The evangelical author Philip Yancey tells a story about one of his college roommates, a German named Reiner, who returned to Germany after graduation and began teaching Bible at a camp for people with disabilities. Using his college class notes, he started giving stirring lectures on the victorious Christian life: “Regardless of the wheelchair you are sitting in, you already have a victory! A full and victorious life!” All this he announced energetically to a roomful of paraplegics and young people with cerebral palsy.
Reiner had never addressed a group of people lacking motor control. He found it disconcerting. What he didn’t know was that the campers found listening to him equally disconcerting. Some complained to the camp director that they couldn’t make any sense out of what he was saying. “Well, tell him!” she replied.
One woman did. “It’s like you’re talking about the sun in a room without windows,” she told him. “We can’t understand anything you say. You talk about solutions, overcoming, victory over our circumstances. That has nothing to do with us.”
Reiner was crushed. He was also angry. The message seemed clear enough to him – it was biblical, it was pure St Paul, it was why he loved the Lord. He thought about telling them that they lacked faith, that they needed to love Christ more so that they could triumph over adversity.
Instead, by some grace, he spent the night praying.
In the morning he went to class and told them, “I don’t know what to say. If I can’t preach victory, I don’t know what to preach. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to do. I just don’t understand.” Then he just stood there in front of the class, hung his head and was silent for a long time.
After a while, the woman who had confronted him spoke up from the back of the room. “Okay. Now we understand you. Now we’re ready to listen. Now we can begin.”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. Some commentators say he’s afraid of being seen with Jesus, that he represents wimpy “closeted” early Christians who feared social ostracism. Others say that it’s because in John’s gospel, night is usually a metaphor for ignorance and confusion.
But it could be simply because Nicodemus is a Pharisee. Devout Pharisees often set the night aside for Bible study. The psalms say that our hearts instruct us by night, that the righteous meditate on God on their beds. This prominent Pharisee is accustomed to nightly study, and on this night, the subject of his study is Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t make things easy for him. He rebuffs Nicodemus’ well-meaning offer of faith based on signs. Then he shocks his common sense with talk about a new begetting from above, ignoring his protest that starting over is impossible, especially once you’ve gotten to be of a certain age. Finally, Jesus unnerves him with a description of the Spirit-led life—an anarchy of breath and wind and energies unseen.
By the time Jesus is finished with him, Nicodemus is reduced to futility. All he can muster is a helpless “I don’t understand…” before he hangs his head and keeps still.
If Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to learn, Jesus sees to it that no ordinary learning takes place. He aims not to help Nicodemus understand, but to make him begin at the beginning; not to help him know, but to reduce him to unknowing, to drive him into a wilderness of silence, a desert of humility and obedience.
Nicodemus hails from a constituency that knows things—the Law, the oral traditions, the customs, the prophets, the prophecies. “Rabbi, we know,” he says to Jesus. “We know who you are, we know what you do.”
But Jesus doesn’t care about what Nicodemus knows. He cares about Nicodemus’ life. He wants to save it, and to do that, he first has to undermine it, undermine the sensible, reasoned thing that passes for a good and virtuous life. And at the end, when all Nicodemus can do is throw up his hands and keep still, Jesus knows he has him.
Nicodemus lives in everyone who has ever come up against the limits of reason in the death of a child, in the powerlessness of addiction, in the panic that no one will ever love us the way we want or deserve to be loved, in the derailment of a dream or a career or a relationship, in the failure of prayer, in the blank dullness of depression, in despair over the human condition, in the world’s greed and violence that spirals and builds with no end in sight, in the futility of our efforts to know and love and improve ourselves, and to control and change the world, in the face of ineluctable death.
Nicodemus lives in all who have come to the end of our convictions and assumptions, our denominational identities, our doctrines, our pictures of God, our wisdom or skill or courage or knowledge or self-confidence; who have hit that limit hard, head-on, and finally thrown up our hands in defeat in the face of implacable mysteries; in all of us who have ever hung our heads in humility and surrender, who have ever just stood there as if obeying something, someone immensely powerful; stood there long enough, humanly enough, nakedly enough to finally hear a voice speak out of the silence and redeem us, saying “Now you are ready. Now you can begin.”
He lives in all of us who, reduced to the futility of our ignorance each day, begin again each day, are born from above again each day, and who are, by grace, becoming every day what we practice, while the Spirit moves where it will in the world. Moves in this world God so loved that God sent a beloved Child, not to condemn, not to condemn, but to save.