Sermon: Nick at Nite

The kids (my niece and nephew) were still pretty little when Nickelodeon started their Nick at Nite programing in the early 1980s. And it was fun to watch Joseph and Emily get such enjoyment out of some of the same TV shows we used to watch when we were kids (The Donna Reed Show, Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Mennis, Andy Griffith, The Munsters).

Because Nick at Nite’s programming was somewhat limited in those early days, my sister would tape some of their favorite episodes, and they’d watch them over and over again. You’d know when it was live or Memorex if the kids knew all the lines.

In fact, Joseph got to the place where he could recite particular episodes verbatim. Before long little sister Emily got in on the act. And then they started divvying up the dialogue so that Joseph would say one part and Emily would say another. It was a hoot! You’d have your own little live sitcom right there in the living room.

Of course, they would do the same thing with their favorite night time books; you know, that handful of favorite stories that a child wants you to read again and again. For Joseph it was Paddington Bear. Miss Emily loved My Little Ponies.

Joseph (who always insisted on  having a nightlight and leaving his bedroom door ajar) would lie there in bed, silently mouthing the words as you read a beloved book, twirling his hair and staring off into space as he slowly drifted off to sleep. Emily was a bit different, she wanted to hear every word, and stayed awake listening intently (to make sure you didn’t try to skip any parts for the sake of bedtime expediency) until you said, “The End.”

“Thank you. Good night,” she’d say. Then politely invite you out of her room by asking you to turn off the lights and shut the door on your way out; and then she’d simply close her eyes and go right to sleep. She’s organized, our Emily.

But they both found great comfort and security in those well-worn stories of their childhood; reassurance, perhaps, that in some chapters of life everything remains in its proper place, and the stories all turn out predictably well.

I guess we still prefer those kinds of stories – in movies, novels and television shows – which we can count on to have a (reasonably) happy ending.

But then, the same is true even here in church; isn’t it?

We listen to these familiar, beloved stories of our faith, like this tale of Nicodemus; stories that we’ve heard so many times we can almost recite them from memory. And we draw a sense of comfort and security from hearing them read to us again and again (albeit hopefully not to the point of staring off into space and drifting off to sleep).

We make our way through a week of responsibilities at work or school, the complications of family relationships, the daily challenges of life; and then we come into this place on Sunday morning, breathe a sigh of relief and resonate with the familiarity of our biblical narratives, familiarity of our hymns and liturgies, familiarity with our church traditions. We depend upon the predictability of our faith practices. It gives us – in the midst of this stressful and uncertain world – some sense of reassurance through continuity.

So, here comes Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a member of the highest Jewish council permitted by the Roman government: the Sanhedin. This was a man well versed in matters of faith and tradition; a man of religious letters; a man filled with the self-assurance and confidence and sense of personal eminence which comes from absolutely `knowing’ what was right.

You just can tell that by the first words that come out of his mouth, in this conversation with Jesus: “Rabbi, we know . . .” he says.

And yet – in spite of all that self-assurance and `knowing’ – something compels Nicodemus to seek Jesus out under the cloak of darkness.

Some speculate that the Pharisees sent Nicodemus to trap Jesus in an unguarded moment of heresy and didn’t want to alert his followers to their plan.

Others suggest that Nicodemus came to Jesus because he was genuinely intrigued by all the things – the signs and teachings – he had been hearing about, but didn’t want his own colleagues to see him meeting with this renegade Rabbi.

Scripture doesn’t really tell us why. But the implication seems fairly obvious that Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night because was hiding something – either from Jesus, or from others, or from himself.

John’s Gospel makes a really big deal out of the analogy of darkness and light. In fact, he starts his Gospel with a parallel to the Creation Story in Genesis: out of the darkness of the formless void God brings forth the Light of world.

“In him was life,” John wrote, “and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it; or, in other words, the darkness could not comprehend it, or understand it.” [John 1:4ff nt]

Now here, a couple of chapters later, Nicodemus starts out by asserting what he “knows,” – and offering Jesus a bit of gratuitous flattery. But as soon as Jesus tries to share the truth of spiritual matters with him, it becomes obvious that – though he is sitting in the presence of the Light of the World – Nicodemus is still completely `in the dark.’

“You have to be born anew,” Jesus tells him. Nicodemus is stumped.

“Just how was he supposed to pull a thing like that off,” speculates Nicodemus, “. . . when you are pushing sixty-five and it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning? Could a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb when it was all he could do to enter a taxi without the drivers’ coming around to give him a shove from behind?” (Fred Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, p. 122)

Turns out, old Nicodemus is a literalist; has no imagination.

Knows the Torah (Pentateuch) like the back of his hand. Knows the Talmud (Jewish law) backward and forward. Knows the Jewish prayers – tefillah – by rote. Avodah sheba-Lev it’s called: “service that is in the heart.”

Nicodemus has got all that down pat.

But for some reason, his heart remains in darkness.

I read a story some time ago about a young homeless man who was discovered, by a maintenance person, to be hiding in one of our denominations’ large prestigious churches. Apparently he had been lurking in the church for quite some time; living in the attic, spending his day in darkness, only venturing forth during the night to prowl about the church, feeding on the leftovers from church suppers, moving about in the building only at night, listening in on the daily activities of the congregation from his secret hideaway up in the attic somewhere.

In fact, I was surprised to find out that there had been a similar situation in the last church I served (in Davenport) before coming here.

Kind of makes me wonder how often this sort of thing happens.

How about here? Do you know someone who’s `hiding in the church?’

Someone who’s been moving about in the midst of the congregation; present, but not really here; wandering around the margins, living in the shadows, afraid of being found out?

Do you know someone who is physically – bodily – here, but won’t allow themselves to be fully here; here with the rest of us; here with Jesus Christ?

Someone, perhaps, concealing their darkness by personality façade; or secreting deep insecurities behind a mask of bravado; or veiling nagging uncertainty behind a know-it-all attitude? Someone who mouths the words of the prayers and hymn, who goes through the motions of worship, but for some reason the meaning of it all never pierces the depths of the heart.

It’s not enough that you know the rules and regulations, the doctrine and polity, the prayers and liturgy. “You have to be born again,” Jesus told Nicodemus.

During the time I was still wrestling with my sense of call to the ministry, I was a para-professional at a residential school for special needs children (the Institute of Logopedics), in Wichita, Kansas. I was planning on going into special education; working at the IOL during the day and taking classes at Butler County College at night.

At one point, I’d signed up for a course called, “Early Childhood Education.” It turned out not to be what I thought it was going to be.

Two nights a week I found myself, with 15 or so women of various ages, reading dozens of children’s books, and making Halloween ghosts from ping pong balls and Kleenex, and Christmas angels from tongue depressors and construction paper.  And, frankly, I was having a hard time engaging in the course work.

I did not want to be there, and that fact was probably obvious to others.

But I’ll never forget one night, after class, as I walked out to my car, peeling Elmer’s glue off my fingers; one of my classmates, a young woman, called my name from behind. As I turned around, she bluntly asked, “Tom, do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”

I just stood there in the dark, returning a blank stare.

So, she rephrased her question, “Have you been born again?”

Now, few other questions can strike such fear into the heart of a Presbyterian. “It is a rallying cry, a code word, for a brand of evangelicalism,” as John Buchanan puts it, “that is not only outside our comfort zone, but with which we do not always agree.

“Are you born again?” sometimes sounds like, “I am and you, clearly, are not, and you’re in a lot of trouble.”

“We associate “born-again Christian” with theological certainty, with having answers for all the questions: The question of why Haiti and not the Dominican Republic? The question of abortion, a complex question about which born-agains seem absolutely certain. The same for gay ordination, gay rights, gay marriage. No nuance, no appreciation for human complexity, no openness to newness, led by the Spirit, which Jesus says blows where it wills, but absolute, unchanging certainty. It is theological exclusivity that excludes from the kingdom a lot—in fact, most—of the human race.” (Appointment after Dark, January 24, 2010)

I would agree with my esteemed colleague, that that is the wrong interpretation of the phrase “born again.” Jesus was not suggesting that you had to be absolutely sure of yourself or certain of all the answers to life’s tough questions. He was not saying that you had to graduate from seminary or Moody Bible Institute, or have at your fingertips a Bible verse suitable for every occasion. Instead, Jesus was saying something far more remarkable than that: You must be born anew – born like a baby (ibid. 2010).

Brought out of the hidden darkness of the womb into the Light of New Life.

Innocent of all presumed knowledge; naked and vulnerable; exposed to the light. Instinctively imprinting on the One whom you trust to meet all your needs.

I think my response to my classmate’s abrupt question was something like, “Uh, yeah . . . I guess . . . I mean, sure . . . I think so. Well . . . goodnight.”

And, though she may or may not have meant for this to happen, I did a lot of thinking about that question as I drove home; a lot of thinking about this class I was taking and what – or rather who – it was really for; and my attitude about it all.

Interestingly enough, from that moment on, I found the remainder of that course to be a lot more enjoyable, and informative.  God works in mysterious ways. The Spirit, indeed, moves where it wills.

I’ve been in ministry a long time now; dare I say it, maybe even as long as old Nicodemus. But I still don’t have all the answers to life’s tough questions. What I am fairly certain of, however, is that we all come to this place as people who are seeking Light because, to one degree or another, we are still living in the dark.

But take heart, for, in this place, we discover that those who come to Jesus in the midst of darkness – whatever that darkness happens to be – will find themselves being born anew into the Life of the one who is the Light of all people.