John 3:1-17
Make Room for Chaos

Good morning on this second Sunday in Lent, and notice (as I've pointed out before) that the preposition there is key. Sundays in Lent don't count among the "forty days" of Lent because Sundays, whatever the time of year, are always feast days in the church. So these five Sundays leading up to Easter fall in the season of Lent, but they're not of the season. 

And to the point: yes, technically that means you can relax the rules today, and every Sunday. Which I almost hesitate to tell you! 

Religion (and this isn't just Christianity) presents this push and pull of [rules and expectations], and freedom from those rules. The Scriptural language for this is "law" and "grace." And it's this tension that lies beneath the complex encounter that Jesus has with Nicodemus in today's Gospel reading. 

Nicodemus is an observant Jew, a stand-in (as I think of him) for any observant religious person who values rituals, ceremony, laws, rules of order, all these proscribed in his case by the Torah. 

For Roman Catholics these things are spelled out in their canons and doctrines. We Anglicans (and Episcopalians) also have canons, quite a lot of them, and some doctrines, but our fussiness is mostly manifest in our worship: our care of our space, the way we design it, our observance of the church year, our strict adherence to the liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer. Those who've traveled and stopped into an Episcopal church in another state or even another country know that what you get there is going to be a lot like what we have here. That's because … we're sticklers. You don't maybe see it, but we priests are held by our bishops to almost every single word in the liturgy exactly as it's been printed and approved of. 

Also behind the scenes are myriad written rules. We love our rules of order.  People on the altar have to meet certain qualifications and then be licensed by the bishop. Deacons all go through the same steps, the same training, the same ordination. If you're going to be a priest, you have to study this, this and this, and only in a certain few places. You have to prove you're proficient in the same things. That's why Episcopal sermons and priests even tend to be similar wherever you go, just like our services.

And I say all this because Nicodemus, as well as so many other Jewish figures in the Gospels, is often presented as if he has hang-ups peculiar to his religion alone. The human impulse for uniformity and order, and also to upset order sometimes, is manifest in every religion because these impulses are in every society, and every person. 


And so Nicodemus approaches Jesus. At night. Night, because maybe he didn't want to be seen talking to someone the religious leadership was increasingly regarding as a nuisance. But metaphorically, day represents order and rationality, on the one hand, and night the forces opposite those things. It sets us up for the encounter these two men are about to have.

Jesus sees in Nicodemus what he saw in so many religious leaders we meet in the Gospels: people who struggle more than most to let go, and let the Spirit lead. Jesus takes control of the conversation pretty quickly: No one can see the kingdom of God without being “born from above.” (Implied: there’s more than what we can see, and control.) No one can see the kingdom of God without being born of water, and of the Spirit. If there are any two elements hard to control or contain, it’s these. The spirit, which blows where it chooses, no one knowing where it comes from or where it goes. 

To my mind, this passage is Jesus’ fullest development of the significance of the irrational, the unpredictable, in life and especially the life of faith. And of the room we need to make for disorder and chaos in order to grow spiritually.

Why Jesus thinks Nicodemus needs to hear this at this time isn’t clear in the reading. Nicodemus shows up from time to time in John’s Gospel; the two men seemed to have known each other. We’re not given much context. But we can infer that anyone who puts too much store in following the rules, a liability of religious leaders, but of all of us (we all know these people and oftentimes are these people), need to be told to let go of control. To appreciate the rules of the night, where things don’t always make sense. Where some questions just don’t have answers. Where, with our defenses down, we have no choice but to be open about our weaknesses and flaws.  

I have a feeling when we all look back on our lives and ask, When was God most at work, it won’t be in those times we were standing at our pew faithfully reciting the words of the Nicene Creed, or that time we nailed our Lenten disciples for forty straight days without a single mistake. It’ll be those times when the Spirit blew through our lives in an unexpected, troubling way, taking with it all our certainties, comforts, and showing us just how weak, and vulnerable we really are. 

The last time we meet Nicodemus in this Gospel is when Jesus is being taken down from the cross. He provides an extravagant amount of balm, ointment, for the burial. It’s almost as if he thinks ritual can make sense of even this. But here’s what’s admirable about him: he shows up. At night. At the cross. He’s there in the dark places of life and maybe, just maybe, learned from Jesus an important lesson for all of us, in Lent: That it’s in those places that we encounter God, as much and more than in any place else. Amen.