Sunday, March 16, 2014

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 believed 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 a 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 of a pastor 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.

Nicodemus spent his life in study and prayer. He knew the bible backwards and forwards and inside and out. 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 gotten the better of him because at the expense of his personal safety, he goes to great lengths to find out more about Jesus.

To find Jesus, Nicodemus has to slink around at night so no one will see him. 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. He just doesn’t want to get caught doing so.

But when he finds Jesus and unloads all of his questions, 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 - again - from above.”

“What on earth does THAT mean?” he asks. “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 difference between Catholic and Lutheran understandings of grace - of how we are forgiven by God. 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?” this person snapped. “Why would God punish me for accidentally damaging someone’s property? Would God actually send me to Hell for an accident? Doesn’t God have more important things to do than worrying about a broken window?”

*eye-rolling sigh*

Maybe Jesus had a little more patience with Nicodemus that than I had with that person who couldn’t get past their childish religious understanding. Despite all his years of school, and his skills in critical thinking, Nicodemus reverted back to a time when truth was literal and black-and-white. No imagery or metaphor. Imagination not needed. Creativity not required.

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. Jesus wasn’t trying to shame Nicodemus. He was saying, “C’mon, Nick, you know better than that.”

Jesus doesn’t then spell out what he means. He doesn’t take the time to connect the dots for Nicodemus. Jesus 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. He’s throwing all sorts of bible stories against the wall and seeing which one sticks.

Then he sums up this whole passage, and indeed, his entire message and mission, with these 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 still had as many questions when he left as when he came in. If not more.

Nicodemus disappeared back into the darkness, but he never really disappeared from the story. We don’t 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. Nicodemus is not a major player in this story. But he’s a player nonetheless.

And he IS one of us, those of us who are asking questions and continue to ask questions, those of us searching for God in Jesus, wondering if anything good can come from Nazareth, those of us who are trying to put the puzzle of God together without knowing what the picture is supposed to look like.

I don’t know if Nicodemus really understood what Jesus was saying. But, 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 a deeper understanding of who Jesus was. And through Jesus, he saw the God who loved him.

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

But 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 joined to his mission. In baptism we are received as citizens of God’s kingdom. 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 thinking I have to understand what God is all about before I can call myself a “Christian.” It means that I have enough faith in Jesus to follow him, because God has given me that faith. It means that, no matter how hard I try, I will never know Jesus well enough or fully understand his role in God’s saving story. But I know that I play a part in that story because God put me 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, he still 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, because God has put YOU in that story. God has inserted YOU into the ongoing saga that God is telling the world, where YOU play an important role. 

Not only by knowledge, or by stories and dogma, or by ideas and doctrines about God that you may or may not remember from Confirmation Class. 

But also by faith, by trust, by hope. You tell God’s story with your lives. Being not just a source of knowledge about God, but by being a blessing to people you meet.

And YOU also live YOUR faith as part of the searching, following Jesus in YOUR own way, playing YOUR part in God’s saving story.

And, together, as a church, 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, believing that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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