Nagging Questions

a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent [Year A]

John 3:1-17

Nagging questions. John’s gospel essentially begins with one person’s nagging questions…nagging questions about life and faith and the reality of God. That person’s name is Nicodemus, and we don’t know much about him except that he is one of the Pharisees, which means that he is well-versed in what the Scriptures say and well-informed about what God is like. But Nicodemus has heard about Jesus and apparently listened to Jesus and now he has some nagging questions.

Nagging questions keep us up at night, which may be one of the reasons Nicodemus comes to Jesus to discuss things at night. Nicodemus can’t sleep! He lies there on his bed, eyes wide open, mulling over everything in his mind—you know what it’s like—and he can’t make Jesus’ words fit. They raise all kinds of issues for him. He tosses and turns, lights a candle, writes a little in his journal. Finally he just decides to go and pay Jesus a visit and ask him the questions himself. These nagging questions can’t wait and he might as well get them addressed now.

Or, maybe Nicodemus goes to Jesus by night because he needs anonymity. Nicodemus wants to know some things and have some facetime with Jesus, but he doesn’t want his Pharisee buddies to see him because that could get awkward. He lurks in the shadows until the town gets quiet and dark and then he goes to knock on the door in secrecy. This is the conventional theory about Nicodemus’ night visit. He is on the edge. He wants to have a deeper relationship with Jesus and know more, but he can’t do it openly for he is a leader in the Jewish faith.

Nowadays we would take these concerns into cyberspace. There’s a lot of darkness there. We’d find a community that discusses our issues and ideas and we’d create an avatar, something like a “finsta” that would mask our identity and ask our questions that way.

I like either of these theories for Nicodemus’ night visit, and I think both are plausible because no matter why Nicodemus chooses the night Jesus is open to whatever. Jesus is always open and ready to serve, like a Waffle House. Jesus graciously receives his guests, rubbing the sleep out of his own eyes, leaning in a bit closer hear our questions when we’re ready to ask them, always ready to greet us when we knock, always ready to receive us when we’re looking. He is on our schedule, not his. And he will meet us where we are, even if it is in fear and embarrassment. For God so loves the world.

so many late night conversations of deep meaning at this place

It is good that John’s gospel begins this way, because so often Christian faith is presented as set beliefs and rigid conformity. In culture and even in a good number of churches Christianity comes across as a list of things you have to be for or against. Come to think of it, it ends up sounding like the Pharisees that Nicodemus hails from, never wanting to question too much and really liking when people fall in line. I have to check myself at times when I teach things like confirmation class or Bible studies so that I don’t sound like I’m just laying out a bunch of assertions and positions about everything.

There are truths, of course, and there are statements we hold as certain. Even in Jesus’ life there are beliefs and there is some degree of conformity, but this interaction with Nicodemus shows that those things are not the core of Christian faith.  The core of faith is a gift of life, to be born anew. The core of faith is a relationship that brings life and honors our fears and our dreams and our ability to reason and change our minds.

For Nicodemus, the nagging questions center around this new life. Jesus is performing signs that indicate God is at work in Jesus in a new way. He has turned water into wine, he has cleared the temple and declared that it will be torn to the ground. Nicodemus wants to understand how this all can be: how can the work of God be centered in Jesus? How can the kingdom of God be coming in him? What is the crux of Jesus’ mission? And to address Nicodemus’ questions, Jesus talks about the work of the Holy Spirit and how, like the wind, it blows where it chooses.

I don’t know about you, but I find this to be a disconcerting aspect to life with God. I find that, like most humans, I tend to like certainty. We like important things to be pinned down, summed up, and made to order. Paying attention to the wind is much harder to handle. And yet whether it is regarding the answers to our nagging questions or just the basic facts about what is required of us in faith, Jesus doesn’t want things to get too concrete, like there is information we need to download for a test later.

Jesus is more about inviting us into an ongoing dialogue, a life where we will be able to continually discover new things about him. God knows we grow as we go through life and we can be open to new understandings and experiences with his grace. We can be closed off to that dialogue at our own peril, because that dialogue leads to a new birth, or being having a birth from above. Scholars and historians have often been puzzled with how to translate that word, whether Jesus means one must be born a from above or born again. Regardless of which word we choose, the point is that Jesus’ word and Jesus presence brings about new life in a person similar to the way a woman miraculously brings a child into the world from her womb. Just as Jesus is always open to us as we learn and ask our questions, so we too are pushed from darkness into a new faith when we are open to the movement of God’s Spirit.

About a year and a half ago I was approached by a middle aged man and his wife who had some nagging questions. They were looking for a new community of faith, and had been worshiping with our on-line worship services for a while. This particular individual had a background and story that caught me a bit off-guard. It turns out he was a leading infectious disease specialist on faculty at a nearby medical school. He was a very humble man, and as we talked, I learned that the pandemic had been particularly grueling for him professionally, which I could understand. There was not just the overwhelming amount of new data for him to wade through, the statistics to sift out, the comparisons here and there to previous diseases to discern. (These tasks were exhausting on a physical and intellectual level). But there was also, he found, an exhaustion from the ways people were treating each other, and the exhaustion from having to make so many heavy ethical decisions so rapidly.

What brought him to our church and my office was the fact that he had come to understand the need for a deeper faith to anchor him. He had been raised in the Lutheran tradition but had wandered as a young adult. What he shared with me was a yearning to be assured of a love that was at the center of the universe. He felt the need to be rooted in a concrete love, not just some vague idea of morality that everyone can ultimately interpret their own way. Having come through a crucible of an intensity I could never imagine as a public health worker during a pandemic, I think he was experiencing that new birth Jesus talks about. He was sensing the importance of personal love rooted in a story of God reaching out to help humankind with wisdom and sacrifice and judgment. And he wanted this for his children too, two young girls who were growing and likely already dealing with their own nagging questions.

This man and his family ended up attending here for a while and attending Sunday School, too, before he ended up moving out of state to accept a new position elsewhere. But I’d like to think that while they were here we were able to welcome his nagging questions and walk the journey of faith with him.

I think about that man and his bravery a lot, his bravery to seek out and turn over new stones (and old ones), his bravery to admit not know it all. I think about his desire to seek that love and learn from it. And on closer listen, if there’s anything important for us to take away from this encounter this morning between Nicodemus and Jesus is that love is already seeking us. As Jesus listens to Nicodemus in the dim night and invites him to undergo that new birth, to wait for the Spirit to move him like the wind, it is actually love that is speaking to him.

And we hear that is not for God so tested the world, or God so validated the world or God so judged the world. It is not for God so ruled the world or God so overpowered the world and it most definitely is not God so condemned the world. It is God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. The birth that comes through faith is to a life that is rooted in the love of God, a love that has lifted up the Son on the cross so that all people may be saved. It is a new life that stretches beyond the grave into a future with God.

And so if Jesus’ begins by listening to our with nagging questions he is also makes sure he begins with his love, too. He gets that fact out there right at the beginning so that it’s loud and clear from the start. That, friends, may be the best way to look at baptism. It’s not simply a religious ritual or a way to become a member of the church or even a promise of heaven’s joys. It is a visible acknowledgment that we’re always going to begin with God’s love, not our love towards him. That the wind does blow to include us us at some point. Before we have our first nagging question, or even simple question, we already are living in a world that Jesus has died for.

Life may end up being a puzzle for us, or a valley of sorrow, or a series of joys for which we never have words to describe, but the water and Word assures us of this: God is ready to receive and ready to embrace and ready to root our lives in his forgiveness before we even know it.

And there is no question at all about that.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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