Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Late Night Questions” John 3:1-17
We all have late-night questions. They keep us from falling asleep and leave us tossing and turning for hours. They wake us from a sound sleep, with hearts drumming and thoughts racing. Late-night questions lead to bleary-eyed mornings when we feel sleep-deprived and irritable.
Our late-night questions may be about work. How do we handle our boss? How do we manage our workers? Is what we are doing meaningful, worthwhile, the best use of our abilities?
Our late-night questions may be about our loved ones. How do we heal the breach with our spouse or sibling or child? What can we do about that diagnosis? How do we respond to a loved one’s crisis?
Our late-night questions may be about the world community. What about homelessness and hunger? Climate change? World peace? What happens if that Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or Progressive gets elected?
Our late-night questions can be existential. Does God love us? What happens when we die? How do we find forgiveness?
Does any of this sound familiar?
We aren’t the only ones with late-night questions. Our gospel reading relates the story of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night filled with big questions. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He practiced an ultra-observant form of Judaism, which demanded of him the same requirements for holiness that were applied to priests during their active service in the Temple. For a Pharisee like Nicodemus, careful observance of all 613 commandments of the Torah rendered him holy, as God is holy. In fact, Nicodemus was an expert in the Torah, both a rabbi and an active elder serving on the Sanhedrin, which was a lot like Israel’s supreme court. The seventy-one elders of the Sanhedrin came from families of priests, legal scholars, and the most politically powerful families in the land. They met every day, except on the sabbath and the holy days, gathering in the Hall of Hewn Stones, a courtroom built into the outer wall of the Temple. There they listened to cases referred to them from lower courts, determining righteous judgments based upon their understanding of the Torah. Nicodemus was respected, scholarly, influential, powerful, and wealthy.
But Nicodemus wasn’t feeling so comfortable in his role as elder, judge, and Torah-expert. He was troubled by Jesus. This Jesus was neither priest nor scribe nor member of an elite family, but Jesus had worked miracles and taught with an authority that could only come from God. Jesus had blessed a poor family and saved their wedding feast from shame by changing the water into the finest wine. Jesus had denounced the profiteering and exploitation of the poor that was going on in the Temple, turning over the tables of the money changers and driving out the animals and their vendors. Jesus had been teaching and healing in the Temple, bringing life-changing understanding and wholeness to people. Nicodemus was no fool. His gut told him that this Jesus was the real deal, sent by God to bless the people. But if Jesus had it right, then was it possible that he (Nicodemus) had it wrong? What if honoring God wasn’t about rote obedience to 613 commands? What if God wasn’t an angry judge waiting to condemn Israel for the slightest infraction? What if God wanted something different from Israel? Nicodemus needed answers.
John’s gospel allows us to listen in on a snippet of what must have been a free-wheeling, intense, late-night conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus had his rabbi’s hat on. He was parrying Jesus’s assertions with questions, in fine rabbinic form. “Can anyone truly be born anew, Jesus? Are we talking about the physical or the spiritual realm? Give me the details, Jesus, how can this be?” It was a late-night disputation that ended with the best-known of Jesus’s words, “For God loved the world in this way: God gave God’s One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (Holman translation).
Can you imagine it? Jesus and Nicodemus, sit with heads close in intense conversation in the warm glow of the oil lamp. The supreme court justice learns with a shock of deep knowing that God isn’t about judgment and condemnation. God is all about love, mercy, life. Jesus tells the Pharisee, “God wants to save you, not condemn you, Nicodemus. You are loved.”
As Jesus challenged Nicodemus to change, to be spiritually reborn into the Kingdom of God—the Kingdom of Love, Nicodemus struggled to imagine what that might mean. It would mean that God didn’t want his blind obedience; rather, God was looking for a relationship with him. It meant the Torah should be read through the lens of love—love for God and love for neighbor. It would require him to love the petitioners who came through his high court, both vulnerable plaintiffs and ruthless scoundrels. If Nicodemus started to preach and teach like that, it could make him seventy powerful enemies on the Sanhedrin. It could threaten his standing, compromise his power, and even have a negative impact on his bottom line—his pocketbook. We don’t get to hear Nicodemus’s response to Jesus. Nicodemus seems to slip back into the darkness, perhaps filled with more questions than when he knocked on Jesus’s door in search of easy answers.
We are a lot more like Nicodemus than we care to admit. We want easy answers to our late-night questions. We want answers that will not challenge our assumptions or demand a change in our thinking or conduct. We want answers that won’t cost us anything—not a big commitment of our time, not a dent in our bottom line, not a hit to our reputation, not a rethinking of our self-understanding, not a revision of our world view. We want Jesus to pitch us easy answers that make us feel good and assure us of a healthy seven to eight hours of sleep every night. But what if the answer isn’t easy? What if Jesus’s answer will change us in ways that feel scary, new, and a little out-of-control. What if what we are always and ultimately called to do is love more, to love like God does—like Jesus does—wholeheartedly, without strings attached, for the good of this flawed and fallen world?
If the answer to our late-night questions is a spiritual rebirth to the Way of Love, then we will be changed and so will the way that we relate to our families. We’ll mend the breach of our broken relationships with the resolve to love, a love that listens and stays in relationship even when we want to walk away, a love that forgives and seeks to be forgiven. We’ll choose to face those difficult diagnoses with love that supports, encourages, and accompanies others in times of fear and uncertainty. We’ll stop trying to fix other people’s crises and simply commit to loving them through the mess.
If the answer to our late-night questions is a spiritual rebirth to the Way of Love, then we will be changed, and so will the ways that we relate to our workplace. We could resolve to love our boss, our colleagues, our workers, not with the mushy, entangled love that we feel for our families, but the sort of love that calls forth the best in one another. It’s a love that trusts in the power of shared vision and teamwork, a love that believes that when we work well together, what we achieve is always better than what we do on our own. We could ask loving questions of our employers, like, “How can what we do better serve the common good?”
If the answer to our late-night questions is a spiritual rebirth to the Way of Love, then we will be changed, and so will the ways that we relate to the world around us. We’ll love our vulnerable neighbors with vital ministries like the Food Pantry, Samaritan House, and One Great Hour of Sharing. We’ll love God’s good creation in ways that leave no trace and protect precious resources and creatures. We’ll advocate for peace, everywhere. All that love might even send us to the ballot box, where we’ll cast our votes for those whom we perceive can best translate love into political action. Wouldn’t that shake things up?
In the end, because the answer to our late-night questions is a spiritual rebirth to the Way of Love, we will be changed, and so will the way that we relate to God. We will trust that God is love. We’ll build our relationship with God on that rock. We will know that we are loved in life and in death, even when we wrestle in the late, late hours with the big, big questions.
Our last glimpse of Nicodemus in John’s gospel is on Golgotha, the place of the crucifixion. There, Nicodemus with Joseph of Arimathea demanded the body of Jesus from his Roman executioners. Then, those powerful and influential elders of the Sanhedrin did women’s work. They anointed Jesus’s body with a king’s ransom in costly oils and aloes, wrapped him in linen, and laid him in the tomb. It was a bold and risky task. It was quiet and humble evidence of that spiritual rebirth to the Way of Love.
Robert Hoch. “Commentary on John 3:1-17” in Preaching This Week, March 16, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Osvaldo Vena. “Commentary on John 3:1-17” in Preaching This Week, March 12, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Ronald J. Allen. “Commentary on John 3:1-17” in Preaching This Week, March 5, 2023. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Judith Jones. “Commentary on John 3:1-17” in Preaching This Week, May 27, 2018. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
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.
17 “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.