The Problem of the Know-It-All

know it allJohn 3:1-17 NRSV

In today’s gospel lesson, a very knowledgeable and prominent leader of Israel comes to Jesus seeking to discover who Jesus is and what Jesus is all about. The learned and sophisticated Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus appearing poised and confident, “Now, we know that you are…”  He begins his conversation from the same place that most of us mature, experienced, educated, long-time religious people often begin our conversations about God—from the stuff we know, from the stuff we understand… or think we understand. “Now we know that you are…”

And it’s from there that the conversation gets all convoluted and confused. Jesus begins talking to Nicodemus about birth, and poor Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about ordinary, physical birth. Jesus starts talking about the Spirit—and Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about the wind.

It is interesting that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, for in just a few brief moments with Jesus, Jesus proves that, when it comes to God, Nicodemus is in the dark in more ways than one.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus confident and assured, but by the time Jesus gets finished with him, Nicodemus is confused and mumbling, “Uh, How can this be?”

Nicodemus has a problem.  And perhaps Nicodemus’ problem is in the very way he came to Jesus in the first place—“Now we know that…”

And maybe that is precisely our problem—“Now we know that…”  We can’t help it.  We are modern, intellectual types who know a lot!  We can explain the inner workings of the atom, the intricacies of the human genome, the formations of tropical depressions, and how to build a space shuttle. We know. We live in what they call the information age. If there’s something we don’t know, we can just Google it, and in a few simple clicks of a mouse, we know. With WebMD and Wikipedia, there is hardly anything that we cannot easily understand and explain.

Perhaps this is why we try to approach God the way we do. God is to be understood and easily explained. 

It is no wonder those on the outside of the church accuse those of us who are on the inside of being “know-it-alls” when it comes to religion.  They believe that we think we have all the answers. There are some that think that we are here this morning because we are experts on religion, knowing lots of things about God. And truth be told, that is exactly why they are not here with us this morning.

One day, I was introduced to someone who knew that I was a pastor. He shook my hand, and said, rather proudly, “I am an agnostic.” Which means that he did not know he believed about God.

I surprised him when I responded, “I have my moments when I am an agnostic too.” I believe that some are agnostic all of the time, and all, if they are honest, are agnostic some of the time.

The reality is that here on Sunday, we acknowledge together how little we really know. We gather ourselves together to acknowledge the great truth, that when it comes to the mystery that is God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, we are all, well, quite ignorant!

The truth is that the God we worship is much larger than our imaginations. God is bigger and more alive than we ever can possibly comprehend.

This is why I believe I left the movie, Son of God, feeling disappointed. There is just no way anyone can capture the essence of who Jesus is and present it in a one-hundred and forty-minute cinematic presentation. I told someone that I have been preaching the gospel of Jesus for over twenty-five years, and I have not even begun to scratch the surface of who Jesus is and what the gospel is all about.

William Willimon, commenting on how some reduce God to something we can easily understand said, “You can’t define this God, put this God in your pocket, or on a leash and drag God around with you.  Life with this God is an adventure, a journey, a leap into the unknown, an expectation that, among even the most regular attendees among us, there will be surprises, jolts, shocks.”[1]

In a few moments we are going to have a child dedication service. Robert and Ashley Bishop are going to present their son, Owen. And Brooks and Jenny White are going to present their son, Chase. We are pretty confident that we know what we are doing when we dedicate them to the Lord. We believe that we are merely promising to nurture them, guide them and teach them all we know about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit. We say that we do this because they are the church of tomorrow.

But what if Owen Bishop and Chase White have more to teach us about the triune God than we can possibly imagine? What if Owen and Chase and every other small child here today are not the church of tomorrow, but are actually the church of today? What if they truly are, as Jesus implies, more a part of this thing called the Kingdom of God than we can ever know? What if we are not so much the ones who are going to instruct them about this journey called faith, as we are the ones who are merely going to invite them to go on this journey with us? And along the way, what if they are the ones who have a thing or two to teach us?

How often have we gathered around this table confident that we know exactly what is going on here around this table. Catholics and some Episcopalians are all so mysterious, always insisting on calling it “Holy Communion.” We like to call it simply “supper.”  Some believe that something mysterious takes place as they eat this meal. They call it transubstantiation. We only believe it is a dry little cracker and tiny sip of Welch’s grape juice and an act of remembrance that is confined to our limited and finite minds. 

But what if there is more going on here this morning than we can see, touch or taste or even remember? When we gather around the Lord’s Table, what if there is more going on here than meets the senses? What if there is some mysterious communion or a very holy fellowship happening here? Sharing what we merely call a “supper,” what if we are surprised to discover that we are somehow invited to join the same fellowship that is mysteriously and inexplicably enjoyed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? 

In and around this table, what if there is something afoot, something happening— moving, inviting, healing, strengthening, loving, forgiving, saving, calling, challenging, commissioning?

We have come to instruct and bless children, but we will leave having been instructed and blessed by them. We thought that we have come to remember a life, a death and a resurrection, but we will leave having been caught up in that life and death and transformed by that resurrection.

As Willimon has said, “For, that is our God at our God’s best. That night as Nicodemus talked with Jesus, he began with what he knew. And he ended with questions about what he did not know. He arrived fairly confident that he had a good grasp of, [a good hold on] who Jesus was; [he left surprised,] having been encountered and held by the mysterious, majestic Holy Spirit of God in the flesh.”[2]

This morning, when we awoke, we thought we knew what we were doing. We thought we were going to get up, get dressed and simply go to church, sing a few hymns, have the Lord’s Supper, listen to a sermon, dedicate some children. Then we would leave, get some lunch and come back home unmoved and unchanged, to watch a little more basketball.

However, when got here, we realized that we did not know it all. A song spoke to us, a small wafer and tiny cup filled us, a word challenged us, a child looked at us and blessed us, and God, the creator of all that is called us by name and loved us. Christ came and wrapped his arms around us as his Holy Spirit breathed new life into us. And now, we will leave this place changed, transformed and divinely commissioned to share the love of God with all people.

[1]Quote and interpretation of Nicodemus’ first words to Jesus “We know” came from William H. Willimon, We Know (PR 34/2; Inver Grove Heights Minnesota: Logos Productions, Inc., 2006), 49.

[2] Ibid.

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