Thursday, February 14, 2008

John 3:1-17 - Sermon - Lent II - Very Truly

John 3:1-17
Very Truly

Megan charges $6 an hour to baby-sit one child, and $2 for each additional child. She babysat for the Smiths, who have two boys, last Friday from 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. At 6:30 p.m., the boys’ friend came over. The Smith’s came home at 9:00 p.m. How much did Megan earn? Miranda was feeding the animals at the farm. She noticed that 2/3 of the pigs came when she called, but only 1/6 as many horses as pigs responded to her call. There are 27 pigs. How many horses came right away to eat some hay? These are two word problems that any junior high math student should be able to answer. Many of you probably figured out the answers already. Some of you didn’t. The only way you can leave church today is tell me the answers …just kidding.

Growing up I had a hard time with word problems. There was something about them that I could not grasp. I don’t know what it was. My aunt is a high school math teacher and I remember spending hours over there having her tutor me in these problems. When I would look at one of these problems it would all flow together, I would get numbers confused, or I would miss important facts. What I really enjoyed though is when I finally got them right. Eventually, after a painstakingly long time, I would get them. I felt like I conquered a kingdom or something. I was on top of the world because I took this problem and figured it out. I could finally ‘get’ it.

We are very proud of our children when the finally ‘get’ it. We cheer when they figure out that 2 + 2 = 4. We can’t wait to call the grandparents when they say their first word, take their first step, or get their first A. On one of these cold days recently we had our gas fire place on. Dean likes to sit on the huge stone hearth to play sometimes and this was the first time he noticed the fire because this was the first time it was on with him around. He immediately was drawn to it and wanted to know what it was and what it did. I, with my 30 years of experience, tried to explain to this 17 month old that the glass in front of the fire is hot and not to touch it. I did my best to explain it in his terms. I acted like I touched it and then made an ouchy face, which only peaked his interest. Finally I let him explore, with me right next to him, I let him reach out and touch it. I got an ouchy face. He barely touched the glass when he suddenly pulled it back and started to well up.

His hand wasn’t burned and after a hug he immediately went back to playing but he left with something he didn’t have before, a reference. Before this moment he didn’t have an understanding of what the word hot meant. Now he does. He couldn’t comprehend that fire could hurt him because it was the first time he had seen it. Now he does. He gets it now. If we have the fire on, Dean doesn’t go near the fire place because he has a reference in his brain that tells him, oh pretty but ouchy. He ‘gets’ it.

As humans we love to get things. We love it when we can comprehend, grasp, or figure something out. When I’m ministering to people who are going through medical tests I pray for answers. Even if the answer is not a good one, people seem relieved to have the answer on some level. When people live in the period between knowing they have something but not knowing what it is, it makes life very difficult. It is difficult because of the unknown and the intangible. It is easier for someone to fight to get healthy when they can name and call out their opponent. I’m going to beat this cancer. I’m going to battle this heart disease. Without a diagnosis this sentence is left open ended and the will to fight as prevalent. We have to ‘get’ it to fight it.

Divinity School is tough for many people and I know I had my fair share of mountain top experiences and valleys. It wasn’t until my second year after graduation that I got it though. I finally understood the purpose of three years of this mind bending, eye crossing, and soul searching experience. I thought for the longest time that the professors there had a firm grip on the reality of church life and ministry. I was wrong many of them didn’t. It wasn’t that they didn’t know what they were talking about. It wasn’t that what they were teaching wasn’t biblical or what Christ desires of us. The problem was that they were way over here on this side of the scale. They would harp that this is the way it is suppose to be. When I got out into ministry though I realized that the world I was ministering to was way over on the other side of the scale. The purpose of Divinity School was to understand that my duty, my job, my purpose as a minister was to live in between these realities. Can we as a church achieve some of the ideals that my professors and Christ talked about, maybe, maybe not. But since I was exposed to them I know the direction I need to pull people. I understand what the result could look like. I can now figure out a path to move us a little closer. Two years after graduating I ‘got’ it.

Now I have shared all these examples with you for a reason. We love to ‘get’ it. We love to understand the world around us and hold it tightly in our fist. That is what Nicodemus was hoping to do when he came to see Jesus in the night. He was trying to get a tight grip on who Jesus was. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, so he was an educated man and must have had some sort of intelligence. The picture we get in today’s text is a discussion between two religious scholars. They are holding a deep theologically, psychological, and philosophical discussion. What is interesting is that out of this discussion comes one of the most basic and memorable verses in the entire Bible.

We have to remember that the Pharisees didn’t really like Jesus. They were scared of him and always tired to catch him blaspheming. That is why Nicodemus was coming to Jesus at night. He didn’t want to be seen by others. He didn’t want others to know that he was there talking to ‘that’ guy. He comes in the dark in order to get answers. He wants to know more about this person, this person who comes from God. What Nicodemus doesn’t realize is that he is talking to God.

Before Nicodemus can even ask his first question though Jesus says, Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Imagine that being the first comment you hear in your face to face with Jesus. It would throw you back on your heels. Nicodemus, being the intellectual he is, attempts to wrap his head around it. How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? You can tell that Nicodemus is attempting to logically think this through and I am sure if his mother was around she would have told him that climbing back into her womb was not going to actually happen, EVER.

Jesus answers with another Very truly, I tell you…Jesus goes on to explain that we are to be born of the water and the Spirit. He tries to give him an analogy that God is like the wind. We don’t really see where it comes from or how it got here but we know it is here. At the end of this piece of theology Nicodemus still can’t get it. That is when Jesus adds another Very truly, I tell you.

Very truly, is an important group of words. Any time you hear Jesus say, Very truly, you need to pay attention. Some other translations say, I tell you the truth, or Verily, Verily. Which ever version is in your Bible, when you see these words it is like one of the digital signs above the highway that the DOT can change that tells you what to expect ahead. They tell us, road construction dates, or accident ahead, prepare to stop. When Jesus says, Very truly, I tell you the truth, or verily, verily, he is saying IMPORTANT STUFF COMING, PAY ATTENTION.

In the final Very truly, we get for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Nicodemus came to try and ‘get’ Jesus but what he gets is more questions.

We don’t know what happens to Nicodemus after this dialog. We don’t get commentary on how he thought the discussion went. We don’t know if he was satisfied with what Jesus said or if he walked away puzzled and confused. All we know is that the Bible is silent about Nicodemus until the John 19:39. In the 19th chapter of John’s gospel Jesus is crucified and buried. In the end of the chapter it says that a group of people take Jesus down to bury him. Verse 39 says, He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. This man who came to see Jesus in the night turns up again at the cross. After his fellow Pharisees are successful in getting rid of Jesus, Nicodemus turns his back on them by bring an abundance of burial spices to lay Jesus to rest. We can tell that Nicodemus is affected by his night conversation because none of Christ’s own disciples are in the list of people. It is only Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple and the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nicodemus had to be transformed; he had to be a follower now.

We all constantly ask God questions hoping that we ‘get’ it. We try and wrap our three pounds of gray matter around God but also end up with more questions. That is the type of God we worship. That is the type of God Jesus is. We cannot wrap Jesus up into a nice box and tie a ribbon around him. We can’t pigeonhole him or back him into a corner. We will never fully understand God because God is God and we are human. Our finite brains cannot comprehend an infinite God. When we do this we hear the familiar words, Very truly, I tell you…

Does this mean we should stop trying to understand God? Does this mean that we should simply stop looking for answers because all we will end up with is more questions? What do we do and where do we go from here? On this second Sunday of Lent we have to realize that we cannot define God but God defines us. Faith and following Christ at times demands that we pull away from our intellectual abilities and learn to accept a God is who is larger and grander than we can understand. We won’t always ‘get’ Jesus but Jesus always gets us.

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