God, we are indeed saved and set free, as God remakes all humanity – giving us new life, eternal life, freeing us personally and as communities from everything that limits us and prevents us from living fully.

What about us?  Being saved and born again is indeed sacramental; for we are baptised into the death of the Lord, in order to emerge from water and the Spirit as God’s new humanity.  Let us not forget that the Lenten fast was originally the preparation for the catechumens for this great sacrament of new life.  And Lent is the time we, the baptized, in Jesus’ name, embrace the wilderness and the cross.  And it might seem that we do it in quite small ways – our small fasts, our giving up of something we enjoy; our support as a church for Christian Aid, working with some of the world’s most vulnerable people; studying the scriptures – in some cases, preparing for confirmation.

These might seem small ways – but  they are hugely significant.  Because in these ways we make space in the wilderness for the God who longs to find us – who does so with relentless love, time and time again.  And in being willing to be found – we get caught up in God’s work in remaking humanity – in small and simple but hugely significant ways, encouraging those who are vulnerable, questioning those who are strong, and always, always, reflecting God’s committed love for us in the fullness of life that comes from our commitment to one another.  Amen.

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