Who is happy to be up at 3 AM?
In our age, we consider it a problem to be up at night. A whole industry of books, sleeping aids, meditation teachers offer us ways of sleeping through the night.
But the ancients took a different view of the middle of the night. In many places at many times, it was a time considered particularly holy — a “thin” time, when God could speak to us, both through dreams and through prayer. Psalm 119:62 exclaims “at midnight I rise to give you thanks.” Monks and nuns followed this directive, rising at midnight and at 3 am to pray.
I had a very powerful encounter with the holy at 3 am when I was in seminary. We had set up a night watch after the Maundy Thursday service, so that we could “keep watch” through the night, following the example of Jesus’s disciples in the Garden of Gethsemene. I had never done anything like this, but it sounded cool, and everyone else was doing it, so I signed up to sit from 2 am to 4 am. But it was the middle of the academic term, and I had of deadlines coming up. I was still under the illusion that being a good priest meant getting good grades, so brought with me to the night watch materials to work on a paper about the Trinity for systematic theology class.
I had done a bunch of reading about the Trinity, but the whole thing seemed confusing and academic. An hour into my stay, I put my papers down. I looked at the candles and the plants and the reserved sacrament. I heard the silence around me. I let myself just be before God. I thought about the Maundy Thursday service we had experienced, with its scripture stories about God’s yearning to free us, God’s presence with people in their confusion, and Jesus’s humility in washing his disciples’ feet.
I began to cry. I felt deep within me God not as a theological concept but as the mysterious unrelenting love at the heart of all Being, and I had a small insight into my calling as a priest not being about getting good grades but participating in that love.
In today’s Gospel, the wise and prestigious religious leader, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the middle of the night. This is not a casual visit. Nicodemus has chosen this hour to slip through the streets unnoticed to visit with this rabbi Jesus, whose way of being and challenge to traditional understandings of God is keeping him up at night. Nicodemus is experiencing the Spirit’s stirring in a powerful way. He is not sure what’s going on. But needs to investigate it.
Nicodemus is used to understanding things. As a Pharisee, he is used to explaining things to others. Now here he is trying to understand Jesus in the ways he’s always understood things. But it’s not working.
Many people I know are having a hard time sleeping. Restless. Something is stirring, not sure what it is. Regular ways of being, locales of energy don’t seem right. I wonder what you are thinking about in the middle of the night?
Are you thinking about being born again?
My guess is that for many in this room, the language of being born again makes you nervous. In 21st c. America, this language has been co-opted by conservative evangelical Christianity to mean one thing and one thing only: Accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior. This means responding an altar call and “committing your life to Christ.” Do this, and you’re good. Refuse, and you are doomed.
Is that what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus? Maybe. But not necessarily.
To be born again, or born from above, may be a way of life. On Friday at the pastoral response meeting we prayed a collect addressed to Jesus who is our “eternal redeemer.” We loved that idea of Jesus eternally redeeming us, day by day, minute by minute, working in us as powerfully as the blood in our veins or the neurons in our bodies. Perhaps to be born again or born from above is to affirm that constant self-giving, redeeming work of Jesus each day — to live in awareness of it. My friend Kathleen is a priest in Minnesota, who once applied for a job with a rather evangelical church. In the interview they asked her, “when were you born again?” She replied, most recently, this morning at Morning Prayer.
In a speech in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. offered yet another interpretation of Jesus’s invitation to Nicodemus to be born again. His view is particularly interesting to me as I think it connects up with the tossing and turning we are experiencing in our own day.
MLK begins by realizing that Nicodemus is a powerful person – He is a leader with an array of privileges: religious authority, education, wealth, status, and male gender. Is he, and are people like him, using all of that to share God’s love and liberate those bowed down with suffering, or not? He envisions that whole society being born again, born into God’s dream of justice and peace and equality.
“Jesus looked at him and said, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.” ….In other words, “Your whole structure must be changed.” A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them and make them things. And they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically ….and it will have to use its military might to protect (the status quo).. All of these problems are tied together. ”
King talks about Nicodemus and those in power having a “high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” “…What I’m saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, “America, you must be born again!” (August 16, 1967, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.)
So how does this story of Nicodemus end? Well, we do not hear of Nicodemus confessing Jesus as his personal savior. But we do see him, when Jesus is on trial, reminding his colleagues in the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged (John 7:50-51).
And we do see Nicodemus after the Crucifixion of Jesus. He provides the customary embalming spices, and assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial, a mixture of about 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe. Scholars point out that this is an overly-lavish gift, signifying that Nicodemus considered this a royal burial.
So it seems Nicodemus, who was so confused, sleepless and uncertain when to talked to Jesus in the middle of the night, joined in the work of love after all. Let us also rise at midnight — the midnight of our personal and national darkness – and join the work of love.