Lately I’ve been hearing shrieks of dismay from my daughter’s room when her father is finished reading to her before bedtime. Not to worry, no calls to Child and Family Services required. They are reading The Twisted Rose Key together. The author is very skilled in leaving every chapter with a cliffhanger. Apparently, the appropriate response to a really good cliffhanger is to scream. Her brain is running in circles when Jim turns off the light and says, “That’s it. Goodnight!” I feel her pain. I just finished watching the end of season 3 of Sherlock and felt like screaming too. “You mean I have to wait another YEAR to find out what happens next?!!”
I admire the writer of a good cliffhanger. A good cliff hanger brings the reader/viewer to the point where they feel confident of what they know and the ground underneath. Suddenly, the ground opens beneath and one has to question everything once believed to be firm and solid. This is how a cliffhanger is truly transformational. It sends the reader/viewer into a tizzy, surely. It also engages the reader/viewer so that one could not possibly detach from the story without going on and being willing to be changed by it, even if it means one has to accept truths or possibilities one was unwilling or unable to accept at the beginning. It’s hugely powerful stuff, and not something one should do before going to bed if sleep is at all the object of going to bed.
John 3:16 has to be one of the most, if not THE most familiar bible verse in the world, even among non-Christians. If you watch sports at all, you’ve seen it broadcast on bedsheets at least once a weekend. For all that familiarity, the chapter of John 3 with the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night is a very artful cliffhanger. I think most of us read it like Wylie Coyote walking off the cliff, though. He continues to walk on air until all at once he figures out nothing is down there, then waves a chagrined “bye bye” to the audience before he plummets down into the canyon.
Now, Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader of the religious establishment. Don’t jump to conclusions about Pharisees as bad guys. That’s not the point of the story at all, and it would be wrong. Nicodemus is more like us than not. He was a good kid, raised on Torah and the ten commandments, probably got stars next to his name for doing his memory work, never missed prayers, and had enough ambition to rise to the top among other hoi poloi in the religious establishment. So you see, he was more like we are, or more like we feel like we should be, than not. He probably knew how to take the tests better than the average cub bear too. Maybe he wanted to show Jesus that he knew some things so that Jesus would talk to him peer-to-peer. Smart kids in class do that a lot.
Nick comes to Jesus at night. I know that night is symbolic in John, and that when Jesus warns that night will come it’s not about the position of the sun in the sky, and that when Judas leaves the room to do his business with the Temple guards John will tell us it is night. I still want to defend night. The cover of darkness isn’t always about lies and deceit and criminal activity. Sometimes the cover of darkness is just that—a cover. It’s at night, under the cover and in the dark that my children tell me things they don’t tell me at the dinner table. It’s at night, under the cover and in the dark that the shy and uncertain lovers find the safety needed to explore the intimacy they crave. It’s at night, when my head is spinning with too many cliffhangers in the day, that the darkness calms my thoughts so that I can finally think. Nick comes to Jesus at night. It’s a time for truth telling, and it’s a time when the darkness shelters enough for the truth to be told when you soul is lying bare.
Nick comes to Jesus with an ingratiating, “We know that you must be a teacher from God, because only someone from God could do the signs you do.” Nick knows something, and this much feels firm under his feet. If A=B, and B=C, then A must equal C too. Surely you learned that in algebra one. I learned it in 9th grade. My daughter learned it in 4th. I thought it was hard in 9th grade. I am humbled. Nick knows how babies are born too, and he knows how people die. There are some things that have been true from the beginning and will be true to the end. Jesus takes what Nick knows, and somehow A=B and A=C, but Nick doesn’t know so much about B and C anymore. How can this be, that this old man can crawl back into his mother’s womb and be reborn? I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure that is as good as it sounds. I wouldn’t mind having my cute little 18 year old body back, but I don’t welcome all the durm und strang of being that age again. Nick knows that Jesus must be from God, but he doesn’t understand how it can be that he himself can be born of God, be born from above. Pretty soon his eyes must have crossed as though he were trying to count his nose hairs. Nick asks “How can this be?” while Jesus asks “How can you believe?” Nick wants answers. Jesus wants faith, which isn’t the same as a clever hypothesis posed to look like an answer. Jesus wants his trust. Trust will bring him out of the darkness and into the light.
What Nick wants will bring condemnation and judgment, because if you don’t get the right answers, well then, you’re wrong. Nick has excelled in getting the right answers, but that only means he is all the more fearful of getting the wrong answers. What Jesus wants will bring love and freedom to come into the light. What Jesus wants makes it safe and even enjoyable for the shy lovers to not wait for the cover of night to protect them. Love does that. Love explodes the box where all the right answers fit. That, my friends, is a cliff hanger. What does it mean that God “so loved the world?” God sent the Son out of love, not in order to condemn. Still, we hide ourselves, uncertain about these imperfections in our bodies, still worried about how we measure up. Will we be able to receive this gift, this love? And if we do….what’s the risk? What would we have to give up from the firm ground of everything we know that is under our feet?
We don’t want to be Wylie Coyote power walking in thin air. We don’t know what becomes of Nick at this point. That’s the cliff hanger we’re going to have to live with to the end of the story. I think Nick is one of those characters in the gospel who is a plant—Nick is us. Nick is the place where we belong in the story, the place most like our own.
You must be newborn from above, Jesus insists. Being newborn feels just….just so dangerous. There’s such a thing as infant mortality you know. Are spiritual infants as vulnerable as fleshly ones? Being newborn takes away the solid ground underneath one who has spent a life finding answers, growing in the esteem of others, earning respect, being, well, adult.
I remember when my children were born. I remember looking at them and finally understanding what my mother said I wouldn’t understand until I had kids of my own. I remember loving them as I had loved nothing else in this world, not because they earned it or were worthy of it in any way. I just loved them because. Parents have to live with the cliff hanger throughout their children’s lives. There are daily cliff hangers: when will she learn to walk? When will he give up diapers? What news will she bring when she gets off the bus? Will I have grandchildren or a grandog? Then there’s the big kahuna existential questions we tackle when we can’t sleep: Will they grow up ok? Will I be a good enough parent? Will they overcome my mistakes? Through our children, we hope to leave the world our legacy and a better place because they are part of it.
This is the most groundshaking thing I understood when I gave birth: God loves the world newborn. God loves the world so newborn, that every day God frees us to be new again, free of shame. God takes us to the cliff like some Rafiki (Lion King, the baboon, remember?) and holds us in the air for the world to behold the new thing God wants to accomplish through us: love. It’s a real cliffhanger, that.
Nick comes back at the end of the story. We don’t know much about what happened with him inbetween. It’s a pretty safe guess that he was in the gathering that discussed setting Jesus up for the Romans. But when Jesus hangs as a criminal on the cross, an insurrectionist against the Empire, it’s Joseph of Arimethea and Nick who ask Pilate to release Jesus’ dead body to them. It’s Joe and Nick who carry Jesus’ broken body and place it in the tomb. Nick had to be remembering Jesus words about being born new. Nick had to be wondering, don’t you think, if he was planting a seed or covering up a body when he laid Jesus down, whether this was the beginning of life or the end, a newborn to show him how it’s done. God looked into those wondering, studious, newborn eyes and just loved. Just. Loved. We are left to wonder what came next for Nick, but we have only our own lives to examine for the evidence, because as I said, we are Nick