Walking through the Darkness
Year B, Lent 4
Some of you may have heard of the Netflix original hit called “House of Cards.” The show centers around a political power couple who are both cunning and at times diabolical. There was a scene in episode three where the very powerful main character (Frank Underwood) questions himself and the idea of justice. He goes to the church at night to meet with the bishop. He tells the Bishop “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power was absolute, who ruled through fear. But Jesus?” The Bishop responds, “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end… It’s not your place to choose which version of God you like best…. You serve the Lord, and through Him you serve others. Two rules: Love God, and love each other. When the Bishop leaves, Frank looks at the crucifix and says, “Love. That’s what you’re selling. Well, I don’t buy it.”
I thought of this scene as I was reading the Gospel for this week. This reading starts in the middle of a story. Nicodemos was a Pharisee and the Pharisees had a great deal of power in these times. They were the authorities on the scripture and the law. Some of them supported Jesus, but many were suspicious. We see throughout the Gospels that Jesus was fairly critical of them. He was not one to kowtow to those in authority. Nicodemos was curious and open minded, but also suspicious. He went to Jesus under the cover of darkness because he did not want others to know that he, a religious authority would have to ask someone like Jesus a theological question. In the dark, he and Jesus ended up having an enlightening conversation.
Our reading for today picks up at the very end of the conversation when Jesus told Nicodemus something that would go on to be the most famous quote from the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not parish but have eternal life.” This has become a bit of a rallying cry for Christians over the years and I am not sure why. The only thing I can figure out is that it concisely sums up some critical parts of our faith.
What I find mystifying about the popularity of this text is that it renders us, the people of the world, powerless. Think about it. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Whose idea was that? Which one of us would have made that suggestion had God asked us? We can’t know because God never asked anyone if it was ok if he sent his son to die for us. Because if he had asked me, I would have said no thank you. Thanks, but no thanks. I would have asked God to go back to the drawing board on that one. There must be another way to give us eternal life. There must be a less violent method. But God didn’t ask us. He just did it. And now we have to live with this knowledge that God loves each of us so very much that he sacrificed himself for us. And there is nothing we can do about it. In the face of such sacrificial love, we are powerless.
Frank Underwood, the character from House of Cards chose not to believe in such a God. He decided that if this was the kind of love that Jesus was providing, he would pass. And while most of us would not say, or possibly even think that, we act like it. We act as though we have some power over God…that we have any power in this relationship. But we don’t. We choose to believe. We can choose to pray or go to church. We cannot choose how God loves us or how God shows that love. One of my favorite writers and theologians, David Lose, said it best when he said, “God loves us; whether we like it or not.”
No. We cannot determine how God loves us. We choose how to respond to that love. We choose whether we will share that love with others. We choose how we love God in return. In today’s passage, we do not hear how Nicodemus responded to Jesus. Unlike some, he did not decide immediately to follow Jesus. He took some time. Nicodemus showed up two more times in the Gospel of John. The 2nd time, he was there to defend Jesus to his peers. He did not defend him as the Son of God or Messiah. He said that Jesus deserved a fair hearing. Nicodemus defied his peers when he defended Jesus in this way and took a huge risk. Nicodemus did it in the daytime.
Nicodemus returned one more time after Jesus was crucified. He was one of the two people who anointed Jesus after his death. It was Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who put Jesus in the tomb. Jesus had told him that the Son of Man must be lifted up. Maybe seeing Jesus being lifted high on the cross was the moment when Nicodemus realized what that love truly meant. In that moment, he made a decision. He could run away and hide like so many of Jesus’s disciples or he could choose, choose to participate in God’s radical and relentless love. He no longer waited for darkness to approach Jesus. He chose to be a point of light in the darkness. In some people’s eyes, he was probably a fool, to give up such a powerful post in the Jewish tradition. He wasn’t giving up power. He was admitting what was true and real. The only power we have is a gift from God. The way that Jesus displayed his power was to die in a way that seemed weak. In doing so, he transformed the world. He turned everything upside down, much like his mother Mary predicted in her famous speech known as the Magnificat. She said, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
We all have a choice. We have a choice that we make every day. We can follow Christ. We can love others and love God. But the choice is not whether or not we allow God to love us. We are powerless in the face of such love. It is priceless. It is not for sale. God’s love will follow you to the grave and beyond. The question is, will far you follow him? Holy Week is only a few weeks away. Holy Week gives us all a tangible way to follow Jesus as he shares a final meal with his disciples, as he washes their feet, as he stands trial for crimes he has not committed, as he dies on a cross, as he is buried and finally as he destroys death and is resurrected. Come to at least one of our Holy Week services. Don’t do it because I have asked you. Do it so you can experience the depth of God’s love. In order to appreciate the light, you must first walk through the dark.