Lent 2 2017 ~ Light at Night - John 3.1-17
Do you have any of those nightlights in your home? I mean the ones that come on when you walk past them, or which are perhaps on all the time, glowing gently to illuminate any nocturnal trips, perhaps to the bathroom, or even the fridge for a midnight snack. Do you ever do that? No, nor do I! Sometimes children have them in their bedrooms, so that the room is never completely dark, which for some, is frightening. Although, living in a city, as we do, it’s never truly dark, is it? Streetlights are on all the time and car headlights pass by. Whereas in the countryside it can be pitch dark at night save for the light of the moon and twinkling stars.
Even so, it is rare to experience total darkness, the kind of darkness where you cannot see your hand in front of your face – blinding darkness. The kind of darkness in which, if you try to move you will bump into things, fall over, do yourself some damage perhaps. Which is why at home, if you do get up in the middle of the night, a nightlight gently glowing in the hallway, or which comes on automatically as it senses movement, can be not only reassuring but downright helpful. It the same technology as people have in their driveways and by the front door to illuminate visitors in the dark too. We like to light up our darkness, so we can know what is going on, be reassured and feel confident and safe that no-one is up to no good under the cloak of night. In the light human beings feel safe; in the dark, we feel disorientated, uneasy, fearful even.
So when we think of Nicodemus, the Pharisee, a leader of the Jewish people, coming to Jesus by night, a little night-light bulb goes on in our minds – why would he do that? The obvious answer, is that he wants to use darkness as a cover – he does not want to be seen. Because of who he is, he cannot be seen to seek out Jesus for a theological discussion, and yet that is what he wants. Although, to have it safely and openly, ironically, he must do it at night, in the dark, secretly, clandestinely, dangerously, even. To modern humans who live a lot of our lives by night, the strangeness of this scenario is weakened, as we take for granted the light bulbs, timer switches, and constant electricity supply which makes sunset simply a moment in the day which we sometimes do not even notice. In Jesus’ time people got up at dawn, and once the sun had set, not only was the day deemed to be over, and staying up would be lit only by lamps fuelled by olive oil and a wick, slightly dangerous and short-lived, and of course costly. So for Nicodemus to approach Jesus by night would have been a brave, maverick thing for him to do and would have taken Jesus by surprise, unless, of course, the meeting was pre-arranged, which is possible.
Whether Jesus was expecting a visit or not, the conversation they have gets to the heart of what was to become the Christian faith. It also affects Nicodemus deeply, for he reappears in John 7:50-52 asking a question about a fair trial for Jesus. More significantly, he is named after the crucifixion as the one who, with Joseph of Arimathea, asks Pontius Pilate for the body of Jesus, so he can be given a decent burial (John 19:39). Both of these two – Joseph and Nicodemus are portrayed inside the main window frame of our magnificent chancel walls behind me. Have a look at them later if you like. In that Easter story, Nicodemus is not acting either alone, or at night – indeed it is important that the burial of Jesus be done before nightfall. Between this story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus by night and his reappearance as a disciple, Nicodemus has moved from the darkness of night into the light of day. He does this both literally and metaphorically as his spiritual journey with Christ unfolds.
In this much, Nicodemus, is both special and ordinary. He is special because he is a leader, a government man, a member of the hierarchy, out of whose line he should not step. Yet he is also Everyman, in that he is someone seeking knowledge and wanting to find out about and discuss the new views that are the talk of the town. St Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) described theology as of ‘faith seeking understanding’ (fides quaerens intellectum), by which he did not mean that understanding, or knowledge supplants faith by explaining it, but rather that an active love of God seeks a deeper knowledge of God. If we have some faith, there is something in us that wants to know more, learn more, understand more, so that our faith can be broader and deeper, more real. This is the spirit in which we study Lent courses and conduct Bible studies. It is also why sermons are preached, and maybe why they are listened to. If they are listened to…
Some people say that they feel they do not have ‘enough’ faith, but actually it is understanding that deepens faith. Faith itself does not come in pints or pounds, litres or kilograms. It is not something of which one can have ‘enough’ or ‘too much’, or ‘too little’. A very little will do, in fact; a small amount, just like a little nightlight, can show the way to a greater light like that of Jesus Christ. So a little faith seeks greater understanding, and that seeking begins with and is informed by love. Love leads to knowledge.
This is exactly what happened to and in Nicodemus. He has caught a glimpse of the love of God revealed in Jesus, and he seeks to understand it better. He has sufficient faith in Jesus’ abilities as a teacher and explainer of faith, that he seeks him out, dangerously and darkly. It is the only option for Nicodemus because of his status and position. He is naturally fearful, at this point in his story, but as he begins to listen to Jesus, his fledgling love for God casts out that fear and points him towards the light. By the time Jesus is crucified he is sufficiently confident and secure in his faith that he is willing to be recognised as a disciple by a Roman leader.
We are all in the dark when it comes to faith. Only Christ can illuminate our faith, for he is the light of the world. As we flounder about, like Nicodemus, feeling our way in the unlit world, we live in hope that sometimes a nightlight will come on and show us the way to go. And sure enough, these little nightlights do come on at various points on our journeys. But if we have our eyes closed, then we do not notice. Sadly, so many people do not recognise the glimmers of light in the world that have the potential to burst into a blaze of light to illuminate our path. When the news bulletins are so bleak, when we are culturally conditioned to be cynical, or have bought into the ludicrous opposition between science and religion, we find that understanding cannot grow from faith, because what little faith there is never sees any light, being locked way in in the darkness of our contemporary, passing age.
Yet those lights do come on even in the night-times of our souls. They may flicker dimly amid the gloom of sin, despair or complacency, but they are there. Christ’s light is always there, ready to burst upon us in response to a little faith, a little hope and a little love. So may the nightlights in your home be a gentle, comforting, guiding reminder of that eternal promise of light, brought into the world by Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate and hope of the world.
Jesus our glowing Lord, grant your light to always illuminate our path, so that whatever state our faith is in, our flickering love may be ready to respond to your call to follow and so burgeon into the light of understanding and truth. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 12/3/17