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. Poised and confident, the educated and sophisticated Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus: “Now, we know that you are…”
He begins his conversation from the same place that most of us mature, experienced, long-time students of Sunday School often begin our conversations about God: from the things we know, the things we have figured out… or think we think we have figured out:
“Now we know that you are…”
And it’s from there that the conversation gets all confused, confounded and convoluted. Jesus begins talking to Nicodemus about birth, but poor Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about literal, physical birth. Jesus starts talking about the Spirit, but poor Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about the wind.
I think it is very interesting that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Because in just a few moments with Jesus, we learn that when it comes to God, when it comes to this mystery that we call faith, 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 astounded and dumbfounded, 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…”
Our problem is that we know. And I suppose we can’t help it. After all, we are modern, some say we are even post modern folks who know a lot!
We live in what they call the information age. If there’s something we don’t know, we can just Google it or YouTube it, and in a few simple clicks of a mouse, we know. With WebMD and Wikipedia, there is hardly anything that we cannot understand or easily explain.
Perhaps this is why we try to approach God the way we do. We believe God is to be understood and easily explained.
It is no wonder those on the outside of the church often accuse those of us who are on the inside of the church of being “know-it-alls” when it comes to religion. They believe that we think we have God all figured out. There are some that think that the reason we are here this morning is because we are God-experts.
And maybe that is why some they are not here with us this morning.
One day, I was introduced to someone who knew that I was a pastor. I think he wanted to shock me when shook my hand and said, rather proudly, “Well, I’m an agnostic.” Which means that he did not know what he believed about God.
I think I shocked him when I responded, “Well, I have my moments when I am an agnostic too.”
I then said: “If people were honest they would admit: Some people are agnostic all of the time, and all are agnostic some of the time.”
The reality is that what we should be doing here, in this place every Sunday morning, is acknowledging together how little we really know and how much we have to learn, instead of coming here to have everything we think we know about God reaffirmed.
We gather ourselves together to acknowledge the great truth, that when it comes to the mystery that is God, we are all, as God told Mack in the movie The Shack, “idiots.”
“If the shoe fits,” She said.
The truth is that the God we worship is much larger than our imaginations. God is bigger and more alive than we can ever possibly comprehend.
I believe this is one of the reasons some preachers are telling their congregations to avoid the movie The Shack (a movie by the way I highly recommend) And there are many reasons: like maybe Jesus as a Middle Eastern man, if you can imagine that; also, God’s love for humanity compelling Her desire to redeem all people.
But perhaps they are most upset by the way the movie may cause some to question everything they thought they knew about God. Many preachers can not handle God saying to Mack: “I am not who you think I am” and “You misunderstand the mystery.”
But to me, that sounds a little like Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-17).
Like Nicodemus, we think we know who God is, how God acts and what God desires. But after we truly encounter the Divine, we might learn that we are, well, idiots.
I heard one preacher you say, “If you want to know something about Jesus, don’t watch The Shack, instead watch the more biblical movie, The Son of God.”
But, a few years ago, I remember walking out of the showing of The Son of God when it ended feeling disappointed. For I do not believe there is anyway 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 about God is for over thirty years, and I have not even begun to scratch the surface of who God is!
United Methodist Bishop 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.”
How often have we gathered around this table confident that we know exactly what is going on?
Catholics, and some Episcopalians are all so mysterious, always insisting on calling it Holy Communion or the Holy Eucharist.
Some of us, though, prefer to simply call it “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 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— something moving, inviting, healing; something strengthening, loving, forgiving; something saving, calling, challenging, commissioning?
We thought that we have come to remember a life, a death and a resurrection, but I believe we could 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.”
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 choir sing and a sermon preached. 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.
We were shocked when a song spoke to us.
We were surprised when a small wafer and tiny cup filled us.
We were jolted when a word challenged us.
We were startled when someone that we did not even know looked at us and blessed us.
And we were amazed when God, the Creator-of-All-that-Is, somehow, someway that we do not understand, called us by name and told us that She is especially fond of us.
And we were absolutely astounded as Christ himself came and wrapped his arms around us as the Holy Spirit breathed new life into us.
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.