As Jesus goes on to tell how God so loves the world that he gives his only begotten Son, Nicodemus fades from St John’s Gospel story, and disappears back into the night whence he came. Do your steps quicken, on a dark winter’s evening, as the wind billows round you, and the snow whips up, and the warmth of your fireside beckons? Night means exposure to the elements. Night means secret, untold, unmentionable things. Burglaries happen at night, under cover of darkness. Secret agents ply their trade under the cloak of secrecy that night affords. Sleep deserts you, sometimes, in the wee small hours. People die in the lonely watch before the dawn. Betrayals are sealed at night, sometimes with a kiss, sometimes in return for thirty pieces of silver. Clandestine arrests take place, by torchlight. There are no street lamps yet in Jerusalem, as Nicodemus walks slowly and thoughtfully home.
But night does have other meanings. Babies are often born at night, and perhaps Nicodemus cradles and cherishes in his mind the new-born mystery that Jesus has expounded to him, the mystery of birth from above, of begetting by the Spirit. ‘You should not be surprised,’ Jesus had said; but he is. ‘No-one can see the kingdom of God, unless he is reborn.’ How can this be?
For now, Nicodemus disappears back into the night. Where might the daytime take him? Does he perhaps report back to those others in Jerusalem whom he seems to represent when he goes to see Jesus? Those who also recognise Jesus as a ‘teacher come from God.’ I imagine him soon after, with a small group of these enquirers after faith, recounting his conversation with Jesus. I wonder how their thinking unfolds, as they ponder this revolutionary teaching, that God is our heavenly Father, begetting our spiritual existence by his Spirit.
‘My father was awesome, distant,’ explains one of Nicodemus’ friends. ‘He was well-respected, and important. But I never knew him closely, he wasn’t much involved in bringing me up. He was a stranger in many respects, and I never felt that I measured up to his expectations. I always got the feeling that I was a big disappointment to him. So I’m not sure what help it will be to think of God as my father: all I know of fatherhood makes me feel ashamed and inadequate. And I have always felt that God is remote from me and uninvolved in my life.’
‘My father beat me and belittled me,’ says another, bitterly. The rest of them can see the pain; and his emotions are clear from the clenched, white-knuckled fists gripping the sides of his chair. ‘Once I grew up, we fought whenever we met. I hated him then, and I hate him now. What sort of God is he that wants me to call him father, when all that I know of fathers repels me utterly?’ Is there any answer to a question like this?
‘I never knew my father.’ Another member of the group tells his story. ‘He left my mother soon after I was born. I have always wondered what he was like, and why he deserted me. I’ve always thought, deep down, that it must have been my fault that he wasn’t there. I long to find him, and know him, and find out who I am from him. But it would be a risk. What might I find, if I were to find my father? And God? It feels as though it’s my job to reach out to him, rather than the other way round’.
There can be pain, when we think of fathers. There can be barriers to overcome. But some of the group have good memories, and happier stories to tell.
‘My father was a real character, a loveable rogue, you might say. He worked hard all his life, but he never missed a chance to cock a snook at authority, and it got him into a lot of trouble. Yet somehow he always came up smiling, and able to see the funny side of life. I guess there must have been bad times, but I will always remember him with fondness and affection. And I have always felt that God was with me: in the background, yet somewhere close.’
Someone else goes on, ‘Yes, I was lucky enough to grow to be friends with my father. He taught me all I know about life, but he was not afraid to learn from me as well. The idea of God being a friend-father is enormously reassuring to me.’
‘I have only begun to realise what my parents went through bringing me up since I had my own children,’ explains another speaker. ‘I had no idea how much hard work, how much soul-searching and how much anxiety there is. Only now do I begin to appreciate the sacrifices they made, and the hardships they endured: I took it all for granted at the time. But a God who would change nappies, and sing you to sleep at night, and soothe you when you were ill; I’m not sure I can cope with the idea of a God who is so intimately involved in my life. Yet if God could be proud to call me his son, that’s overwhelming.’
Our own perceptions of what it means to be a father have changed so much over the generations. Our grandparents might not even recognise the sort of fathers our grandsons will expect to be. We have to use words of some kind, if we are to communicate with each other. Yet our experiences of our own fathers colour the way we think of God as father, perhaps far more than we realise. Sometimes the term ‘father’ trips off one tongue without thought, not seeing that another person cannot even bear to form the word on their lips.
I wonder again about Nicodemus, and whether the concerns we have surrounding fathers bothered him at all. I wonder about his father, and what they expected of each other, all those years ago. I wonder if that crucial relationship helped Nicodemus to grasp what Jesus had said to him, or whether his own father got in the way of understanding God as his spiritual father. Do you think that Nicodemus and his father could have been close enough for God’s fatherhood to shine through their relationship? Close enough for their love to speak to Nicodemus of God’s love? Or if not, whether there was someone else in Nicodemus’ life who stood in somehow? Some other model of what a good father could be: an uncle, a rabbi-schoolteacher, the parent of a boyhood friend? Someone else who could encourage him, and forgive him, help him know himself, show him how to treat others with love and integrity?
So that when he comes at last by night to Jesus, and hears of begetting by the Father, it makes some kind of sense? I wonder if Jesus’ words illuminate the darkness from which Nicodemus emerges? I wonder if his eyes shine with the new understanding, that God is not remote and distant, nor brutal, nor judgmental; but concerned enough to become one with our fallen, damaged humanity through his Son? That God could be close at hand, sitting up at night, changing nappies, even?
© Jon Russell 2020