“It was one of those nights at the end of a busy day. I was home sitting at my desk with work yet to do. The house was quiet; my wife was upstairs reading. But I couldn’t keep my mind on the papers in front of me. I was distracted and preoccupied. Normally I’m not one to bother much with reflection, but questions that I usually keep at the edges of my consciousness kept coming to me.
“Maybe it was because of all that talk about the one called Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean miracle worker who had come to our city that day. At a meeting earlier in the afternoon, he was the center of our conversation. There were many opinions about who he was and what he was saying. Some reported that John the Baptist had called him the “Lamb of God.” Others said that he had this kind of authority and presence you would not expect from such an ordinary person. And of course, there were those who scoffed at all the talk, dismissing this Jesus as just one more in a long line of false prophets.
“Replaying those comments in my head, I sat there in my study with questions. I could not stop thinking about this man whom many said had a very personal relationship with God. The psalmist tells us that God is beyond our understanding— how then can God be personal? I needed to explore this question. So I called up to my wife and told her I was going out for a walk. I went out into the darkness, down through the streets, out to the edge of town where I knew Jesus to be.
“My name is Nicodemus. Unlike most everyone who places their footprints in the sands of time, only to be washed away, my name has been remembered down through history in the book you call a Bible. You just heard John’s account of my conversation with Jesus one night. But there is more to tell. This is my story about that night I went to see the Master.
“Where to begin? Well, first I should tell you that I was a leader in my community — one of the 70 members of the Sanhedrin. To explain to you, the Sanhedrin was an elite council of the most powerful civic and religious leaders in Israel. It was like your legislative, executive and judicial branches all in one. We were from the best families. We had the best education. We had the authority to determine what was lawful before God, and what was not.
“You may remember that Jesus chided me about being a teacher of Israel. I suppose that was because I was a person that other people would come to for answers. I had dedicated my life to knowing the Law of Moses, blessed be his name. I was experienced in analyzing and explaining the nuances of the Torah, what you know as the first five books of your Bible. I took pride in my scholarship and being able to untangle the ambiguities and close the loopholes of logic that sometimes cause doubt with faith. If there was a perplexing question about the Law, people would say, ‘Ask Nicodemus.’ I was recognized as an esteemed religious authority.
“But my wife…my wife would say: ‘Nicodemus, you’re really just a functional atheist. You only know God from your shoulders up. The only thing you believe in is what you can see and what you can understand. You have no imagination of God. You don’t allow for any of the mystery of God to touch you. Nicodemus, you don’t understand passion; you don’t understand what it means to embrace the sacred. The only thing you understand is the intricacies of the Law. You know all about religious matters and theology. But Nicodemus, do you know anything about the experience of God?’
“And I would think about what she said. We’ve been married a number of years, and I think sometimes that she knows me better than I know myself. Maybe I did live with a faith that was only in my head, not in my heart. Maybe those questions which came to me that night were a searching to know something more of God. That is why I decided I needed to go to see Jesus.
“I approached him as he sat by himself in front of a fire. A few of his disciples were sleeping nearby. As I walked up to introduce myself, he was stirring the embers of the fire with a stick, which gave off sparks into the night. I sat down and he welcomed me with a nod. We sat there for awhile in the silence. He seemed to be waiting for me to talk. Then I said to him, ‘Rabbi, do you now who I am?’ He smiled and said that I must be a member of the Sanhedrin. It took me back. ‘The black robe I was wearing,’ I thought, ‘it must have given me away.’
“I told him my name was Nicodemus. And he said, ‘Yes, I’ve heard of you. Why did you come here tonight?’
“I told him I was a man of faith who wanted to understand the great and wonderful secret of the mystery of God. ‘Tell me,’ I said ,’tell me about this God you claim to know so personally.’ And he looked intently at me and said, ‘Nicodemus, I’ll ask you only one question: Do you trust in God?’
“I trust in the Law,” I said. ‘I trust in the law handed down to Moses by God. I trust in what I know and what makes sense. I am skilled in interpreting the Law. But you’re asking me if I trust in God?” I spoke carefully. “I don’t quite know how to answer you. I know what I have been taught and I know what I tell others about what it means to be faithful. But trust? Trust is hard for me.”
“Nicodemus,” he said speaking my name, ‘The God you believe in, do you know your God in your heart?’ And I thought to myself, ‘I’m really not sure. I’m not sure what I believe about God in a personal sense. I believe in the Master of the Universe who created heaven and earth and all that is in it. But in my heart? I don’t think of God that way. I think of God as somewhere out there, or up there – not as close as right in here.’
“Then he asked me again, ‘Nicodemus, do you trust your life with God?’ And I had to tell him I didn’t. I find it hard to trust. I often feel overwhelmed by the pressures of life. I’m concerned about my kids and their future. I’m concerned about my parent’s health. I wonder about my wife’s happiness. I’m concerned about my nation and where we are headed. I worry about so many things.
“Are you so different from me? Don’t you worry about your family? And what’s happening in the world you live in? Don’t you worry about your health, your job? Worry that the bottom might drop out of the stock market? Worry about your retirement? Don’t you worry about all these things?
“One of your writers, Saul Bellows, who just died this last month, once described this age you live in as a time of anxiety. He said it was like a “moronic inferno” in which all of you are trapped. A time of anxious worry and fear. And you are concerned about the integrity of business and the government. You’re concerned about the erosion of community. You’re concerned about everything. Well, so was I!
“It’s so hard to trust. To really believe that God is there for you all the time, and there for your children.
“Then Jesus began to teach me, opening my mind to open my heart. He said, ‘Nicodemus, what you are searching for comes from above. It comes from God’ And then he laughed and said, “Nicodemus, you can no more know God by what you can see and touch and read, than you can go back into your mother’s womb to understand what it means to be born again. Nicodemus, understand that what we are talking about here is a gift from God. It is a peace, a calmness you experience when you let go and open yourself and invite God in. Nicodemus, you’re so concerned about all your rules and having answers to every question. But if you really want to know God, you have to trust.”
Let me ask you. Aren’t you in the same boat? How much of your life is given over to concern about trying to make all of the pieces fit? How hard do you work at trying to control everything around you? What Jesus is saying is that with all our striving we keep a distance between ourselves and God. And we end up stunting our spiritual life.
Then Jesus said that the presence of God is like a holy wind that blows where it will. In the Torah, this wind of God is called the ruah. In our tradition, when God created the world, it was the breath of God that gave life. The ruah, what you call the Holy Spirit of God. And Jesus says that it is everywhere. And it comes to everyone…to children, to old men, to mothers, to each of us here in this place, and to people very different on the other side of the world.
“Nicodemus,” he said, ’it can even come to you, if you are willing to trust that God’s presence is all around and in your life. Trust in that and you will discover the joy of having a passion for God in your heart.’
“We sat by the fire and there was a long silence as we watched the flames of the fire slowly die down into the glowing embers. And I began to feel something of the warmth of God’s presence as I sat there beside Jesus. Something of that peace. Something of that calm. And I knew as I sat there close to that light, I had at last come closer to the God of love than at any other time in my life. It felt so good. I wondered how I could hold onto this peace when I went back to my world —with all of its contradictions, ambiguities, anxieties. I just wanted to stay there, my heart strangely warmed, enveloped in that quiet sense of surrender that was deeper and purer than anything I had ever imagined in my life.
“But then Jesus said to me, ‘Nicodemus, before sunlight you will need to go back home and take up your life. So I want to ask you once again, ‘Do you trust? Do you trust in God? Will you give the burden of your concerns over to God? Or will you just let them consume you? Can you place your trust in God?
“I said, ‘Jesus, you don’t understand just how hard that is for me. I have so many responsibilities. In my world if you don’t look out for yourself, you lose. You’re asking me to trust like a child, with the innocence of a newborn. To trust everything to God.”
“Then he said, ‘Yes, that is what I’m asking you. To trust with the simplicity of your heart, to put God at the center of your life. I’m asking you to open your heart and allow the peace of God, which passes all understanding, to be with you each day.’”
You know how hard it is to trust like that, even when you want to, don’t you? Do you trust? Do you trust God? Or is that “moronic inferno” of anxiety eating away at the core of who you are?
“I said, ‘Jesus, I just don’t know. I don’t know. It is so much easier to have a faith that is based on what I know, what I can point to in the writings. It’s so much harder to open my heart to the mystery I don’t understand.” But I told him I would struggle with it. I would say my prayers morning and evening, and I would try to think of God at work within my life…so that maybe I could come to the love the Lord my God not only with my mind, but with my heart and my soul as well.’”
“I slowly walked back to my house. There were still questions that remained. But I knew now that I needed to live those questions, and not deny them. I needed to trust that in time the answers would come.”
There is a postscript to Nicodemus’ testimony.
It was still dark when he returned home. And though nothing had seemed to change, everything had changed.
Later in the Gospel of John we learn that when the Sanhedrin was first planning to have Jesus arrested, there was one member who boldly stood up and defended Jesus. His name was Nicodemus.
Later still, after Jesus had been crucified and many of his followers had scattered for fear of retribution, two men came and removed Jesus’ body from the cross. They wrapped it with spices in a linen cloth according to the Jewish custom of burial. One of those men was Nicodemus.
This man who had come to Jesus by cover of darkness seeking to learn the mysteries of faith had grown into the light and found peace in believing.
May it be so for you and for me. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.