The second week of our Love Language series is “Words of Affirmation.” People who receive love primarily through words of affirmation love feeling understood and receiving recognition for their labor and contributions. It paired well with Nicodemus, who is seeking to understand and to be understood. This is a very famous passage (and particularly verse) in John, so it was fun to look at it from a new angle.
Readings: Lectionary Readings for Lent 2
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
At least two or three nights a week, I fall asleep on the couch while we’re watching TV. Lights on, TV blaring, sixty-pound dog cutting off circulation in my legs, doesn’t matter, I’m dead to the world. But then, when I wake up and drag myself to the bedroom, with its blackout curtains and white noise machine and cool mist humidifier—the perfect environment for sleeping—I’m wide awake. Sleep will not come anymore.
Instead what comes are all the questions and thoughts, emerging from the nooks and crannies of my mind in the shadows. At first, they are very utilitarian: did we remember to take the dog out? Lock the door? Did I set the alarm for the morning? I forgot to put laundry detergent on the shopping list.
But then, seemingly without warning, the questions will change, morph into something more serious: Is my grandmother going to recover from this illness? Am I ready to be a parent? Will my baby be safe from coronavirus? Will my parents? Why doesn’t God seem to answer my prayers? Does God really care about us—about me? At that point, night has truly descended. The questions come, more honest, but safer, somehow, less exposed than if they were thought in daylight.
What is it about the night that invites questions? That causes us to worry and doubt, to hope and imagine? I’m not sure, but it was definitely at play for Nicodemus, too. He comes to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness. It is strongly implied that this is to keep his visit secret. He comes in darkness to visit the one who has come to be a light in dark places. He isn’t ready yet to ask his questions in the light of day. But I also wonder if the night plagued Nicodemus with questions, too.
What do we actually know about Nicodemus, this partner with Jesus in one of the more famous conversations in the Bible? Well, for starters, we know that he is a Pharisee. This means that he is someone concerned with piety, with living out God’s righteousness in everyday life. Pharisees get a bad reputation in the Bible, because they are often opponents of Jesus, and there are some real points of disagreement that I don’t mean to brush over, but that’s because the Pharisees took their religion really seriously. It meant a lot to them that they were following the law and doing the right things, that’s why Jesus was such a disruptive force. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t have been bothered.
Nicodemus is also on the Sanhedrin, the ruling court that oversaw religious, civil, and criminal affairs. So this is a religious man with a lot of power. He’s been paying attention, and so he knows what Jesus has been up to. This is only the third chapter in the Gospel of John, but already Jesus has created a name for himself. Just before this conversation, Jesus cleared the Temple courts of the moneychangers and predicted its destruction. That’s something that happened at the end of Jesus’ life in the other three gospels, but in John it’s one of his first public acts of ministry. It sets the stage for questions and confrontation.
And so, Nicodemus comes with his questions. He acknowledges Jesus’ power and the fact that God is working through Jesus. But he wants to understand more. Has he come on his own? Did the council send him to try to get dirt on Jesus? We don’t know. But Jesus’ takes his questions and inquiries seriously. He tries to explain to him that God is doing something new. That he must be born again—or born from above—of water and the Spirit.
Nicodemus, bless his heart, just doesn’t seem to understand. And honestly, how could he? He’s taking this all much too literally, but it’s also a lot to take in all at once. Jesus is referencing his crucifixion, which hasn’t happened yet, and isn’t speaking in a straightforward way at all. It’s confusing enough for us to puzzle out, I think, and we know the end of the story.
But then Jesus stops speaking in riddles and gets to the heart of the matter: God loves the world. God is trying to save the world; God is inviting the world into something new. This is not about condemnation but about God’s deep and abiding love for the whole world.
We’re talking this Lent about love languages, how we each give and receive love in different ways, and how God uses all of those ways to reach out to us in love. This week is the love language of Words of Affirmation. People who receive love in this way are all about hearing it. Like actually hearing you say the words. It’s not about the need for praise or constant validation, rather people who receive love through words of affirmation want to know they matter to you. It’s not always just saying, “I love you,” either. Words of affirmation people want to be seen and acknowledged. Phrases like: “I appreciate it when you….,” “I value you because…,” and “You are important to be because…” mean so much.
Jesus has been performing signs, doing powerful acts, and it’s all quite impressive. Nicodemus has seen what Jesus has done and is clearly intrigued. But to hear, in no uncertain terms, that this is for him, well that means a lot to someone who needs words of affirmation. God loves the world—the whole world—that means you, Nicodemus. That means us, too. This whole rebirth thing? It’s because of how much God loves us. God wants to do something new with us, to bring us into a new way of seeing and being and loving in the world.
Christianity has sometimes turned being born again into something that we have to accomplish to please God. Well, I’ve actually been studying up on birth lately, and it turns out we’re not super active participants in our own births. There’s someone else who does the labor for us to be born. God in the Holy Spirit is the one who labors to bring each of us to new birth.
Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes love doesn’t sink in right away. We need to hear the words and ponder them. Then hear them again. This is the end of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, but it isn’t the end of Nicodemus’ story. He comes back again when the council is trying to arrest Jesus. He speaks on Jesus’ behalf, arguing that he must be given a hearing before being arrested. Then Nicodemus comes back one final time, after the crucifixion. He brings 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body, and he helps Joseph of Arimathea lay him in the tomb.
We don’t get to see the impact that Jesus’ words have on Nicodemus right away. It takes a while sometimes for us to let those affirming, life-giving words sink in. Jesus invites Nicodemus, as he invites each of us, to come into the light of day and become full participants in the abundant life he offers. It’s not something we can do on our own. It is God who will give birth in water and the Spirit. Rebirth is God’s gift to give, God’s work to accomplish, and it is God who labors to bring us to new life. God loves the whole world. Which means God loves us. And God will keep seeking us out, keep working, keep laboring, to bring us to share in abundant life. Amen.