Nicodemus Came to Jesus by Night

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on May 30, 2021.

One of the things that kept me sane during the pandemic was to sneak away and fly fish on the
Housatonic River once or twice a month. Perhaps, you, too, found the power of being in nature
and the saving grace of working in a garden, taking a walk or a hike, playing sports or sitting in a
chair outdoors during COVID. Not only did I fish, but I read about fishing. What I read reminded
me of how vital it is for a fly fisherman to approach the riverbank slowly and gracefully and
pause and wait and watch and study the water in order to sight any fish swimming.

The most important piece of equipment for fly fishing is a pair of polarized sunglasses. They
reduce the amount of light entering the eye and allow you to see better. The best conditions
for seeing into the water occur on windless days when the sun is behind the shoulders or
immediately overhead. The worst conditions occur when the winds are high, creating ripples on
the water’s surface or cloudy days, which turn the water into an impenetrably grey surface.
A fisherman must resolve that if there are fish that he will see them. He brings his willpower
into play. Seeing fish is an attitude of the mind. The fly fisherman doesn’t actually look for a
whole fish, but part of a fish, indications of a fish, hints of fish, perhaps a tail, not necessarily a
clearly-defined tail, but simply the throbbing, rhythmic shadow of the tail suggesting that a
trout is present. Only then does he cast and catch a fish.

Something similar applies to experiencing God. We must resolve to train our senses to perceive
what can easily go unseen, unheard and undetected. Like learning how to see trout in a river,
learning how to see God at work is an attitude of the mind. We must train our brain to perceive
the presence of the Holy One from above.

The story of Nicodemus is found only in the Fourth Gospel. It is a case study in how Jesus
demonstrates to a man named Nicodemus how to perceive the presence of God. Nicodemus
was a Pharisee. He belonged to a sect dedicated to keeping all 613 Jewish Commandments,
which are found in the first five books of the Old Testament called “the Law of Moses” or “the
Torah.” Pharisees were extremely legalistic. They tried to apply the Ten Commandments to
every conceivable aspect of life and believed that by keeping the law they could please God.
Nicodemus belonged to the Sanhedrin, Israel’s Supreme Court, which consisted of seventy
prestigious members. They were like the Pope’s Curia or the House of Bishops. Nicodemus was
also a teacher, but not just a teacher. The Greek uses a definite article, noting that he was “the”
teacher of Israel – the finest theologian of his day.

But despite his success, something was missing from his life. He was restless. Something
gnawed at him from inside. He was seeking something that he could not find, searching for
something that he wanted to possess. This is strange because he seemed to have everything.

He was widely acclaimed and highly regarded. Nicodemus had a great intellect. People sought
his advice, but his restless mind drove him to seek Jesus’ counsel.

What was missing in his life was that spiritual piece that makes us whole and joyful and gives us
inner peace. So, he came to Jesus to speak teacher to teacher, theologian to theologian. Like so
many of us, Nicodemus was typically cautious and highly diplomatic. Nicodemus knew Jesus by
reputation and was deeply impressed, but he was afraid to lend his support or to be seen with
Jesus by day for fear that he would lose favor with the Pharisees. So, he came to Jesus by night.
Scholars says that this nocturnal visit is symbolic of the spiritual darkness that we often
experience. There are many people, even some of us here, who seem to have almost
everything – a wonderful family, home, cars, career, lifestyle, vacations, education, and health
care – but who still sense something is missing. That something missing is the experience of
God’s unconditional love, mercy and acceptance. Jesus knew instinctively what Nicodemus was
seeking. He told him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being
born from above.”

Sometimes this phrase is translated as “born again.” It is a term that has been badly misused by
fundamentalists to shut down spiritual exploration rather than opening it up. Jesus was always
looking to open up possibilities rather than shut them down. Nicodemus, however, took Jesus
literally. He asked, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
He did not realize that Jesus was speaking figuratively. The phrase that Jesus used comes from
two Greek words, “ganao,” which can mean “to be born,” but it’s primary meaning is “to be
begotten” or “conceived.” The second word, “annothen,” can mean “again,” “anew,” or “a
second time.” But its first meaning is “from above.” Jesus was saying that we cannot fully
experience God’s unconditional love unless we have been “conceived from above.”
To be born from above is to see reality from a whole new angle. To be born from above is to
live with wonder in our hearts and with praise on our lips. To be born from above is to search
for hope in every conceivable situation and to communicate that hope to others. To be born
from above is to see grace constantly at work, transforming all things into the best of things.
Jesus told Nicodemus, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water
and Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is imparted to us at baptism. We begin a lifelong spiritual quest,
learning how to attune our eyes and ears, our heart and mind to God. If we are fortunate, we
begin to inhabit God’s inner thoughts, inner emotions, inner will and inner life. God the Father,
Son and Holy Spirit, which we explore on this Trinity Sunday, can bestow upon us what is
missing, that something illusive which Nicodemus was seeking – the unconditional love,
acceptance and mercy of God that makes us whole and fills us with joy.

After Jesus was baptized, he heard God’s speak and say, “This is my beloved Son with whom I
am well pleased.” That is the voice that all of us long to hear from our parents, our
grandparents, our spouse, friends and above all from God. Nicodemus had never heard this voice and experienced this divine acceptance. He had tried to keep all 613 Jewish
Commandments. He seemed to have everything, but he lacked the most precious gift of all.
Our birth was the gift of our parents. We did nothing to bring it about. We were merely ejected
from our mother’s womb. But we can play a part in our own spiritual rebirth, says Jesus. That
rebirth comes when we develop a consciousness of God as our spiritual Father and it leads us to
see everyone as a member of God’s extended family, whether they live in India or Brazil, are
Muslim or Jew, Black or Asian, gay or straight, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, male or
female, young or old, well-known or unknown. We belong to one family with a heavenly Father.
Then Jesus told 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.” In Greek the word for “spirit” and
“wind” is the same word. The wind is all around us. It fills us when we breathe. So it is with the
Spirit, but it takes training to learn how to see the Spirit at work. We need spiritual eyes.
Jesus asked Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these
things?” Are you a member of the altar guild, an usher, acolyte, committee chair, warden or
vestry member, curate, priest, or bishop, and yet you do not understand these things? To be
open to the Spirit is to be open to a truth that sometimes startles and surprises, challenges and
expands and sometimes inverts all that we know or believe.

After meeting Jesus by night, nothing immediately occurred in Nicodemus’ life. It took a while
for it all to sink in, but something significant shifted over time because Nicodemus appears
twice more in John’s Gospel. In chapter 7, Nicodemus came to Jesus’ defense, reminding the
authorities that they had no right to judge Jesus without giving him the benefit of a fair trial.
In chapter 19, after Jesus was crucified, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus came to anoint his
body for burial. Nicodemus brought burial oils “weighing a hundred pounds” to embalm his
balm. It was a costly gift fit for the burial of a king. We may safely assume that Nicodemus’
heart overflowed with gratitude for what Jesus had done for him. Indeed, the noncanonical
Acts of Pilate, a fourth-century work also known as the Gospel of Nicodemus, notes that
Nicodemus became a disciple. This brilliant teacher who mastered the Law but couldn’t grasp
the Spirit, somehow got it in the end. Nicodemus was born anew, conceived from above, and
that made all the difference.

Howard Mumma was a Methodist minister who served the American Church in Paris in the
1950s. He began to notice a man wearing a dark suit sitting in the back of the church,
surrounded by admirers. Eventually, Mumma learned that the man was the famous French
existentialist Albert Camus. They struck up a friendship. Camus was interested in the Christian
faith, but had never converted. One evening, Camus told Mumma, “The reason I have been
coming to church is because I am seeking. I’m almost on a pilgrimage – seeking something to fill
the void I am experiencing… I’m searching for something the world is not giving me.”

Camus had carefully read the Bible. There was one figure that greatly intrigued him. It was
Nicodemus. In discussing Nicodemus one day, Camus asked, “What does it mean to be born
again, to be saved?” Mumma replied, “To me to be born again is to enter afresh into the
process of spiritual growth. It is to receive forgiveness. It is to wipe the slate clean. You are
ready to move ahead, to commit yourself to new life, a new spiritual pilgrimage.” Camus, recalls
Mumma, looked at him with tears in his eyes and said, “Howard, I am ready. I want this. This is
what I want to commit my life to.” Tragically, Camus died soon after in a car crash before he
could act upon his spiritual desire.

Most of us are like Nicodemus. We are looking for answers, but we are playing it safe. We have
so much, but we know that something vital is missing. We have been baptized, Sunday-
schooled, and confirmed, but we are afraid to accept God’s unconditional love, and we struggle
how to bestow on others? Christ Church Greenwich is a Nicodemus kind of place. The Spirit
blows in the church, which is big and wide enough for all sorts of believers, for lovers of beauty
and for seekers of truth, for people of much faith and for folks with little faith. All of them are
invited to come here and seek the mystery that we call God.

If this is what you desire and are seeking and if you want a more Spirit-filled life, then I invite
you silently to repeat these words and to pray this prayer with me:

Lord, Jesus Christ, you have bestowed the Holy Spirit upon me at baptism. Help
me now to be born anew and conceived from above so that I might see God as
my spiritual Father and each person as a member of God’s extended family. Amen.