Saturday, June 2, 2018

John 3:1-17 "In the Midnight Hour"

         The late Roman Catholic Cardinal Cushing tells of an occasion when he was administering last rites to a man who had collapsed in a general store. Following his usual custom, the Cardinal knelt by the man and asked, "Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost?"
         The man roused a little bit, opened one eye, stared at the Cardinal with a most quizzical look on his face, and replied, "Here I am, dying, and you are asking me a riddle?"
         Good questions – both that of the Cardinal and that of the dying man!  "Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost?"  “Do you believe in Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit?”  Do you believe in the Trinity?  Dying or not, whatever are we to make of such riddles, those puzzles underlying the Christian doctrine of a Triune God?
         God the Father is comprehensible – though necessarily limiting if the only images we come up with are an angry old man with a long white beard or a distant regal presence ensconced on a golden throne in some galaxy far, far away.  Creator as a name for this aspect of the Trinity is far less gender-biased, and adds a significant breadth and depth, creating a marvelous three dimensionality and certain richness to this third of the Trinity – in my humble opinion.
         God the Son is more understandable.  After all, we have the four Gospels in the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) that outline the life and ministry of the one we call Jesus, the Christ.  Emmanuel, God with Us, the Incarnation is something we can at least begin to wrap our minds around – but only if we think of Jesus less as the old angry man come to earth in a new form and more as the person who completely reflected in his own self God’s dream for the world, who was the perfect and complete embodiment of God’s sacred penchant for compassion and reconciliation. 
         But the Holy Spirit?  For most of us, that is the most mysterious third of the Trinity and always seems to be the stumbling block – at least in a mainline Protestant denomination, such as we in the United Church of Christ. 
         You see, face it.  The Holy Spirit makes most of us feel pretty uncomfortable. We cannot seem to put our finger on just who it is and what its purpose is:  Advocate and comforter, wild and unpredictable as the gusting wind, hot as a lit match, gentle as a dove.  For those of us who pride ourselves in being rational and pragmatic in our religious outlook, thereby never fully denying our staid Puritanical roots, for us, the Holy Spirit is a little bit too wild and crazy, a tad too unpredictable and hot, and downright too weird for our liking. 
         Like the embarrassing younger sibling we always seek to avoid, we push this part of the Holy Trinity into the background, hoping to, if not forget her, at least keep her under wraps and thereby under control.  After all, if we did not, well, we would all end up as Pentecostals speaking in tongues or Shakers expressing our spirit-filled hearts with dances of wild abandon.  Then what would happen to our staunch New England Yankee persona?
         And yet, each year, without fail, on the Sunday after Pentecost (which was last Sunday), we come hard up against Trinity Sunday, a day intentionally set aside in the church to reflect on our Triune God – with a particular emphasis on the Holy Spirit. And this year, because the Holy Spirit continues to cause such a conundrum for us, we look to the story of Nicodemus to begin to unravel her mystery. Why this story?  Because Nicodemus seemed to be as much perplexed by the whole rigmarole as we are.
         Nicodemus was a Pharisee.  He knew Holy Scripture – the law and the prophets – like the back of his hand.  He kept all the rules of religion.  He was an upright man, a learned man, a leader, teacher, and, above all, one who was respected in Jewish religious circles. 
         Apparently, Nicodemus had heard of Jesus.  He must have participated in the backroom conversations among the temple hierarchy and listened to – and maybe at times even adding his own  - backhanded comments that were fast burgeoning into a deep mistrust of this renegade, uneducated man who called himself a rabbi. 
         Perhaps Nicodemus had been prowling around, hiding in a back ally close to where Jesus was teaching.  Maybe he had heard bits and pieces of a sermon or a parable:  “I am the light of the world, the bread of life, the vine, the way…” The Kingdom of God is like…a hidden treasure, a lost coin, a tiny mustard seed.”  “Blessed are the gentle, the pure of heart…” “A man went down from Jericho and fell among thieves…”
     “Humph!  What is all that supposed to mean?”  Nicodemus must have wondered.  “Is it blasphemy? Or fake news?”
         However, Nicodemus was something his fellow Pharisees were not.  Nicodemus was curious about this man Jesus.  He was also bewildered by the message Jesus preached of a God who was more concerned with how you treated the poor and the small acts of compassion you did without thinking than about the strict rules of when you had to wash and what animal or bird you had to sacrifice and what you could and could not do on the Sabbath.  In the end, Nicodemus saw Jesus less as a threat to the religious hierarchy and more as someone who maybe – just maybe – knew something about God that had so far escaped him and his fellow Pharisees. 
         And so on a dark and moonless night, when the clouds scuttering across the sky blocked out most of the stars, Nicodemus pulled his old restless, achy body out of bed and threw on his robe and slippers.  He surreptitiously edged his way out the back door, and the darkness enveloped him before any of his neighbors knew he was out and about in the midnight hour. 
         Maybe our curious Pharisee went in the darkness because he was embarrassed to be found out as one who questioned his own faith.  Maybe he was afraid that he would lose his status of religious bigwig. 
         Or, maybe he went to Jesus at night because he finally realized that he had been stumbling around in the dark long enough.  Maybe going to Jesus at night said less about the hour or about the condition of Nicodemus’ faith and more about the state of his life and how the old ways just did not cut it any more. 
         As Episcopal priest Michael Marsh noted, “By night everything is hidden. (In the darkness, we are) grasping for something to hold, seeking answers and explanations for our life. Everything has been turned upside down and nothing is certain. In the dark life doesn’t make sense and we don’t understand. The night is a time of vulnerability, questions, and wrestling with life.”
         Whatever the reason, Nicodemus made his way slowly to the house where Jesus was staying and rapped three times on his door.  Jesus answered, of course, because Jesus always answers the door when we knock.  And the two men – one old with a touch of arthritis and a lot of jaded cynicism and one young who was wise beyond his years – sat on the wall by the patio and had a conversation that surely blew the mind of our rational and pragmatic and everything needs to be seen to be believed Pharisee.
         Now, Nicodemus did not want to know what he must do to have eternal life or how he could be assured that he had a one-way ticket to heaven and the golden throne.  No - Nicodemus just wanted to understand.  And so he begins with a flattering entre:  Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
         Jesus, not surprisingly, does not even acknowledge the accolades.  Instead, he launches into a puzzling sermon of sorts before Nicodemus can even ask his question. 
          “I am telling you the truth (Jesus tells the Pharisee): no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
         Nicodemus, for his part, is clueless.  As theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “That was all very well, but just how were you supposed to pull a thing like that off? How especially were you supposed to pull it off if you were pushing sixty-five?
How did you get born again when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning?  (Nicodemus) even got a little sarcastic. Could one "enter a second time into the mother's womb?" he asked, when it was all one could do to enter a taxi without the driver coming around to give him a shove from behind?”
             “How can a grown man be born again?” Nicodemus queried. “He certainly cannot enter his mother's womb and be born a second time!”
             “I am telling you the truth,” replied Jesus, “that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.  A person is born physically of human parents, but is born spiritually of the Spirit.  Do not be surprised because I tell you that you must all be born again.
         Buechner continues by writing:  A gust of wind happened to whistle down the chimney at that point, making the dying embers burst into flame, and Jesus said being born again was like that. It wasn't something you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something that happened, for God's sake.”
            “”The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. It is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
             “How can this be?” asked Nicodemus breathlessly.
         How?  Why?  Because God so loved the world…..
         The Spirit, then, is what makes the dying embers in our own hearts burst into flame.  The Spirit is what causes us to look twice at the homeless man with the sign on the street corner in Portland – and at the least make eye contact and smile so he knows that we are human too.  The Spirit is what nudges us to deeply and intentionally reflect on what our church is supposed to be about in a complex and changing world. The Spirit is what prods us to love the world as God does.
         And to be born again? Now that is a phrase that has been bandied about in recent years.  However, It has nothing to do with answering an altar call and accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior once and for all time – as the Evangelical Right would have us believe. 
         If being born means breathing oxygen into one’s lungs, then being born again has everything to do with breathing in the grace and love of God over and over again into your soul, into your being.  Being born again has everything to do with allowing the Spirit to reshape, form, and mold us  - day in and day out - into the likeness of Christ, so we can be his hands and feet in the world  - day in and day out - because to be anything less is to be without Spirit.
         Do you believe in Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit?  Have I confused you enough about just what this Holy Spirit part of the Trinity is all about? Are you scratching your head and thinking that being here listening to the preacher prattle on is like the man who was only seen in church one Sunday a year. No, it was not Easter. It was Trinity Sunday – today!
         A fellow parishioner had restrained his curiosity year after year but could not contain it any more. And so he approached the man and said, "I have noticed that you select this particular day every year for your only visit to church. Why might that be?"
         "Oh, that's easy to explain," the man said. "I like to come on this day, so I can hear the preacher get all tangled up trying to explain the Trinity!"
         And so, in concluding, let me put this Holy Spirit and born again business in as simple words as possible. If you are as confused as Nicodemus most certainly was and remember nothing else about this sermon, tuck away these words of Presbyterian pastor Laura Mendenhall who noted, “To be born of the (Spirit) is to trust our life to the God who gives birth to us. To be born of the (Spirit) is to embrace the mysterious newness of God knowing we do not have a final hold (on this Triune God). To be born of the (Spirit) is to live as ones born of love.”
         Oh, and also remember that we do not know if Nicodemus understood the Spirit any better when he left Jesus and trundled back to bed that night.  Presumably he returned to being a Pharisee as there is reference to him later in this Gospel dispensing justice in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish temple court.
        However, we do not hear of Nicodemus again really until the Gospel writer tells us that he showed up after the crucifixion to ensure that Jesus had a proper burial.  So – maybe our rational, and pragmatic and everything needs to be seen to be believed Pharisee did mull over all that Jesus had said in the dark that night.  Maybe over the months that followed it all made a little more sense.  Or maybe – just maybe - Nicodemus just heard the wind blow on Jesus’ day of execution, and almost like something he could not quite control (but inherently trusted), found himself drawn to Golgotha, there to minister to the poorest of them all and to perform a small act of compassion.

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