May 30, 2021
If you're sitting there thinking, "Sandy looks different," you're right! For as long as I've been at Faith Lutheran Church, you've seen me wearing glasses. Ever since I was in grade school, I have been so nearsighted that each morning, before I got out of bed, I would put on my glasses so that I could see where I was going. Some of you can relate.
So here they are: is this more like it? [Putting on my old pair of glasses]. The problem is, when I look through these glasses now, all I see is blurry. No faces, no words, just one big, dizzying blur. [Removing old glasses]. That's because I've had cataract surgery: my left eye in late April, my right eye, three weeks ago. In that surgery, the surgeon removes the old lens that has become clouded with age and implants a new one with a new and improved prescription. If you've had cataract surgery, and I suspect many of you have, you know that it is, ultimately, a wonderful thing. It's liberating! But the process, especially the two weeks between the first and second surgery, can at times be rough.
That is especially true for someone as nearsighted as I was. My eye surgeon told me I would be in "purgatory" during those two weeks, and he was right. One eye with a new lens, the other eye with the old. One now mildly nearsighted, one extremely nearsighted. Wearing my glasses, or not, only changed which eye was blurry: the new lens looking through the old prescription, or the other very nearsighted eye with a cataract, uncorrected. It was disorienting. I was in what's called "liminal space," that boundary territory between the old and the new that is neither here nor there, but somewhere in-between and strange. Things were better after I got the second new lens, and I can now function reasonably well without glasses, though I need them to drive. I got new glasses for my new vision this past week. So yes, after having been in liminal space for a few weeks, I'm now literally seeing the world through new lenses. Thanks be to God!
We all have been living in liminal space during these past 15 months of COVID-time: being mostly confined to our homes, those first few months; not being able to be near others except those in our "bubble"; wearing masks, and not being able to see people smile. It has been dangerous, strange, and disorienting. Neither here nor there, not the world to which we were accustomed before March 2020, nor the world as it will be when we have reached "herd immunity" and, finally, can be in a new normal.
For those of us who have been fully vaccinated, that liminal space today is less scary and less limiting than it was before the vaccine was available, but there is still uncertainty. This week, the public health orders in Ohio will expire, and we will be free to go "unmasked" in most public places. But will we feel safe doing so? Is the person standing next to me at Giant Eagle not wearing a mask because he is fully vaccinated or is he not wearing a mask because he still thinks the coronavirus is a hoax, refuses to be vaccinated, and thinks it's about time those stupid mask orders went away? I don't know about you, but when I'm around strangers, I'll keep my mask on for a while.
In this liminal space, many of the rules and assumptions through which we have navigated the world are no longer valid. We're in transition from the old to the new, seeing the world through one old lens—the way things used to be—and one new lens that has been shaped by our experience these past 15 months. With this sense of uncertainty, our vision of the world around us is blurry. Liminal space, being neither here nor there, seeing the world through both an old lens and a new one, can be confusing and disorienting. It can be hard to get our bearings.
Today's lesson from John's gospel is the story of a man, Nicodemus, who is in liminal space, neither here nor there, but somewhere in-between. We hear in this lesson what may be the most beloved verse in the Bible, John 3:16: "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." This is a central promise of the Christian faith, the ultimate expression of God's love for the world. But Nicodemus, to whom Jesus speaks these words, isn't ready to receive them or to trust that promise. He can't quite get his head around what Jesus is saying to him.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a religious leader, and teacher of the law; as such, he is a man of significant learning and standing in the community. He is aware that crowds are flocking to Jesus and has heard about the wedding at Cana when Jesus turned water into wine. He is also aware that Jesus has just gone into the temple and driven out the vendors and the moneychangers. Nicodemus is curious about Jesus; he also knows that if he is going to satisfy his curiosity by talking with Jesus, he can't be seen doing so by religious leaders and others who might recognize him. So he comes to Jesus by night.
Nicodemus starts the conversation with an affirmation: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." In using the word "we," Nicodemus signals that he is there representing the religious community. It's a bit of a power play by Nicodemus to remind Jesus of his importance. But Jesus senses that Nicodemus isn't there to represent the establishment; he senses that this powerful man who has approached him, alone, under cover of darkness, is a seeker. So his first statement to Nicodemus is an answer to a question Nicodemus hasn't even asked, at least, not aloud: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
There follows a conversation between the confused Nicodemus, who thinks Jesus is talking literally about someone coming forth from the womb a second time. Jesus is talking about a spiritual rebirth, being born "anew" into a radically different relationship with God. And this rebirth is not of our own making. Jesus says, "the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." This rebirth into a new relationship with God is a mystery that is beyond our control.
Flustered and confused, Nicodemus asks, "How can these things be?" At which point Jesus goes into teaching mode, trying to explain the life of the Spirit, and the path to eternal life, to a man who is struggling to understand concepts that are totally removed from his worldview. We hear nothing more about Nicodemus at this point. Still, we can imagine him walking away confused and disoriented by this close-up encounter with a teacher who sees the world through a very different lens.
After this, Jesus continues his ministry of teaching, healing and feeds a crowd of five thousand with just five loaves and two fish. At this, the crowds of people following Jesus multiply, and he becomes increasingly threatening to the authorities. As John tells us in the 7th chapter of his gospel, Jesus and the disciples go to Jerusalem for a seven-day festival. There are repeated attempts to arrest Jesus, and word spreads that some want to kill him. On the last day of the festival, Jesus tells the crowd: "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink" (7:37-38). The crowd becomes agitated, and some want to arrest Jesus. A dispute about what to do about Jesus arises between the temple police, the chief priests, and Pharisees. The Pharisees say that the crowd that is following Jesus doesn't "know the law—they are accursed" (7:49). But one of the Pharisees, Nicodemus, reminds his fellow Pharisees that according to the law, one cannot be judged without a trial, a statement for which Nicodemus is soundly rebuked by his colleagues. Apparently, the man who came to Jesus by night is coming out into the daylight, starting to see the world through a different lens.
We encounter Nicodemus again a third time, shortly after the crucifixion. John writes, in the 19th chapter, "Pilate gave [Joseph of Arimathea] permission [to take away the body of Jesus]; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds" (19:38-39).
The man who first came to Jesus in the secrecy of night, then defended him in broad daylight, in the end, anointed and buried him. Between that first encounter with Jesus at night and his anointing and burying of Jesus' body, Nicodemus was in the liminal space between two ways of seeing—an old lens and a new— and two ways of being in the world—the way of the Pharisees, and the way of Jesus. Pastor Pamela Farris describes it: Nicodemus is "moving back and forth between what is familiar to him—the world where his status is recognized and esteemed and his worldview reliable—and this new world of life everlasting on the wings of the wind of love."
We hear nothing else about Nicodemus in Scripture. We don't know the particulars of how his worldview, his vision, was transformed from that first encounter at night to his role in anointing and burying Jesus. But we can trust that ultimately Nicodemus claimed the promise that Jesus proclaimed to him, three years earlier, in the darkness of night: "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. 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" (John 3:16-17).
In the darkness of night, Jesus had said to Nicodemus, "You must be born from above." Another translation says, "You must be born again." Many people will tell the story of how that happened to them: they were born again, they were saved, in an instant. For others among us, salvation, growing into wholeness in a right relationship with God, is not an event but a process, a life's journey. I like the way Dr. David Lose says it:
"For some, perhaps coming to faith was easy and fast and strong and they've rarely doubted. And all we can do is give thanks for that experience. But for others – maybe most others – faith comes more in fits and starts, two steps forward and another back. Or perhaps at times things seem clear and at others just plain confusing. Or maybe faith feels a lot more like an endless series of questions rather than easy and forthright affirmations. For those like that – and I count myself among that tribe – hearing Nicodemus' story once again might be particularly meaningful. I've read somewhere…that Nicodemus is the patron saint of curiosity. I love that. I think I'd also claim him as the patron saint of all those of us with an uneasy or restless faith. Those who aren't satisfied with easy answers, those who keep questioning, those who want to believe and also understand, but at least to believe even when we don't understand! Even more though, I think this story says a lot not simply about Nicodemus but also about God. God is patient. God doesn't give up. If God keeps working in and on and through Nicodemus across three years and sixteen chapters in John's Gospel, God will keep working in and on and through us. No matter how long it takes."
By the grace and patience of God, the wind blows where it will and by the power of the Holy Spirit, in God's own time, we come to see all of God's glorious creation —through new lenses of gratitude and love.
 Patricia Farris, “Late-Night Seminar: John 3:1-17,” Christian Century, 1/30/2012.
 David Lose, “Trinity B: The Patron Saint of Curious Christians,” In the Meantime, davidlose.net, posted 5/25/21.