“Not A Particular Time”

May 30, 2021

Holy Trinity Sunday

John 3:1–17

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In recent times, I have been experiencing some symptoms from lung cancer that I have not encountered since being diagnosed at stage 4 over three years ago. Out of compassion for me, my wise oncologist did two things. He referred me to a lung cancer specialist and he wrote a prescription for prednisone. The steroids have been helpful in reducing the symptoms that were becoming distressing. It is good to have timely medical care.

If you have ever been on a steroid regimen, you know the step-down dosing that is important to follow. Keeping track of the tapering schedule is key in avoiding side-affects, while permitting the adrenal glands to take over and return to their normal pattern of producing cortisol. The discipline is a linear keeping of time and I am paying close attention.

Living with a serious diagnosis, awaiting clarity on disease status, and taking a drug that involves a time strategy has me thinking about the many ways we think and speak of time.

Time flies.

Time’s a wastin’!

Time is short.

All the time in the world.

Running out of time.

Tick-Tock.

Spending time.

Serving time.

Wasting time.

Spare time.

Killing time.

In the nick of time.

A stitch in time saves nine.

Just in time.

Time out.

In the fullness of time.

It’s high time.

Time stood still.

Time… .

Time is key theme of the Gospel reading. Nicodemus, the central character held a linear view of time. He came to Jesus at a particular time, after dark. A leader of the Jews, he did not want to be discovered speaking with Jesus. Besides time of day, it seems that Nicodemus encountered a far more challenging idea about time when Jesus spoke to him about being born anew.

In this nocturnal conversation, Jesus tosses out the window not just the linear, but the entire logic of time. Nicodemus was educated person and had lived long enough to know the natural order of things — that being born happens at the beginning of life and dying happens at the end and if we are so fortunate there will be a whole lot of other happenings in-between. He wondered out loud, how could he “be born from above.”

Nicodemus struggles to make sense of Jesus’ words about faith and spiritual matters. By his last words in this passage, we are left wondering. Does he begin to grasp what Jesus is saying to him? Is there anything about coming to faith that we can learn from Nicodemus? We are left hanging as Jesus goes on to say those most well-known and oft quoted words of John 3:16.

While it seems that we are left to imagine how Nicodemus exited this nighttime chat and what impact it had or did not have in his life, a while down the path in John’s Gospel there’s reason for cheer. It turns out that Nicodemus had not walked away that night dejected, never to be mentioned again. We are not left without learning more about what it meant when Jesus told him he needed to be born anew. Not at all.

Nicodemus shows up again. Near the end of chapter 7 he reminds his Jewish colleagues that according to the law, they should not judge Jesus before giving him a trial. That gets him a rebuke (7:45–52) and it gives us a glimpse of his budding faith.

One more time Nicodemus shows up when nearly all of Jesus’ disciples had fled. This time he appears after Jesus’ crucifixion. He accompanies Joseph of Arimathea to collect, anoint, and bury the body of Jesus, the one just executed by the Romans (19:38–42). Imagine that! Nicodemus in broad daylight this time, participating in a most heartfelt, heart-laden act of love. Nicodemus had grown in faith over time after all! The Spirit works in and through him. From questions and confusion at the start to publicly honoring the crucified, the timeline of faith for Nicodemus is seen in inspiring fullness.

In the midst of our times, these times, when faith may be challenged, I like to remember Nicodemus and how faith grew for him. It seems it grew “in God’s good time.” Not in our logical, rational sense of time.

Perhaps your experience of embracing faith has been easy, fast and strong and with only rare times of question or doubt. For others faith comes more in fits and starts, one step forward and two steps back. Or maybe faith feels more like an endless series of questions rather than easy, forthright affirmations. If that feels familiar then encountering Nicodemus’ story might be particularly meaningful.

But lest we get too focused on grasping the good news based on Nicodemus and leave the Divine in the background, this story is chiefly about God. With Nicodemus, Jesus is patient. Jesus does not dismiss him as hopeless. Jesus does not give up on him. So, if God keeps working in, on and through Nicodemus across three years and sixteen chapters in John’s Gospel, God will keep working in, on and through us no matter how long, how many questions, doubts, or seasons of confusion.

On this Trinity Sunday if you are looking to make a tie to its theme, Nicodemus shows us something very helpful. While he struggled to understand “being born from above,” the takeaway seems to be that we do not have to understand the Trinity (and, honestly, who can say that they do!) to be part of the church created, redeemed, and sustained by the Triune God.

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Kurt Jacobson

Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.