Just back from Annual Conference. OK, not just, a little while ago this afternoon. We skipped out a hair early, but just a hair. I attended almost all of the required and recommended sessions. As I always do. Though my ears were bleeding and my eyes were going closed more often than I like to admit. I was there. Sort of. In body. My recurring thought during most of the presentations was “These people make a living talking?” I mean surely there is a better, more interesting way to make some of these presentations. The preaching professor in me recoiled more often than is healthy.
Oh, there were a few bright spots, a few good words. Some worship and music, some fellowship and reconnecting. It was not a total waste of time. But don’t let it out that I said that, it would threaten my curmudgeon status that I’ve worked so hard to cultivate. Yes, Virginia, there are good reasons for getting old.
But good speakers or bad, the ones that normally set your teeth on edge were not the ones on the platform, but the ones from the floor. The ones who jumped up to ask a question. Oh, Lord, a question. Can we drag this out even more? Can we add to the tedium of a three day business meeting? Please keep your questions to yourself. Or ask them discretely, behind closed doors, on your time and not on mine. Can we just move this along? Please?
I wonder if the others who gathered around Jesus on that dark night wondered the very same thing when a Pharisee came up with questions that made Jesus roll his eyes. You know the story. I contains the most familiar verse in the whole New Testament, if not the whole Bible. For God so loved. Well, read it yourself.
John 3:1-17 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." 3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." 9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 "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.
Did Nicodemus come with a question? Or did he come to score points? “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” he bombasts right in Jesus’ face. We know who you are. We’ve got you pegged. We’ve caught, tagged and are releasing you back into the wild so that we can track your movements through our community. And then we’ll make a determination as to whether you are an invasive species come to wreak havoc on our ecosphere!
Am I being hard on Nicodemus? Maybe. Maybe it was more open than that, more innocent than that? Maybe. But maybe not. I mean Jesus lights into him right away. John writes after that carefully worded political salutation that “Jesus answered him.” Answered him? Where was the question? Maybe John should have said “Jesus responded to him.” Or Jesus debated with him. Or Jesus stripped to his wrestling singlet and leapt onto the mat for three falls out of four with yet another Pharisaical opponent. Yeah, that might have set the tone nicely.
It seems like Jesus is trying to pick a fight. And Nicodemus is outclassed. And doesn’t even seem to know he’s in a stranglehold. Which only escalates when he does finally squeak out his questions: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” And “Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?” And worst of all was “How can these things be?” That really sets Jesus off, he gets personal in his response.
Why is he so upset? I mean, he throws Nicodemus a wicked curve and is upset when Nick whiffs on the first pitch. Maybe he’s upset at having his evening disturbed, Nicodemus was the first century equivalent of a telemarketer who interrupts dinner to sell siding for the house you don’t own. Or maybe Nicodemus caught him on a bad day. In the last chapter Jesus attended a wedding and was called out by his mom, then went into the temple and ruined everyone else’s day in one angry gesture, which left folks muttering about him as he strode through the wreckage back home. And finds Nicodemus huddling on the doorstep, like a homeless man at his gate. Or maybe Nicodemus forgot he was in the Gospel of John and missed the whole dark verses light symbolism. Dark, for John, is the absence of the knowledge of and presence of God. And then he proceeds to miss everything else that Jesus tries to tell him, because his mind is as dark as the night.
Probably because he starts with this “we know” stuff. That’s what sets Jesus off. He comes not to learn but to show his knowledge. Nicodemus probably was expecting gratitude or something like that from Jesus. “Wow, gosh thanks guys. Gee, you really think so much of little old me?” But no, instead he gets some head-spinning theology about the Holy Spirit, of all things. And to make it worse, how did they know that Jesus was a teacher come from God? Nicodemus says we know this because you do cool stuff. You do magic tricks. You do signs and wonders. There is nothing that ticks Jesus off as fast as getting all excited about the special effects and losing the narrative of the film. He didn’t want heads turned by miracles, he wanted them to come to him. He wanted them to hear his words and know his love. He wanted them to have a relationship with him and not just come for the show.
That’s how he gets to The Verse. 3:16. There are people who wear T-Shirts with those numbers on it who may not even know what it means. Which might also make Jesus mad. As mad as at a pharisee who thinks he knows all there is to know about Jesus because he’s seen an unexplainable event or two. As mad as at a temple full of buyers and sellers, making a buck off of the need to worship that is deep down in every soul. Mad, or sad. A little of both, I suspect. God so loved, he says, so loved the world, that whoever believes ... Believe in the Gospel of John is more than a head thing. Nicodemus had a head thing. But he didn’t have a heart thing. Or a soul thing. He wasn’t leaning into the Jesus the way Jesus wants us to lean into Him. He wasn’t hungry for Jesus the way Jesus wants us to be hungry. I am the bread, I am the gate, I am the way, the truth and the life. He wants to be all for all. Our light in the darkness, our hope in the midst of the world’s despair. He doesn’t want to be a side show, or a sometime friend, he wants to be the center of our lives and hopes and dreams.
How can these things be? That would be Nicodemus’s reply, I’m sure. Because it is mine. Ours. How can these things be? How can we hold on to Jesus when the path gets slippery and light grows dim? We must be born again. Great. Cliches. Religious nonsense cliches. Has there been a phrase more divisive in the body of Christ than that one? Maybe. I dunno. But this one has been misused and misunderstood since Nicodemus stumbled over it one night. Born again? Anothen is the Greek word. Anothen. Means again, and anew and from above. All wrapped up there together. But not again as in repetition - same thing over again, that’s what Nicodemus missed. But neither is it a badge of honor or entrance certificate. That’s what many modern day users miss. Rather it is an invitation to join in the dance with Jesus. Whoever believes, who ever takes Him by the hand and says lead me. Whoever says I find myself in you. Whoever leans for repose as the old hymn says (How Firm a Foundation for those who wonder), shall have life, abundant, eternal life.
How can these things be? They just are. Start leaning. And learning. Lest, on this graduation Sunday, I leave you with the impression that questions are somehow bad, forgive me. But no. Questions, dumb ones and smart ones, irritating ones and time wasting ones earnest and honest ones, are good. We need to ask in order to learn. But then lean as we learn. Trust as we seek. Believe as we wonder. How can these things be? Believe. And ask. And live.