Several years ago, a group from my home church, Forest Hill, went on pilgrimage to Iona, which is a very small – about three miles long and a mile across – and remote island off the northwest coast of Scotland. It’s nice to be able to mention Iona during this Lenten season in which we are focusing on the pilgrimage journey, because Iona has been a pilgrimage destination for at least several decades. It was first inhabited by Christians in the 500s, when St. Columba of Ireland made his way across the sea, landed, and decided to establish a monastery there. Eventually other monks and nuns arrived, and one of the finest libraries in Europe was established on Iona. It was always a risky sort of place, overrun by Vikings several times and eventually, I am sorry to say, by Protestant reformers, who destroyed the library in the 1500s. Today Iona is home to a small – very small – village, to farmers and shepherds, and to a restored church which serves as a central gathering place for a worldwide religious community and the home of an extensive summer program. You know of Iona whether you realize it or not, because we sing songs, such as “The Summons” (“Will You Come and Follow Me?) which were written by John Bell, a member of the Iona community.
Anyway, a group of us went off to Iona for a week, and one night we went to an evening of Scottish music and dancing. I found that I was more in the mood for solitude than for music and dancing that night, and so after an hour or so I decided to walk back across the island. It was very late, and very dark – finally! Iona is so far north that there are few hours of real darkness during the summer months – and as I walked down a road that ran between extensive fields, I heard a raspy, insect-like call: first here, and then there, and then over there a ways.
I knew exactly what was making that call. The call I heard was the call of a corn crake, a medium sized-quail like bird, a very secretive bird that runs around at night in fields of vegetation high enough to provide it with cover. We don’t have corn crakes here, but they are common in western Scotland. I knew that I was unlikely to see one, but I had hoped to hear one on Iona – and there they were, definitely several of them, calling back and forth as they scuttled about the otherwise silent midnight fields. I wish I could replicate their odd raspy call for you, but I’ll spare you – and tell you that if you go to youtube and search the words corn crake, you can see and hear them, for yourselves.
Now, what does a corn crake have to do with anything today? We are here today to talk about Nicodemus, who most likely never heard a corn crake. But Nicodemus did make a famous night journey, a journey out to see Jesus in the dark of night.
What is it about the night that’s significant?
We often hear about Nicodemus in somewhat disparaging terms. We hear that he was a leader of the Jews – someone in charge, probably well known around town, and with a reputation as a scholar and as an authority in the community – who slipped out in the night to meet Jesus. He was curious, apparently, and intrigued by this teacher and miracle worker who was new on the scene – but he didn’t want anyone to known that he might be taking Jesus seriously. So he went out when he was unlikely to run into anyone. A well-meaning kind of person, but not a bold one. That’s what we usually hear.
And maybe that’s all true. But I’d like to suggest to you that there may be another dimension to our friend Nicodemus, another reason for his journey through the night.
Night is a time, isn’t it? -- when we are particularly attentive to our surroundings. In the dark, we need to look closely as to where we’re going in order that we not stumble. We tend to listen carefully to the sounds we hear, and often we are out at night with the intention of seeing and doing and hearing things we can’t see and do and hear during the day. Corn crakes, for instance – the only way you are likely to hear a corn crake is to spend time out in the fields late at night in corn crake country.
The song “The Music of the Night” from the musical The Phantom of the Opera begins with the following words:
Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation;
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .
Don’t the words describe precisely what it’s like to be out in the night?
Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .
Consider other night journeys:
When I was a little girl, living out in the country, many of the hide-and-seek games my brothers and I played required the dark of night as a setting. We had several acres in which to make small journeys and secret ourselves from one another, and the darkness certainly heightened our awareness of the sounds of night birds, of the rippling waters of the creek, of the breeze through the trees and tall grasses.
Far from our ordinary lives in southern Ohio, a famous night journey is found in the Islamic tradition, a journey in which the prophet Muhammed is reputed to have been taken from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven on a large white animal, usually imagined as a horse. On that journey, the story tells us, he met Adam, Abraham, Moses, and many other figures significant to Judaism, Christianity, and, of course, Islam. He returned to Mecca to tell his followers of his travels, travels in which it surely seems that “darkness stirred and awakened his imagination.” His night journey is often celebrated in the Muslim tradition – and surely there is something about the night that adds to the sense of its significance. Events, conversations, encounters, symbols: they stand out in the night.
Darkness, night, is also a time when struggles seem heightened. In our ordinary lives, don’t we often find that our questions loom larger, our doubts seem sharper, our worries more confounding, in the dark than in the light of day. And again, to move onto the broader stage, think of Harriet Tubman, guiding hundreds of slaves north to freedom by the dark of night. While nighttime was her only choice for adequate concealment, don’t you think that the night must have also “heightened each sensation” for those traveling north? I imagine that those making that journey must have felt both intense fear about what would happen to them if they were discovered, intense hope for the possibilities that lay ahead, and intense awe at the spread of stars in the sky that served as guideposts for them.
And so: Nicodemus. What is he doing out at night, looking for Jesus? Maybe he really did feel that it was important that he remain undetected. Maybe he was convinced that he would lose his position and influence if his friends and colleagues discovered him in conversation with the rabbi from Nazareth – but his motivation doesn’t alter the reality:
Night journeys are different.
Night journeys have the potential to transform us at least in part because they take place at night, because the darkness and the silence and the absence of our daily companions enable everything we encounter to be thrown into sharp relief. We see differently at night, and we hear differently at night. We learn differently at night.
And Nicodemus had a lot to learn.
This interchange, this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, is packed with some of the most significant, and also most confusing, claims of our faith. We could spend weeks on Nicodemus, couldn’t we? What do all those signs, those miracles Jesus has been performing really mean? What does it mean to be born from above? What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit? What does it mean that the Spirit blows where it will?
What a struggle this conversation must have been for Nicodemus! In one of her poems in the volume Red Bird, the poet Mary Oliver says,
All night my heart makes its way
however it can over the rough ground
of uncertainties . . .
“The rough ground of uncertainties.” That’s where Nicodemus is treading in his conversation with Jesus: all night, his heart makes its way over the tough ground of uncertainties. The things he is hearing are not the things her has heard before. They are not the things upon which he has staked his life as a leader among his people. How is he ever going to sort of all this out in the light of day?
But – and here’s what I want you to remember: It’s night. And in the night we hear things differently. The final words Nicodemus hears are words many of us have heard again and again and again, words that have even become commonplace to us as banners at football games. But for this moment, I want you to imagine hearing them for the first time, in the dark of the night, in the midst of all of your struggles and questions, as clear as the call of a corn crake across the fields of Scotland:
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.
In the dark, in the night, Nicodemus is beginning the journey toward being born from above. In the dark, in the night, the Spirit is blowing its way into the life of Nicodemus.
Maybe Nicodemus only thinks he is making night journey because he wants to avoid his friends and neighbors. Maybe he’s really making a night journey because God has drawn him into a time and place in which he will be completely undistracted, in which his attention will be entirely focused on the man whom he seeks, a time and a place in which he will be transformed.
Let’s return to words from The Music of the Night:
Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar
And you'll live as you've never lived before . . .
Let your mind start a journey to a strange new world
Leave all thoughts of the life you knew before . . .
A new world; a new way of living; a new creation: that’s what Jesus is offering, and promising, to Nicodemus and to us. A creation in which we do not perish, but have eternal life. A sphere of rich, full joyous life in which we are not condemned but saved, by love and for love.
And so: if your journey calls you into the dark of night, go forth! Our psalm today tells us that “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Rely upon that promise, and upon the knowledge that the night may reveal God’s love in ways invisible in the daylight.