Michelangelo's Nicodemus

Naked Intent

Fourth Sunday of Lent

2 Chronicles 36:14-23 OR Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:4-10
John 3:14-21 OR John 6:4-15

I am Nicodemus: scared, grasping in the dark for certainties. For all my learning and skills with words, a disgraced Samaritan woman gets Jesus faster and wastes no time in spreading the news. (see John 4)

Is it because I, scared of what people will think, prefer coming at night, tripping over words and their meanings? Maybe you know how that feels. Maybe you’re Nicodemus, too.

To know is so satisfying, but it’s a lonely satisfaction, accomplishing far less than I pretend: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

I like to imagine I know enough to make my way through life’s wilderness, only to find myself suddenly prostrate, bitten by circumstance and my own misshapen desires, and the best I can do is look, powerless and at a distance, for one lifted up.

The anonymous fourteenth century author of The Cloud of Unknowing writes that all we ever really bring to God is a naked intent (“a nakid entent” in the original). God makes use of that, healing our wounds and shaping us according to God’s will.

Indulge my word weakness for a moment: “naked,” means unadorned – as in the “naked truth” – with nothing to hide our embarrassment and frailty. “Intent” is a purpose or desire, and comes from the Latin intendere: “to stretch out, lean toward, strain,” but not necessarily “to grasp.” The simplest stretching toward is the best we can offer; the rest is not our doing.

God loves the world, though it prefers darkness to light. When we grow disgusted with our blessings and fall captive to the latest power, then God (who is rich in mercy) offers refuge. In our weakened state, we are gathered into the hospital of the church – which lately appears a rather run down and neglected place – to recuperate with those in the same dire condition.

TANAKH, the Jewish ordering of what Christians call the Old Testament, ends with the words from 2 Chronicles some of us will hear on Sunday. The “final word” is Cyrus’s unexpected offer to captive Judah of a return to Jerusalem and a new temple. Christians may hear other associations in such words and images, but the God of Second Chances (and Third, and Fourth, and Fifth…) is the same and knows how similar God’s children are. We stray and fall. We must be returned and made whole again.

In Lent, Christians grope their collective way toward Jerusalem, toward the place of our healing, toward the Passover of the Lamb. Count on it: we will stray and fall. It’s not that our Lenten practices don’t matter. To the extent they help shape our desire for healing and encourage us to stretch toward what we cannot, by ourselves, reach, they are terribly important. But reaching our destination does not, ultimately, depend on what we know or do. What we offer, day after day, is a naked intent. What becomes of it is up to God.

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