How?

MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Idylwood Presbyterian Church
March 16, 2014
John 3:1-17

“How?”

3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
3:2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "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."
3:3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
3:4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"
3:5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'
3:8 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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
3:9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"
3:10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
3:11 "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.
3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
3:16 "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.
3:17 "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.

 

~

 

Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I'm dumb in school?
Whatif they've closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there's poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif I flunk that test?
Whatif green hair grows on my chest?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?
Whatif I don't grow talle?
Whatif my head starts getting smaller?
Whatif the fish won't bite?
Whatif the wind tears up my kite?
Whatif they start a war?
Whatif my parents get divorced?
Whatif the bus is late?
Whatif my teeth don't grow in straight?
Whatif I tear my pants?
Whatif I never learn to dance?
Everything seems well, and then
the nighttime Whatifs strike again!                       

-Shel Silverstein

When I was a little girl, I loved Encyclopedia Brown books. I found them so fun. There’s something satisfying about reading a good mystery and confronting this question of whodunit. And then—poof! They are always solved in the end.

In addition to the collections of short story mysteries, I also had a great Encyclopedia Brown Record Book of Weird and Wonderful Facts. There are two facts I remember: 

  • One billion minutes ago, Jesus still walked the earth.
  • The average four year old asks 437 questions a day. 

The first one, the one about Jesus, I calculated myself as a child, with lots of paper and a calculator, and it was indeed true, or at least it was several decades ago.

But the second? 437 questions a day? I simply did not believe it. I couldn’t possibly imagine how that could be the case. 

Let me say now that as a parent, I am a believer!! 

I’m a believer, not only in the number of questions, but the importance of them. Questions are at the heart of science. We think that science is about facts, but no. Science is about engaging questions, and then when an answer is found, it only leads to more questions. Questions have the power to unlock a deeper wisdom. 

There’s a story attributed to Elie Wiesel, that great writer and humanitarian who would go on to write about his experiences in the holocaust. When Elie was a little boy, he would come home after school each day, and his mother would not ask “What did you learn?” Instead she would ask, “Did you have a good question today?” 

Well, for the next several weeks, we will be looking at stories in the gospel of John, specifically the questions at the heart of each of these stories. 

Somewhere along the way, in a training or Bible class perhaps, I picked up this statistic:

In the gospels, Jesus was asked 183 questions.
He himself asked 307 questions. That’s 490 questions.
Jesus answered 3 questions directly.
That means there are 487 unanswered questions in the gospels.
 

We see that questioning dynamic in today’s story.

Right from the outset, Nicodemus calls Jesus Rabbi, which was the title he himself possessed. He’s not only placing the two of them on equal footing, but defining the terms of the engagement. The back and forth we are about to see is how rabbis engage with the scripture (then and now!).

It starts with a statement: We know you must be from God.
Then Jesus: Nobody can enter kingdom without being born again.
Then comes the question: How can someone be born again?

Now if I’m Jesus, I want to bop him upside the head and say, It’s a metaphor, Nic. 

But instead, Jesus leads him ever deeper, with a meditation on flesh and spirit, and then this: 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.

And then, another question from Nicodemus: How can these things be?

Each of the stories we’re going to look at during Lent has a different question at the heart. Today’s question is How. Nicodemus’s question is, How does all this work? He wants an explanation.

It’s the question we modern people focus on too. And maybe like Shel Silverstein’s nighttime questions, they are the ones that creep in when we lie awake at night. 

How are we going to pay the bills this month?
How am I going to overcome this addiction?
How can I forgive what he did to me? 

There faith questions too:

How do we understand God’s providence in light of the suffering we see in the world?How did Jesus really heal all those people and rise from the grave?
How do we know any of this is really real?

And I read Jesus’ answers to Nicodemus, and it’s like he’s saying, You want an explanation. And you’re not wrong for wanting one. But I’m not in the explanation business. Explanation is not the heart of the Christian faith. The heart of it is the work of the Holy Spirit, that blows where it will. The heart of it is me. A person. A relationship. Not an explanation. Not an Encyclopedia Brown mystery with a nice tidy solution. 

He doesn’t explain. He doesn’t say How. He doesn’t answer the question! But he does. He says, The answer is a person. The Son of Man. Look to me—journey with me. Join this adventure of faith.

I was talking with some pastor friends about this story this week, and we were thinking about connecting this business of John 3:16, with this business of being born again. As Presbyterians—as people who maybe don’t want to be associated with some intolerant type of Christianity that often gets a lot of airplay—we do two things.

  1. We say, “Well, I’m more of a John 3:17 Christian than a John 3:16 one.” We emphasize the verse that comes after the famous one—that God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
  2. But the second thing we do is we say, “I’m not one of those ‘born-again’ types.”

And I understand why we want to dissociate with so-called “turn or burn” Christians. It’s not our theology; it’s not the way we want to be in a religiously diverse world.

But we lose something by rejecting the “born again” label. 

To be born again is to become childlike. To admit that we don’t have all the answers; we have questions. Good questions, anxious questions. Middle of the night questions. Whatif questions. And how questions, like Nicodemus. 

To be born again means to have questions… maybe 437 a day. 

This isn’t the only time we see Nicodemus in the gospel of John. We see him twice more. Nicodemus shows up at important times. It’s clear that he has accepted Jesus’ invitation not to answers, but to a relationship with him. 

First, we see him again with his fellow Pharisee’s, who want to go get Jesus and string him up, “take care of him.” And Nicodemus convinces them to stand down—he says no—we need to give him a hearing. We need to bring him in and question him, engage with him. 

But then we meet him again, there near the end.: 

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 

I think about Nicodemus, carrying 100 pounds of spices. Picture that, if you can. Think about the weight of that, cradled in your arms. But think also about the headiness of those spices in his nostrils as he walked that journey to help anoint Jesus’ body.

And I have to wonder… 

Would Nicodemus have gone to all that trouble, would he have committed such an act of love—if Jesus had simply given him an explanation, all those many nights before? 

Perhaps Nicodemus realized, as Elie Wiesel’s mother knew, that more important than answers, is living with good questions. As Rachel Remen, a medical doctor and writer, has said, “I have no answers, but I have a lot of questions, and those questions have helped me to live better than any answers I might find.”

Amen? Amen.

 

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©2014 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.