A question that must echo through the centuries is this: Did Nicodemus ever get it? Did this righteous, sober, pious man ever let go of the letter of the law, of seeing and believing only what his eyesight perceived; did he let go of security to plunge into the uncertainty and wonder of mystery?
He was obviously a perceptive man. His first words to Jesus that night show that he understands what his eyes see: The signs of Jesus, known to us as miracles, are proof to Nicodemus that this young rabbi has come from God and acts in the presence of God. “You are a teacher who has come from God,” he says to Jesus, and he continues by admitting that no one can do these signs “apart from the presence of God.” This is a powerful statement, even though a question mark, a “but,” is about to follow. Why doesn’t Jesus accept it as is? What was it that he saw in this pious man that caused him to turn the conversation in another direction?
It is possible that the author omits a great deal; maybe there was quite a bit more said between them before Jesus speaks the words that have been repeated by Christians through countless testimonies, words that have been misused and misunderstood to the exclusion and detriment of many: “to be born again, to be born from above.” How many have gloried in these words, and how many have spoken them in derision in our troubled and divisive time!
Jesus does what he always does. He turns the conversation to what matters and points Nicodemus’ attention to the transforming power of God and to the reality of God’s kingdom.
He sees in Nicodemus the desire to see God’s will, God’s kingdom, this new order that gave the power to Jesus to perform his astounding signs. And Jesus wants Nicodemus to have his heart’s desire; if he would simply let go of what he knows as true, because it is thus written, in order to enter into the Spirit of the One who is not willing to be imprisoned by words.
Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He asks the literal questions: How can the old be born again? How can one reenter the mother’s womb? He is thinking of flesh, not of spirit.
Jesus tries again. He has come to open for us the door to God’s kingdom – to the truth and justice and love of God. He reminds Nicodemus of the baptism of repentance, being born of water; and the baptism of transformation, being born of the Spirit. He gives him the analogy of the wind that is felt but invisible; the origin and destination of the wind is not known. Everything that is real is not perceived by our five senses alone. The effects of God’s Spirit, God’s breath, are all around us and we feel them when we are born of the Spirit.
But Nicodemus again doesn’t get it. “How can these things be?” he asks, and we continue to hear his question phrased in similar ways all around us today.
“How can there be a God?”
“How can you call yourself a Christian when you are not born again?”
“How can you claim that you believe the Bible literally?”
“How can you ignore what the Bible says?”
Together with Nicodemus we cry, “How can these things be?”
We live in an age of astounding technological and scientific advances. We are used to having everything explained. Even religious desire, even the longing for God, we are told by experts, has a biological basis in the brain. Everything depends on the body and on chemical balance or imbalance. We are losing the gift of mystery, the gift of being born of the Spirit.
Everything in today’s remarkable story is surrounded by mystery. This is what has made it so irresistible through the ages. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Given Jesus’ status as a man who had nowhere to lay his head, the meeting probably took place outside, under the stars, beneath a tree, probably shortly after Jesus had lain down to rest and perhaps to sleep.
A man better dressed than Jesus and his companions arrives in the night. He is probably well known to them by sight. He comes to reassure Jesus that he recognizes in him the gifts of God’s presence because of all the visible signs performed by him in the light of day. And Jesus takes the man and plunges him into mystery. Nicodemus, a man who has spent his whole life studying the Law and the prophets, studying the Scriptures, does not get it. He is too committed to what he has known until this point. This talk of being born of the Spirit, of participating in God’s life through eternity, of death on the cross – these are new concepts and he cries out, “How can these things be?”
In sorrow, Jesus says, “You are a teacher and you do not understand these things?”
To paraphrase: Oh, Nicodemus, if you don’t believe me, the one who has come from the Father, whom are you going to believe? God loves you and all these friends around me, yes, even the whole world. God sent me to testify to this love. All you have to do is trust in this love and be saved from despair.
There is much talk of spirituality in our culture. “I am a spiritual person,” we hear friends tell us, “but I don’t believe in God, and I don’t go to church.” Others say, “I am a spiritual person, but I don’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God.” And many other variations of this same theme, the vogue of vague spirituality.
Yet here is Jesus offering us someone visible and recognizable who embodies the Spirit of God, himself! And unless we take the plunge into the mystery of the incarnation, we, like Nicodemus, don’t understand, and reject him. “How can these things be?”
The answer is that these things are real because Christ is real and present. As Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things, and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
This is a question to meditate upon throughout Lent, a daily discipline in the dark of night that can lead us to the light of Easter Sunday.