This sermon owes a lot of inspiration to a lecture by Barbara Brown Taylor called “Learning to Walk in the Dark” that I heard her deliver at the Festival of Homiletics in May 2013. Her reflections are now in a book by the same name, and you can watch a version of the lecture by clicking here. I know it’s long, but I promise that watching it would make for one of the best hours you’ll enjoy this week.
Text: John 3:1-17
This past January, I had the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land with a number of people from my seminary. And I will confess to you that the thing I was most looking forward to doing there wasn’t praying in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or seeing the Shepherd’s Cave in Bethlehem—oh no. It was walking Hezekiah’s Tunnel.
Hezekiah’s Tunnel is in Jerusalem; it was carved out under the reign of—you’ll never guess—King Hezekiah about 700 years before Jesus was born, in advance of an attack from Assyria. It connected the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam which was inside the city of David, securing the city’s water supply in case of a siege. It’s about a third of a mile long, and takes about 15 minutes to walk through.
We entered the mouth of the aqueduct through the ancient City of David, with our pants rolled up as high as they would go, flip-flops duct-taped to our feet, flashlights securely in hand. In order to get into the tunnel, we had to descend down a shaft, and then get through the entrance, where the water almost ended up being higher than I could roll my pant leg! But we got through, and started our trek down the narrow tunnel.
Well, seminary students are an excitable bunch—and one of the members of our group had actually researched the heck out of Hezekiah’s Tunnel and had even done a brief devotion before we started our schlep about that time when Jesus spits on some dirt and makes mud, rubs it on a blind man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash at the Pool of Siloam—where Hezekiah’s Tunnel leads. So this person, a few hundred feet into the tunnel, comes up with the great idea that we all experience what it’s like to be that blind man, and shut off our flashlights.
The darkness in Hezekiah’s Tunnel was so pitch black that it made my eyes ache. If you have been in darkness like this before, perhaps you’ll remember experiencing what I felt: marvel at how quickly I was filled with a sense of not-knowing. I had my hand on the shoulder of the person in front of me, mostly so I couldn’t run into them, and I could hear all my friends around me, but I had no sense of how big or small the tunnel was, or how long it went on for. If it wasn’t for the feel of the water running underfoot, obviously on its way somewhere, it would be all too easy to feel totally lost, totally directionless. That darkness, that not-knowing, was humbling, and a bit frightening, and made me feel very vulnerable.
I thought, “No wonder Christianity often speaks so negatively of darkness.” You know what I mean: “O God, deliver us from the darkness of sin and death.” “Lay aside the works of darkness.” “You have been called out of darkness into marvelous light.” “God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all.”
The light-darkness division in our language of faith is mirrored when we talk about the spirit and the flesh, about heaven and earth, about sacred and profane. We neatly divide our experience of the world in half, and it’s clear to everyone which half is closer to God. Often we tie our success as spiritual or religious people to how unrelentingly we can cling to light, life, spirit, heaven, waiting for the time when all that other stuff will finally crumble to dust.
But as nice as it is to have things so simple, so cut and dried, there is a problem, and the problem is that God is boundary-challenged. There is certainly good reason to use the powerful imagery of light as a metaphor to describe God, but problems arise when we use light as a metaphor to contain God.
Because, as many of you who have walked in darkness can attest, God doesn’t just turn up in the burning bush, the breaking dawn, the pillar of fire. God also shows up in the stillness, in the silence, in the darkness. God speaks in the middle of the night when you’re trying to sleep at least as often as God speaks from mountaintops in the clear light of day.
And while everyone walking a spiritual path may long for enlightenment, it is a truth too seldom acknowledged that sometimes, what we really need is to be endarkened.
This is the case for Nicodemus—the Pharisee who comes to Jesus in the dead of night. Commentators throughout the years have suggested reasons why Nicodemus might have chosen nighttime to visit Jesus—reasons ranging from wanting to avoid the trouble that the other Pharisees might heap upon him for consorting with a rabble-rouser like Jesus of Nazareth, to just wanting to have a nice, long, uninterrupted conversation with a great rabbi.
But it’s likely that the authors of John’s gospel didn’t really care about Nicodemus’ reasons for choosing the hours of darkness for his visit—they cared about what that darkness showed about his spiritual state. Again, commentators are quick to jump in here to interpret this: they say the darkness reflects the immaturity of Nicodemus’ faith.
In fact, commentators tend to do a real number on Nicodemus, making him out as the poster child for presumption, painting him as a bumbling, pompous Pharisee, a foolish foil for the wisdom of Jesus. A note in the New English Translation of this passage reads: “As a character in the narrative, Nicodemus has served to illustrate the prevailing Jewish misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching about the necessity of a new, spiritual birth from above.”
I don’t buy it, and this is why: by the end of verse 9, where Nicodemus is plaintively asking, “How can these things be?” I’m not thinking to myself, “Geez, guy, how could you not get this?” I’m thinking, “Dude. I’m just as lost as you are.”
Let’s replay what happens here: Nicodemus comes to Jesus and makes a statement: We know you are a teacher sent from God. This is true, because no one can do what you do apart from God’s presence.
Jesus replies with a comment that not only has nothing to do with Nicodemus’ statement, but doesn’t even make logical sense.
Nicodemus points this out.
Jesus replies with a comment that makes even less sense, and helpfully tells Nicodemus not to be astonished.
Astonished, Nicodemus replies, “How can these things be?”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness of night sure of what he knows, and why he knows it.
Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ knowing by basically saying, “Oh, you think you know what’s going on? That’s adorable. Let me fix that.” And then he leads him into confusion, bit by bit, until Nicodemus throws up his hands and says, “How can these things be?”
In other words, Nicodemus comes to Jesus enlightened. Jesus endarkens him.
And it is only once Nicodemus has let go of what he thought he knew, only once he’s stopped trying to make Jesus make sense, that Jesus says to Nicodemus these words, words so beautiful, so important that they have become the cornerstone of our faith: “For God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.”
I don’t think Nicodemus is meant to stand for us as a symbol of what not to be. Nicodemus is a symbol for what we are: a group of people longing to make sense of things, to be enlightened, to know what’s going on. And I believe Jesus loves us for that, just as he loved Nicodemus. But Jesus also knows that sometimes, what we really need are not the answers that we crave, but instead to just stand in the darkness and open ourselves to the mystery of God’s presence.
It is then, when we stand vulnerable before that transformative, mysterious presence, humble and perhaps frightened and uncertain for how long the darkness goes on—it is then that we begin to learn to walk by faith, and not by sight.
Nicodemus appears again in chapter 19 of John, bearing a 75 pound burden of myrrh and aloe. It is Nicodemus who helps Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus down from the cross, and bear him to the tomb, and anoint his body, and wrap him in linen.
This is the same man who came to Jesus by night, full of the knowledge that Jesus was sent from God because of his deeds of power. But by the end of the gospel, when Nicodemus comes to Jesus it is still light, light enough to show the wounds in his hands and feet and side. There are no deeds of power to assure Nicodemus of who Jesus was. There is just a crucified body, and the heavy weight of bitter aloes, and the darkness of the tomb.
Yet into that darkness Nicodemus willingly goes.
I take his presence at Jesus’ burial as a sign that somewhere in the darkness of that night with Jesus, Nicodemus entered into a transformation.. He had been endarkened: opened himself up to the presence of God, even when that presence wasn’t what he was expecting, even when that presence didn’t make any sense to him. He’s been transformed from a man who walked guided by sight, by the things he could understand, to a man who leaned into faith, trusting that no darkness, not even that of death, is impenetrable to God.
As we continue on our Lenten journey, following as Jesus draws ever closer to his Passion and death, may we too be endarkened, drawn to stand before the awesome mystery of God nailed to a cross, and anchored to the assurance that Jesus made in the midst of night: That God sent God’s Son not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.