“This man came to Jesus by night”
It is a most intriguing scene. Nicodemus, a learned Pharisee, “a teacher of Israel,” comes to Jesus by night. He is perplexed about who Jesus is. He calls him “Rabbi,” and says that Jesus is “a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” There is something compelling about Jesus, about what he does and what he says. And yet, there is something mysterious and perplexing.
At this point in John’s Gospel, there has been really only “the first of the signs which Jesus did,” namely, the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, the turning of the water into wine. That story is followed by John’s account of the cleansing of the temple which we also heard this morning from Matthew’s Gospel. In John’s Gospel, the story of the cleansing of the temple leads to a discourse about the temple, about its “being destroyed and raised in three days,” meaning, as John says, “the temple of his body,” a reference to the death and resurrection of Christ. John tells us that “many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did.” It is in that context that Nicodemus then comes to him by night.
The dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus is all about the light in the darkness, the light of God’s truth and the darkness of human hearts. The light, as John makes clear, is judgment, too. “The light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Yet in the darkness Jesus confronts Nicodemus with the idea of being “born anew,” being born from above, being born upwards into the light of God coming towards us in Jesus. What he is talking about are “heavenly things.” They belong to the challenge of Revelation. Spiritual and heavenly things are made known to us in the pageant of God’s Word and Son. The light of God comes down to lift us up into the light of divine understanding.
Advent reminds us of “the day of the Lord,” as Isaiah puts it. It is a day against all that is “proud and lofty,” a day against all that presumes to be high and mighty, a day against all of the follies of human presumption and pride. For such things are all the works of darkness, we might say. They serve to keep us in the dark and away from the light of God’s glory.
Advent is, inescapably about judgment. It challenges us about “the haughtiness of man.” The advent judgment is about our being humbled; only so can we hope for something more, the something more revealed to us in the Son of man who descended from heaven, the one who is lifted up on the Cross even “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” so that those who behold this mystery and truth might be healed and have eternal life.
It is a powerful image. It is about what is make known in and through the darkness of human sin. The image of the serpent lifted up recalls the wilderness journey of Israel when they grumbled and complained against God. At one point in their kvetching and revolt, they are punished by fiery serpents. Recognising that they have sinned, they repent and plead for mercy. God commands Moses to make a bronze serpent and to set it on a pole. Whoever looks upon it shall live. The bronze serpent makes objective their sin and its consequence, as it were. Our sins have to be known and named. Jesus takes this view of things and makes it part of the story of his death and resurrection. “I, when I am lifted up will draw all men to myself” or as Jesus puts it here to Nicodemus, “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.”
There is light in the darkness, the light of understanding for all who want to know. But it requires our “turn[ing] away from man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” and our turning to Jesus. We come, perhaps, like Nicodemus in the night, knowing our darkness and yet wanting to know something more. We come to Jesus and find that he is indeed more than a teacher come from God and someone whom God is with; no. He is God with us. It belongs to the pageant of Advent to make that mystery better known to us. Such is our darkness, the darkness of the far spent night, but such is his mercy that he teaches and enlightens even as he heals and saves.
“This man came to Jesus by night”
Fr. David Curry
First Sunday in Advent
November 27th, 2011