The sermon for week March 20, 2011
It’s Friday night in Athens Ohio. Everyone in my freshman dorm room is getting ready to go out to a party or on a date or somewhere cool. I am getting ready too, but I’m not going out to a party or on a date. Kate is off somewhere with the marching band on this particular weekend, so I have decided to finally take up my friends offer of checking out Campus Crusade for Christ.
I didn’t want any of my dorm-mates to know where I was going. I was embarrassed and afraid they might make fun of me or think I’m judgmental or whatever. So I was thankful that this event was held at night. I didn’t want people to know where I was going… Just like Nicodemus… and like Nicodemus, I had so many questions that need answered.
Have you ever had a question that gnawed at your brain? Like termites chewing away at the foundation of a house.
Termites chewing silently, slowly, secretly
Leaving the façade intact but digesting the base
Nicodemus had such a question that had consumed his brain.
The scene replays in Nicodemus’ head.
The sound of coins clattering on the stone floor of the temple.
The crack of the whip
The disgust on Jesus’ face.
The rabbis and Pharisees whisper with one another and stare.
Their faces contort with contempt
Jesus’ voice booms in Nicodemus’s head
“Stop making my father’s house a market place.”
Nicodemus thinks like a lawyer.
Jesus knew the Jews in Jerusalem needed a place to exchange their coins.
Jesus knew that many people were visiting Jerusalem for the Passover.
Jesus must know the visitors paid temple tax during Passover.
Temple tax was required by Jewish law.
Jewish law mandated the coins be free of graven images.
Graven images like those on Roman coins.
Roman coins declaring Caesar a god.
God’s house could not have idolatrous coins.
Nicodemus and the other Pharisees were following God’s law—
Nicodemus begins to wonder if these laws were God’s.
Nicodemus’s brain will not be silenced.
He has to find Jesus. He needs answers.
Nicodemus occupies one of the 71 seats of the Judean Supreme Court. He has credentials, clout, and questions. His reputation is at stake when he seeks Jesus out and he has a lot more to lose than a college freshman. Jesus has scathing rebukes for Nicodemus’ crowd and hasn’t won any favors through his teaching and especially not with the stunt he had just pulled in the temple. But Nicodemus is intrigued and has to check this guy out.
So Nicodemus comes at night. His colleagues can’t know of the meeting, they wouldn’t understand. But Nicodemus can’t wait until they do, he must see Jesus. He passes servants lighting lamps in the courtyard and takes a path that ends at the door of a simple house. Jesus and his followers are staying here, he’s been told. Nicodemus knocks.
The noisy room falls silent as he enters. The men are fishermen and tax collectors, unaccustomed to the highbrow world of a scholar. They shift in their seats. Jesus motions for the guest to sit. Nicodemus does and starts the most famous conversation in the bible.
“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.” (3:2)
Nicodemus begins with what he knows. I’ve done my homework, he implies, your work impresses me. We would expect a similar response from Jesus “And I’ve heard of you Nicodemus…” but none comes. Jesus makes no mention of Nicodemus’s VIP status, good intentions, or academic credentials, not because they don’t exist, but because in Jesus’ algorithm, they don’t matter.
Finally Jesus answers, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above and born again.
Nicodemus asks, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old?
At the end of Jesus’ response there is this one Greek word.
The English translation of the word means both born from above and born again.
Jesus gives a double answer. His answer is like an optical illusion.
One image seen in two ways. (Click on the links to see the pictures)
Is the image the vase or two faces?
The old woman or the young woman?
The duck or the bunny?
Where the heck are those stairs going?
Jesus’ response has two meanings. Two meanings linked together. Jesus’ answer only leads to more questions.
Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus is a teacher whose answers are open ended.
It was just like what happened to me that caused me to go to campus crusade in the first place. I was taking my media ethics class and had this… annoying teacher.
I was warned about this teacher. He was notorious for giving low grades. He made people think. He had this annoying habit of answering a question with a question. He was causing me to question everything I had ever learned about myself, the world around me, and Christianity in general. Perhaps you have had a teacher like that. The kind of teacher we think we don’t want. The teacher who makes us think. The teacher who changes our way of thinking. The teacher who expects his students to say more, to dig deeper, to brood longer. The teacher we remember after graduation. Jesus is that kind of teacher.
I think it is some sort of national law that every sports game must have a John 3:16 sign. God so loved the world so that anyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Maybe you look at the banner and breathe a sigh of relief. You believe in Jesus Christ. Now you are free to watch the game. That, somehow, feels very shallow.
We read the next verse. “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.”
Through him to do what? Through him to get what? The thought is incomplete. Not only that, What if saving is a process? What if the saving is in the “through” rather than the “him?” What if it is the processes of how we engage with God that we are saved?
Saving means taking the risk of owning your questions and doubts. Owning your questions and doubts and sharing them with Jesus.
Imagine you had a friend you met for coffee every morning at Nautica or Biggby Coffee. You prefer light topics of conversation and talk about the weather or the sports scores and how your bracket is totally shot in the first round.
Your friend always probes you though. She asks why you never sign up to help feed the homeless at Saint Paul’s community center. She wondered how you reconciled missing your son’s basketball game to stay an extra hour at work. Your friend seemed to sense your thoughts, your inner doubts.
You’d prefer if the relationship would sit on a foundation of small talk, all celebrity gossip or weather and sports’ scores.
But friendship requires more than an open ear.
Friendship requires the risk of honesty of both people.
Friendship requires sitting through uncomfortable moments. Long silences.
Real Friendship—Real relationship--requires this process.
Our relationship with Jesus is like this friendship.
We walk through our questions of faith with Jesus.
We sit with our questions of faith with Jesus.
We wait in long silences with Jesus.
We want to be more than acquaintances with Jesus.
We need to be more than acquaintances with Jesus.
We want to be born anew.
We are born anew through this process.
We are not merely acquaintances.
We are friends.
Through this process, we can be born again and again.
I did not encounter this type of faith at the campus crusade for Christ meeting. They put on a high energy worship, that was for sure, but they didn’t help me with any of my questions or any of my doubts. In fact, they stated that I shouldn’t have them that faith is certainty, faith is a noun which is easily defined and can be easily put on a bumper sticker or at least one page, double-spaced, size 16 font. The Gospel of John, however, never uses faith as a noun, only as a verb, and with it, it is subject to all the ambiguity, uncertainty, and indecisiveness of being a human. Faith for the author of John, is lived out, it is not just believing something, it is living it out.
Believing and doing are inseparable. And it is in this tandem of believing and doing we can be born again, we can see things anew, we can stop taking things for granted and stand in awe at God’s creation and each other.
Church invites us to be born anew again and again. Like the tables being turned over in the temple, attending a chapel class or bible study may over-turn our world view.
Our understanding of God gets flipped up-side down.
We wonder how can this be?
There are two creation stories in Genesis, at least 7 different ones in the bible.
How can this be?
Paul, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin were radical in their day.
How can this be?
Our potlucks never run out of food.
How can this be?
I just told the pastor or a friend a secret I’ve never told anyone else and they have received me with such grace. How can this be?
Jesus invites us to be born anew through our questions.
Rather than a rule book, Jesus offers us relationship.
With God and with each other.
We figure this relationship out here at church. During worship, at bible studies, by being with one another in our Holy Chow Groups.
This is a place where we can risk being vulnerable, we can risk taking on all the mess that true friendship brings.
We can be born anew through our relationship with one another, right where we are, right in the over-scheduled, high-stress mess of our lives. And maybe you haven’t met someone just yet, maybe you’re at the stage where just getting out of your house and getting to this space is what works. It just lets you breathe. It does not fix all wounds. There is no miraculous televangelist healing. Just space. To be quiet. To be sad. To be jubilant. To just be.
Welcome to this space. Welcome to this community. God’s community, a Christ-centered community which proclaims God So Loved The World. God so loves you. Let us imitate God, and respond with such a love as this. Amen.
Borg, Marcus. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.
Lucado, Max. 3:16: The Numbers of Hope
Lull, David A. Process and Faith: Lectionary for March 20, 2011
Malick, Megan M. Nicodemus and Jesus with a Twist--Sermon on John 3. Largely the form and structure and most of the ideas came from this sermon given by my dear seminary friend Megan. She originally gave this for our preaching class in April, 2009.
O’Day, Gail R. The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary and Reflection. The new Interpreters Bible volume IX.
TriMomRemade. Sunday is my new Monday