O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I added those three extra verses to our Gospel this morning because they complete the passage we heard today in the Gospel of John. (see above)
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night, in the dark. He didn’t fully understand who Jesus was and what he was asking of him. He was in the dark. But this encounter with Jesus would prove fruitful as Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, would take care of the body of Jesus after his death. He would be faithful to the end.
But Nicodemus struggled to understand what Jesus was saying. How can one be born again or born anew? It’s not about our flesh, our humanity – it’s about the Spirit, the Spirit of God that is born anew in us. But how do we understand this? how is it lived out? The last three verses are the key…
“The light came into the world, and the people preferred the darkness to the light because their ways were wicked. For the person whose life is false shuns the light and won’t go near it, for fear that their ways will be rebuked. But the person whose life is true comes out into the light, so that it might be clear that their ways are rooted in God.” (Cotton Patch Gospel – John)
If you are born anew, if you are being led by the Spirit – then you prefer the Light (that is Jesus) over the darkness & evil ways of our world which are often too narrowly focused on ourselves alone. Your life is reflected by how you live it out for all to see, and they will see you are rooted in God.
Let me tell a story that helps illuminate this understanding…
Once there was a good and faithful rabbi who led a devout congregation in a poor Russian village. On the night of Yom Kippur, as the congregation gathered to ask God's forgiveness, the rabbi begged for some sign from God that their prayer was heard and his mercy was theirs. And, suddenly the rabbi heard the voice of the Holy One:
"Have Tam offer your prayers to me, and I will graciously accept all of you back into my heart, forgiving all things and showering my mercy upon you."
“Tam? Why Tam?,” thought the rabbi. Nobody really knew Tam - he was hardly ever in the synagogue. And no one was more stunned than Tam, who was in the congregation that night. Tam was poor, unlearned and worked hard so he often missed services. He was a good-hearted soul, but was all but invisible in the community.
The terrified Tam was brought up to the front of the synagogue. The rabbi said to Tam, "I have been praying for mercy and forgiveness for all of us on this night and I have been clearly told by God, blessed be his Name, that we all will be forgiven and taken back into the heart of God if you pray for us, if you give your prayer to God on our behalf."
Tam was speechless. How could he pray? He couldn't even read the prayers in the service book. But the rabbi was insistent: God would only take the community back into his heart and give them a year of blessing, grace, and mercy if Tam prayed for them.
Finally, Tam agreed. But he looked at the rabbi and said: "I have to go get my prayers."
Tam ran from the synagogue to his little cottage not far away. He returned a few minutes later and stood in the front of the synagogue, holding a large earthen pitcher. Tam lifted the pitcher high and prayed:
"O Holy One, you know I am not good at praying, but I bring you all I have. This pitcher holds my tears. Late at night, even when I am tired, I sit and try to pray to you. And then I think of my poor wife and children and the fact that they have no clean clothes to wear to service and are ashamed to come to the synagogue, and I cry. And then I think of all the hungry ones, the beggars on the steps of the synagogue and in the streets, in the cold and rain, miserable and so alone, and I cry some more.
And then, God, I think of what we do to each other. I think of all the gossip and hate, all the quarrels and wars, and I think of you crying, God, of you looking down on us hurting one another so, and I know that you weep for us always.
"God, I cry for you and how we must break your heart and sadden you so. Please, take my tears, accept my prayers, and take all of us back into your heart once again. Give us a blessing and forgive us in your great mercy and kindness."
Tam then took the pitcher and poured his tears over the floor of the synagogue. There was a long silence, and then the rabbi spoke haltingly, "God has heard Tam, and we are forgiven. We are once again the people of God. Let us live this year with grateful hearts.'
The people sang, and then left the synagogue quietly. They never forgot Tam's prayer or his pitcher of tears. Throughout the year they were devoted to making sure there would be less to cry over in the years to come. They looked at Tam and his family differently, more kindly, and their neighbors too. Some even reconciled with their enemies. And they all went home thinking of the tears of God. [From Lent: Reflections and Stories on the Daily Readings by Megan McKenna.]
Jesus challenges Nicodemus and all of us to embrace a new vision of God: to realize that God is not a God of punishment and vengeance but a God of mercy and forgiveness, a God who finds only sadness in our hardship and failings and wicked ways but joy in our reconciliation and peace and good deeds.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
As Tam understands, God is a God of love, a God of healing, a God of tears. He brought his own tears for prayer to the light, and all understood they were rooted in God.
Our Lenten journey means turning away from the ultimately frustrating values of me, first!, the values that make us stumble along our path and turn to embrace the spirit of Jesus' humility and selflessness, enabling us to transform our kitchens and tables, our classrooms and sanctuaries, our cities and towns, in the light of peace, justice and reconciliation of God, the God of tears.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…for those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” Amen.