Our church has always believed very strongly in education. This one of the reasons that we have a graduate recognition Sunday.
Our church also believes it is very important to always ask questions. Our church has never been the kind of church that expects its members to “check their brain at the door” before entering on Sunday mornings. Like our forefathers Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, we encourage free-thinking and open minds here. We believe that God created our minds to ask questions—even the hard questions of life and faith.
I know of some churches where people are taught never to question anything. They are expected to go to church with the sole expectation to be indoctrinated with whatever the minister says. Not here.
Believing very strongly in the historic principle of the “Priesthood of All Believers,” our church encourages and even expects free thought and the free expression of ideas. You are your own priest. No one here is expected to agree with everything that is said from this pulpit. You are always free to examine, to mull over, and perhaps, even seek an entirely different word from God.
One of the reasons we encourage such questioning is that we do not believe anyone here, including the one who does the most talking on Sunday mornings, has, or will ever have, all of answers. We come to church recognizing that we will never be able to get our hands on, wrap our arms around, all there is to know about this mystery we call God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
During a Wednesday night supper, an eight year-old little girl came and sat beside me. She said, “Dr. Banks.”
Not many people address me in that manner. I kind of liked it. Made me feel smart, scholarly, intellectual! “Yes, how can I help you?” I responded.
She said, “I’ve got a lot of questions about God.”
I thought to myself, “Well, my dear little one, you’ve certainly come to the right place.”
She then asked, “Where exactly do dogs go when they die?”
I thought for a second or two, and responded the only way I knew how. I just looked at her—in dumbfounded silence
A little impatient, she asked, “Do they go to doggie heaven or to regular heaven with the rest of us?”
It was then I had to admit it, “I really don’t know.”
I could see the disappointment on her face. But she quickly moved on to her next question: “How old are people in heaven?”
Again, dumbfounded silence.
Frustrated she asked, “You know, if you die as a baby will you be a baby when you get to heaven? Or if you die as an old lady, will you be an old lady in heaven?”
Again, I had to say “I really don’t know?”
It was then she said, “You know something? For a doctor, you sure don’t know much.” She didn’t ask me any more questions.
No, the truth is, for someone who not only has a doctorate, but someone who has hardly missed a Sunday in church for the last forty-eight and a half years, I really don’t know that much.” All learned after spending a few moments with an eight-year old.
That is why I love ol’ Nicodemus. For Nicodemus also discovered that he didn’t know that much either after spending just few moments with Jesus.
The very educated and esteemed Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish Pharisees, came to Jesus full of questions. “Rabbi,” how can a man be born when he is old?” and “Can you enter the womb a second time and be born?” and “How can this be?” And through all these questions, Nicodemus is asking another question, “Who are you anyway Jesus?’
When it all comes down to it, isn’t that THE question? Isn’t that the reason we are here every Sunday morning? We come asking, “Who is this Jesus anyway?”
We, like Nicodemus, have heard some rumors about the amazing things Jesus has done. And we have been listening to his teachings and have heard just enough to be confused. And we’ve got questions. Can we really believe everything we have heard about Jesus? How can he be both an earthly human being and God at the same time? How can his spirit be both ascended into heaven yet still here with us?
Notice that although it is Nicodemus who begins the conversation here, by the time our passage ends, it is Jesus who is doing most of the talking. Nicodemus appears to be just sitting there in dumbfounded silence.
For you see, Nicodemus thought he would be able to go to Jesus and grasp Jesus. Nicodemus thought he could go to Jesus and figure Jesus out, get his hands on Jesus, wrap his arms around Jesus—understand, define Jesus.
Nicodemus learned what most of us already know: Sometimes when we come to Jesus with questions, Jesus doesn’t give us easy answers. I’m not sure if Nicodemus got any of his questions answered that night. However, the good news is that Nicodemus got something better. Nicodemus went to Jesus hoping to understand him, put his hands on him, wrap his arms around him, but instead, it was Jesus understood Nicodemus. It was Jesus who put his hands on and lovingly wrapped his arms around him.
So this morning, I want us to take Nicodemus as our model. While you are here this morning in the presence of Christ, I want you to ask Jesus whatever is on your mind. Go ahead and use all of your God-given mental capacities, use every ounce of intellect to try to think about Jesus this morning. Listen to what he has to say. And then, simply enjoy being with him.
Give thanks that we have the sort of God who wants more than anything else to be with us, who descends to us, who speaks to us, who shares truth with us, even if we cannot comprehend the wholeness of that truth.
There are a lot of people who have a great disdain for us church folks. Because they erroneously believe that Christians are those people who have it all figured out. They believe church goers are people who have had all of their questions about Jesus answered. And I am afraid they have good reasons for believing that.
I heard one pastor describe a member of his church who was convinced that he had all the answers. He said: “He is very stubborn and close-minded about everything!” He said, “If he gets to heaven and discovers that things up there are a little different, he is the type that would get mad and ask for a transfer!”
No, the truth is, as William Willimon has said, “Jesus is that illusive, free, sovereign and living God who makes sense out of us, rather than our making sense out of him.” Every Sunday we risk coming to him, listening to him and following him, even when we do not always grasp what he’s talking about and know precisely where he’s leading us.
Notice that Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about wind and birth. For what in our world is more mysterious than wind and birth? In meeting Jesus, we come face to face with a living God. And we cannot define him. We can’t put our hands on, wrap our arms around him. The good news is that it is he who defines us. It is he who puts his hands on and wraps his arms around us—And beckons us to follow him even if we do not always understand him.
This is exactly what happened to Nicodemus. We meet Nicodemus again sixteen chapters later in John’s gospel. When Jesus was crucified, when most of his disciples deserted him, Nicodemus was one of the few people who were there to lovingly bury Jesus.
I’m sure Nicodemus still had even more questions on that Good Friday. How could it be that this one sent from God, this Savior of the world, be so horribly crucified?
But there, at the foot of the cross, Nicodemus doesn’t ask questions. He simply does what is right. He simply followed. By being associated with Jesus, a condemned criminal, Nicodemus risks his reputation, and even his life. He proves, in the most loving of ways, that one does not have to have Jesus completely figured out to follow Jesus.
If we take Nicodemus as our model, the question for us then is this, “Will we follow Jesus even if we cannot put our hands on him, even if we don’t always understand him?” The good news is that if we say yes, if we promise to walk with him, Jesus promises that he will walk with us forever. For faith is not in the understanding. Genuine faith is in the following.
Frederick Buechner has written: “You do not need to understand healing to be healed or know anything about blessing to be blessed.”
I would add that you do not need to understand the miracle of life to breathe. You do not need to understand the marvel of love to be loved and to share love. You do not need to comprehend the gift of grace to receive it and to offer it to others. And you never need to figure out the holy wonder of the Trinity, the divine relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be an eternal part of that relationship. You do not need to ever grasp Jesus to follow Jesus and have Jesus grasp you.