In John 3, a man named Nicodemus comes to see Jesus. Nicodemus is a mid-level celebrity in ancient Israel, a respected scholar and prominent national leader. As far as we can tell, he’s a stand-up kind of guy. He’s got money. He’s got influence. He’s got brains. He’s a guy who’s got it altogether. So why is he coming to see Jesus? That’s our first question for the text: Why did Nicodemus go to see Jesus?
And doesn’t the question reveal something about how we think? We know that the guy who’s falling apart needs Jesus, but we’re not so sure about the guy who’s got it all together. The alcoholic needs Jesus, as does the cancer patient and the abuse victim, but what about the successful business owner? What about the movie star and the big league politician? Do they need Jesus?
Now let me ask a question of us: Do we need Jesus? Do you need Jesus, or can you get by without him? When life is going smoothly, do you go to Jesus? If not, what do you really believe about yourself and about him?
Nicodemus was smart: smart enough to know that Jesus was special; that he could learn something from Jesus; that he needed something from him.
So let me ask a second question of the text. Why did Nicodemus come to Jesus at night? And there’s a follow-up question: Why did John, who related this story, want us to know that Nicodemus came at night (and then tell us again, and yet again)?
So why did Nicodemus come at night? (He was the original Nick at Night.) The answer is: we don’t know. The answer might even be, he didn’t know. Perhaps he was too busy during the day. Perhaps Jesus was too busy during the day. Perhaps Nick told himself Jesus was too busy during the day but the real reason was something different: he didn’t want to be seen calling on the controversial young rabbi.
We really don’t know why he went to see Jesus at night, and that brings us to that follow-up question: Why did John tell us that he came at night? Surely he could have left that part out without diminishing the point of the story.
I can think of three reasons why John might have included the information that Nick came at night. First (and I’m going to impress you by my profound exegetical skills and interpretive insights with this one), John might have told us this because Nick really did come at night, and he wanted to tell the story as it actually happened. Now, while I think that is certainly true, I don’t think it’s the whole story, because John doesn’t mention it just once. Every time Nick comes into the story, John refers to the fact that he came at night. Obviously he thought the timing of his visit was important.
And so it might be that John wanted us to understand that Nick was either ashamed or afraid of being seen with Jesus. Jesus had just had a run-in with some powerful and prominent leaders in Jerusalem. Were it to get out that Nicodemus went to see Jesus after that, it might not have gone over well.
But I think there is another reason John keeps telling us that he came at night. John loves the imagery of light and darkness. In the Gospel alone – not counting the letters or The Revelation – John uses the words and images of darkness and light fifty times! When he tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, he wants us to know that Nicodemus – the scholar and prominent leader – was in the dark. He wasn’t seeing clearly, and he didn’t even know it. (Or perhaps he did. As I said, he was a smart guy.)
So that’s another question for the text. Now, here’s one for you: Are you in the dark about Jesus and about God and what God wants for you? And if you are, what should you do about it? Well, when you’re in the dark, the best thing to do is to move toward the light. Scientists tell us that if someone were to light a candle in absolute darkness, it would be possible to see the light of that candle with the naked eye from a distance of 43 miles. If you’re in the dark but you see a light – even a little light, even a distant light – move toward it.
In John 3, Nick said that he had seen signs – they had been a light to him – and had moved towards the light. If you’re in the darkness, even if you’re not sure about God and about Jesus, move in the direction of even the faintest light. There will surely be more to follow.