Listen to the sermon from Sunday, March 12, 2017 titled “It’s Not That Complicated” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
I just can’t get my head around it. I’ve been trying since childhood to understand this Something or Somebody we call “God.” I’ve read lots of books. I’ve had lots of conversations. I even googled “God,” got one billion, seven hundred million hits! But the Supreme just keeps getting more complicated to me.
I’ll admit, like most people, I try to keep God in a box I only open when I need something. The rest of the time I expect God to stay put, mind God’s business, stay in God’s lane. As a follower of this domesticated God, I myself always color between the lines, play by the rules, keep good order. If only everybody would do the same… But they won’t. And God keeps breaking out of my box.
The “box” where we keep God, of course, is not cardboard or wood or even bricks and mortar, but bone and grey matter – our puny heads. Though not always intelligent, Baptists are mainly cognitive in our approach to the Almighty. We like to talk over our ideas about God. We like to critique the beliefs of others. We’re suspicious of too much emotion. We’re impatient with any mystery. We’re not that interested in gods from other religions. And so, too often, our God is all in our heads.
Or in our books. We vary widely in our interpretations, but like Jews and Muslims, we Christians deign to contain God in a book. Y’all know, I love the Christian scripture and I believe God speaks to us through it. I believe it is our sacred story, the very Word of God. But to think God can be comprehended by just one book? Or even the whole Library of Congress? Preposterous! What kind of bush league deity would that be?
Enter Nicodemus, who encounters Jesus in John. A Jew who’s not new to the God game. Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews, a scholar of Torah, which in that time and in that place makes him pretty much an expert on God. He appears three times in John’s gospel, in this initial encounter in chapter three where he seems confused, in an argument about Jesus with other Jewish leaders in chapter seven, where he gets put down (7:50-52), and in chapter nineteen, where he helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus as an act of charity (19:38-40).
One of our long distance church members, Perkins professor Jamie Clark-Soles notes Nicodemus is an “open” character in John. We’re never actually told whether he becomes a believer or not because John wants us to identify with Nicodemus so that we decide for ourselves along with him. “Will he follow Jesus or not?” becomes “Will we follow Jesus or not?”
Nicodemus is a card-carrying member of the Pharisees, who’ve been misjudged so sharply over the centuries the very word has come to mean “a sanctimonius, self-righteous hypocrite.” Truth be told, the Pharisees were deeply religious Jews dedicated not only to understanding scripture, but practicing it in acts of charity and justice for the am-ha-aretz, or “everyday people of the land.” Sure, they’re always arguing Torah with Jesus in the gospels, but that’s what they loved to do with each other. Think Baptist Sunday School class, only a lot more dedicated and educated in the scripture. John wants us to know this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus is scholar-to-scholar, mano y mano. Old Nick is an expert on God.
Except, he isn’t.
John makes a point of telling us Jesus meets Nick at night. He wants to encounter Jesus beyond the debate, away from the egos, apart from the other guys defending their competing core narrative as “expert on God.” Nicodemus sincerely wants to know what this Galilean-gone-rogue might teach him.
He starts with a humble, dissembling setup, almost submissive in tone: “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.” But before Nick can even get to question one, Jesus sees what he needs and cuts to the chase: “Truly, truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
These “truly” two packs – translated variously as “Verily, verily…” or “Believe you me…” or “The truth is…” or “I can assure you…” – literally “Amen, amen, I tell you…” – appear only in John, 25 times in all, three times in this chapter as a marker of the most important truths Jesus has to offer. “Truly, truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
That Greek word is anothen. It’s a double duty word meaning either “from above” or “again.” Now the context will show Jesus means “from above.” Jesus means “born from beyond.” Nicodemus, like us, needs to get out of his head. He needs to move beyond thinking about God to meeting the God beyond his thinking. He needs God to break in from the outside, break through the boundaries of his ideas, break out of the box where Nicodemus has bound God up in a book.
Jesus means “born from beyond,” but Nicodemus hears “born again,” so he starts trippin’ over the mechanics of re-entering the womb. Ironically, a whole segment of “born again” Christians have tripped over this very pun, and still insist on the term “born again” when Jesus means “born from beyond.” The literalists miss the point that being a literalist is what causes Nicodemus to miss Jesus’ point.
Hence, the second “truly” two pack: “Truly, truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Jesus speaks of the incarnation here, the faith-born Spirit of God entering the amniotic-born flesh of Jesus and into our flesh, too. God with and God within, embodied by the church, the Word made flesh – that is the gospel core.
But old Nick is still confused, so Jesus tries a different metaphor: “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The (pneuma) 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 (pneuma) Spirit.”
Where does the wind come from? Where does it go? You can’t control it. It comes and goes from somewhere beyond, and that’s what the dominion of God is like.
This metaphor has the ease of the breeze in the trees. It’s not that complicated! I get it. You get it. Any nincompoop can get it. But overthinking Nicodemus trips again on a double duty word.
You see, pneuma in Greek means both “wind” and “spirit.” So Jesus’ spiritual meaning is “gone with the wind” for old Nick. He says, “I just don’t get it,” to which Jesus replies, “You’re a Teacher of Israel and you don’t get it?” Which provokes the third “truly” two pack, “Truly, truly, I tell you, we know what we’re talking about, and we’ve seen what we’re tellin,’ but you don’t get it?!”
Ever had one of those conversations where you’re both working so hard to communicate, but you just aren’t connecting and it’s like you’re speaking different languages? You can hear the frustration from both Jesus and Nicodemus, but what Nicodemus doesn’t understand is that he needs an entire paradigm shift. He has to let God out of his head and into his life. He needs to experience the God who is bigger than his ideas about God.
They have a saying in twelve-step groups: “Let go and let God.” I think to begin with, that means letting go of your ideas about who God is and what God can and cannot do. Instead of telling God what God needs to do, let God surprise you for a change. Instead of thinking you know God, you’ve got God locked in your noggin, maybe start looking for God in new ways and places, expand your holy horizons a bit? Instead of thinking you’re the expert on God because you had your earliest ideas about God blown apart, maybe open the box where you keep God now and admit you barely know God at all. You see, you never learn what you think you already know, so sometimes you have to let go of what you know to discover what you don’t know.
It’s a mystery, y’all. God is a mystery. Not a mystery to conquer by the technical method so that it moves from “unknown” to “known” to “harnessed for human use.” That’s science. Not a mystery to exploit with partial knowledge others may not have that will give you an edge over them. That’s arrogant elitism. God is a mystery who remains forever beyond our control, yet forever within our experience, a mystery who comes and goes like the wind, an amazing grace we give various names to – “God” – “Spirit” – “Jesus” – and for whom we are profoundly grateful.
Thank God we don’t have to get our heads around the Mystery to give ourselves to it. Thank God we don’t have to understand God to stand under God’s mercy.
The place to begin is with Jesus and Nicodemus. Let go of what you know and your need to be the expert and just open yourself to the presence of God in Christ. Look for where he meets you. Listen for what he teaches you. Encounter him in your own experience. Truly, truly I tell you, he will be more than you’ve ever known before. Amen and amen. May we pray?
As we come to your table today, Lord, in this second week of Lent, help us to let go of what’s holding us back and take hold of what calls us forward into the life you offer all who follow. Free us from thinking we must understand before we can follow so that we will follow in order to understand. And lead us to trust in where you are a mystery beyond our comprehension but within our embrace. In the name of Christ. Amen.