Lost in the Wilderness (1 of 4): It’s Lonely in the Dark
John 3: 1-17 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ March 8, 2020
Do any of you feel restless this morning? When I was a child, my parents would take me to church and, knowing that I would find myself restless throughout the service, would pass me candy, comic books and puzzles during the ensuing service. A restless little girl in church noticing the preacher’s sermon dragged on and on. So, she leaned over to her mother and whispered, “Mommy, if we give him the money now, will he let us go?” So…are you feeling restless? Hopefully not as the reflection time is just getting started! But, perhaps, restless…spiritually? Many find ourselves restless as we deal with the deep pains of loneliness. Have you ever considered how separated and lonely we are becoming as a society? We are a society who have increasingly isolated ourselves and find ourselves more and more lonely. Things are not as they once were: many do not go the store instead electing for home delivery; movies are available on demand at home and not watched in a communal gathering at the theatre; we do not attend community events in droves as we once did; church is available on our computer screen; many tele-commute working from home; and when we come and go from home, we have the luxury of clicking a button and driving right into our garage and shutting the world out. We do not know our neighours as we once did and there is a growing sense of social isolation and separation in our culture. We have grown increasingly to be lonely.
During these weeks of Lent, I wanted to focus on the areas where we may find ourselves spiritually restless. This morning, we will begin with a focus on the realities of our separation and loneliness. The overall theme guiding us in the coming weeks of “Lost in the Wilderness” speaks to that reality in which Jesus wandered…lost…searching during his 40 day period of temptation. As followers of Jesus, we too wander during these 40 days of Lent as we deal with the areas where we may be lost, where we may be wandering, where we may be needing God’s light and guidance. This morning we begin with this central area of ‘lost-ness’ that we all share: loneliness. I began considering a few of the relatively newer cultural trends that might be contributing to loneliness, however, there is a deep spiritual loneliness that we all experience throughout our lives. This quest begins on the day of our birth and becomes a life-long search for our unity with the divine.
Back in the 4th Century, St. Augustine described our loneliness and questing for God in this way: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” It is as if God has shaped us as part of Her creation and we find our existential quest to be that of coming home, of finding rest, of finding comfort in the heart of God’s grace and peace. Some of us find that rest during this life as their faith grows richer and deeper, others find this rest later on in life in their twilight years, and still others find that deep rest in God in the next. Psychologists have even written about this human quest drawing us toward these upper levels of human connection ~ Maslow, Adler, Jung ~ to name a few. It is an acknowledgement of our human separation, since that biblical time in the garden when Adam and Eve separated and it became the life’s work of all Creation of finding our way back home.
1300 years after Augustine, mathematician/ theologian Blaise Pascal would give us the intriguing concept of our spiritual loneliness as being a ‘God-shaped void’ that we all carry inside. Pascal puts it this way: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” And we can try…we can try to fill this void with so many things – food, alcohol, busyness, (we all know ourselves), yet we will be restless, our God-shaped void will remain empty, we will be spiritually lonely until we truly let God in.
I think this sense of spiritual loneliness is what the story of Jesus and Nicodemus is, at its heart, truly about. It is important to pause here as we know that a verse in this reading is among the most quoted in scripture. Some have called John 3:16 to be ‘the gospel in miniature’ / ‘all the gospel summed up in one verse’. It has been used in football end-zones and has blessed many a bumper sticker: “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.” Yet, as we look at the entire text, what comes before this verse, and what comes after, we realize that there is SO MUCH going on here.
As we first meet Nicodemus (and we will meet him again two more times in John’s gospel), we meet a very lonely man. John’s gospel uses the imagery of light and darkness both metaphorically and with intention. Nicodemus goes to Jesus at night…Nicodemus visits Jesus in his time of darkness. Nicodemus’ soul is restless; Nicodemus acknowledges this ‘God-shaped void’ and in the safety of the night, when no one can see him going…he visits the One who can heal his restlessness, the one who can cure his separation, the one who can give light to his darkness. Nicodemus visits Jesus. Why does he go at night? Is it symbolic of the darkness in which he lives? Or does Nicodemus go at night to protect his social stature? He is a Pharisee ~ an esteemed religious representative of the day with power and status. How would it look for someone of his position to be associated with Jesus? Nicodemus chooses a nighttime visit for all those reasons.
And Nicodemus will provide generation upon generation of followers with hope…because WE have parts of Nicodemus in us. John Calvin, the great Protestant reformer would publicly challenge those who were reluctant to publicly identify with the reforming movement ~ calling them “Nicodemites”. He would challenge those who sympathized with the changes they were bringing, yet were not able to publicly promote and identify with it. Four centuries later, German Christians had the unthinkable challenge of living the gospel amidst the Nazi ideology of anti-Semitism. And on this Sunday, which celebrates “International Women’s Day”, there is a similar call that we have seen throughout our own denomination in our inclusion of women. While we celebrate a full inclusion of genders in leadership now, it was not that long ago when the gifts of women were completely excluded from churches and even within our own denomination. Nicodemus, when we first meet him prefers to be alone, bury his head in the sand, and stay in the dark. We all have parts of Nicodemus in us; that is what makes us human.
Yet, there is a wonderful inspiration for us in Nicodemus because he did not stay in the dark. His first visit might have been in secret; it might have been in the dark; but this was only the first step towards his full connection with God. If we were to follow the story of Nicodemus, we would later discover that there were two other appearances for him in John’s gospel. In Nicodemus there is great hope! John is not done with him in chapter three. It is just the first step. Four chapters later he will pop up again. Amidst the crowds beginning to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and the temple police preparing to arrest them, Nicodemus will speak out ~ quietly albeit ~ yet he will speak out saying that before Jesus is arrested their law requires him to be given a public hearing. Nicodemus appears from the shadows and begins to speak words of faith in the light. And then Nicodemus comes back one last time. It is the most difficult time in the gospel and that is where he appears. After Jesus crucifixion, when Joseph of Armithea asks for Jesus’ body that he might give him a proper burial, who is there but Nicodemus. He brings with him 100 pounds of myrrh proclaiming Jesus as Lord, giving him a proper burial.
In Nicodemus, there is a hope-filled reminder for each of us. For all of us who might be lost…whose souls are restless for God…who have a God-shaped void to be filled…who are lonely for God’s presence…there is hope. Perhaps we can see our life, somewhere amidst the journey of Nicodemus. We may be in the early stages of this quest; coming in the darkness of the night. Yet we are coming! And Jesus is welcoming us with his hospitality, his light and his grace. We may be a little further along, perhaps publicly exposing ourselves ~ coming to Jesus in the light of day. Feeling a call to share our faith, to live our faith…amidst the challenges to do so. Or perhaps we might be among the few who actually go and participate in the burial, who are prepared ~ one day ~ to go to dark Gethsamane and be surprised by the hope of God’s resurrection. Wherever we might find ourselves on they journey, there is good news. And that good news is that we do not go alone.