I had totally arrived. I was 16 years old and had just finished my driver's education classes and I got what every young man dreams about-a new car. Only it wasn't really new. It was my grandmother's old car, an avocado green 1970 Chevy Nova. It soon became known as the green bomb after an unfortunate sideswipe with a parked car at a high school football game. And then came the cost of owning a car, and then, even worse, my sister turned 16 and I had to share it with her. That's when I really began dreaming about my next car.
How many times have we thought that we've arrived only to discover that there's much more to the journey?
Nicodemus was one of the ruling elite. He had arrived. He had, no doubt, studied the law and the prophets. He knew how to participate in the lively and energetic rabbinical debates of his time. But this story shows that there must have been some kind of emptiness inside of him. Somehow God must have seemed at a distance to this lifelong member of the faith community.
I wonder if his coming in the darkness meant that he felt like he was alone in the struggle, that his religious brothers and sisters were somehow more on track than he was. He had certainly been impressed by the miracles that Jesus was doing, but he must have also been ambivalent about speaking with him in broad daylight. Was he ashamed that he didn't have his act together? Was he afraid to admit that he needed help? Was he worried about what his contemporaries would think of him talking with this nontraditional and probably dangerous rabbi?
Jesus immediately recognizes the longing inside Nicodemus to find a deeper connection to a life from above. By saying, "You must be born anew," he offers him the way to start again, to find a life that was new and worthwhile and profound.
We live in a world where many, and many of us, search for the ways to put meaning back into life. We read self-help books, we've embraced diet after diet, medication after medication, we've studied and we worked and we've gone to a lot of therapy. We've even had approval from our bosses or from our teachers or from those who aren't important to us that we're valuable. We're valuable to the institution. We have the potential to move ahead, and we probably still get new cars hoping to arrive somewhere that we just can't quite get to. But deep down, there's something that's missing. We've arrived, but we know that we haven't.
Now, of course, there are those glorious moments when we do have it. We feel as if we have arrived. We have grand conversion stories to tell. But all too quickly, those very stories become the source of our self-judgment because we know we haven't lived up to them, and they present a picture of ourselves that we know isn't fully true.
Coming to Jesus under the cover of night strikes a chord with me. I think a lot of us really believe that we're alone in that darkness, in our shame or in our guilt. We look around and everyone else's face seems to sparkle like it's brand new. We're ashamed that we need someone to help us find the healing path. The strength of Nicodemus is that he decides to step outside his embarrassment about not knowing everything. He steps into the night of not finding the traditional answer satisfactory. He overcomes his fear of being ostracized if he decides to understand God's presence in a different way than everyone else does. He acts with courage to journey forward into life rather than die standing still.
Maybe we need Lent every year to be reminded that we haven't arrived, that we're sort of stuck in the parking lot, that we're wandering in the wilderness, sojourners all of us, pilgrims seeking a new promised land. We need the wilderness so that we can imagine new ways of being with God. And we need the wilderness so that we have to rely on God and one another.
I think we all probably needed a little bit of wilderness journey during the last election cycle in November. Everyone was so sure that they were right. And it seemed as if we needed to arrive at this position or that, this conclusion or that one. There was hardly a way to imagine a journey together that made red and blue into a kind of Lenten purple. Maybe we should think of Lent as a kind of parking lot in which a shiny Suburban SUV is parked next to a broken-down station wagon that houses an immigrant family or a parking lot where there are bumpers with rainbow stickers parked next to bumpers with American flags and W's.
Maybe Nicodemus' example could give all of us a little courage to leave behind what we know or what we expect to find out and open ourselves to the blowing wind of the Spirit. Could we for once let it blow where it will? Could we dare to risk asking another to help us find God again? And dare it be someone that we just might feel a little secretive about actually meeting with and learning from-someone not like everyone else around us?
There is not one of us who has arrived and who couldn't be helped by yet another attempt to begin again. It's really only when we face up to the darkness that we're able to hear Jesus say that we can be born anew, we can be born again. That's the Gospel-that we can start over. God's Spirit is blowing through our lives and moving in surprising and graceful ways. It's hard to imagine that given our blindness, our resistance, and our difficulty making the journey outside ourselves that we can indeed find light in the darkness.
It doesn't make sense knowing all we do about ourselves that we can start over. But the point of it all is that God so loves the world that God is going to see to it that it is saved. The deepest desire in God's heart is to save us, not to condemn us. John's entire Gospel begins by saying, "The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." The message is that even though we're on a journey, God has arrived. That means that the Spirit breathes us toward healing and salvation. God came to help us to put the baggage down. Jesus loves Nicodemus even before that late-night knock on the door. Jesus knew he was on the inside of grace, on the inside of the Word made flesh. Jesus knew that the cross would be lifted up as a sign that would save Nicodemus even before Nicodemus dared speak his deep need for it. John 3:16: "For God so loved the world."
It's the way every story begins. And today it's your turn to be born yet again, to be born anew, not because you ask for it or because you deserve it, but because God simply cannot be the God of Jesus Christ without offering it to you again and again and again, without cost or without price. Grace - shiny and new. In the end, it's what all of us have always hoped for. In God's love, we suddenly discover that even under the cover of darkness, we have arrived in our future.
I'd like to close with my favorite prayer from The Lutheran Book of Worship:
Let us pray.
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures to which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out in good courage, not knowing where we go but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.