Last time I preached here at Lord of the Hills, I was a newbie seminary student. I had about two whole years under my belt and as can happen in graduate school, you start to think that you know stuff. With all of the reading, writing, pontificating, and conversations, one can convince oneself that you have quite a bit of knowledge rattling around in your brain. In the past five years, I’ve been on internship, graduated and served a congregation on the west side of town for nearly three years, so hopefully, I’ve learned a bit more. But sadly, here is what I have actually learned in all of my learning….I’ve got nothin’. Now don’t get me wrong, I can explain some of the finer points of doctrine, I can outline what changes should be in a constitution, or what leadership skills are necessary in a congregation, or what the Greek says about certain words in our reading today, or what topics should be covered in confirmation or in Sunday school. Yet, I’m acutely aware that the more I know, the less I know, as each encounter with a new situation or new person can remind me of how quickly “knowledge” can be unraveled through an experience that doesn’t quite fit with what I think I know. Maybe you’ve had that that experience of being unraveled too.
I think about this unraveling that can happen in life in our Nicodemus story this morning. Here is a Pharisee, a teacher in the rabbinic tradition, a man whom many relied upon and came to with questions about following God’s law, doctrines, festivals and all sorts of other ponderings on the religion of the Israelites. Nicodemus had a lot of theological education, if you will, was part of the leadership and the inner circle and probably felt pretty secure in who he was and his status. And then along came this Jesus fellow. Nicodemus would have seen other famous street preachers come and go, Jerusalem was full of them around the time of Jesus, even those who could allegedly perform magic. But there was something different about Jesus that when Nicodemus encountered him, this experience began to unravel all of what Nicodemus thought he knew about God in the world. Jesus didn’t just perform magic, Jesus performed miracles, he healed, he brought the dead back to life, he fed thousands of people with two loaves and five fish. Jesus didn’t just preach what the people wanted to hear, what made them feel good about themselves or their lives, Jesus proclaimed that God knew and saw their brokenness, all of the ways that they get it wrong, and loves them, forgives them and promises more than just the material wants of the world or status in the Roman Empire. No, Jesus was someone the likes of whom Nicodemus had never seen or heard before. Jesus didn’t really fit into all of the education that Nicodemus had attained. Could this man, whom some were calling the Messiah, really be the one whom God promised would come to redeem, claim, make whole and save God’s people? Is this the one who will overthrow the powers of this world and set things right? This homeless, uncouth, street preacher who hangs out with the riff raff of society? This unraveled what Nicodemus knew about the promised messiah!
So Nicodemus decides to see what he can learn about Jesus and meets up with him in the cover of darkness so that no will see that there is something that this well educated man doesn’t understand or know. Jesus and Nic have this little back and forth where it becomes clear that the two of them are not having the same conversation. Nicodemus is stuck in his earthly paradigm of what he can concretely know and cling to and so can’t follow Jesus down the road of what the Holy Spirit is up to through Jesus in the world. Born of the Spirit? How is one born again? How can this be?
If we’re all honest, there is much about God in our lives that we don’t understand, much about the work of the Holy Spirit that mystifies, perplexes and unravels us no matter how much we read, learn and study. As human beings we have a deep need for assurance, security, planning, knowing and information. We have constructed a whole culture in information databases, Google, Wikipedia, etc to feed these needs. Nicodemus thought that he had all that he needed to know about God contained in the Torah, his education and his daily life as a Pharisee. Then he encountered Jesus, God incarnate, who offered him something that all of his knowledge and security could not, a true encounter and relationship with the living God. Jesus didn’t just write Nicodemus off when Nicodemus didn’t quite “get it” the first time, no, Jesus accepted Nicodemus right where he was with his questions, wondering, and misunderstandings. Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus revealed that what he knew and experienced in this world is fleeting and uncertain, but God promises that in the midst of all of uncertainty is the promise of being woven into unconditional love, grace and mercy. So too, Jesus’ encounter with us proclaims that God takes the unraveling of all that we don’t understand about what God is doing in the world, ourselves and our future and promises being woven into restoration and wholeness-what we often translate as salvation.
We think that we can create wholeness ourselves through what we can know, control and understand. We plan, accumulate and prognosticate, but wholeness, our salvation, only comes through God, in whose image we are all created, in Jesus, whom God sent to be with us and to gather us to God and the Holy Spirit who sustains and blows us out into the world with this good news that wholeness is available not just for some but for all. We like Nicodemus will ask over and over: What does this mean? How do we know? We know because God so loved the world that God withholds nothing from us, not even Godself in Jesus Christ. This love of God is what we know and experience each and every day. Each day we are given the gift of new life by the power of the Holy Spirit , born new, with each breath that is from God. This love is what Jesus says we know and are called to tell, to testify, to others about. We tell others of this love of God in simple ways in our daily lives: a smile to someone who seems disgruntled at the grocery store, unconditional love and patience to our children or spouse, offering a kind word to a co-worker or friend, helping a neighbor in need with yard work, or offering a meal to someone ill. Offering this love of God first given to us is as simple as those actions and yet, as complex as revealing that every action and interaction is an opportunity to testify to the love of Christ from our own experiences. We don’t have to “get it” fully to share it. We simply rest and trust in God’s promise.
Nicodemus didn’t fully understand everything that Jesus said to him here in chapter 3. No, Nicodemus didn’t have to have all of the answers first to be offered wholeness by Jesus, Nicodemus was a work in progress, as we all are. Nicodemus had been unraveled, undone by his encounter with Jesus Christ, but the gift and the promise is that through this same encounter he was woven into wholeness in a relationship with Christ, an experience of the love of God incarnate and so woven into the community that Jesus creates.
Our unraveling through our encounter with Jesus in our lives weaves us into the wholeness of unconditional love of God in Christ, fills us with the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, and relationship in the very life of God no matter what we know or don’t know. We are woven into a tight relationship with each other, the people of God, for the purpose of being the love and breathe of God in the world so that ALL people know and experience the wholeness that is available to all through God. In our encounters with Christ, we are unraveled to be made whole. Thanks be to God, Amen.