Nickelodeon is a venerable cable network these days.
It first started 40 years ago, the first cable channel for children.
We didn’t have cable when it started way back when
But like many others cable came to our house in the 80s
And Nickelodeon became part of my standard childhood repertoire.[i]
Realizing that kids go to bed early,
and not wanting to just give up for the night
Sometime around lights out and tuck in time around 8pm,
maybe 8:30 if you could somehow convince your parents
to give you one more story…
Nickelodeon launched Nick at Nite in 1985.
In lieu of Nickelodeon’s daily fare
of cartoons and game shows where one wrong phrase
Would get a bucket of slime dropped on your head
Nick at Nite re-ran live-action sitcoms and movies
It was aimed at Teenagers and Young Adults,
those who stayed up a bit longer.
Nick at Nite was one of the first to pioneer programming marathons
That’s where they just put on a show and let it run.
It was the place to go, apparently,
to see the Bob Newhart Show in its entirety
Back before on-demand internet was a thing.
And even today, if you want to watch Friends after 8pm
That’s where you have to go: to Nick at Nite
They have exclusive cable broadcast rights for nighttime airing.
Even if Netflix and the Internet is changing the entire ballgame.
Nick at Nite was the preferred channel for me as a teenager
When I was flipping around on the living room television.
No, not because I was captured by the programming
But because it was a convenient channel to flip to
When my parents came down the staircase
And I didn’t want them to know I was watching something else.
I’m not sure why it would have bothered them that I was watching
The Real World, though it was rather controversial at the time
Or if they minded that I was captivated
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air or whatever show I was into back then.
And looking back on it, I know it would not have mattered.
They knew me. They trusted my judgment.
But at 14 or 15 I was prepared, just in case,
To flip the channel to Nick at Nite, at any moment
To avoid any need to explain why I was watching The Simpsons.
Even if they probably had it playing on their TV upstairs, too…
Even if they knew, I’m sure, just what I was up to
And had the grace and the wisdom to grant me
Both the engagement, when necessary
And the space that teens need
to work through becoming an adult over those fascinating teenage years.
I know its maybe too obvious of a pun
But let us just observe
That the Gospel Story today is all about “Nick at Nite”
Nick would be Nicodemus,
Who came to Jesus at night, literally “in the dark.”
I was reflecting about those awkward teenage years when I read this story
With fresh eyes this week.
For some of us, those years were so long ago that it might be just a distant memory.
But try to remember, in your own way,
what it was like trying to make your way
Through the jumble of emotions and relationships that is adolescence
When you start tackling really fascinating, complicated subjects in school
Begin working with advanced mathematics
Start reflecting on basic questions of human existence
Such as “why are we here” or “what is our purpose”
Or “how does human society keep itself thriving”
Or “what are my responsibilities to other people around me”
by reading original texts from philosophers and the work of artists,
Processing everything through peers and popular music.
These are the years were you start opening your eyes to what is happening
In current events
And you start forming your own tentative views on everything
From climate change to lead in the water at Flint to
What it means for our Government to take children away
from detained undocumented migrants
While somehow losing track of hundreds of children under their care.
In my day, in the early 90s, it was more about Kuwait and the first invasion of Iraq
And the antics of Boris Yeltsin.
What was stirring inside of you when you were a teenager?
Sometimes we’re not ready to deal with all of that with our parents
Just at that moment, so we flip the channel,
We turn the page,
And, as parents know, you just keep the door open
For when the time is better
To help in whatever way you might,
through this fascinating, awkward, beautiful part of growing up.
I’m not sure that’s what Nicodemus was doing, exactly
When he snuck off to Jesus by night, in the dark,
But it might have been.
Some have noted, rightly,
That the author of the Gospel of John
Puts the order of certain things in the life of Jesus differently.
For instance, in the other Gospels,
Jesus goes into the temple and turns over the tables of the moneychangers
Sometime during his LAST week, that fateful holy week.
But in John, that happens quite early in Jesus’s ministry.
In fact, it happens just before our reading, in Chapter 2.
Where Jesus attends a Wedding, and turns Water into Wine
And then visits the temple and turns over those tables
Causing a big scene and enraging those
Who were exploiting the religious requirements of everyday people.
In other words, early, in the Gospel of John
Jesus begins to confront the leaders of Israel, including the Pharisees.
And throughout the Gospel, Jesus would be
Leading and teaching and healing and serving
In ways that would deepen the disconnect between him and those leaders.
You’re healing on the Sabbath, Jesus? Really?
You’re presuming to forgive sins in God’s name,
when isn’t that only’s God’s prerogative, Jesus?
You’re using Samaritans as examples of good faith and action, Jesus?
To be a Pharisee, in the Gospels,
was so often to be on the wrong side
To be contending with Jesus
To be trying to set him up and to get him into a trap
To try to show the everyday people why this Jesus fella is bad news.
So it is remarkable, really,
To have this story of Nicodemus
A Pharisee, a leader of the people.
Nicodemus doesn’t fit the mold.
He’s not trying to trap Jesus.
He’s not trying to confront or critique or harangue or intimidate Jesus
He’s not condemning his followers or girding for a fight.
Nicodemus is approaching with the intent to learn
He is seeking understanding.
He wants to know what is going on.
Nicodemus shows good will.
Which, again, is remarkable, given how the Pharisees are depicted in the Gospels
An example, if you need one,
For how, even HERE, the Bible counters our tendency to write off our opponents
To stereotype “the other” so broadly that we don’t give them a chance.
But Nicodemus knows, maybe, that going to Jesus wouldn’t be understood
By the other Pharisees
Or maybe that turning-of-the-tables incident has Jesus in a more secluded place
Or maybe he was just searching for answers,
and he didn’t want to have to explain it just yet
To others along the way
So Nicodemus went to Jesus at Night,
And begins to ask him about what in the world Jesus was up to.
Today is Trinity Sunday
A day where Preachers all over the world try in vain to explain a mystery.
Today we celebrate God the three in one, the one in three.
God the creator, redeemer, sustainer
God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, mother of us all.
We have creeds that put it into words:
“We believe in one God…
the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God
eternally begotten of the Father
God from God, Light from Light,
begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father”
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son
who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified…”
That’s from the Nicene Creed
Seeking to explicate how it is that One God is experienced in Three Persons.
The doctrine of the Trinity,
the idea that God is One and Three,
is one of the most distinguishing ideas of Christian faith.
It sets us apart from our friends who are Jews or Muslim,
who believe (as we do) that there is only one God
but not in God’s threefoldness.
Truth be told, the very idea sometimes confuses us,
but this mystery is deep in the DNA of our faith.
There is so much that could be said
and a whole lexicon of fascinating, obscure vocabulary
not only in Latin but also in Greek, that has tried, over 2000 years, to say it.
I’ve led six week classes on the subject.
I’m not sure anyone knew it any better after we were done.
But there is a fairly simple idea at the heart of things, here:
God is One
and the way God is one is to be in relationship.
And the character of that relationship is love.
And, in the end, explaining love or dissecting relationship
Falls apart, because they rely on trust and respect and compassion and hope
Not on cognition and words and linguistic frameworks.
There’s a way in which our teenage years are all about learning that
Testing out ways of being in relationship with people
Learning to love and trust yourself
As you learn about others, the world, and about God.
And maybe that’s what is motivating Nicodemus here, too
As he goes to Jesus and asks him about who he is and what he’s seeking to do.
Nicodemus is trying, and you can’t help but sympathize with him
As he asks Jesus, and Jesus answers
And those answers just don’t seem to be working for him.
Jesus, you seem to have the very presence of God with you
Because of all these signs you do…
Nicodemus, you can’t see the Kingdom of God without being Born from Above.
But Jesus, I’ve already been Born. I’m here, in front of you
What do you mean?
Very truly, Nicodemus, you must be born of both Water and Spirit.
Don’t be so astonished. The Spirit, the wind of God,
blows where it will blow.
You cannot contain it.
You hear it, you experience it, but it moves of its own
And for those who see the Kingdom of God
It will blow through them, too…
Jesus! How can this be?
And Jesus recognizes that these mysteries are not sinking in
That he is talking about spiritual things
And that Nicodemus, trying though he might be
Is still struggling with it all
And so Jesus tries to sum it all up
With what has become maybe the most beloved line in all of the Gospels:
God so loved the world that God gave the only Son
That whoever believes in Him may not perish,
but may have eternal life.
Indeed God did not send the Son … to condemn the world,
but …that the world might be saved through Him.”
And here you have all three aspects of the One God weaving in and out
Of this seeker’s experience:
God the Parent
Christ the teacher
The Holy Spirit, blowing and weaving and connecting
Even in ways we do not fully comprehend or understand
But always for the saving and redemption of the world….
I believe in the Trinity,
And I have my own ways that, as an adult, I’ve come to try to understand it better
But I no longer feel compelled to have it make complete and incontrovertible sense.
Some things in life really are mystery.
Not every truth has to have seamless edges.
I’ve found it to be a remarkable gift of the Christian faith
To try to explain God in a multi-faceted, dynamic way.
This only makes sense, really, if God truly IS love
Because Love only works in relationship
In a give-and-take built on mutual respect and equality and trust and esteem.
God, somehow, has the ability to be ok with all of that
To let us come to God, sometimes in the cover of darkness
Sometimes in broad daylight
Sometimes so sure that we can stand up in the face of danger
Can sacrifice our lives on the front
Can speak a word of compassion to someone who needs it
Can assert that there’s something broken in our world
And that we have an obligation to do something about it
Through acts of mercy and compassion and grace.
God has the ability to be ok with us when we’re not so sure
When it all seems like a jumble
When we’re testing and trying out various ideas and concepts and experiments
When it all seems like bunk,
Because others who claim the name of Christ do horrible things
Or because three in one and one in three just doesn’t make enough sense
Or when we don’t think we’re good enough, or capable enough, or ready enough
And we don’t really want God to be calling us right now, thank you very much
Certainly not with a hot coal for our lips
But Maybe not even with the inconvenience of caring right now.
God, somehow, has the ability to be ok with all of that
Because God came into the world not to condemn, but to show us the way of salvation.
A power that shows the world a different way.
A grace that challenges us to expand our horizions.
A love so high so deep so broad
That the world cannot contain it.
And invites you to be a part of it.
May we invite that amazing, incredible, prodigal love of God into our lives
And let it shape us and mold us
So that God can use us, anywhere and anytime.
May it be so.
[i] For information on Nickelodeon, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nickelodeon (accessed May 26, 2018). For information about Nick at Nite, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_at_Nite (accessed May 26, 2018)
Image credit: Trinity Window, Liège Cathedral, By Digdeman at https://pixabay.com/en/church-window-liege-cathedral-511751/ (by creative commons license). Accessed May 26, 2018.