March 8, 2020
Who invented the light bulb? If Thomas Edison was the first name that popped into your head, you aren’t alone. He usually gets all the credit for this invention. But Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. The first actual electric incandescent bulb existed years before Edison made it marketable. He improved on others’ ideas to create a longer-lasting incandescent bulb, and he was the one who filed all the patents necessary to manufacture the light bulb. But he didn’t invent it.
We think of the invention of the light bulb as the moment in history when everything changed – electricity became the standard, instead of mechanical power. Technology took off, and the world was never the same. But the light bulb wasn’t what Edison was after as he and his team worked together at Menlo Park. Their goal was something much bigger.
Edison’s dream was a network of electrical power that would be available to an entire city. His goal was a power grid that would make him rich. He wasn’t the only one with this dream. Many other inventors and innovators of his time were working on similar objectives. And why? As cities and industry grew, society was asking for a way to see at night. People, quite simply, were afraid of the dark.
What lurks in the shadows? Sometimes the actual ‘danger’ hiding in the darkness is not nearly as threatening as the danger we imagine is there. But all of us, at some time or another, have experienced that fear of something we can’t quite see, but we are sure is waiting to hurt us. It might be a sound that sets us on high alert, or a smell. It might be something as simple as tripping over an unexpected obstacle as we feel our way in the dark through a familiar room.
And sometimes, we are the threat. As we fumble through the darkness, we might be what causes alarm to others. But why are we wandering around in the dark, anyway? What, exactly, are we trying to hide? What is it that makes us so afraid, we want to cloak our secrets under the cover of darkness?
How do we overcome the fear of the darkness in ourselves? Today’s gospel reading gets to the heart of this question.
Now 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)
Throughout the Gospel of John, we find an emphasis on the contrast between light and dark. In the opening prologue, John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (1:5) and a few verses later, “The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light.” (1:10). These images of light and darkness serve as metaphors for kingdom reality.
In this case, it seems that light represents belief, while darkness represents unbelief. It’s pretty clear that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in a state of confusion and spiritual blindness, unable to grasp what Jesus is trying to teach him. Whether he’s being stubborn or simply misguided in his lack of understanding, Nicodemus is completely in the dark when it comes to comprehending how God actually works.
It’s also clear that Nicodemus has been keeping an eye on Jesus. He has seen him teaching in the synagogues, and he recognizes that Jesus teaches with an authority he himself would never dare to claim. Nicodemus has also seen the many miracles that Jesus has performed, some of them right in the temple itself.
Some theologians think that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night in order to hold his conversation in secret. They see Nicodemus as unwilling to admit publicly that he even knows Jesus. Others claim that he may have only been trying to speak with Jesus at a time of day when he had a better chance of talking with him, after the crowds had left. Whatever motivated Nicodemus to wait until darkness had fallen, his appearance at night is unusual enough that later, when Nicodemus re-enters the story, John calls him “the one who came to Jesus at night” (John 19:39).
Nicodemus doesn’t waste time with pleasantries. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” and this tells us that Nicodemus thinks of Jesus as a worthy teacher. There is no irony in his use of this title of respect. Nicodemus is identified as a great leader among the Jews, but he does not treat Jesus as a subordinate.
Nicodemus asks Jesus to confirm what Nicodemus suspects, but can’t quite believe: “You must come from God, because no one could do all the miraculous signs you do unless God is with him.” This doesn’t sound like a question, really, but it is. He doesn’t come right out and ask, “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for someone else?” the way John the Baptist did, but the message is the same.
Nicodemus comes with his own set of convictions about what is real and true. He has tried to fit his experience of Jesus into his own idea of how the world works, and how God works in it. He has put two and two together, and the only answer he can find is that Jesus must come from God.
But he apparently doesn’t like that answer very much. It doesn’t fit with his assumptions, his tradition, his belief system. Have you ever felt frustrated, like you just couldn’t figure out what God was trying to tell you? That’s where our friend Nicodemus found himself. You see, Nicodemus had followed the rules, he knew the Torah inside and out, but he had never let it change the way he lived his life.
Maybe we are more like Nicodemus than we want to admit. How often do we get stuck in our own assumptions about God? How often does our own limited understanding prevent us from seeing God’s reality? How many times do we stumble around in the dark, unwilling to admit that flipping a switch will shine God’s light into our confusion?
Jesus answers a question Nicodemus doesn’t ask, but it must have been at the back of his mind: “How can I believe you are from God, when nothing you do matches what I think the Messiah is supposed to do and be?”
Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above.” Now, we need to pause here for a moment and do a little Greek work. The word we see translated in the NRSV as “from above” can mean more than that, and other translations may read “born anew” or “born again” – they are all correct. The Greek word, “anothen” carries all three meanings.
The confusion arises because Jesus may have meant one thing, while Nicodemus heard another. More likely, Jesus meant all three things, but Nicodemus limited himself to hearing only “born again,” and he took it quite literally. All of the learning and studying of Torah that Nicodemus had done up to this point was – pointless. What he really needed to do was be born from above, born again, born anew.
So Jesus spells it out for him. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit. You’re doing okay on the flesh part. It’s the spirit part that needs some work.”
Jesus says, you have to be born of water and spirit. The wind blows where it will … that’s the way it is with people who have been born of the spirit: you can’t see the spirit, but you can see its effect in their lives. Whatever is born of the flesh will eventually die and decay. Whatever is born of the spirit is spirit, and can never decay.
An interesting thing happens at this point. Jesus starts talking in plural terms. Jesus turns to us, and says, “If I tell you all of earthly things, like wind and water, and you don’t get it, how will you be able to grasp heavenly things, like spirit and rebirth? Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the son of Man must be lifted up, that all who believe on him may have eternal life.
For God loved the world in this way: 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. Jesus didn’t come to intensify the darkness in our souls. He came to save us from the darkness, and bring us into the light.
What are the things we let keep us in the dark, preventing us from being born anew of the Spirit? What assumptions do we hold onto, that prevent us from experiencing the peace that comes with confessing Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, and trusting in his grace alone?
Remember the rich young ruler who went away sorrowful because he had many possessions? We never know the end of his story, because the gospels never mention him again. But we do hear from Nicodemus again – twice. The first time, he defends Jesus to the other Pharisees and priests, asking the other leaders to give Jesus a fair trial. The last time we see him, he is at the foot of the cross, with Joseph of Arimathea, taking down Jesus’ broken body and preparing it for burial with an unusually large amount of spices.
Did he finally come into the light?
Did he eventually experience a spiritual birth?
I think so. Sometimes, the process of claiming Jesus as Lord and Savior takes a while. Some of us can’t identify a single moment when we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that our salvation is secure, as John Wesley did, but we come to confess Jesus as our Lord gradually over time. For some of us, there is no “light bulb” moment. We slowly become aware that the darkness has passed, and the light of Christ is shining into our lives, but we can’t pinpoint an exact moment when the light broke through.
You see, the fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness isn’t really the point. The dark might just be where we identify the problem of our own spiritual misunderstanding, or our incomplete perception of God.
Like the Samaritan woman we will meet at the well next week in broad daylight, Nicodemus is seeking Messiah, and he doesn’t know how to find the Christ, or recognize him. Nicodemus can’t get around the legalistic, literal idea of what being born again would physically entail.
We face the same tension Nicodemus faced. Like Nic, we get stuck in believing our way of understanding the world is the only way there is, and when something creates cognitive dissonance within us, we don’t know how to deal with it.
Maybe you are in the dark, feeling your way along, stumbling over the obstacles you can’t see. Maybe you think the darkness is the problem. It isn’t. Jesus meets us where we are, in the dark or at noonday.
John 3:16 often gets reworded as “God so loved (insert your name_)” – but the next verse is just as important for us to take personally. God didn’t send his son to condemn you, but to save you.
Why are you worth saving? Why would God even care about you? What is so special about you, that you would be important to the creator of the universe?
Absolutely nothing. It isn’t about the darkness, and it isn’t even about you. It’s about God. God loves you because that’s what God does. That’s who God is.
You don’t have to be good enough to get saved. Your value is not in your accomplishments, or your piety, or your acts of service. Your value is completely in God’s eyes. You are the apple of God’s eye. God loves you enough to become like you, a human being, vulnerable to temptation, pain, and even death. God does this because you are the object of God’s love. Not because you’ve done anything to deserve it, but precisely because there is nothing you could ever do to deserve it. God does not condemn you, no matter what you’ve done or left undone. God wants to save you, so you never have to try to find your way in the dark again.
The only question is, do you want to be saved?