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John 3. 1-17
3 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
We've just heard in our Gospel reading the story of Nicodemus who, significantly as it turns out, visited Jesus at night. This morning I'd like to share with you some reflections on this incident and on the resonances I see with my own experience of faith and of spiritual practice. You perhaps might recognise some similar experiences.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, the assembly that ruled over the people of Israel, in so for far as the Roman Empire allowed. Of course the people of Israel longed for liberation and the Pharisee's particular understanding of the way that that liberation might be achieved was religious and was particularly focused on strict observance of law. Under them the requirements of the law became increasingly demanding because the occupation was seen as a punishment brought by God because of his people failure to keep his law. We know that Jesus challenged the Pharisees for their lack of compassion and hypocrisy.
Nicodemus, apparently aware of some the miracles that Jesus had performed, was intrigued. He wanted to find out about Jesus but he couldn't be open about doing that because the Pharisees had quickly taken against Jesus seeing him as a threat to their power. Nicodemus then, chose to visit Jesus under the cover of night.
I can certainly identify with this. We live in a society where faith is often mocked and particularly as a child, but by no means exclusively, I call recall times when I wanted to learn more about the Gospel, about the church, about Jesus Christ but I did so rather furtively. I didn't choose to mention it to others, sometimes I actively covered it up.
I also recognise some resonances in the questions that Nicodemus asked Jesus. Regardless of where we each are in our understanding and experience of faith we're all familiar with the paradigmatic assumptions of our society, of the world view to which faith is so alien. How can these things be? says Nicodemus and I certainly recognise that question, that confusion, and I don't just mean that as something in my past. My experience of faith is very real and reason assures me that there is more under heaven and earth than is dreamt of in the dominant philosophy of our secular age but that doesn't mean that I don't at the same time recognise those ways of thinking that asks like Nicodemus "how can these things be?" It's significant I think that right in the middle of our Eucharistic prayer we are invited to proclaim the mystery of faith. We do so to acknowledge that we accept in faith God's gifts to us knowing that ultimately they are beyond our comprehension.
Later in John's Gospel we learn that Nicodemus was present at our Lord's trial. He apparently argued that law required that Jesus be heard before he was judged. Then after the crucifixion, he provided embalming spices and assisted Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus's body for burial. There's a famous Michelangelo sculpture of him helping to take Christ's body from the cross that you might know. There's also a tradition that suggests he saw the risen Christ. We see in Nicodemous a journey from darkness to light, literally and metaphorically. As is often the case in John's Gospels, events have great symbolic significance and his journey began under the cover of night.
Now paradoxically, the night, for all its sinister associations, is also identified in our tradition as a place of potential spiritual illumination and a special time for prayer. Scripture makes various references to Christ retiring to pray at night. If we focus attention on the practices and behaviours that make us Christians, prayer must surely be one of the things that defines us. Prayer is an act of faith. It's important that we are alert to the state of our prayer lives. I think the best piece of advice that I've ever been given about prayer, and I commend it to you, is to try to enfold the night in prayer. Try to make prayer the last thing that you do at night and the first thing that you do in the morning. In between, beyond your awareness, your spirit may be at work as you rest under the shadow of God's wing.
I'd like to share with you a poem called 'The Night' that explores this theme of the paradoxical quality of night. It was written by the 17th Century Welsh poet Henry Vaughan. Interesting for us, he lived and was buried in the parish of St Bride in Llansantffraed in what today is Powys. In it Vaughan draws our attention to the mire of our day time endeavours. He says:
But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire
Themselves and others, I consent and run
To every mire,
And by this world's ill-guiding light,
Err more than I can do by night.
Night on the other had is the place where our body rests but where our spirit can be active.
Dear night! this world's defeat;
The stop to busy fools; care's check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul's calm retreat
Which none disturb!
Christ's progress, and His prayer time;
The hours to which high heaven doth chime;
Vaughan speaks of the preciousness of night, of a place where God's unapproachable light is accessible to us, veiled in the body of Christ. Like glowworms we shine with reflected light.
Through that pure virgin shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o'er Thy glorious noon,
That men might look and live, as glowworms shine,
And face the moon,
Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.
Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
When Thou didst rise!
And, what can never more be done,
Did at midnight speak with the Sun!
Whether you feel confident in your faith or you're exploring it, perhaps even furtively, you might look to enfold the night in prayer, to seek the soul's calm retreat where, like Nicodemus, we may come to know our God.
Who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.