Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lent 2A

“Ask me what I know,” he told me, “don’t ask me what I believe.”

This was from a well-known bible scholar, who, in a moment personal honesty, confessed that what he knew intellectually after a lifetime of dissecting ancient texts, was different than what he believed personally.

It wasn’t that he didn’t believe the Christian faith to be false, or that what he learned from studying the bible all those years turned out to be a fabrication or delusion. He had no malicious intent.

“Ask me what I know. Don’t ask me what I believe....Because,” he said, “I don’t know what I believe. I’m still searching.”

I appreciated his openness. It couldn’t have been easy for him to share his personal faith crisis with some young punk who had more answers than there were questions.

Sharing his doubts was his way of saying that a lifetime of searching doesn’t necessarily mean a lifetime of finding.

Just ask Nicodemus.

He spent his life in study and prayer. He knew the bible backwards and forwards. He read the philosophical masters. He spent years absorbing the wisdom of the centuries. He understood profound truths.

But he couldn’t quite understand Jesus. His curiosity must have consumed him because, as did his sense of personal safety, because he goes to great lengths to find out more about Jesus.

Nicodemus has to slink around at night so no one will see him, to find Jesus. He wants to learn something. He knows that Jesus has come from God, but also knows that Jesus’ divine origin is a little controversial in the halls of the learned. He just wants to get a handle on Jesus, and how Jesus can be from God.

But Jesus seems to be more interested in riddles than answers.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

But Nicodemus doesn’t get it.

“What am I supposed to do, climb back and in and make my way out again?”

Looks like Nicodemus is taking Jesus WAY too literally. But I encounter this all the time. When talking to a pastor A LOT of people revert back to their childhoods where they take the bible, and stuff preachers say, with childish simplicity.

For example, I was trying to explain to someone the different between Catholic and Lutheran understandings of grace, and I used an example of a broken window.

“Say you threw a ball and accidentally broke your neighbour’s window,” I said.

“What!? Is breaking a window a sin? Why would God punish me for accidentally damaging someone’s property? Why would God send me to Hell if it were an accident? Does God have more important things to do than worrying about a broken window?”


I would imagine that Jesus had the same reaction to Nicodemus. Despite all his years of school, and his skills in critical thinking, he reverted back to a time when truth was literal and black-and-white. No imagery or metaphor. Imagination not needed.

Jesus calls him on his lazy thinking, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

I think Jesus said this with a twinkle in his eye followed by a wink. I don’t think that Jesus was trying to shame Nicodemus. He was saying, “C’mon, Nick, you know better than that.”

What I like about this story is that Jesus doesn’t then spell out what he means. He gets even more metaphorical, and paints even weirder pictures. He talks about Moses and the serpent, heavenly truths and earthly facts colliding. He talks about the Son of Man - Humanity’s Child - being lifted up.

Then he sums up this whole passage, and indeed, his entire message and mission, with the familiar words:

“God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

We don’t know whether or not Nicodemus was any closer to understanding Jesus than when he began. But my guess is that he was just as clueless when he left as when he came.

He disappeared back into the darkness, and we never hear from him again until chapter seven when he’s consulted about a fine point in the law, and again, after Jesus died, when he assisted Joseph of Aramethia in preparing Jesus’ body for burial. He’s not a major player in this story.

Who knows what he told his friends when he got home, if anything. After all, he didn’t want anyone to know he met with Jesus, so he probably just kept what he heard to himself.

Since we don’t hear very much from him, I wonder if he was a secret follower of Jesus, keeping his mouth shut and his head down, lest he be detected by the other religious leaders and get himself into some trouble.

I don’t know if Nicodemus really understood what Jesus was saying. But then again, I’m not sure that was the point. If Nicodemus came to faith it wasn’t because Jesus argued him into it. Jesus didn’t even try to reason with him or answer his questions. But it was through Jesus himself, an encounter with the God within him - that Nicodemus came to understand who Jesus was.

He may not have fully understood who Jesus was, but then again, do any of us really know? For most of us Jesus is a mystery; a puzzle to piece together, a spiritual knot to unravel, a fuzzy picture we can’t bring into focus.

But I think what is more important than KNOWING Jesus, is to be KNOWN by Jesus. And that we can be sure of.

In the waters of baptism, where we have been born again from above, we are joined to his life, his death, and his resurrection. In baptism, we are KNOWN by Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but, for me, this is a HUGE relief. It means that I’m freed from the tyranny of trying to understand what God is all about. It means that I have enough faith in Jesus to follow him. It means that, no matter how hard I try, I will never know him well enough or fully understand his role in God’s saving story. But I know that I play a part in that story.

This isn’t to say that we don’t keep exploring who God is and what God wants for us. Nicodemus certainly never put his feet up in comfort or threw up his hands in confused resignation. He still questioned. he still investigated and searched.

But he also lived his faith as part of the searching, following Jesus in his own way, playing his part in God’s saving story.

And so do YOU. You play your own part in God’s ongoing, unfolding, story. Not only by knowledge, but also by faith, by trust, by hope. And you tell God’s story with your lives. Being not just a source of knowledge about God, but a blessing to people you meet.

And, together we study and we pray. We discuss and we discern. We search and we proclaim. We live God’s story together. We follow Jesus as a family.

Perhaps, at the end, that’s all we can do. God has done the rest.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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