Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
March 12, 2017
Old Testament: Genesis 12:1-4a
New Testament: John 3:1-17
Text: John 3:14
What stirs you in the middle of the night?
Sometimes it’s the unresolved problems of the day. Other times it’s excitement about tomorrow. Still other times we’re stirred in the night by guilt. Guilt is the sign that your conscience doesn’t stop working when the mind and body rests.
The conscience acts as the boundary around your inner sense of right and wrong. When that boundary is crossed, the conscience stimulates a reaction that moves a person to action. Sometimes the reaction is to avoid responsibility for doing what’s right. Other times the reaction is to stand for what’s right in the face of opposition.
When your conscience faces life’s difficult challenges, it finds the Cross in the night. There in the darkness, where no one can see the light, an uneasy conscience finds Jesus’ Cross.
The Gospel of John has six references to the night. In each reference, the night is regarded as a time of spiritual impoverishment. The first is today’s lesson regarding Nicodemus. The second is Jesus healing the blind man and says God’s miracles occur in the light, not at night. The third is Jesus visiting Mary and Martha which leads to Lazarus being raised from the dead. He says to his disciples they will stumble in the night when there is no light. The fourth is the night Judas Iscariot left the table of the Last Supper to betray Jesus. The fifth is when Nicodemus shows up again in the Gospel. This time he helps Joseph of Arimathea treat Jesus’ body after the crucifixion for its burial. The last time is when the disciples fish after the crucifixion, and catch nothing.
The night in John’s Gospel refers to times when there is no Jesus, there is no hope, and God seems powerless to save. The night also is when those searching for God’s light are stirred by their conscience to look for God’s consolation.
Nicodemus ought to have been a man without any concerns in the world. He was a student of God’s law. He knew what he needed to do to fulfill the righteousness required for him to be blessed by God. Nicodemus taught others the necessity of obeying God’s law. He made a living honing and refining the conscience of his Jewish students – the men, women, and children of his synagogue.
What was driving Nicodemus to see Jesus in the night? What spiritual darkness had descended on his conscience?
Perhaps it was that he had begun to understand that perfect obedience to the law wasn’t possible. He was questioning his own teaching on God’s law. No matter how much a person tries to obey the law, it can’t be done. He knew it was impossible for to obey the law perfectly.
How many of us obey the law of the state of Pennsylvania perfectly? How many Americans live without stretching the law – especially that onerous one that mandates an offering to the nation and state by April 14?
Our intention is to obey the law. But circumstances get in the way. Rationalizations form. Hopefully our transgression isn’t fatal. When we get distracted from perfect obedience, we pray its consequences aren’t dire.
Perhaps Nicodemus came knowing there were consequences. The Jewish people were obeying Rome’s laws for the most part. But he knew obeying Rome’s laws violated God’s law – especially the first one about God being the only God. No other gods were to be worshipped. Judaism had conceded to Roman law. Obeying Roman Law implied a tacit worship of Caesar that violated God’s Law.
Nicodemus’ conscience might have been conflicted that he was not challenging Jewish obedience to Rome’s law.
But the more likely concern that stirred Nicodemus’ conscience was that Jesus possessed something obedience to the law couldn’t create. Jesus created new life from His teachings about God’s love and mercy. Jesus’ reputation wasn’t built on obeying God’s law. Jesus’ reputation was built on loving God. He was showing people how to live a life of gratitude for God’s blessings. He was attracting people.
Nicodemus wasn’t able to create such a response through teaching obligation to obeying God’s law. Neither was he able to create the unusual blessings that Jesus bestowed on perfect strangers who were sinners.
Nicodemus came in the night to discover the source of Jesus’ power beyond God’s Law that generated a new life for people. He didn’t want any of his Pharisee friends, or congregation members to know that he was questioning his teaching of God’s law.
Nicodemus saw the results of Jesus’ blessings in the testimony of people who had been healed or who had been touched by Jesus’ teachings about God’s love. But he wasn’t prepared for what Jesus had to tell him was the source of his ability to give new life.
Jesus told Nicodemus about the Cross that stood in the night.
Most people when they read this passage focus on being born again. But Jesus is talking metaphorically about the Cross. The new birth that occurs for people who believe in God was a premonition of what was going to happen after Jesus died on the Cross for humanity’s sin.
In the darkness of the human soul’s night-time, when a person gives up obeying God perfectly, the Cross stands as the symbol of hopeless darkness. But the hopelessness of the Cross’ darkness is necessary for new life to begin.
The Cross in the night time of the soul is the door to new birth. It’s only when a person has gone the distance to Jesus’ Cross, when people find their conscience conflicted over obeying God in the darkness of despair, that God’s grace offers them hope in a new birth – a new life.
Nicodemus learned in the night the secret behind Jesus’ power to bring new life to people, would take him to Jesus’ Cross where his conscience would be conflicted by Jesus’ sacrifice. Only then, in the brutal death of Jesus on the Cross could Nicodemus find the re-birth of God’s blessing.
Eternal life is the experience of being born again. Eternal life is the re-birth of men and women who follow Jesus to the Cross. Eternal life is the Cross by which God’s people learn the meaning of God’s love.
Nicodemus’ didn’t understand that Jesus was talking about the Cross being the pathway to rebirth. He still was puzzled by what Jesus’ meant when he said he needed to be reborn. But he remained convicted by Jesus’ compassion for him that night. It attracted him. So he shared with Joseph of Arimathea the task of burying this great teacher of God’s love when Jesus had been lowered from the Cross.
Nicodemus didn’t know that he had faced Jesus’ Cross in the middle of the night that evening. Most of us who say we’re born again without the pain of sacrificing anything to make the claim we’re born again don’t know the Cross in the middle of the night.
But we do know that horrible Cross whenever we find ourselves stirred in the darkness by the need to find hope when our conscience is troubled by our inability to be perfect. There in the night, when no one else is awake, and you are like Nicodemus, talking with Jesus, the Cross stands silently offering God’s love for you. You can be re-born in the middle of the dark night of your soul. Jesus’ Cross is what gives you new birth. Amen.