Communing with Attitude
Ever since I can remember, this passage from John 3 has been one of my favourite portions of Scripture. I think it is because Nicodemus, of all of the people in the Gospel story, gets to do something that I have always wanted to do. Nicodemus gets to sit down and have a one-on-one conversation with Jesus. Imagine for a moment what you would ask Jesus if you had him all to yourself for an evening? Where would the discussion go? I know that I would want to ask him why God allows children to suffer, or innocent people to be killed in war, why there are tsunamis, or why there is tension in the Middle East. All of these things where I think it would be rather nice if God stepped in and presented humanity with solutions.
Nicodemus is a learned man. He is a scribe and a Pharisee. As such, he is one of the great minds of Jewish society of the day. I have preached on this text several times before, always getting caught up in the theological discussion that he is having with Jesus. After all, this is what preachers are supposed to do: open us up to what God is saying to us in a certain passage of Scripture. However, I noticed this week as I was reading through the passage that one thing about Nicodemus stands out more than his great learning and that is his attitude: his curiosity.
He comes to Jesus by night. As part of the religious establishment which was antagonistic towards Jesus, he could not come openly in the day. In fact, his colleagues would have nothing to do with Jesus other than to try to trip him up on theological points, and, each time, Jesus handled them rather well. No, Nicodemus is so curious that he comes to Jesus under the cover of night. Look at the exchange they have. Nicodemus ends up asking question after question. We can almost see the cogs of his mind turning around what Jesus is telling him.
First question: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be reborn?” This older man asks a question which is profound on two levels. First, I wonder if he is looking back on his life and realizes that there are things in his past of which he isn’t too proud.
I was at the bedside of Martin who had been the United Church minister in the same community for over fifty years. Martin was thought by many of us to be a learned, wise, old saint. Martin was now in the hospital awaiting major surgery. He squeezed my hand and said, “Laddie, I am so afraid. I am afraid of the anesthesia. I am afraid that when they put me under I will begin to babble and people will find out things about me that I am ashamed of.” My learning in that hospital room that afternoon was that even the saints have their histories or as that great saint of the Bible, Paul, puts it: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23]
Nicodemus is asking, with a hint of hope in his voice, “How is it possible to start over, to be youthful again, to lay aside all of the old, bad things I’ve done and thought and the old person I’ve been?” Are there things in your life that you would like to wipe clean from the slate? Things that you are ashamed of? Things that you realize from where you stand today that you would like to change? Jesus is telling Nicodemus that with God the slate is wiped clean. God forgives and it is important for us to feel that forgiveness and then to go on living as new people having experienced that forgiveness.
The second thing that perhaps Nicodemus realizes is that the religion of his day has become rather entrenched. There were 630 laws which had to be followed in order for a Jew to maintain a right relationship with God. It seemed as if the faith had become stagnant and rooted in the past rather than looking to the future. This is where Jesus comes in. His understanding of his mission was that he had come, not to abolish the law of the prophets, but to fulfill it. [Matthew 5:17] The more I go on in life, it seems the more I like things to be the same. When we are young, change comes easily, but as we grow older, does change become more difficult?
A number of years ago, when our family was moving to Prince Edward Island from Toronto where I had grown up, we had just closed up our house in Toronto and were in the mini van starting our journey on the highway. Did one of my sons pick up on our anxieties of moving across the country to the unknown? From the backseat came a four-year-old voice, “Daddy, is it the same God in PEI as in Toronto?” “Yes, God is the same.” “Well then Daddy, if God is there, what do we have to worry about?” Elsewhere, Jesus tells his followers that if you want to get a proper perspective on things, you must look at them with the eyes of a child. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “I could not, at any age, be content to take my place by the fireside and simply look on. Life was meant to be lived. Curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.”
We all know what a four-year-old is like. “Dad, why is the sky blue?” “Dad, why is the grass green?” “Mom, why this, mom why that?” What happens to a child between the ages of five and twelve? How do those bright eyes of wonder become dulled? How do the questions of the four-year-old become stifled? After a session of questioning by a young child, we soon realize that the truth of things is very complicated and not easily stated. So many things we experience in our world are elusive of our desire to grasp and understand.
When St. Augustine was checking out the Christian faith, he tried reading the Bible. He was unimpressed. He had the benefit of one of the best educations of his day. He had read all of the great writers of his day and he stated outright that the Bible was not great literature. He complained to Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan about the inferiority of the Bible. Ambrose’s response was brilliant. He told Augustine that he did not have the skills for reading the bible. “When you read, you erroneously think that a ‘fish’ is a fish, a loaf of bread is but a loaf of bread and nothing else. No. In the Bible, everyday things are transformed, becoming signs for richer, deeper meaning.” I don’t think Augustine was too convinced at this point, but later, when he was sitting in a garden, he heard a voice saying to him, “Take up and read.” He picked up the closest thing at hand which was a manuscript of Paul’s letter to the Romans and as he read it, he said he heard his whole life being described.
Maybe this is what God’s people need today. We need to come at the Bible, at our faith, as curious children having an expectation and an intellectual eagerness to be surprised by our God. Why is it that we have bought into this rational world where we feel everything has to be known and proven? What has happened to that mysterium tremendum as the Jewish theologian Martin Buber put it, that mysterious life-giving force that we call the Creator?
When I was doing my undergraduate degree in Toronto, I studied ethics and I have tried to keep up with some of the modern developments in that field. I was interested to read of a new school of thought which believes that there is a certain genetic disposition to certain kinds of adaptively beneficial behaviour. What this means is that our ethics are nothing more than behaviours which have been genetically programmed into the human race. We wish to do good, because this has been programmed into us. Is this what our world is coming to? Are we not more than programmed creatures? I have this picture of a young couple, on a starry spring night in beautiful floral gardens, sitting on a bench. The young man takes the young woman’s hands in his, looks her in the eyes and sweetly says, “I have a genetic propensity for you and feel that our mating would strengthen the gene pool of the race.” We can imagine the young woman’s reaction.
There is a creation which has been given to us by God. We are called to be creative and curious. Another quote: In honour of International Women’s Day this past Tuesday, I want to quote Dorothy Parker, the American poet, feminist and social activist. I was reading some of her work this past week. She said that “the cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” In more modern terms, William Willimon, an American theologian, wrote, “I know it is alleged that ‘curiosity killed the cat.’ but here at mid-life I can count lots of dead cats that died for lack of curiosity, not because of it.”
Some of you may have read Scott Peck’s, The Road Less Traveled. This psychotherapist implies that some people in our society are sick, not because of childhood trauma or because of some inner psychic distress, but because they are lazy. When they are confronted by life’s crises, they dig in or keep to their accustomed routine or keep working at what once worked for them. They don’t take the trouble, the risk, to investigate and to rethink their lives.
Nicodemus came to Jesus asking his questions in the dark. He saw in Jesus the light. How can this be? How is it possible to be reborn, to start over, to begin again? Jesus told him that rebirth, light, is possible in our darkness because of a God who enters into our world because God loves this world so much. Jesus was saying that the fundamentals of knowing in this world come as a gift, a gift from a God who refuses to leave us in the dark. It is our task to ask questions about, to seek, to be curious about this loving God and, in so doing, to come to know God better.