Back when my son was little there was a special story he would ask us to tell him at bedtime. It wasn’t anything from a book. Maybe you told your children your own version of this story, if you have kids, or maybe someone told it to you when you were little, and if so, you were blessed.
The story begins like this:
Once upon a time, there were two people who loved each other very much …
You probably can figure out the rest. It’s a story about love, about how true love always wants to be shared. It begins with two individuals who become a couple, and they go on to make a family that includes the little person in footie pajamas who’s listening and slowly relaxing into sleep.
In order to thrive, our children need to know that they’re loved. And it might be a stretch—but not too big a stretch, I think–to say that this is the same story St. Paul is telling in this morning’s reading from the letter to the Romans, where he talks about the spirit of adoption that makes us children of God, makes us part of God’s family.
We all need to know that we’re loved, and that love is the very nature of our God—a love we can trust as children of God.
Today the church celebrates Trinity Sunday, in honor of the God we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because those are the best words we can find to express this mystery. And each of our readings today was chosen because it says something about this three-in-one God whose very nature is love and relationship. But I’ll be honest, I think it’s a little challenging to catch on to what these readings have in common.
We have Isaiah in the presence of God in the smoky temple, where the seraphim call out, “holy, holy, holy” in a voice that rattles the thresholds.
We have Paul and the Spirit’s claim that we are children of God and co-heirs with Christ.
And finally we haveNicodemus on his late-night visit to Jesus, who absolutely confounds him with talk of being born from above.
What I do see in each of the readings that connects them is that each one is about a human experience of the divine. Each passage represents an effort to tell about that experience.
But it isn’t easy to talk about God, even in church. It’s hard to find the words, so it’s through the richness of our worship that we come closer to expressing all that’s on our hearts, including things that are beyond words.
So these God stories, then, are a little like poetry, where you might be hard-pressed to explain exactly what a poem means, even when the meaning of each individual word is clear. And yet, if the poem is a good one, there will be someplace deep down in us where we do know what it’s saying, even if we can’t literally explain it.
As a matter of fact, I did turn to poetry last week when I was reflecting on what to say about the Trinity. I opened my poetry books, and left the theology texts where they’ve been on my shelves since seminary days.
I thought especially of these lines from Denise Levertov’s poem which is titled “Trinity:”
And God and God and God are love merely
Until they find foolish us
To take love’s overflow.
Even though we can hardly find the right words to explain the Trinity, we understand that it’s about love that comes out of relationship, love that wants to bring others into that relationship—so we exist, Levertov says, and our theology says, out of the overflow of that love. Which sounds a little like my son’s favorite bedtime story.
Bedtime stories are the best.
When I think of Nicodemus—seeking Jesus out because, in his own way, he wants to experience God, and to find a deeper understanding of that experience—the image that comes to my mind is a lot like the setting for the telling of bedtime stories.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and I picture them sitting together in the darkness, leaning close, speaking softly.
That nighttime setting is important, but not—as is sometimes said—because Nicodemus is afraid of being seen with Jesus. Although for a Jewish religious leader, as the hierarchy was already beginning to see Jesus as a threat, that concern would be understandable. Jesus has been challenging the temple system, insisting that the place where people would encounter God would no longer be in the temple. From now on, Jesus is saying, you will experience God in me.
And Nicodemus, it seems, is hungry for that experience of God. So he goes to Jesus in the dark. And that’s significant, because light in John’s Gospel is a symbol for illumination at a deeper level. Light signifies the presence of God, or at least the awareness of God’s presence. And darkness is the lack of awareness.
Those who are in the dark, for John, don’t know God, until they come into the light. That’s why John tells us that Jesus is the light of the world.[i]
So today’s story about Nicodemus is the first of three times he appears in John’s Gospel. And while those three mentions occur as isolated events, taken together they tell the story of one man’s desire for God, his pursuit of closeness with God.
In the darkness that night, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about things that seemed beyond his understanding: About being born from above, born of the Spirit. About a love so great that God gave us Jesus, so that those who believe might have eternal life.
And if Nicodemus didn’t totally get all of this, it didn’t matter because the point is that he was there. He was seeking understanding. He was seeking God’s presence. He was seeking to come out of the darkness into the light, and making that effort is all that can really be expected of any of us. We count on grace to do the rest.
And as the magnificent preacher Peter Gomes said, “What ‘born again’ in the gospel means … is literally to begin all over again, to be given a second birth, a second chance. … To be born again is to enter afresh into the process of spiritual growth.”[ii]
So that night in the dark is where it begins again with Nicodemus.
The second time we hear about him is when the chief priests and Pharisees are meeting with the temple police, discussing what to do about their Jesus problem, as more and more people are following after him.
And Nicodemus rather boldly cautions against acting too quickly. He says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”[iii] So he stands up for Jesus in this conversation.
His third and final appearance in the Gospel is brief.
When Jesus is dead, Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea to ask Pilate for permission to take his body. Nicodemus is the one who brings the mixture of spices they’ll wrap his body with when they prepare it for burial.[iv]
So this man who first comes to Jesus by night becomes an example for us as he moves from the darkness of unknowing to a faith that gives him courage to speak up for Jesus, until finally we see him tending to that wounded, broken, body.
And that loving care could be called an act of worship.
And so it is with us, also, as the divine love we feel poured out to us leads us to seek God, moving from the simple desire to be in God’s presence even if we can’t explain it, to having the courage to speak our faith, and to express it through our worship.
And worship is like poetry—I think you could say that—because it gives us a way to express the deepest truths even when we don’t have the words to explain it. As with the Trinity.
So Nicodemus didn’t come to Jesus in the dark wanting a bedtime story. He was too old for that, as are we. He wanted to know God, to experience God in Jesus. And love was there in that experience. And if he couldn’t understand everything Jesus told him that night, that didn’t matter as much as the simple fact that he was there.
At some level, no matter how old we get, I don’t think we ever stop wanting to know that we’re loved. To know in particular that we’re loved with the greatest love imaginable, a love that makes us God’s own and won’t ever let us go, no matter what.
And when you come right down to it, even if we don’t have the words to explain it, that is what our faith in the God of the Trinity is all about.
Preached for Church of the Ascension in Parkesburg PA
[i] John 8:12 NRSV
[ii] Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. 188.
[iii] John 7:51-52
[iv] John 19:38ff