Jesus at the Crossroads: The Temptation to Believe in Secret
March 19, 2017
When I was a child, I hated the dark. In fact, like some of you, I refused to sleep in a bedroom where there was no light. Growing up in the country as we did, there were no street lights or illumination in the night coming from the house next door because there was no house next door. So, when it was dark, it was dark. I would say well into my middle school years, I always slept with some sort of artificial light. For all of those years, a nightlight, a light left on in the closet, the lamp on the counter in the nearby bathroom or some other source of illumination was always my friend and comfort in the midst of darkness.
For every person, however, that loathes the dark, there is someone else that likes it. Darkness provides a cover. It allows us to do things in secret and out of the watchful eyes of others. Nighttime allows us the natural opportunity to get away with things without others knowing about them.
This idea of of darkness and light are not only real elements of life but they are also profoundly symbolic ideas in our world today. When I think of this, I immediately think of the famous Romanian born Jewish Writer Elie Wiesel and his memories about the Holocaust. Wiesel’s three book trilogy was fittingly titled Night, Dawn & Day with the titles paralleling the darkness he felt as a Jewish Child of the Holocaust in the book Night followed by the way he came to recover and rediscover life again in the subsequent books Dawn & Day.
And the gospel of John says to us that Nicodemus came to Jesus while it was night. It was night. It was dark. Nighttime was not only the setting of the story, but it provided Nicodemus a cover and anonymity for his meeting with Jesus and it also symbolized the dark place where Nicodemus found himself spiritual.
Why did Nicodemus come to Jesus at night and what did the night symbolize about his life? The story is actually remarkably straightforward in this regard. Nicodemus came at night because he was intrigued by Jesus, he was moved by him and in truth I think Nicodemus understood that he was on the verge of being a Christ follower. But, he didn’t want anyone to know.
Why? Well for a number of reasons. First, Nicodemus we are told, was a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was a Jewish legal body in New Testament times. Thus, Nicodemus was a significant figure with some local, political clout and he was wise enough to recognize that to believe in Jesus publicly would have likely put his membership in the Sanhedrin in jeopardy.
Second, Nicomedus, I am sure, like every other Jew who became a follower of Jesus in those early days, worried about how such a decision would have affected him in his family and socially. A great number of Jesus’ early followers were both ostracized from their families and lost the majority of their friends. Again, to believe in secret, in the dark was much, much safer.
Finally, Nicodemus, had to have been worried about his safety. We ultimately know what happened to Jesus. Likewise, we know that the twelve disciples feared greatly that their lives may end in the same manner. In turn, it would not have been a great leap or a profound step for Nicodemus to have had the same worries. It would have been one thing to loose his seat in the Sanhedrin or to see family relations severed or friendships end. But, it would have been an altogether different thing to have given his life, literally as a result of being identified as a Jesus follower.
In turn, Nicodemus played it safe, he came at night and from this moment forward in John’s gospel where we meet Nicodemus two more times, he became a believer in secret.
Being a nighttime follower of Jesus is a huge temptation for us too. For many of us, at times, there is a great temptation to be more of a follower in secret that to be a public follower. When I say this, I don’t really mean having a willingness to merely talk about our faith or to be clear that we go to church or to say that we follow Jesus. Instead I am talking about a willingness to live in a way that allows our relationship with Jesus to have sway over and to govern everything that we say, do and are about – to be all in if you will, which is to live a 24 hour a day 7 day a week faith not one where sometimes we are believers in the light and at other times are believers only in the shadows.
Nicodemus was unwilling to go to that place. He only wanted to believe in the dark because believing in the light would have been too dangerous on multiple levels. Interestingly, his nighttime faith, also revealed symbolically just how in the dark he was about what it meant to follow this one who claimed to be the son of God.
This weekend has been an interesting one in Greenville as the Bon Secour Center has played host to the first two rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Including USC, the other Carolina, Duke, Arkansas, Seton Hall, and Marquette, a total of eight men’s teams from around the United States have spent at least part of their weekend in the Upstate.
What is interesting about the fans of these teams, and many sports fans of any sport in general for that matter, is that they are so often all in. Think about this for a second, the way the NCAA Tournament works, you don’t find out where your team is going to play on the following Thursday or Friday until the Sunday night before.
So, take Marquette and Seton Hall for instance. Both are Catholic schools with Marquette being in Milwaukee and Seton Hall in New Jersey. The fans that traveled from those schools literally had about three days notice to make the trip. They had to get tickets, figure out how to get to Greenville, get hotels, etc. And, when they got here, they were ready with hats, shirts, pep rally’s, cheerleaders and bands in full force. My point is that for these folks, supporting their school is a big deal. They adjust there schedules for it, invest in it, give themselves over to it and are proud of it. They are all in.
This is what God is looking for in us – people who are all in. God wants us to be believers not just when it suits our schedules, not just when it makes us look good, not just when it is beneficial and not just when it can be done undercover and in a back room. God wants 24 hour a days, 7 day a week believers in public and in private, in the day and at night, in our words but also in our behavior and in our decisions. The temptation is never to go to this level and yet this is exactly what we are commanded to do. And like Nicodemus, unless we understand that this is God’s ultimately goal for us, we not only follow in the dark but we are in the dark in terms of a true understanding of faith.
The other part of Nicodemus story, however, is not simply his struggle to believe only in the dark but it is also about the moment he finally came out into the light. As I mentioned already, Nicodemus as a character in the gospels makes three appearances with all of them happening in the book of John. There is this moment which is our text for today in chapter three where Nicodemus has this conversation with Jesus at night. Second, there is the moment in Chapter seven where the religious leaders in Jerusalem are unsure of what to do with Jesus and Nicodemus argues that they should at least give him a hearing. Yet, even there he stops short of saying he believes in Jesus. And then there is the final occasion in chapter nineteen after Jesus has died where Nicodemus finally comes out into the open and joins Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial which is the moment that finally symbolizes his willingness to be identified in public as one of Jesus followers.
My sense is that Nicodemus had to have been one of the saddest people at the point of Jesus’ death. I say this, not only because Christ had died. But, I say this because Nicodemus, over such a large period of time and at several key moments that John mentions and at others I am sure he doesn’t mention, had failed to identify with Jesus publicly. In opportunity after opportunity he had believed in the shadows and once he had developed the courage and fortitude to believe in public, Jesu was dead.
God, I believe is after public, daytime, 24 hour a day, 7 day a week believers. But, more specifically, I think God also wants us to realize that there are special moments that come along here and there on a regular basis in our lives, like happened for Nicodemus, when we really have the opportunity to bare witness, to make a courageous moral stand, to connect our faith clearly with a decision that we make. They are our Nicodemus moments to live out our faith in public and in profound ways and when they are gone, they are gone. Yet in the moment, they are ours to seize. Nicodemus had chances, on that night when he met Jesus and on that day the religious leaders debated what to do with Jesus. In both cases, he stopped short of full belief – preferring the dark. In the end, when he finally believed fully and publicly, Jesus’ human life on this earth was over – a golden moment had come and gone.
In November of 2010, former President George W. Bush, released his memoirs of his time in the White House as the Command in Chief. In the book, Bush focused on a number of critical moments during his presidency and the difficulty of making good decisions in the midst of them such as policy related to stem cell research, making the right call in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial bailouts of large US corporations in 2008 and how to respond during his own initial election when for days no one was sure who had won the presidency. As Bush remembers those moments point by point and how critical his response was to each, he chose to call the book Decision Points. I love that title and the idea that these were special moment when the right decision needed to be made in a crucial moment and that the decision made would profoundly affect countless people.
What I want us to hear today is that our lives are full of Decision Points on a regular basis. I really believe that decisive moments come our way much more frequently than we would like to believe. When they occur, will we seize the moment? Will our response be shaped by our faith? Will we use those times as platforms, in the right way, to be clear with what we say, with what we do and with how we act whose we are and who we are here serve?
Will they be moments when our faith is in the forefront of our lives for all to see or will they be moments where our faith takes a backseat as we continue a faith more lived in the darkness than in the light as well as a faith that fails to bring any light to lives of others as well. Amen.