The words of today’s psalm used in the popular late 1970’s Boney M‘s Rivers of Babylon were penned 2600 years ago as a lament of a people in exile from their Jerusalem home and in captivity in Babylon.
These exiles longed for their homeland and all it represented for them. They appreciated that their land had been gifted to them by God, the promised land of milk and honey.
They were devastated that the dwelling place of God among them, the Temple, had been destroyed by the Babylonian invaders, and their brightest and best had been taken as prisoners to the heart of the Babylonian kingdom 2700km from Jerusalem. In Babylon they were held as prisoners in the period of history known as the (70-year) Babylonian Exile.
Their anthem in this captivity was “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem). How can we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land?”
In the gospels Jesus sometimes speaks to crowds, but the most notable moments are his encounters with individuals who are experiencing some kind of exile, some distance from what they desire in the daily reality of their lives.
Perhaps today when so many of us are exiled from those we love due to the Covid travel restrictions we get a taste of what it is to experience exile.
In today’s gospel we meet Nicodemus, a Pharisee and (as chapter three of John begins by telling us) a leading member of the Jewish ruling council.
It is clear that Nicodemus was experiencing an inner turmoil: he is a Pharisee yet he greets Jesus respectfully acknowledging “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God – no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
The verses immediately preceding this passage tell us that Nicodemus came to see Jesus under cover of darkness. “It was night” (John 3:2). Perhaps he was too afraid to openly visit Jesus in the daylight?
Perhaps the secretive Nicodemus, keeping his desire for Jesus in the shadows of night, is surprised to hear Jesus say as if reading his shy soul: “the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light.”
Jesus continues by highlighting the tension we all feel at times:
“For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
It takes a lot of energy to live in one way while desiring another. To put this another way, sin is hard work!
We all experience this – the tension between our desire for the good and the light, and the parts of our lives that are still in shadow and darkness.
Pope Benedict reflected on Nicodemus a few years ago:
“The Gospel presents to us a person by the name of Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem who sought out Jesus by night. He was a well-to-do man, attracted by the Lord’s words and example, but one who hesitated to take the leap of faith because he was fearful of others. He felt the fascination of this Rabbi, so different from the others, but could not manage to rid himself of the conditioning of his environment that was hostile to Jesus, and stood irresolute on the threshold of faith.
“How many people also in our time are in search of God, in search of Jesus and of his Church, in search of divine mercy, and are waiting for a “sign” that will touch their minds and their hearts!
“Today, as then, the Evangelist reminds us that the only “sign” is Jesus raised on the Cross: Jesus who died and rose is the absolutely sufficient sign. Through him we can understand the truth about life and obtain salvation.
“This is the principal proclamation of the Church, which remains unchanged down the ages.
“The Christian faith, therefore, is not an ideology but a personal encounter with the Crucified and Risen Christ. From this experience, both individual and communitarian, flows a new way of thinking and acting: an existence marked by love is born, as the saints testify.
- Invite the Holy Spirit to reveal to you some way in which you are living in exile from your true self. Another way of asking the same question is to consider some way in which you feel distant from God. (if we are distance from ourselves we are distant from God and if we are distant from God we are distant from ourselves.)
- Now, be aware of the desire you have to live with integrity. Invite Jesus to show you a step by step path to greater integrity so that you can come home to yourself and in this way come home to God.
- If you are in Auckland this week and feel like an hour of encouragement you might be interested in the sessions I am leading at Takapuna Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Refer to the notice below. All welcome.
- Many readers will remember the Boney M hit Rivers of Babylon. It got me thinking about the many other scriptural texts that have become popular hits in the last few decades. Let me know of any you can think of and I’ll share them here over the next few days.