“Nicodemus said, ‘How are these things possible?’”
John 3:9 (Common English Bible)
Someone once commented that today we are hanging a question mark on everything. Rarely is anything simply accepted without a deeper inquiry. We are suspicious of anyone who declares, “Just trust me.” Offers that are too good to be true often aren’t. Telephone scams, fraudulent use of personal information and malfeasance by elected leaders advances a culture of distrust. Nearly everything is challenged. Doubt is pervasive and this is particularly true in matters of faith. Declining membership and church attendance on a national scale suggest doubt that the church has anything of value to contribute to the present conversations and struggles that engage our nation. There is a new level of skepticism operative in public discourse.
Nicodemus is skeptical of Jesus. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus is an authority of the Jewish law and interpreter of religious statutes. Widely regarded as someone who is exemplary in character and intelligence, he belongs to a distinguished company of seventy-two elder statesmen. Nicodemus has heard of Jesus and, here in John’s Gospel, we learn that he came to Jesus “at night.” That is a curious notation – “at night.” The deepest beliefs and cherished traditions that Nicodemus is charged with defending are now being disrupted by Jesus. As a defender of the religious status quo, Nicodemus might challenge Jesus’ own claims of authority by day, where it would be noticed – and applauded – widely. But Nicodemus comes to Jesus “at night” so that he may go unnoticed. That is because Nicodemus doesn’t come to challenge Jesus’s teachings but to make a serious inquiry.
Nicodemus’ skepticism is clear, “How are these things possible?” He cannot say “yes” to Jesus but – and perhaps more importantly – he cannot say “no.” Nicodemus has serious doubts about the teachings of Jesus but they are not doubts that result in him dismissing Jesus. They are doubts that result in a long, unhurried, and uninterrupted conversation with Jesus. They are doubts that pull Nicodemus forward in faith. Nicodemus is not ready to become a disciple of Jesus, but he refused to turn his back on Jesus. It has been said that one mark of intelligence is the capacity to make inquiry where there is doubt. Nicodemus has doubts but he is far too intelligent to remain belligerently fixed on his own understanding of truth.
Naturally, there are people who will only accept what is obvious to everyone else. They possess a dull intelligence. Their doubt is a dishonest one. It is not located in the desire to know the truth but in the preservation of sheer prejudice. It is a doubt that poisons the very root of sincere inquiry and search for truth. It is afraid of the light and finds habitation in darkness more desirable. This isn’t so with Nicodemus. When he came to Jesus with his doubts he demonstrated his belief that there may be more truth than he presently possessed. Nicodemus was prepared for his doubts to pull him toward a deeper understanding of God. And Jesus sat with Nicodemus through the long hours of the night until the darkness broke and, with the dawn, came greater clarity of faith.