Today was (hopefully) the last Sunday of our sojourn in the fellowship hall. Although all the work is not completed (yet), we have high hopes that we will be in the sanctuary on Sunday the 27th.
It hasn't so much felt like Lent on Sunday mornings, perhaps because we have no paraments, no purple to remind me, at least not in the fellowship hall. And although we tend to conform to the lectionary most of the time, the gospel for this morning didn't feel...Lent-y.
Here's my sermon on John 3:1-17
I think it’s fair to say that Eric and I have spent more than our fair share of time with death lately. We had funerals two Saturdays in a row and we’ve spent this week with another dear friend whom we don’t expect to be around very much longer. Death stinks.
For all that as Christians we believe in resurrection, we still grieve at death, and rightly so. In the face of death, all the questions we have about God’s goodness and God’s love come up. Why this person, or that person? Why does one person die suddenly, and another after a long illness? What about accidents and disasters, God? What about Japan and Libya? How could a loving God allow all this to happen?
These are timeless questions, really. God’s people have been asking these questions from very early on, questions about why the world isn’t perfect for us, why death is inevitable, why suffering happens and especially why is happens to us. A careful (or even a casual) reading of the Bible shows that, for some reason we don’t understand, bad things simply do happen—and for us, faith means believing that God’s love surrounds us all the time, even when bad things are happening.
And maybe that’s why I’m grateful that today is LOGOS Sunday, and the kids are sharing scripture with us today in the 11am service. Today’s passage reminds us of how great God’s love is, and our LOGOS students have studied John 3:16 and will share some of their thoughts on what John 3:16 means for us. God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
One of the reasons I find this passage meaningful is that Nicodemus’ story is kind of complicated, and let’s face it, life is more often complicated than simple, isn’t it? The writer of John tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews. It makes sense, then, that he comes to see Jesus at night, under cover of darkness, because Nicodemus had a lot to lose.
It was risky for Nicodemus to be seen with Jesus at all, because in John, they are among the chief naysayers and persecutors of Jesus. Now, we have talked about the Pharisees before: they were very faithful Jews, but their faithful adherence to the law and the prophets seemed to leave something to be desired. They understood fear of God, but not God’s love, at least not the way Jesus wanted them to understand it.
Nicodemus understood something else, according to today’s reading. He understood that Jesus was teaching something new about God, and that the signs—miracles—that accompanied his teaching proved that Jesus had God’s favor, that God’s presence rested with him. Nicodemus was willing to believe this about Jesus…but not in daylight, at least not yet. Not where the others could see.
Nicodemus had questions for Jesus…but he didn’t understand the answer. To be fair, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus was a bit ambiguous: the word translated “from above,” also could mean “anew” or “again.” With our two thousand years of perspective, we can say, of course, Jesus is speaking in metaphor, which he is wont to do. Sometimes it confuses us, but we’re used to it. Nicodemus, on the other hand, was probably not used to Jesus’ habit of using figurative language, and he took Jesus’ meaning literally. “Born again? But I’m a grown man, Jesus, surely you are not saying that I must return to my mother’s womb.” Can’t you just imagine Jesus rolling his eyes and trying again: “No, Nicodemus. I mean a spiritual rebirth, one that connects you with God’s love. Because God has such great love for the world—a world that does not itself love God—that God’s Son will die so that the very world that hates God can come to love him. God’s Son comes not to condemn the world, but to save it. ”
It’s hard to imagine what impact these words had on Nicodemus. What we know is, frankly, not much: Nicodemus left Jesus that night, and as far as we know, never came back. According to John, he pops up two more times in Jesus’ story: once in a sort of ambiguous attempt to get the Pharisees and temple police to leave Jesus alone, and then with Joseph of Arimathea at the end of Jesus’ life, when Nicodemus helped Joseph carry Jesus’ body to the tomb for burial. There’s not another story that tells about Nicodemus’ conversion or how Jesus convinced him of God’s love that transcended the law. Or even if Jesus convinced him. Somehow though, Jesus convinced us…
The love of God for God’s people is what makes our faith work. Our belief in God’s love is why we can make sense of the crucifixion, why we can believe in the resurrection, when we still don’t have an answer to so many of our questions, and we do still have so many questions. The other thing we have, though, at least according to John’s Jesus, is belief.
We don’t have to understand God’s love…we just have to believe it. Faith in this gospel is not a noun…it is not something we have, it is something that we do. Faith is not neat and clean here, not something that comes in a single interaction with Jesus. It is something we wrestle with, something that changes our lives a bit at a time, something that we grow into and share and have shared with us, something that shapes up more in the questions we ask than in having all the answers.
I think this may be what Nicodemus may have found threatening about Jesus’ teachings: to be a Pharisee was to have a sense that there could be guarantees, there could be a simple way to know that God’s favor was with them. God had given the laws, and intended for them to be followed. Follow them perfectly, and you would please God. It was not an easy plan, but it was a simple one. There’s security in a system like this; perhaps that’s why Nicodemus did not leave his life as a Pharisee and follow Jesus. We’re used to thinking of Jesus instantly transforming lives: Zaccheus, Matthew, the woman at the well. Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus was less clear, less immediately powerful, less transformative, at least from what we can see. Jesus left Nicodemus with more questions than answers, and that can be frightening for any of us.
We are wired to want to know all the answers, to understand as much as we can of what is going on around us. Like Nicodemus, we find security in knowing just what is the right thing to do. But to believe in God’s love means that we don’t have all the answers, and we don’t have the security of following a prescriptive series of laws and knowing that alone will save us. God’s love is shared in relationships, and relationships are complicated.
It is in our relationship with God that we can ask the hard questions, like why an earthquake and a tsunami in Japan, why revolution in Libya? Where is God’s love when a parent of teenagers dies, when a grandmother develops a terminal illness, when life doesn’t go as we plan? Asking a question is not nearly as satisfying as thinking we know all the answers except for one thing.
God’s love meets us where we are. If faith is the exercise of belief, the practice of looking for God’s love, then our questions are where we meet God. I don’t know why God seems to choose not to intervene in our lives and in our crises sometimes. I don’t know why sometimes we feel that God does intervene, that a chance meeting or event seems later to be less random—something like a meeting having to be rescheduled due to illness, with the result being that there are people in an old sanctuary building to notice something’s amiss before a fire burns out of control. I don’t know why sometimes things like this happen, and other times they don’t.
What I do know, because I choose to believe that it is so, and because my relationship with God and the exercise of my faith in God tells me so, is that God’s love is always around us. I’ve seen it in the last month in three different families that each have surrounded a dying person with love. That love has caused them both to shed tears and to hold them back, to hold a hand or wipe a brow or whisper “I love you,” in the face of illness and death. I have to believe that in those moments, God’s love comes through us and gives us the grace that we need to sustain our confidence in heaven and our caring for one we love. God’s love meets us where we need it: right in the middle of our questions, doubts, and fears, as well as in our moments of joy and celebration, and in all the moments in between.
I have to wonder if Nicodemus was such a bad disciple after all. No, he didn’t lay aside his old life and take up a new one with Jesus. He didn’t evangelize Asia or lay the foundations for the spread of Christianity worldwide. He wasn’t a major early church figure, not a theologian or really a hero in any way. He was really a pretty ordinary guy, except for one thing. He took the risk of exploring faith outside the box he was raised with. He dared to question God’s love, and what he learned led him to take the bigger risk of honoring Jesus’ body after his death. While Nicodemus didn’t immediately respond to Jesus by saying that he wanted to be born again into God’s love, God’s love and grace worked on Nicodemus behind the scenes. There’s no other explanation for what he did in taking the risk of exploring what it means to believe in God, in being willing to ask the questions and wait on the answers.
As Christians, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that everyone has to have a major “lightbulb” experience with God. You know, the ones where the cartoon lightbulb turns on over your head, where you realize something about God that never seemed to connect with you before? When you get the answer to one of those persistent questions we ask of God? Peter had one of those moments, according to the Bible. So did (and do) many other people. I’m not sure Nicodemus ever did, and I am sure that Jesus did not expect Nicodemus to know all the answers. Instead, Nicodemus had some time to just consider the possibilities as to what life might look like if he were truly born from above.
And that is what faith really is. It’s not believing a list of propositions someone has written down. It’s not something you can write down on an index card and keep in your wallet, like a creed or a favorite Bible verse. It’s not something that simply overshadows us, taking away our doubts and leaving in its wake a sense of certainty in who God is and how God relates to us. Instead, faith is what we do when we explore the possibilities of what it means to believe that God loves us, and that God’s love is for the salvation of the world. Faith is at least as much something we live as it is something that we have; it is a relationship that takes work and involves give and take on both sides, and sometimes just takes off on its own.
Think for a moment about your friendships, just for fun. How many of you have a friend that you met and clicked with right away? Eric is fond of telling the story of how we came to be Ann Street’s pastors, and of our first meeting. Eric thought we were just getting to know each other; I had been told that I better make it work, because it would create a huge problem if Eric and I couldn’t get along. We didn’t know what would happen, but Ben and I met Eric for lunch one day, and it was clear within about 15 minutes that we would be fast friends. Someone asked us, that first Sunday here at Ann Street, how long we’d worked together. The answer was, about 5 days. Sometimes you just get a relationship like that. Sometimes it’s like that with God.
How many of you have a friend that you slowly grew into friendship with? My closest friend in the world, with the possible exception of my husband, is a woman whom I met in college. We were both sort of on the margins of a larger group of friends (we were in the same co-ed fraternity, which is a longer and more complicated story) and it took a while before we became close friends. Now we finish one another’s sentences, and I wouldn’t have married Ben if she hadn’t approved. And before too long, my approval will be sought on her new beau. (She’ll get it). We just grew into one another.
Our relationship with God is like both kinds of friendship. Mostly we grow into each other, but sometimes our relationship grows in quick leaps and bounds. Nicodemus was a slow grower, but that doesn’t mean he had no relationship with God. Peter and some of the other disciples seem to have clicked with Jesus immediately, and left all they had to follow him. That doesn’t mean that their kind of relationship with God is the only kind of relationship with God. Our relationship with God has room for questions, room for those sudden lightbulb insights, room to grow and change and deepen over time and in leaps and bounds, because the love of God is always there for us. Despite earthquake, tsunami, political unrest, death, illness, and every bad thing, God’s love surrounds us, waits for us, comforts us, calls us, meets us where we are.
Here we are.