I Do Not Understand 3-12-17

In this sermon, taken from John 3:1-17, I explore the odd encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. A grammatical situation reveals the truth, that often we lack the ability to understand what God is up to.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-do-not-understand-3-12-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Just out of curiosity, is anyone out there fluent in Spanish? I am not…I know just enough to be dangerous…and I truly discovered this fact during my final year of seminary as I spent two weeks in a congregation with a large Hispanic population.  Throughout the course of the time that my small group of classmates and I were in the congregation, we met with many different individuals for conversation…and that would always include one of the two pastors present for the purpose of translation…but we all attempted to communicate with one another directly in one another’s language, at least as much as we were able.

Now for me…my one year of Spanish my sophomore year of high school didn’t do a lot of good…and my ability to communicate in Español was pretty much limited to introductions. Time after time we would go around the table introducing ourselves…and each time I would say Mi llamo es Scott…which literally means “My name is Scott.”  Now, grammatically, there was nothing wrong with what I was saying…but after hearing several others from my group introduce themselves I started to pick up on the regular way for a person to say it. Soy Scott…now saying it this way literally means “I’m Scott.” (pause) Again, neither one is technically right or wrong…they are just two ways to say the same thing.

Now the polar opposite situations happens in today’s gospel lesson. Rather than hearing two different ways to say the same thing…we begin to discover one way of saying two different things…but first, let me set the stage.

We’ve moved into John’s gospel…where we’ll remain for the rest of the season of Lent…and perhaps that’s not a bad thing…maybe its fitting during this season we usually consider pretty dark as we move towards the cross…and if you’re familiar with the major theme here in John’s gospel it’s the idea of light and darkness…and the contrast between the two…we hear this theme all over John…as the narration of different stories continues to give us little clues about the state of things…telling us the time of day or that an encounter happens at night.  (pause) And in our story for today…that bit of narration is right out there.

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus…a leader of the Jews…He came to Jesus by night, calling him Rabbi…seeking something. Now this all happens in Jerusalem…and of course we’re pretty early in the whole story. Jesus has been baptized…he’s publically performed his first miracle…or sign as they’re called here in John…and he’s made his way into the capital city for the first of 3 Passover celebrations…he’s already caused a major stir in the temple when he started cracking a whip and throwing a bunch of tables around…and since then he’s just been around the temple…performing more signs and teaching. And this is where we pick up.

Nicodemus is one of the big wigs…not only is he a Pharisee, but he’s also a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He’s kind of a big deal…and if we were to compare him to a present day figure, we’d probably call him a Seminary professor with 3 or 4 different PhD’s. This guy…he knows his stuff…anything having to do with Jewish culture or their religion, or their faith, or their understanding of the law…he’s your guy…Nicodemus was the 1st Century Jewish equivalent of Google…if you had a question you went to him…not the other way around.

And perhaps this is why its so strange that we find him seeking out Jesus in the first place. Maybe the council sent him…or maybe he was just curious…but either way…here in the middle of night…in the midst of darkness…Nicodemus comes searching…calling Jesus Rabbi.

Now there’s a lot of back and forth in this story…as the teaching moment begins as a dialogue between the elite Pharisee and the traveling Rabbi…and the first thing that Jesus does is point out the error in the way that the council perceives him. We know that you are from God because no one can do the signs you do apart from him.

And Jesus response…you don’t get it. You can’t see the kingdom of God…you can’t perceive it unless you are born from above…and with this statement…Jesus and Nicodemus are off to the races…they engage in a lively debate around the idea of being born. (pause)
But here’s the problem…remember how I talked about 2 ways to same thing in Spanish…well here…we find 1 way to say 2 things…Jesus says “born from above.” But Nicodemus hears “born again.” (Pause) And it raises the question of just how that happens.  Well, funny enough it has to do with the original language…the very language that Jesus and Nicodemus would have been speaking to one another as they sat there debating…keep in mind they’re speaking the same language, but Greek gets funny right here…and the word that Jesus uses to say “from above” also means “again.”

Let me give you an example…desert…I say that and I might be talking about a delicious sugary post-meal treat…or I might be talking about leaving you high and dry in the midst of your need. Same word…two different meanings…and the same thing has happened between Jesus and Nicodemus.

Now the conversation goes back and forth…Jesus offering explanations…Nicodemus asking more questions…but seemingly getting nowhere as he tries to understand what Jesus is attempting to teach him.

But maybe that’s not so out line in the first place. Jesus talks about being born from above…whatever that means. Nicodemus is thinking more about the physical reality of what Jesus has said…and logically speaking…it just doesn’t work…to be born again? How can that happen…no one can enter the womb and be born a second time. I know how biology works…and that’s not how biology works.

And so after some back and forth Nicodemus finally throws up his hands and utters his final words of this story. “How can this be?” (Pause) You know there was another time when a person asked that very same thing…when an angel appeared to a young woman and said You will have a child…and this girl, maybe you’ve heard of her, she goes by Mary…asks How can this be, for I am a virgin?

In both cases…Mary and Nicodemus, they’re thinking about these things in terms of the physical…what can we see, what can explain…but the kingdom of God…this new reality that Jesus is bringing into the world…its not physical…its something else…something that we can’t quite put our finger on…and I’m guessing that often times as we consider what this book (hold up a Bible) has to say to us…we can’t quite put our fingers on it either…and like Nicodemus we end up asking “how can this be?”

Now Jesus seems to respond to that question today…offering up what I’ve long considered to be a rebuke…at least until quite recently. Nicodemus, you are a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things.” I always thought Jesus was coming down on him…but what if Jesus is simply making an observation…that even the most highly educated…even the one who by all human understanding should be the one to get this…even you CAN’T understand.  He goes on too…if you can’t fully grasp earthly things…how could you be expected to understand heavenly things?

Now a couple different things happen at this point…Jesus goes on teaching…and in the end offers up one of the most well-known passages of scripture…reminding us that because of God’s perfect sacrificial love for the ALL the world, he gave his son, not to condemn the world but to save it…all of it. (pause) Jesus lays out this vitally important, and very deep…DEEP truth…and Nicodemus has faded from the story. (pause)

Quick side note, remember when all this is going on?  Night time right? In the midst of darkness…and its still dark…and it would seem that Nicodemus remains in the dark…lacking understanding…not finding what he’s been looking for…for Nicodemus, the light bulb hasn’t gone off yet…Now I’ve long wondered if he ever “gets it.” Because here today…it looks like a no.

But his story isn’t over yet either…and he pops up 2 more times…the next time we see him…his kind of passive aggressively defending Jesus to the council…saying that its not lawful for them to condemn someone without a trial…not really picking a side…but cling to technicality.  But then the last time he pops up…at the cross…helping deal with the dead body of Christ…out there in the open…in the midst of the daylight for all to see. (pause)
Admittedly, Nicodemus is often criticized…because here at least…he just doesn’t get it…and he remains in darkness…in the lack of understanding…but I think its because he comes looking for Jesus instead of the other way around.

Maybe its because I’m Lutheran…but it seems to me that anytime we go looking for Jesus…when we go searching for God…we’re gonna miss the mark…because we look in the wrong places…and it is God who finds us. That’s what Jesus’ presence in our reality is all about…that’s why, out of his perfect sacrificial love for the world, God sent Jesus into the world…and that event…the whole aspect of Jesus’ in our reality…something they call the incarnation…that’s about God coming to find us where we are…in the midst of the darkness…not the other way around.

Now the amazing thing about the incarnation is that we need every aspect of it to even begin to makes heads or tails of this whole Kingdom of God thing. You’ve heard me talk about the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…and we need every aspect…his perfect life gets us nowhere without his cursed death on the cross…and we need the death, because you can’t have a resurrection without it.

And if the ongoing example of Nicodemus shows us anything…its that we need all aspects to even begin to understand. He didn’t get it until after the death of Christ…when he publically displayed that he was a follower of Christ…but even his closest followers, the disciples…even they failed to understand what was happening until the resurrected Jesus showed up again….and to be perfectly honest…even that was lacking.

Because here’s the thing about faith…we are clinging to the promises of that which we cannot see clearly. Scripture gives us tiny glimpses into the truth that Christ has brought into the world with him…but we cannot fully understand in this life.  The apostle Paul reminds us that now we see as in a mirror dimly…but one day we will see face to face.

One day…but, we’ve got to get through death before we reach that day…because it is only when we join with Christ in the resurrection…and we have put aside all these human limitations…only then will we truly comprehend the glory that Christ has made possible.

And so in the here and now…its okay for us to admit that we don’t understand…to ask the question How can this be? And then to realize that we probably won’t come up with a satisfactory answer…but rather to cling to the hope we find in the promise that because of God’s perfect love for us…we will not perish, but will have eternal life. Amen.

 

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