Our children used to watch “Nick at Nite,” the evening version of the cable channel Nickelodeon, which aired old TV series — including, ironically, the very shows from the ‘60s we grew up watching: Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith, Gilligan’s Island, and The Beverly Hillbillies. They seemed to enjoy them as much as we did when we were their age. It gave us something to talk and laugh about, a common language, which is no small thing when you are concerned parents working hard at communicating with your kids.
In the story of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel we meet another “Nick at Nite,” an old scriptural rerun which still plays well today, a story worth telling to your kids. They may one day find themselves looking for truth in the dark.
Nicodemus was a man of some substance in Jerusalem. He had property, wealth, position, power, respect — and with all of this a religion that gave him all of the answers. All he had to do was follow the well laid out rules of his religion, and he was set for a good life. Yet Nicodemus was a troubled man. There was something lacking in his life, something crucial, without which all of the other things he had acquired and accomplished meant nothing.
Do you know what it’s like to feel an emptiness in the center of your being — a hungry gnawing in the pit of your soul that demands sustenance? You might ignore it for a while, perhaps for years, but sooner or later it demands attention. The emptiness, the gnawing, the hunger become a consuming passion. Where do you turn?
We often misinterpret this craving as a need for food or drink or companionship or love, and we seek satisfaction in friendship or a lover, in our work, in success. If we can do something important, contribute something to the world, make our family secure, get a piece of the rock and have some real power and authority... then maybe...
Then, like Nicodemus, when we have had all these things we discover that the emptiness is still there. What to do?
William Barclay says, “Nicodemus is up against the eternal problem of a person who wants to be changed but cannot change himself.”
John Wesley turned to good works and to a more rigorous religious life. He wrote of his dark night of the soul:
“I began to alter the whole form of my conversation, and to set in earnest upon a new life. I set apart an hour or two a day for religious retirement. I communicated every week. I watched against all sin, whether in word or in deed. I began to aim at and pray for inward holiness.... I began visiting the prisons, assisting the poor and sick in town, and doing what other good I could, by my presence or my little fortune, to the bodies and souls of all men. Yet when, after continuing some years in this course, I apprehended myself to be near death, I could not find that all this gave me any comfort or any assurance of acceptance with God.”
Have you been there? Have you ever prayed, “What else can I do, Lord? Nothing I do seems to be enough”?
Perhaps that is where Nicodemus was when his search led him to Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and to the Pharisees there was only one way to the kingdom of God: by keeping the Law of Moses, by observing every detail of that law, by hard work; by your own good work, by faithfulness in attending the temple, by eating only clean food, by keeping the Sabbath, and by avoiding contact with sinners and Gentiles.
The Pharisees believed that if all Israel would keep the law perfectly for one day, the kingdom of God would come. If only everybody would come to worship, if only everybody would pay their pledge and sign up for the nursery, of only we could get more people to sing in the choir — sound familiar?
It wasn’t enough. Getting more religion and living more religiously is never enough. So Nicodemus found himself knocking on Jesus’ door in the dark of night.