It is simply amazing when you look at the bookshelves in book stores and see how many books there are on “Self-Help”. These are books that give us advice on what to do to get meaning and lasting satisfaction in our life and in our relationship with others. Some of them give really good advice and some of them are not so good, but there has been a proliferation of these kind of books appearing with regularity over that past thirty or so years. The reason that hundreds, thousands, and even millions of these of these books are sold each year, and so many appear on the best sellers lists, is that there seems to be a great dissatisfaction with ourselves, and a desperate desire to change. If there wasn’t they would not sell one single copy.
I believe that this same motivation is behind Nicodemus who in the Gospel today came to Jesus ‘by night’.
It is mentioned in the passage that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Now the Pharisees were the religious people of the time and were more than any others close adherents to the Law. We could assume that keeping the commandments and living a good life was very important to Nicodemus. Why do you suppose he thought that he needed to change? It was probably because he knew that he could not keep the law perfectly (no one in this whole world can) so in his mind, no matter what he did he could not make himself acceptable to God. In fact he couldn’t make himself acceptable to himself. There was still something lacking.
Nicodemus, so we are told was also a ruler of the Jews and a teacher of Israel. Presumably a person in that position knew a great deal about God. You know as well as I do, that you can have a great deal of knowledge about God and not know God. Sometimes knowledge about God is a substitution for knowing God. Keikegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian said at one time that many people coming to a crossroad where there was a sign, “Heaven” pointing in one direction and another sign “Lecture on Heaven” pointing in the other, would go to the lecture on heaven everytime. Why? Because it didn’t demand any change or any involvement. Of course their lives would not be any different because of it. Nicodemus might have been one of those people who knew a lot about God, but deep within, still felt separated from God. So he came to Jesus, who he thought might have an answer to the life that he sought, by night..
In a lot of ways, the night is not far off from any of us. . Someone has said that most people live a life of quiet desperation. Michel Quoist expresses some the feelings that many of us have a certain times of our lives in a prayer It is Dark. Here is some of that prayer:
Lord, it is dark.
Lord, are you here in my darkness?
Your light has gone out, and so has its reflection on men and on all the things around me
Everything seems grey and somber as when a fog blots out the sun and enshrouds the earth
Everything is an effort, everything is difficult, and I am heavy-footed and slow.
Every morning I am overwhelmed by the thought of another day……
I go haltingly , like a drunkard,
From force of habit, unconsciously.
I go through the same motions each day, but I know that they are meaningless
I walk, but I know that I am getting nowhere
I speak, and my words seem dreadfully empty, for they can reach only human ears and not the living souls …
Lord, it is dark. Lord, are you here in my darkness?
Where are you, Lord? Do you love me still? Or have I wearied you?
Lord answer. Answer! Lord, It is dark! (1)
Some of us in varying degrees have these kind of feelings, maybe not as intense, but nevertheless they are there. So with Nicodemus in the Gospel story, we too come to Jesus by night.
What does Jesus say? He says, “You have to be born anew”. It is an interesting word that he uses because it can mean ‘born anew’, ‘born again’, or ‘born from above’ . No matter how you put it, it means a dramatic change in your life. It means a transformation that only God can bring about. Jesus, of course , was talking about being born of the spirit. I don’t think that it is a once and for all experience. It is one that we can and need to experience time and time again as the growth in the spirit takes place. There is no growth that I know of that just takes place at one time. It usually a slow process. I believe that our growth in the spirit is life long journey.
Born of the Spirit meant for me surrendering to the Spirit. When I realized that the Spirit was working in my life it was a glorious thing. I used to prayer daily, “Come Holy Spirit Come”, and throughout the day, whenever I was faced with a decision or difficult situation, I would say, “Come Holy Spirit Come”. I realized at some point that the Holy Spiirt was already working in my life, opening my life to all kinds of wonderous things that I had not seen before. The surrender to the Holy Spirit started me on a journey that has never ended. It was like Abraham being called to a place that he did not know. The Spirit blows where it will and you don’t know where it will blow next. It is a growth experience and I have found many things along the way to help me be aware of what the Spirit is doing in my life. At the present time I have been doing some exercises that I found in one of Deepak Chopras books, The Deeper Wound, Recovery of the soul from Fear and Suffering. He has a little different idea of the soul than I do and I would think most Christians have, but what he says about getting in touch with the soul is very similar to getting in touch with this spirit within us that wants to connect with God’s Spirit. He calls it “finding our true self” It is like St. Paul saying in Romans 8:16, “It is that very Spirit (of God) bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God“.
One of Chopras’s meditations is :
My Soul can lead me to healing
I will become one with my true self (2)
He suggests absorbing these words by repeating them often, and at the same time breathing gently. Let any resistance rise and fade. He says to end with gratitude to the soul and asking that it may bring you insight throughout the day. I have found this very powerful and helped surrender to the spirit
I often come with Nicodemus to Jesus by night, and I hear Jesus’ words that “I must be born anew”, born again” “born from above” . These kind of exercises help me to bring about my spiritual rebirth and the feeling of being alive.
What is more important than feeling alive? People really need the rebirth that Jesus talks about here. Remember in the movie, the Sixth sense, when the boy says “I see dead people, but they don’t know that they are dead” . Look around! You might see the same thing. There are a lot of people out there breathing but they are not alive, I mean, truly alive. They have no passionate joy or agonizing sorrow. Life for them is always night.
When I am in touch with the spirit I do feel alive. When I can surrender myself to the Spirit, I have an awareness in the extraordinary nature and wonder of life.
I love that play by Thorton Wilder Our Town. I know I’ve talked about it before but it is such a good story with such a good lesson. Tony Campola has a wonderful description of it as it relates the Holy Spirit working in our lives:
In Thornton Wilders play Our Town, the main character, Emily, discovers the joy of being fully alive too late. After she is dead, she pleads with the spirits to allow her to return and look in on one day of her life, one last time. She picks her twelfth birthday.
Emily is more than dismayed as she recognizes how little the people she loves really comprehend the joys of life or experience them with any depth of awareness. She cries out to be taken away, to not have to watch any more of their inattention to the preciousness of life. Her parting words are, “Good-bye! Good-bye, world. Good-bye, Grovers Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking… and Mamas sunflowers, and food and coffee. And even ironed dresses and hot baths. . . sleeping and waking up. 0 earth, youre too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” She stoops, hesitates, and asks with tears in her eyes, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Eh? –‘ every minute?”
Thats a good question. The Holy Spirit is at work in us, trying to make us more alive every day. One mark of spiritual growth is an expanding awareness of the glories of our everyday experience–a growing sense of how precious the ordinary really is. (3)
It was night when Nicodemus came to Jesus. He talked about being born of the Spirit as an answer to the darkness and the deadness of the night. It is an invitation to surrender to the Spirit. It is an invitation to come alive.
(1) Michel Quoist PRAYERS, Sheed and Ward, New York, NY, 1963 p.138
(2) Depak Chopra THE DEEPER WOUND, Harmony Books, New York, NY , 2001 p.103
(3) Tony Campola LET ME TELL YOU A STORY, Word Publishing, Nashville, 2000 p. 74