Sunday, March 20, 2011

John 3:1-17 - “When They Come with Questions Like ‘How Can This Be?’”

Second Sunday in Lent (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, March 20, 2011

(Reading from a devotional book): Charles H. Spurgeon, one of the greatest and most popular preachers in the nineteenth-century England, asked Christians some hard-hitting questions: “What have you been doing with your life? Is Christ living in your home and yet you have not spoken to Him for months? Do not let me condemn you or judge; only let your conscience speak: Have we not all lived too much without Jesus? Have we not grown content with the world to the neglect of Christ?”

Even today Jesus calls out to people: “Follow Me!” Those who are wise listen and—without hesitation—leave their old ways behind. They find in Christ a new direction, a new purpose, a new identity—a radical new life.

(Throw book across the floor)

Without hesitation? People who are wise follow Jesus without hesitating? That devotional book says that it talks about “Real Faith,” but that doesn’t sound like any real faith that I’ve ever experienced. I get so tired of devotional books and Christian music and preachers who make it all sound like being a Christian is automatic, always confident, always 100%, never hesitating.

Don’t you ever get tired of that, too? Without hesitation? Whoever really comes to Jesus without hesitation? There’s always the tug and pull, the way the Holy Spirit draws us to faith but the way our sin drags us back away. There’s always the joy of knowing forgiveness but there’s also the temptation to just do our own thing.

When Jesus said, “Follow Me,” to the disciples, I don’t know if we should think that they didn’t hesitate. I mean, these are the disciples, the guys who spent so much time with Jesus and still they often got the wrong answer, got the wrong idea about Him, ended up abandoning Him on the night He was betrayed. I don’t think we should imagine that those disciples had automatic, 100% faith all of the time, and I don’t think that we should imagine that’s the kind of faith we can have either.

I think our faith is a lot more like Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the religious leader among the Jews, the guy who came to see Jesus at night, the guy that I’ve often heard be kind of made fun of for sneaking out to see Jesus. People kind of treat Nicodemus like he isn’t a model for our faith, because he was apparently ashamed to be talking to Jesus. People kind of roll their eyes at Nicodemus, because he doesn’t get Jesus, doesn’t understand, asks those silly questions, like when he says, “How can an old man be born again? He can’t go back inside his mother a second time to be born, can he?” (GOD’S WORD).

Silly, Nicodemus, asking about going inside your mother’s tummy again, that’s not what Jesus means. Silly, Nicodemus, don’t you get it? Jesus is talking about spiritually being born again. I mean, really, Nicodemus. And we roll our eyes.

Of course, while we’re rolling our eyes at Nicodemus, we’re making sure that everyone sees that we’re rolling our eyes. We wouldn’t want anyone to see that we hesitated, that we paused just for a moment, that when we heard Nicodemus asking those questions that we paused for a moment because we, too, had a question; we, too, wondered what Jesus meant. We roll our eyes to show everyone that we’re a better disciple than that silly Nicodemus, but inside, well, we’re very, very aware that we’re hesitating, we’re wondering, we’re confused, we’re struggling to believe, we’re in the same boat as that. . .silly Nicodemus.

So honestly, I’m Nicodemus, and I have a hunch that you’re Nicodemus, too. We’ve had our moments of wanting to come to Jesus under the cover of darkness, a bit embarrassed by our questions about our faith. We’ve had our moments of asking questions about the Christian faith, asking questions that seem overly simple, questions that show that we just don’t get it yet.

Nicodemus ends up asking, “How can this be?” kind of like throwing up his hands and just admitting, “I don’t get it, Jesus.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been there. I’ll admit it. I’ve been there with Nicodemus. Call me silly if you must, but I’ve said, “How can this be? I don’t get it, Jesus.”

And once it starts, the questions really start rolling off my tongue: How can I be born again? How can I have new life through baptism? How can I be made new when I’m so aware that I’m a sinner? How are You going to do this, Lord, how are You going to make me into Your creature again? How can it be that I’m a new creation and still sin so often? I don’t get it, Jesus. I don’t get how you’re doing what you’re doing in my life.

And when I realize how quickly those questions roll off my tongue, how much I hesitate and wonder and get confused and struggle to believe, when I realize that, well, then I stop rolling my eyes at Nicodemus and stop calling him silly. Realizing that I’m a lot like Nicodemus, well, that’s what makes me put down those devotional books. Without hesitation? Who me? That’s not me. That’s not “real faith.” Real faith, the faith I’ve experienced, the faith I’ve seen in me and the Christians around me, real faith hesitates, wonders, gets confused, and struggles to believe. Real faith looks at Nicodemus as an example of sorts.

I read this week where someone called Nicodemus “the patron saint of the curious” (“A Curious Man,” Margaret B. Hess). Another writer says that Nicodemus and others like him “appeal to us because they have color and depth, questions and problems. They are like the rest of us who do not jump into discipleship without a lot of wavering and caution. Jesus encounters these people individually and addresses each one personally. They respond honestly and realistically” (“Discipleship in John: Four Profiles,” Mark F. Whitters).

And that’s it exactly. That’s why the story of Nicodemus appeals to me—because Nicodemus hesitates and asks questions. It’s a realistic picture; it’s real faith. And from what we know, Nicodemus does become a follower of Jesus. Later the Gospel of John calls Nicodemus one of the followers of Jesus, and we hear him speak up in defense of Jesus. Then after Jesus dies on the cross, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea put the body of Jesus in the tomb. Just because Nicodemus hesitates at first doesn’t give us any reason to roll our eyes and call him silly when, in fact, he becomes a follower of Jesus.

And how does Nicodemus get to the point of being a follower of Jesus? Well, certainly the way Jesus reacted to him had a lot to do with it. When Nicodemus hesitates and asks questions, we don’t see Jesus rolling His eyes at Nicodemus. Jesus doesn’t call him silly. Jesus reacts with patience—answering the questions Nicodemus has, the questions that are perplexing Nicodemus and his faith.

Jesus is patient, and then He also teaches Nicodemus based on things that Nicodemus already knows. When Jesus is talking about being born of the Spirit, this wasn’t completely new language to Nicodemus. Jesus is making reference to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. In Ezekiel chapter 36, God says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you…” (36:25-27).

Nicodemus, as a religious teacher of the day, would’ve known his Scriptures very well; the whole talk about being born of the Spirit should’ve caused echoes to ring in his head.

Then when Nicodemus still doesn’t get it, Jesus brings up the snake being lifted up on a pole in the desert by Moses. It was in the time of the Exodus when the people were in the wilderness. They had once again turned away from God’s ways, and so God sent poisonous snakes to punish them. They cried out for mercy, so God told Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and then when anyone looked at the bronze snake, they’d be saved from the poisonous bites.

Again, it’s a story that Nicodemus would’ve known; Jesus is drawing Nicodemus in based on things that Nicodemus knew. Jesus starts on common ground with Nicodemus to teach him something new. Jesus doesn’t roll his eyes at Nicodemus; He patiently teaches Nicodemus, starting on common ground and then taking him to a new place.

Now I’m going to guess that Jesus has done the same thing for you, that somewhere in your life, sometime in your faith life that Jesus has used someone, maybe multiple people, Jesus has used someone in your life who was patient with your questions and struggles, someone who didn’t roll their eyes at you, someone who listened to you and then helped you learn the faith by starting on common ground with you, starting with what you already knew and then took you to a new place to learn the forgiveness, love, and mercy of God. Jesus has used someone like that in your life; that’s why you’re here. You’re certainly not here because someone rolled their eyes at you and called you silly; you’re here because when you felt like Nicodemus, someone was Jesus to you, someone was a patient teacher.

And what’s the result, what’s the result of being like Nicodemus, what’s the result of needing Jesus to send a patient teacher into your life? The result is that you’re a follower of Jesus. I mean, you’re still Nicodemus; I’m still Nicodemus. You and me, we’re still hesitating and wondering and getting confused and struggling to believe, but Jesus has drawn us to Himself, Jesus has given us faith, we’re followers of Jesus. A hesitating believer is still just that—a believer, someone who clings to Jesus for salvation. Jesus died and rose again for all people—including us who are struggling believers. Jesus conquered death and promises eternal life to all people—including us who have big questions and wonder about how this all works out. Hesitating, wondering, confused, struggling to believe people are the people that Jesus saves from sin, death, and the devil. Jesus came to save you.

So are you Nicodemus?

Do you hesitate and wonder and get confused and struggle to believe?

And if you’re Nicodemus, that means you’re also out there seeking for answers—even if it’s after dark, even if it’s a whispered questions after church, “Pastor, could we meet this week?” even if it’s a casual cup of coffee with a Christian friend that turns into a deep conversation, if you’re Nicodemus, that means you’re on a spiritual journey, seeking the truth, asking God to show you the way. I hope that if today’s made you realize that you’re on that spiritual search, I hope and pray you’ll reach out to someone who will be a patient teacher, someone who will encourage you in the faith. I pray you’ll reach out today before you forget.

And what’s the other result of being like Nicodemus, what’s the result of experiencing that patience and love of Jesus in your life? The result is that you’re ready to do the same for someone else. I don’t want you to go out and act like being a follower in Jesus was always easy, always 100%. I want you to go out and be patient teachers with your family and friends. I want you to go out and admit that you’re Nicodemus. I want you to go out and admit your struggles, so that as people come to you talking about spiritual things, they’ll realize that you’ve got real faith, you’ve got a faith that hesitates and wonders and gets confused and struggles. I want you to go out and from your experience admit who you are, where you’ve been, where you’re not, where you’re asking God to take you, admit where you still need Jesus every day to keep the faith.

If you’re Nicodemus, if you’re recognizing your own struggles of faith, if you’re seeking out answers from God, well, then you’re in a prime spot for God to use you in someone else’s life, someone else’s faith journey.

So when your family and friends come to you, when they come to you asking questions like “How can this be?” you can honestly say, “I’ve wondered that, too. Let’s go to Jesus together to see if He’ll lead us to answers through His Word and by His Spirit.” When someone asks you, “How can this be?” now you know they need exactly what you need—a patient teacher who starts on common ground with them.

So you are Nicodemus; I am Nicodemus; we are believers in Jesus who hesitate, wonder, get confused, and struggle to believe, but by God’s grace, by His Spirit, we’re believers in Jesus Christ, we are His followers, we have His promise of eternal life.