Dancing in the dark
crawling and sneaking around
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:1-17)
Bruce “the boss” Springsteen sings “messages keep getting clearer. Radio's on, and I'm moving 'round my place. I check my look in the mirror. I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face. I ain't gettin' nowhere. I’m just living in a dump like this. You can't start a fire without a spark, even if we are just dancing in the dark.”
When was the last time you snuck around at night? Were you looking for something, but you didn’t know what? Were you hiding from something and felt safe moving about under cover of darkness? Were you running from something and didn’t want to be seen scared and alone? Were you just dancing in the dark?
We all deal with darkness differently. Some find it a time of rest. Others find it a time of terror. Often, it is a time of worry, preparation, and anxiety. What keeps you up at night?
Nicodemus was dancing in the dark. He was searching for something and doesn’t want to be seen. Nicodemus was steeped in the law and knowledgeable regarding Hebrew tradition.
Jesus, lover of the prophets, respectful of laws, steeped in the knowledge of his people’s relationship to their maker, interpreted the law and traditions in the grey area. There was no concrete interpretation. If we believe in literalism, where do we have room for grace?
As we walk about, we are often accosted, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” “Are you born again?” “Have you been saved?” I don’t know about you, but I have been asked this too many times. I have been asked this while moving about in airports. It has been used as a weapon against me by my cousin, who likes to spring her fundamentalist religious beliefs on me during family thanksgiving meals. I have even turned on the TV during a football game when suddenly there is a shot of a fan in the stands wearing a baseball cap with the simple words and numbers “John 3:16.” As if a relationship with God is that simple?
Like Nicodemus, we see Jesus out there but want to keep things simple. I want to engage, but not really. Engagement means commitment. Commitment means accountability. Accountability means I am willing to be in relationship with others.
For those of us who want to know Jesus, we know by experience that it is not as simple as being baptized, declaring faith in Jesus, or wearing a baseball cap. We have to be willing to stumble around in the dark, seeking out God and all of God’s people, in hopes of becoming a person of the light.
Within the context of the Gospel, John 3:16 is a complicated invitation to move from darkness to light. Easier said than done.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” “I am the vine. You are the branches.” “You are the light of the world.” In the Gospel of John, we are intimately tied together. Jesus comes among us. Jesus talks. Jesus listens. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus teaches us how to live and how to serve each other. In the Gospel of John, Jesus invites us to grow up, to become spiritually mature, and to go on a journey of faith. That means there will always be light but there will also always be darkness. We all have shadows.
Often, under the cover of darkness, I can’t see them. I’d rather be dancing in the dark! But, even as Nicodemus sneaks around in the darkness, he was still able to meet Jesus. And so can we.
Jesus is in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. It is night. In the shadows, people are silently moving about. Whispers echo off unseen walls. And the stars seem to rest on the rooftops just below the clouds. Jesus is being followed by a shadow-walker; a man named Nicodemus. He is a member of a group of religious leaders who serve the people. They often provide advice and counsel about religious matters. The Sanhedrin are so familiar with the laws of Moses they can quote them without thinking.
Where does the spirit inform the law? Where does God trust in the spirit? What is a religious teacher supposed to do? Nicodemus has questions. He seeks answers. But he wants to remain hidden. So Nicodemus moves swiftly and quietly down a hallway into an opening where Jesus waits. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus looks at this night visitor with humorous curiosity.
What is Nicodemus afraid of? What would happen to Nicodemus if he believed and acted upon the teachings of Jesus? He is so much like the people, the faithful, the Christians you and I meet daily at work, on the street, and even in Church. We want to know Jesus, but are we willing to do what is required? We hear the teachings, but can we live them out?
Nicodemus wants to know Jesus and understand the ways of God but doesn’t want to commit. He is skeptical. Afraid. He is unwilling to let others know of his belief in Jesus. He is like so many Christians of our time. We want to know Jesus, but we don’t want others to know that we want to know Jesus. If they know we are followers of Jesus, people may have higher expectations of us. Or they may think we are just another one of the hypocrites parading around on Fox News.
Jesus offers all of us an invitation. To come out of the dark. To bring our beliefs to light. If we believe and we share our beliefs, others will come to believe. They will know we are Christians by our love.
Similar to Nicodemus, elsewhere in the Gospel of John, we will meet a wonderful but complicated cast of characters. People like you and me. We not only overhear Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, but we are blessed to listen to the woman at the well, the man born blind from birth, and Lazarus, whom Jesus will bring back from the dead. We will hear from the people who knew these people and who talked to Jesus.
We will hear how they were regarded within their community, what they contributed and how they were often judged and rejected by the villagers. We also will see that despite everything they have ever done, Jesus met them, talked with them, loved them, and encouraged them to keep the faith and believe in the good news. Through these people, and their recorded conversations, we learn how to come out of the dark and walk in the light of Christ.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Although many believe Jesus is referring to baptism, he is not speaking literally. He is inviting Nicodemus, and he is inviting us to join him on a journey; a journey that will reveal that Jesus is the living water. He is the source of all that was and is and is to come.
We thirst. Jesus responds, “I am the living water.” He will say this during a conversation with a woman at a well, outside of a village, just down the road. As Jesus prepares for death, he will tell his friends that he is leaving the spirit with us. Jesus leaves this Spirit, the Advocate, to accompany us with the work God calls us to do.
Jesus says, “believe in me.” Say “yes” and be born of water and of the spirit. We must say “yes” to living water. We must say “yes” to working with the spirit. We must move from darkness to light. Just as Nicodemus had a choice, we have a choice. And Jesus knows this. The darkness overtakes them both. The evening breeze carries the sounds of Jerusalem out of the windows and through the city alleys. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. We have to choose to believe.
The Gospel of John was written so that we may believe. Jesus teaches us how to live in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In the Gospel of John, Jesus talks with us, listens to us, and engages with us to invite us to live our life to the fullest. Jesus said, “I come so that they may have life and live life abundantly.” Then Jesus asks us to share that abundant life with others.
Nicodemus walked at a distance. But he was trying to walk nonetheless. He may have been dancing in the dark, but he was trying to dance.
“Messages keep getting clearer. Radios on, and we’re moving around the place. We can't start a fire without a spark. Even if we're just dancing in the dark.”