This is a story about seeking after the holy; this is our story.
There was once a rabbi who had a son. Every day, the rabbi’s son would wander in the woods. At first, the rabbi didn’t mind but after a while, it began to concern him a bit. He sat his son down. “Son, I notice that each day you walk into the woods. I wonder – why do you go there?”
The son replied, “I go there to find God.”
Relieved, the rabbi exhaled and gently said, “Son, that is a very good thing. I am glad you are searching for God. But my dear child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?”
“Yes,” the boy answered. “But I am not.”
Very truly, I tell you, we, too, are not the same everywhere. Take a moment and remember yourself as a twelve-year old or if you are around that age, as a four-year old. What did you know about God, Christ, the Spirit? What was holy to you? Now relocate yourself to the present – are you the same as you were then? When I remember the phases, the waxing and waning, the wondering and wandering, I see an undeniable grace that washes over me with steadfast love. I can do nothing but give thanks to God for all the pieces of my faith that fit together in some magnificent, not yet fully seen picture. It seems the psalmists knew this thanksgiving, too when she wrote, In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the sand; I come to the end – I am still with you.
This is our story, isn’t it? A story of not yet. A story of steady and slow formation. A story of a long obedience.
My friend Stephanie tells of how her mother used to nestle her and her sister in the crook of her arm, reading story after story that drew them into a depth that never ended. She writes, “My mother gave me the foundation of my religious life – the feeling of having embarked on something of inexhaustible significance, something we would never finish or solve, an open-ended mystery we could seek…”
The life of discipleship – the life of faith – is not something to be solved, fully known, completed. Our relationship with the sacred, with the Holy Three-in-One, is – in form and function – an ongoing, ever-changing, constant growth, constant letting go and picking back up. It is a constellation of small deaths and remarkable resurrections. It is lifelong.
That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Lovely, and yet, long. I know myself that I sometimes can act like Veruca Salt in Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” when she incessantly demands to get what she wants, screaming, “I want it now!” To embark on an inexhaustible journey seems – well, exhausting. Pastor Eugene Peterson finds that so many feel the same way in the church universal. We want things to materialize quickly, to know that we are getting it “right” (whatever that means), to make sure that our children are getting everything they could possibly need. He offers this for our harried and hurried lives: “For recognizing and resisting the stream of the world’s ways, there are two biblical designations for people of faith that are extremely useful: disciple and pilgrim. Disciple says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always.” Always.
For those in the later seasons of life, you know this well. You wear the mantle of discipleship with such grace and wisdom. I think of you and your full life’s work of faith formation – of Sunday School and worship attendance, of sitting on countless committees and visiting friend after friend in the hospital – I think of you when I read this from Friedrich Nietzsche (KNEE-CHA) : “The essential thing ‘in heaven and in earth’ is, apparently…that there should be long obedience in the same direction, there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
This is the story of Nicodemus. A story of the essential thing in heaven and earth – the story of seeking overflowing love.
When we hear only the first story – the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the darkness of night, it is easy to judge him as cowardly, doubtful. But that is to take one moment in time and create a calcified opinion of someone which is to say, to ignore that the life of faith is indeed a life – full of turns and twists and not yets. But when we pan out and glimpse the two other stories the Gospel of John offers, we can begin to see more of who Nicodemus is. Here is what we know: Nicodemus is a Pharisee, likely a member of the Sanhedrin which means he had power and authority among the religious leaders. He comes to Jesus in the dark – significant in the Gospel of John because he uses the imagery of light and dark again and again to remind us that Jesus came as the light in the darkness, inviting us to be children of the light. But he comes to Jesus and calls him Rabbi and says “You are a teacher who has come from God.” He is confused, still left in the dark and seeking the light yet not knowing how to fully grasp it. He and Jesus go back and forth as the Christ explains why he has come saying the line we know so well, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but 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.”
When I imagine Nicodemus and Jesus in the darkness of night, I imagine these words of love as flashes of gentle light beginning to fall on Nicodemus’ heart. Sometimes, understanding that you are loved doesn’t happen all at once. Perhaps, it is like that for Nicodemus.
From there, we hear a few chapters later that the love Jesus revealed to Nicodemus at night comes to bear on his life during the day. It was the holiday of Sukkoth, the Festival of the Booths, and Jesus enters Galilee rather secretly at first because of the threat of arrest. He teaches and proclaims the word of God and word gets back to the religious authorities – to Nicodemus and his friend. His colleagues call for his arrest and Nicodemus goes against them, reminding them that their shared law gives a hearing to people before condemning them. He is scoffed at and teased a bit. The love he knew in the night gave him voice during the day, glimpses of light that shone through the dark.
It is that love that he experienced that I believed led him to the next time we see him. Jesus has been crucified and Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, removes his broken body from the cross. Apprenticed to his master, Nicodemus’ faith is coming into focus. Those words that Jesus spoke to him in what must feel like lifetimes ago – those words of love – God so loved the world – so loved you – that I came to live among you and die among you – that you, you who I call by name – you Nicodemus – might have eternal life. I do not condemn you; I am saving you – those words of love are what compel Nicodemus to use his own body to carry the body of the Savior from the cross to the grave. We hear that he brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes – which in our measurement is 75 pounds. The extravagance, the cost, the overflowing expression of devotion and love and tender care. He took the body and wrapped it with an absurdly beautiful amount of myrrh and aloes, lined by linen and gently laid him in the tomb. A long obedience in the same direction, there thereby making a life worth living.
We are a people who often judge our own selves and what we do with such vigilance, it can be hard to remember that this life is an ever-seeking journey that by its very nature, will take the entirety of our lifetimes. We come to the end and we are still with God. How vast are the sum of God’s thoughts – we can try to count them and yet – they are more than the sand, more than the stars, more than we can ever know. We belong to a “mystery beyond human comprehension. It speaks to the very being of God that exceeds our understanding. God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’…This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations. Our minds cannot fully comprehend and our words and images can never fully explain the mystery of God. But while the nam elf God is inexhaustible and exceeds our grasp, we are not left in ignorance. We are invited to participate in this mystery that has been opened to us by God’s own self-disclosure in Jesus Christ and in the coming of the Holy Spirit who binds us to Christ.”
And it is this Christ who meets us in the darkness of our doubts and in the light of our learning and every single moment in between. It is Christ himself who is a radiant and open mystery to us that even though it will take a lifetime to fully grasp it, will continue to speak this overflowing truth to us, that it might fall into our hearts over and over again: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” For God so loved you that for you, God gave you God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. For you. Indeed, for us. Amen.