A sermon for Lent 2A February 17, 2008
Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17
It was a strange request, or it seemed that way at first. The father of my children called. He was going away for the weekend and worried that his pipes might freeze. He asked if Lucy and I would go over to his house, to turn on a space heater and set the kitchen faucet to a modest drizzle, both hot and cold, then return in the morning to turn it all off again.
Of course we regularly share the responsibility for our mutual children, but I found I resisted the idea of being responsible for his property. That territory seemed as dark as the narrow, shoveled path Lucy and I crunched along in the new-fallen snow Friday evening, walking from our car to his back steps.
I have to say it felt odd to go into his house, at night, although he courteously left the kitchen light burning all day, just so the house would not be dark when we arrived. We found the space heater, and I figured out how to make it work.
And then I drove away worried that it might be considered my fault if the house burned down.
Unknown territory can make a person a little nervous.
Nicodemus left his own home at night to travel across town and visit with Jesus. I’m sure it felt like a dangerous choice. The previous chapter tells of the time Jesus went into the Temple and turned over the tables of the moneylenders. You may wonder that it comes so early in John’s gospel. Already in Chapter Two, Jesus has offended the authorities in no small way. His act marks him as a radical, a revolutionary!
Nicodemus, part of the ruling class of their religion, nevertheless wants to ask the table-turning teacher some questions, not the sort that scribes and Pharisees regularly ask Jesus among groups of people, in all four gospels, but the sort that trouble his own heart and mind. He comes not to debate, but to try and understand. He comes even though he knows being seen with Jesus could put him at risk of losing his reputation, his religion, his everything. No wonder he makes the visit under cover of darkness.
And speaking of losing everything:
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. (Genesis 12:1-4a, NRSV)
As as a young wife and mother, I went with my husband when he took a job in a land far from my home. I remember the response of friends and extended family was all amazement and shock! How could I go so far away as Maine? We can laugh, because we know where I ended up was here, and it doesn’t seem like a far away land to us at all. But I learned that sometimes we have to leave the familiar places to find out who God wants us to be. We have to be prepared to make a night move, not like Nicodemus’ literal night visit to Jesus, but a willing movement into an unknown future.
To understand what a huge decision it was, we need to remember that leaving home would have been unheard of among Abram’s people. Safety was in numbers, loyalty to family and tribe meant everything, and everybody understood it that way.
Reading these texts from our vantage point, thousands of years after they were written down, is sometimes like doing a puzzle that is missing a piece. Do we understand what the expectations were? Do we have a sense of where the story resides in the greater scheme of things?
When we hear the gospel lesson, do we hear the whole passage, or is verse 16 so familiar that we hear nothing else?
“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.” (John 3:16, NRSV)
Do you hear it this way, or do you hear the King James version when you think of it?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16, KJV)
3:16! 3:16! You’ve seen the numbers held up on signs at countless sporting events. What does that shorthand mean to the man in the rainbow wig and the other people who hold up banners exhorting us with those numbers? It’s my experience that it means certainty, one answer to all the questions, a bright light being shone to clarify everything. It is the gospel at risk of becoming a slogan, a cheer, a secret code.
“John 3:16" becomes coded language for thinking along the lines of "whosoever saith a certain set of words, the same words someone told me to saith, is all set to go to heaven, and the rest of you fools? Mwahahahaha! You’re going to the other place." It's the theological equivalent of what my dad used to call the speech all athletes make: "We've got a great bunch of guys, and we're going to go all the way." You’re either on my team, or you’ve lost.
But there is so much more to John 3:16 than that.
It is part of a larger story, the story of a man who came with questions and who got perplexing answers. It’s the story of a learned man who discovers he cannot understand the teacher he hopes will make things clear to him. And it ends with no resolution, no guarantee that Nicodemus went away to explain Jesus to others, no conclusion assuring us that Nicodemus caught on to the Good News.
“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.”
When he left, he may have been just as much in the dark as when he arrived.
And so are we, much of the time.
Maybe the problem is not reading through to verse 17, or maybe it's taking the couplet out of context. Because if you read the whole story, from the entrance of Nicodemus in verse 1, you'll see that what Jesus is saying is not simple or readily understandable. He introduces new concepts, ideas that puzzled even a leader among the Jews, a Pharisee, a learned man. To be born from above, what does this mean?
Nicodemus asks a practical question, trying to show that in a literal interpretation, what Jesus says makes no sense.
And then Jesus employs a literary device that reminds us meaning is found on many levels:
"And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…" he says, making an allusion to a story from the Hebrew Scriptures familiar to Nicodemus.
We are in the realm of things beyond our understanding, in which we must employ similes and metaphors to come close to comprehending.
His words bring us close, but not all the way, to his meaning and his purpose. They are the pin-prick in a piece of cardboard that allows us an indirect view of the eclipse.
But in our desperate attempt to control what is too powerful for us, we reduce him to a piece of poster board and the shorthand, "3:16."
Faithfulness to God, my friends, does not consist of having control over the message or the messenger. Faithfulness requires letting go of any idea of being in charge of God and instead striking out into the dark, the night, the wilderness, the places we have not mapped and do not know well at all. Faithfulness lies in the night moves.
There was a day when I knew I needed to leave the little church I served before I came here. They did not have enough money to pay for a full-time pastor, and when I say they did not have the money, I mean they really did not have it. There were no endowments, and the active members were already giving generously. There just weren’t enough of them for the money to go as far as needed. We loved each other, so this reality was hard to face. I did not know where I might go or what I might do, but I knew I had to go.
And that is when the Conference Minister said to me, “Have you ever considered doing Interim Ministry? Because if you are interested, I have a church in mind where I think you would be a good fit.”
Talk about moving into the unknown! He suggested something I had never considered, just as Abram would never have considered leaving the tribe. It’s not the desert, and my tribe has traveled with me much of the time, dogs and children, but there is no question that coming to be with you involved a night move, a journey undertaken trusting that the reasons why would become apparent, someday, even if they were not right at first.
We may think it was easy for Abram, since God was the one talking to him, but whether the request comes from God or through another person, often the journey of faith requires us to move into darkness before we can see the light. God is with us in the night moves, the times when we answer the unlikely call, the odd request, with "yes." Amen.