Stirrings in the Night
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
March 12, 2017
John gives us no indication of the specific reason for Nicodemus’ midnight visit with Jesus. Maybe Nicodemus was protecting his street reputation – he’s a chief rabbi, a senior spokesperson for the religious establishment – he’s watching his back.
Or it may be that he just couldn’t resist a good, challenging conversation at night – most scholars are willing to lose a few hours of sleep for stimulating conversation. John doesn’t tell us either way.
The best explanation seems to be that it fits into John’s emphasis on the light – in Christ, light has come into the world, specifically, a world covered in the darkness of what we know.
Nicodemus is coming out of the darkness to the light, a good thing in John’s estimation – but he still clings to the darkness he knows. Nicodemus introduces himself in just this way: “We know,” he says, “that you are a teacher from God” – a teacher perhaps like himself, by chance? A scholar of the Word, like himself, but not the Word made flesh?
We know, he said. And it strikes me that this is a very delicate way of acknowledging that there is something about this Jesus that we do not know, that we cannot fathom.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus with what he knows – sensible sorts of things. And that’s how he starts. He asks how do you do these things, these signs? Nicodemus is essentially asking, where did you get your degree? What’s your alma mater? Did you graduate magna cum laude? Because, to do these things, you’ve got to have a pretty good resume.
But Jesus’ answer – if you want to call it that – is more like a proclamation: you must be born anew or born from above. The Greek allows both a literal and a figurative translation, while the English can only do one or the other, but not both. The limits of translation. Both meanings are intended: you must be born anew and born from above.
Nicodemus only gets the literal figure of speech: you must get born all over again.
And at that, he explodes with disbelief: “What? I’m an old man. Are you telling me I have to enter my mother’s womb a second time? Ludicrous!”
We were walking to my graduation ceremony and by that time, we had Gwendoline who was just two years old. My mom and dad had come out and we were together and Rebecca was carrying Gwendoline, and I turned to my mom and said, “Hey, mom, would you carry me, just like old times?”
She nearly fell over laughing. She carried me enough. I was on my own now – a sensible answer.
A flesh answer. Some clarification of terms is probably helpful at this point. John uses this term, “flesh”, differently than Paul – Paul speaks of the flesh (envy, bitterness, anger) in its “war” with the spirit (love, charity, purity, generosity). John uses the term to name human frailty. Our flesh can only do so much.
Jesus isn’t talking only or exclusively about the flesh – flesh begets flesh but spirit begets spirit. So, he tries to push the sensible Nicodemus into a deeper place – to what we don’t know.[i] We don’t know the origin of the Spirit – we sense its presence by what it touches, what it lifts, what it does, but we cannot see it. We cannot guess where it comes from or even where goes.
We do not know – and perhaps we fear to know that we do not know.
I guess the language about being born anew and born from above is what held my thoughts this week. Yet, I was inclined more to think about death than birth. Initially, these may seem to be polar opposites, but maybe not so much as you might initially imagine.
Part of this comes from George Herbert, Anglican priest and poet, who links our birth to death – rhyming breath and death in each stanza of a poem entitled, Mortification.
He takes metaphors of life – swaddling clothes for newborn babies – our grave clothes — our homes – our coffins — even the way young people call for music and celebration — these sounds accompany us at our death, only then as mourning — each of these metaphors of life exists in perilous proximity to our mortality, our breath with our death.
He ends his poem:
Man, ‘ere he is aware,
Hath put together a solemnity
And dressed his hearse, while he has breath
As yet to spare:
Yet Lord, instruct us so to die,
That all these dyings may be life in death.[ii]
Many of us live too sensibly to see that we, right at this moment, are dying. We dressed ourselves today but did we guess that our dressing is a rehearsal for the ritual of dying? We sing this morning, but do we imagine that our last song will be a sigh? We slept last night – a little death – but mostly, we live as if insensible to death.
Likewise, to our birth. The English have a saying for people who act arrogantly or thoughtlessly: “They don’t know they’ve been born.” The first time I heard that expression, I didn’t get it. But I do now. Maybe Jesus is calling us back to that place, an inflection point of human existence – not unlike death – where we see life with the eyes of awe rather than only with the eyes of what we know.
Statistically, all of us have been born. We exist. And all of us, 100%, will die – we will not exist. Yet we live as if neither of these two points in life actually matters. Or, if we do acknowledge them, we actively resist them. “Death,” writes one theologian, “is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at one hundred percent.”[iii]
You might say something similar about being born – from the moment when we’re born, we’re committed to growth. As another theologian (my mother) said to me once, “All children are in a hurry to grow up. . . . .”
Or put another way, perhaps we’re all in a hurry to be unborn, to unravel the knot of our existence.
On Ash Wednesday, many of you received ashes on your forehead, in the sign of the cross.
“From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return” – I struggled to say these words. I wanted to add something. I nearly turned into a blubbering mess when my daughters came up, smiling and open as flowers to the sun, and all I had for them was ash. I wanted to say, “Not you!” Or but you shall rise from the dead. Or that you belong to God in life and in death. All things I believe . . . but death exists, as does birth.
Perhaps I fear, resist, and deny death with the best of them. But my resistance is perfectly sensible: eating right, look both ways before you cross the street, don’t throw rocks, exercise regularly. Sensible and good. But perhaps this busyness in living distracts us from the deeper labor of prayer, the more poignant expression of wonder and awe that is available to us always, even now, in our most ordinary times. But we cannot know that awe unless we return to awe.
But it takes that inflection point, a recognition of our birth and our death, to kick start a new life – that all these dyings, the dyings within us and dyings around us, may quicken within us an awe for life and its mystery.
Today’s text includes John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever should believe in him might not perish but have everlasting life.”
Maybe Jesus is God’s prayer for our dying world. Maybe Jesus is God praying in our birthing and our dying. Maybe Jesus’ dying is not only that he succumbs as we succumb but that his life, lived always in the shadow of death, surpasses sensible life, building up like a cloudburst of light into a heavenly realm we cannot see, a heavenly house that we cannot measure because it is matchless in splendor, unmeasured in love.
John 12 includes the story of Mary’s anointing of Jesus – she pours an expensive perfume over his body; she weeps over his feet, washing his feet with her tears and her hair; her lips caress his feet with kisses, kisses lightly given, precious every one.
Jesus says that she has anointed his body for his death – it as if she were preparing the body of Jesus, while he still lives, while death is still far off. Jesus’ disciples are still thinking about budgets, still wondering who is going to be the greatest – thinking sensibly – but somehow Mary has seen insensibly – she has seen death in life.
In the very next chapter, Jesus announces that his hour has come. Perhaps he still carried on his body the ointment of death’s perfume– but now, he stands up from the table, living in the shadow of death, and begins to wash the feet of the disciples, to show them how they will live after he has left them.
The actions of Jesus are evocative and dramatic – unmistakable – just as the woman who washed his feet with her tears and hair was evocative and dramatic. “Just as I have loved you,” Jesus declares, “you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love one another. Insensible, extravagant – filled with awe – trembling with glory.
Even under cover of night.
In his book, The Blood of the Lamb – novelist, Peter DeVries, tells the story of a father whose daughter is diagnosed with Leukemia. He wrote the book after his daughter died from Leukemia.
The story begins with the optimistic reassurances of the medical team – they’ll beat this thing; a cure is just around the corner; and, it’s not just smoke and mirrors either, she gets the promising evidence of remission. Only with her immune system so compromised, she gets a staph infection, which turns that brief glimmer of hope into a cruel tease. But everyone is still sensible. It’s for the best, they told him. It won’t be long now, they said. Someone has ordered another tank of oxygen – that won’t be needed now, you understand?
Her father, watching his daughter slip away, prays, with insensible demands, insensible but awe-filled pleas. First, he lashes out at God, why have you not come to us? “Who,” he demands of God, “creates a perfect blossom to crush it? Children dying in this building, mice in the next. It’s all the same to Him who mark’s the Sparrow’s fall.”
“I forgive you.”
“I cannot say the same to you, [O God,]” he answers. “I do not ask that she be spared to me, but that her life be spared for her. Or give us a year. We will spend it as we have the last, missing nothing. We will mark the dance of every hour between snowdrop and the snow: crocus to tulip, to iris to rose. . . . We will again watch the first blizzard from her window like figures locked snug in a glass paper weight. ‘Pick one out and follow it to the ground!’ she will say again. . . . All this we ask, with the remission of our sins, in Christ’s name. Amen.”
In the moments before she dies, between breaths “caught like sobs” he sees her smile a little. He recognizes it as one that meant she had completed something – a math problem or an essay – and she was proud of her work. Bending closer, he hears her
“call something to a comrade on another bicycle. They were flying home from school together, down the hill. I had seen her practicing the piano in her leotard, there were so many things to do and so little time to do them in. I remembered how little labor the sprite had given her mother, so eager was she to be born, so impatient To Be.”[iv]
Maybe God’s love for the world is something like this prayer of a father for his daughter, like sobs caught between breath, like a death aching towards breath. . . .
We have to get dressed. Practice every day. Always grow. Always improve. Stay healthy. Learn right from wrong. Live sensibly.
It is what we know. But let us not lose the mystery of what we do not know — the awe of this hour, this very moment, and every moment . . . and the capacity to turn our dyings to generous living. By God’s grace, even our death will be caught with resurrection breath. Amen.
[i] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (New Haven: Anchor Bible, 1970).
[ii] George Herbert, Mortification, quoted in Richard John Neuhaus, ed., The Eternal Pity: Reflections on Dying (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 41.
[iii] Neuhaus, “Introduction” in The Eternal Pity, 1.
[iv] Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb, quoted in Neuhaus, ed., The Eternal Pity, 153, 159-60.