August 23, 2012

The Puzzle


The Puzzle

Text: John 3:9: “Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?’”

Poor Nicodemus. He really is a smart man. He is a faithful student of the scriptures; he has studied all of his life. His people look to him to explain and teach the faith that they share. He is not just smart, he is respected. He is responsible.

He is smart enough to know that Jesus, this wandering preacher from the countryside, has gotten the attention of the people. And he knows that something Jesus is teaching is giving people hope and joy and a deeper sense of God.

But he also knows that nothing about how this is happening fits with what he has studied his whole life. Nicodemus is a very serious man. He doesn’t have poorly informed opinions. He has thought long and hard about what he believes and what he teaches. And here is this unlearned, uneducated peasant who seems to have convinced the people that he has some new kind of truth to share, something they want to hear.

You have to admire Nicodemus at least to the extent that he doesn’t seem to react in the natural way to this challenge to his authority, to the authority of all the respected teachers of the faith in Jerusalem. He isn’t disdainful, he isn’t resentful, he isn’t dismissive. Instead he comes out to talk to Jesus directly. You might say he’s at least smart enough to know—or maybe it would be better to say, in his wisdom he is humble enough to know—that this man Jesus is saying something he needs to try to understand.

So he goes out to see him. John tells us he goes by night; the idea is he goes in secret. He doesn’t want to be seen, but he does want to understand. So he goes.

And what he gets is more than he bargained for. He gets an answer to his question that doesn’t really increase his knowledge, so much as it makes everything he has ever learned seem completely empty and pointless.

Nicodemus has spent a whole lifetime studying and teaching about a God who has given us laws to live by, who weighs our works against the standards of those laws. He has taught his people about a God who has given them particular privileges and particular responsibilities, and above all who has made them different from everyone else around them.

And now he is hearing that God is nothing like what he had been taught, nothing like what he had imagined. He is hearing that God is not about judgment, but about salvation; not about condemnation, but about forgiveness.

The traveling teacher tells the great scholar that the birth that matters is not whether you are born of a believer, but whether belief in a loving God comes to be born in you, in your heart, in each person’s heart. He learns that what matters is not the family or the clan or the tribe you are born into, but whether you come to your own moment of recognition that you actually need something called salvation, and why you need it, and that God offers it to you, unconditionally, in love.

None of this is what Nicodemus had learned, and he had learned a lot. And so after hearing all this we see this image of a confused, perplexed man, a man used to knowing the answers who has now completely lost everything he thought was true. He doesn’t protest, he doesn’t reject what he has heard. Instead he simply takes it all in and confesses his confusion: “How can these things be?”

How can these things be? That is the question where faith begins. Belief doesn’t have anything to do with things that can be proved with evidence; faith isn’t needed where certainty is available.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the one day in the Christian calendar dedicated to a theological idea; the Christian claim that the true nature of God is unity of essence and Trinity of expressions, one God in three persons. Evidence will not get you there. Logic may get you quite a way of the distance there; at least it has some of the great theologians of the church.

But in the end, the Holy Trinity is a claim we take on faith. And the thing about our faith is, most of it involves things we simply don’t get proof for.

We don’t really get evidence that God’s purpose is to save us, not to condemn us. Certainly we don’t often get evidence of that idea from the loudest sort of Christians.

We don’t get evidence of the experience of being born again. There are traditions in which what passes for evidence is being able to claim to know where you were and when it was you were “saved,” when and where you accepted Jesus as your personal savior and Lord. That seems to me to come more for our quest for proof than for an understanding of what faith is.

What we get is a faith that constantly challenges what we think we know, even what we regard as the right way to measure justice and fairness and right conduct.

What we get is a puzzle. Our faith, the ideas we are given by God and challenged to believe, are a puzzle. The last will be first and the first will be last. There is no distinction between those on the inside and those on the outside; there is no outside. The leader is the servant. The outcasts are the most faithful. And God has come to save us, not to condemn us.

We have to respond to all of this. We can be disdainful, or resentful, or dismissive. Or, like Nicodemus, we can put all of what we thought we knew aside, at least long enough to consider again that what we thought we knew was not enough. And when we find ourselves asking, “How can these things be?”—that is where our faith begins. Amen.