by Linda McMillan
Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
— Matsuo Basho
Today we enter week two of our Lenten journey. You might think I am being poetic to call it a journey. It’s just one day after another for 40 days , after all. But, it’s not that simple. Besides being 40 days long, Lent is a trip through time. Like being called from life to death, from darkness to light, Lent calls us not just to do things (or not do things) but to exist in a different sort of time. To be a different sort of people: a questing, traveling people.
There are three travelers to consider in today’s readings…
We begin with Abram, who actually continued a journey that his father began earlier. You may remember that Tera, Abram’s father, started out in Ur of the Chaledeans and then traveled to Haran. His son, Abram, will begin in Haran and go out to a land that God will show him. He traveled from the land he’d known for 75 years, a stable and comfortable life, and set out for something he couldn’t be sure about.
The second traveler we will read about today is Nicodemus. Nicodemus didn’t traverse as much ground as Abram and Sari, but he made a great journey just the same. Nicodemus was a teacher, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. He, took a short walk one evening to see Jesus, to ask questions, and to engage in conversation with another great teacher.
Much has been made of the fact that Nicodemus visited Jesus at night. You know, when it’s dark. And, to be sure, there is literary reason to do so. John loves his dichotomies of light and dark, day and night, water and spirit, etc… And, later, the writer will talk about Jesus meeting a woman at a well during the day. There are a lot of opposites between the woman at the well and Nicodemus: man and woman, insider and outsider, light of day and cover of night. But it is also possible that, like many of us, Nicodemus had a day job and simply didn’t get off work until after dark. Another reason might be that if he were seen to be going to another teacher it might undermine people’s confidence in him as a teacher. He was not the famous Gamaliel, after all. And, while most teachers seek out other teachers, many students like to think that their teacher is the greatest and best apart from any other teacher.
There is one thing we can be pretty sure about, though. The fact that Nicodemus visited Jesus at night indicates that he wasn’t on an official visit from the hierarchy. He went on his own. It was his own curiosity that compelled him on this journey of perhaps less than a few miles, yet far from what he knew and believed prior.
Nicodemus was as much of a quester, a traveler, as Abram. He was willing to leave a position of priviledge, the sure knowledge of generations, the comfort of his life as a Pharisee to find out what Jesus might know.
I said that there were three travelers to consider in our readings this morning. We’ve already read through the gospel reading, though, and we’ve only had two travelers: Abram and Nicodemus. Who is the third?
It wasn’t only for poetry that I referred to our Lenten journey. You and I are on a journey too. Maybe, like Abram, you heard a call to a certain kind of Lent, you knew just what to do, how to repent, what to take on, you set right off on Ash Wednesday and entered right into a Holy Lent. That’s great. Maybe you’re more like Nicodemus, busy but willing to use the time you’ve got to explore further. Maybe you’re still in conversation with the spirit about your Lenten journey, about where you’re going, and what it all means. That’s great. These readings show that just as God speaks clearly in the light of the desert sun to Abram, God also meets us inside and at night, far from the gaze of others for questions and answers, and I suspect laughter too. Both ways result in a journey to a place unseen.
Sometimes, though, we want more from our journey than what we get. Especially at Lent, after the light and enlightenment of Epiphany we hope to achieve a sort of rebirth, a renewal of whatever enthusiasm has been lost. But, in his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus said, “Don’t worry too much about making anything happen, because you can’t.” You can observe, and talk about what you see, but nobody can know how God works things out. Nicodemus said, “Jesus we know you are from God,” but here is no certainty. Jesus reminded him that he couldn’t possibly know that. He said, “Look, just be aware that the wind/spirit might blow on you; it might be a gentle wind, or a raging hurricane. You can’t control which. The wind might not come for a long time. You can’t do anything about that either. All you can do is be aware.”
And, really, is not awareness at the heart of the holy Lent to which we were called? If your awareness is only one of what’s been given up or taken on, if all you can think of is depravation or duty, then you have missed the path. For whether you have been set on a Lenten superhighway or a humble cowtrail, it is a path paved with bricks of time and the mortar of intention, not deprivation and duty.
So, wherever your journey takes you: around the world or around the corner, into your own cell or out into the world, you are traveling as surely as Abram and Nicodemus. You may notice, these journeys are never towards comfort or ease. They are into the unknown. So, if you think you know where you’re going to wind up in five weeks… Well, it’s like the wind. You can’t be so sure.
There is, however, one certainty – you can bank on this — and that is that you are not alone. Your journey, your coming in and going out, is watched over and protected. So, don’t be afraid of the dark, or be too concerned about the path you can’t see. You are in good company. Keep aware. Keep walking.
Linda McMillan lives in Yangzhong, China. Home of the Pufferfish and pollution.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
A clue for calling Lent a different sort of time comes from today’s verse John 3:16 where it says. “For God loved the world in such a way that he sent…” Sometimes it’s translated as, “God loved the world so much…” but it’s not that God loves so much more than we do, it’s that he loves so differently. There is a different sort of quality to God’s love that impels God to give of himself in Jesus. Just as a mother’s love is set apart, a lover’s love is set apart, and God’s love also is set apart as something different. This time of journeying is also of a different quality. It’s more than one day following another. It’s a questing time.
Ur was probably in southern or south eastern Iraq. Haran is in Turkey near the border with Syria.
Abraham/Abram is the founding father of Judaism, He is an ancestor of Jesus, and a friend of Allah, so his big journey is an important touchstone in the three monotheistic faiths
Some commentators have said that Nicodemus seems not to ‘get’ Jesus’ spiritual message. To read the text that way is to read it in a condescending way, though, and possibly even anti-Jewish. It is clear that Nicodemus ‘gets’ it just fine. He asks questions in the way that students and teachers did at that time, to propel the conversation. A more accurate view of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus is two great teachers enjoying one another’s company.
To find out more about Nicodemus and his relationship to Jesus you can read The Gospel of Nicodemus which contains some interesting stories that you might not have heard as well as a tale of Nicodemus advocating for Jesus at his trial.
Ps 121:8… The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in from this time forth for evermore. – Watch over – shomer – is not just to observe, but to care for, to tend to. It’s the same word used for God’s command to Adam to till and keep the land. Care for it. – This kind of writing is called a merism. It means that your coming in is cared for, your going out is cared for, and everying in between is cared for too. It’s like saying from A to Z, or from top to bottom. It includes everything in between too.