First Presbyterian Church of Metuchen
March 5, 2023
Written and delivered by: Rev. Ashley Bair
Title: By Night
Scripture: John 3:1-17
Prayer - Holy Spirit rest on us as we contemplate this word. May we hear what you want us to hear. And move as you guide us, beyond our understanding. Amen.
We are not the same people in the daylight as we are at night.
I had a roommate once who highlighted this for me more than anyone else has. I shared a tiny apartment with 3 other roommates and one of my roommates, her name is Taylor, was what I guess we would call a night owl. When the rest of us in our apartment would go to bed at a decent hour like 9pm or 10pm, she would be gearing up for her second half of the night; Studying until the early hours, cleaning out closets, deep diving topics on the internet.
One night I remember waking up in the dark smelling wafts of sauteed onions and garlic and spices seeping through the walls of our tiny apartment. I remember looking at my alarm clock and seeing that it was 3 in the morning. I walk out into the kitchen and see Taylor there frying beans and onions and pulling bread out of the oven that she had made, concocting this whole meal at 3 in the morning.
I asked her: What's going on? Are you okay? Are you having trouble sleeping? Is someone coming over for bread and beans? She simply said, “Sometimes I can't sleep. And until I can make sense of the questions in my head, I make something with my hands.” During the daytime Taylor was really busy and at night all that lingered from the daylight caught up with her. Rather than try to squelch it somehow or force sleep, she let the questions in her find a place in the night.
It was a quirky thing that my other roommates and I learned to live with for the year that we spent together. But there was something about Taylor owning who she was at night that has sat with me for a long time. Because while I am not that kind of night person, cleaning out things or baking anything, I think I do try to squelch a lot of my questions. Even so there is a part of me that is different at night.
I saw a comic strip the other day depicting a woman and her brain. The woman gets ready for bed, pulls up the covers and turns off the light. Her brain says, “Hey are you going to sleep?” And she closes her eyes and says, “Yes, now be quiet.” And the brain says, “Every C in Pacific Ocean is pronounced differently.” And the woman’s eyes pop open, she’s awake. And this is it. Now she’s awake and thinking, let me say Pacific Ocean again. Let me try every other ocean name. Why is it even named the Pacific Ocean. Are the dolphins, okay? How many shark sightings were there in 2022? I haven’t done enough to protect the oceans. I need to book a vacation.
When I am going to bed at night and trying to fall asleep, my mind will bring to the surface the questions that I didn't have time to think through during the day. Rather than deal with them the way we do during the day: systematically, logically, centered in realism and pragmatism, at night my mind is vulnerable. It is running through the events of the day with questions like: did I move through that meeting the right way? Did I treat that person the way I wanted to treat them? Did I respond to that thing the way that I wanted to? Am I doing the right thing? Does everyone like me? Do I have enough? What am I going to do tomorrow? My mind cycles through doubt, fear, anxiety that I sometimes withhold during the day, and through championing myself and cheering myself on and supporting myself in ways that I withhold during the day, too.
All these questions somehow come to the surface at night and those quiet dark moments where it's just me in the silence and in the profound stillness of night. Sometimes, it’s the literal night. Sometimes, it's the night we experience regardless of the time of day. The night that comes when we are struggling with a decision or a circumstance that leads us to the vulnerable quiet, when we hear what’s in our head louder than anything else around us.
During the day we have different hats on. We approach the day as a part of productivity, as a part of performance. We're around other people and people interact with us in different ways. We think of how much we can accomplish during the day. We think of it as our “life mode.” For a lot of us, what we do during the day is what “counts”. There’s the long-time question: How are we spending our days?
During the night it's different: it's vulnerable. It's slower. Our mind moves past some of those things: productivity, the goals that we're trying to accomplish, the things that we need to do with daylight, into a space where we contemplate bigger, different things.
A question I had when I was living with Taylor, that I have wondered for myself, and ask now again, is: What if we brought our genuine night conversations into the daylight? What would happen if we made time to learn from the still, vulnerable moments of the night: from the questions we ask and the ways we champion ourselves that are withheld from the light of day?
It was worth noting in today’s scripture passage that Nicodemus came to talk to Jesus by night. Some think it was because he didn’t want to expose his curiosity and vulnerability in front of others, but for how many of us, do the questions come at night? Maybe he went to Jesus when the questions came to him. It was likely a little bit of both. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a Jewish leader - a pretty powerful one at that since he sat on the Jewish ruling council. And, at this moment, the ruling council does not like Jesus.
In the passage prior to John 3 Jesus nearly destroyed the whole Passover festival by literally turning the Temple into a frenzy as he drove out the moneychangers and flipped over the money tables. Not only was he a Jewish leader, (and the leaders were angry with Jesus, so probably better not to be seen with him right now) Nicodemus had also heard enough and seen enough of what Jesus was up to in Jerusalem to make him think; to bring to mind questions he may have tried to squelch in the daytime but couldn’t ignore at night.
So, when most windows in Jerusalem were dark in the night, he finds Jesus and asks the questions that have pestered him since he heard Jesus teaching during the day. He starts with, “Rabbi,” he called Jesus, a profound recognition coming from this Jewish leader, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Essentially saying, I’ve seen you and what you’ve done. It’s bold and I’m curious. Jesus responds, “Truly, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again of the water and the spirit…
Nicodemus then asks his question, “but how?” He even got a little sarcastic, probably a little nervous. Can one "enter a second time into the mother's womb?" 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.” Nicodemus wasn’t satisfied, the questions still spinning in his head, he asks again, “How?” And then comes the most popular Christian verses: Jesus says, Believe, what I am saying… “For God so loved the world, to give God’s 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.”
Some of the most profound and repeated verses here in this passage from John, and there is a lot to be said about Jesus' message. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot already about these famous words. What I find fascinating is that Jesus made this proclamation, not at a healing, not to a crowd on the hill, but to Nicodemus, in the night, as he comes privately and vulnerably.
The Spirit moves as the Spirit will.
And, just as simply as Nicodemus met Jesus in the night, he slips away without response.
I wonder what Nicodemus thought of this conversation when the morning came. When he approached the day as a part of productivity, as a part of performance. When he was around other people, when he was around his colleagues. Even in his earnestness, did he let the questions he had for Jesus stay there? Or did he take this nighttime conversation into his daytime life?
That would have been the challenge for him. I believe Jesus knew that. For Nicodemus’ simple question of “How?” was met with incredible trust. Jesus told him, believe, know that what you see, and question, are a part of the moving Spirit. Sometimes the Spirit takes us somewhere physically, sometimes the Spirit comes to you in your mind, at times when you are open to hearing the Spirit.
The challenge for Nicodemus is the challenge for us as well. What if we brought our genuine night conversations into the daylight? What would happen if we made time to learn from the still, vulnerable moments of the night? Are there ways that the Spirit is moving in us that is different in the nighttime than it is in the day? Simply because we are distraction-less? Simply because we are more open to hearing things at night? And asking questions we won’t during the day? How are we listening to what we hear?
Jesus has said that the Spirit goes where it chooses, we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. When it comes to us, will we be open to its movement, or will we find ourselves encountering it with doubt and question? Saying, how can this be? If we do, or rather when we do, we can remember Nicodemus and that even in the questioning, the Spirit finds its way.
Nicodemus slipped back into the night; he resumed his duties as Jewish leader. It seems he pondered Jesus' response for a while. We don’t hear of him ever mentioning what Jesus said to his colleagues, that would have cost him a lot, I’m sure. I bet he sat with this conversation in the nights that followed. But, after his colleagues call the temple authorities on Jesus, and Jesus has died - in the daylight, Nicodemus will be seen taking him down off the cross. Amen.
Speaker: Rev. Ashley Bair
March 5, 2023
Rev. Ashley Bair
Interim Associate Pastor
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