I have a recurring dream where I am driving. It’s dark, and the road winds through the woods, up and down hills. I’m struggling to stay on the road; I’m concentrating and squinting and leaning into the windshield, trying to get a better view. Usually all I can make out is the white line on the side of the road, which is really all I need to drive, but I can only see it a couple of feet ahead of me.
When I say it’s dark, I mean, it’s DARK. There are no streetlights, and my car’s headlights don’t work. Occasionally, I get a glimpse of the road as an oncoming car flashes into view, but even those lights have a blinding effect, confusing me and making it even harder to see once they have passed.
I feel so helpless and out of control. I’m a good driver, I know what to do, and I even seem to be familiar with this road, but there is just no safe way to drive in the dark. Typically, my car ends up going faster and faster until I’ve lost total control of it, but somehow, despite my suffocating panic, it stays on the road. I stay on the road. The dream never really concludes, just flows into another nonsensical scenario, but even so, I’m left breathless and weary, terrified of my next venture through the dark woods.
To the author of the Gospel of John, the world is a place of polarities: light and dark, body and spirit, good and bad. John’s Jesus is mystical, performing miraculous acts and seeming to speak in riddles. This Jesus is shrewd and can’t quite be pinned down. John 2:25 notes that Jesus “didn’t need anyone to tell him about human nature, for he knew what human nature was.” In John’s Gospel, there’s no fooling Jesus. The world is dark, and he is the light. Nothing makes sense without him.
Into this darkness walked a man who had checked all the boxes. As far as we know, he was a good man, a respected Pharisee. Nicodemus followed the rules, did what he was told, and advanced through the ranks of religious leadership. But he was intrigued by this mysterious Jesus, so he took a risk and made a visit, trusting the darkness to keep his secret safe. He literally snuck to see Jesus under the cover of darkness.
“Jesus,” he said, “you have performed miracle after miracle. You must be from God. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do any of this.” Saying even this much could have been considered blasphemy.
Jesus’ reply was characteristically cryptic: “Unless you are born anew, you cannot see God’s kingdom.” I have to wonder if at this point Nicodemus was questioning what he was thinking in going to see Jesus. He must have felt even more in the dark now.
Nicodemus and Jesus continued their verbal sparring for another few rounds, Nicodemus struggling to understand the impossible things Jesus was saying, before Jesus came out with what might be the most frequently quoted Scripture of all time: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” Nicodemus snuck back home in the dark, I assume, more confused than ever.
Being in the dark keeps you from being seen, but it also keeps you from seeing, right?
I think it’s interesting that the first mention of God’s kingdom in John’s Gospel is about “seeing” it. A few verses later Jesus talks about “entering” God’s kingdom, but it starts with seeing, doesn’t it? After all, you can’t enter something you can’t see, right?
I would venture a guess that before he encountered Jesus, Nicodemus’s world was as dark as my dream road. In the prologue to John’s Gospel, the author likens Jesus to the light, and the light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. … The light was in the world … but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God.”
The new birth is linked to the darkness and made possible through the light. The light of Jesus helps us see the kingdom of God.
Through Jesus, we shift from seeing the world as it is to seeing it as it can be. After encountering the light, our perspective changes. This is how we see God’s kingdom, here and now, in and among us.
God’s kingdom is not some far off place or unattainable reality. God’s kingdom is kindness to a stranger (or, even harder, kindness to those close to us), a cup of cold water on a summer day, generous giving to causes that make a difference, and authentic engagement with people unlike ourselves. God’s kingdom is the prodigal restored as son. God’s kingdom is the Pharisee turned Christ follower. God’s kingdom is, in the words of John Newton, a slave trader turned priest, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost but now I’m found / Was blind but now I see.”
God’s kingdom is HERE. NOW. Can you see it? Can you feel it? Can you enter it?
You can. We can. But only if we shift our perspective by drawing near to the light and letting the darkness fall away. I’ll be honest: sometimes the dark is comforting. Sometimes the darkness lets us off the hook. If we can’t see the world’s hurt, we don’t have to do anything about it, do we? But I promise, life in the light is so much richer. Nicodemus helped usher in the kingdom of God then. Now it’s our turn.
Nicodemus shows up in John’s Gospel two other times. In Chapter 7, Nicodemus defended Jesus from the chief priests and Pharisees, appealing to Jesus’ rights according to their legal system. The light was beginning to pierce Nicodemus’s darkness. By the end of the Gospel, we see that Nicodemus’s transition was complete: in the light of day, he joined Joseph of Arimathea at the cross, anointing and preparing Jesus’ body for burial. He was all in, for “The light [shone] in the darkness, and the darkness [didn’t] extinguish the light.”
Nancy Speas is an ordained minister and a freelance writer and editor in Nashville, Tennessee.