Second Sunday in Lent, 3.8.2020

Did you ever have some burning questions you just HAD to ask? These questions are LIFE questions. They are burning questions that might burn a hole in you, because a lot hangs on the answers. These questions – and their answers – may determine the arc of your life.

When I started attending a Lutheran church, I had a few burning questions that needed answers. What made these questions so important was that I suddenly realized that what was going on at this church, “Was most certainly true.” The Holy Spirit was active. Luther was real. It was astonishing to be led and feel this growing sense of conviction that Saint Peter ELCA was the real deal.

I would make an appointment to talk with the pastor. The questions I brought with me could have been considered simple, catechism questions. For example, Pastor Stahler told me Lutherans observe TWO sacraments, not seven. My head was spinning attending this Lutheran church; there was more going on beneath the surface than just questions.

            My questions were important, but they pointed to– not just a new understanding of the catechism and scripture – my questions were pointing me in the direction of a deeper walk into the waters of baptism and discipleship.  Am I being called into something new? How is that possible?

Will I allow myself to be led by the Good Shepherd? Questions of doctrine were coming up because a new direction had suddenly, unexpectedly opened up before me. The point was, would I allow Jesus to lead me into the deeper waters of baptism with him?

Nicodemus has burning questions, too, that he wrestles with. His burning questions have to do with the nature of life and living, and beneath those questions are the ones about Jesus. Beneath all of the questions are the BIG questions – Who ARE you? Are you the ONE? Are you the One we’ve been waiting for? Can you really be the Messiah? Am I really talking to the Messiah come to earth?  Is this really happening? Has God’s Son really come to live among us? I expect that whatever questions Nicodemus asks, it’s with a growing sense of conviction that Jesus is the real deal.

Like my early experience at Saint Peter’s, there is the ring of truth for Nicodemus in his conversation with Jesus, ‘It was most certainly true.’” And I feel certain that Nicodemus and I shared the astonishment of being led.

We notice that Nicodemus comes at night. On one hand, he comes in the dark, because he’s not ready to declare himself a disciple. It’s too soon. He doesn’t want anyone to see him coming. But on the other hand, he MUST come. Coming is a declaration that he’s wrestling with something. He can’t stay way! Jesus is irresistible. Also, coming at night is SAFE. It’s like still being in the womb, but no one can stay in the womb forever. It’s difficult to leave a place of warmth and safety and going into the unknown. It would mean choosing an unpredictable path, the life of a disciple, led by Jesus.

Nicodemus could keep things easy for himself. He’s a leader. All he has to do to keep the status quo and keep his mouth shut. Don’t question. Don’t ask. Pretend you don’t see this Jesus. Look away. But he can’t look away. Nicodemus has these questions burning a hole right through him.

As a scholar, Jewish scholars do study the Torah at night, and Jesus is the LIVING Torah. So, it’s only proper for Nicodemus the religious scholar to ask his questions now, at night. Jesus chides him at one point, saying isn’t he a learned man. And Jesus understands this give and take of questions and answers between them. That’s how it goes between teacher (Rabbi!) and students.

Nicodemus must engage the Rabbi in scholarly repartee, in an attempt to get some answers to his questions.

Is it embarrassing at his age, for Nicodemus suddenly doesn’t have all the answers?  That he is behaving like a young student who asks dumb questions. He says, “How can these things be?” Jesus chides him like he’s the slowest student in the classroom saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Nicodemus knows all about the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekial, Jonah, and how God would take unlikely people and make prophets out of them, renewing them. Under God’s guidance, the prophets were made into new people, yes, born again. Born again – that means start over! Who would do that?

Nicodemus is a big man at the synagogue, but to follow Jesus he would have to start over. Relearn everything. Let JESUS be the TEACHER, the RABBI. And Nicodemus would have to be the student again, learning from the mouth of the TEACHER. To become a student again is VERY humbling for someone who is at the top of the religious hierarchy.

Where are we in this gospel? How is it good news for us?

Nicodemus comes with an open heart. He stumbles and allows himself to appear foolish, because he senses he’s on to something. Can we allow ourselves to be open, too? To come with our questions, to let the answers take us into deeper waters? The deep waters of our baptism? When I was at Saint Peter’s I could feel my baptism kick in. My baptism, that I can’t remember, was suddenly an event that was impacting me, and was prompting me forward down a new path.

But Abraham too, at his advanced age, starts over, too. He lets Yahweh lead him. No longer be the boss of his own life. Puts his life and the life of his wife and their servants and extended family into God’s hands. Abraham is rightly celebrated for being the first. He has no scripture to consult. No one else has ever made such a non-intuitive decision. The intuitive thing is to live your life. The NON-intuitive way is to leave everything familiar behind and go and follow the leadings of this invisible Yahweh and all these promises that go with it. Become a great Nation! Get a SON! At his advanced age, Abram puts his life and fate and the lives and fates of his wife and servants into God’s hands and LEARNS a new way of living, of TRUSTING Yahweh.

Nicodemus is wondering if he can trust this Jesus. Jesus says to Nicodemus,“ If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”       We need to reassess what it means to believe. In Christianity after Religion, historian Diana Butler Bass points out that the English word “believe” comes from the German “belieben” — the German word for love.  To believe is not to hold an opinion. To believe is to treasure. To hold something beloved. To give my heart over to it without reservation.  To believe in something is to invest it with my love.”[1] We’ve really distorted our understanding of the word believe, if it doesn’t have that sense of a TREASURE closely held.

Often when we think of religion, we think of doctrine and being compelled to believe lists of things. With God though, God wants us to TRUST. Trusting and allowing us to be led down deep and mysterious pathways of love, it’s the deep waters of baptism.

God loves us with wild abandon. God’s global intention is to BLESS the WORLD. God LOVES. God LOVES us so much, God couldn’t think of anything we would want more than his SON. We’re being asked to love because God LOVES.

Abraham is going down the pathways of mystery and we know it’s difficult and that at some point Yahweh will ask him to sacrifice his son. He’s a rare soul.

And today, Jesus is inviting Nicodemus down a new pathway, to start over, to begin again, to forget everything he knows and become a student again. Can he do that? WILL he do that?

Will he leave the familiar and take a path that Jesus leads?

So that takes us to the present moment. Will WE, St. John Lutheran Church, be like Nicodemus and Abraham? Will we leave behind the safety of what’s always been done and what’s familiar, to allow ourselves to be led by the Good Shepherd? New pastor. New ideas. New paths. A puppet show! Turning a new page? At each turn on a new path, St. John Church is being asked to TRUST. Starting over is hard.

Nicodemus shows up two more times in scripture. He is at Jesus’ trial, where his defense of Jesus sounds weak and timid, yet it puts Nicodemus in the minority opinion. His vote counts and it is noted and counted against him. The last time we see Nicodemus is after Jesus dies, and he collects his body. Only a disciple would do that. It’s a public statement of belief.

Among all the questions that Nicodemus asks, he never anticipates the ENORMOUS answer of LOVE that he gets from Jesus. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Nicodemus gets an answer beyond his wildest dreams.

            All churches must wrestle like Nicodemus with questions of faith, and TRUST and ALLOWING the Good Shepherd to lead and guide them. It may be nerve-wracking, but it’s always deeply satisfying to FOLLOW the Good Shepherd. We learn and GROW just like any student in elementary school. Yes, churches are ALWAYS be in the posture of a students, always LEARNNG from our Good Shepherd. ALL churches sit at Jesus’ feet to learn from him.

I thank you Lord, for the ways you challenge us, both individually and as a church. Thank you that you never abandon us, but like a Good Shepherd, you companion us, walking alongside of us.

Help us. Give us the courage to TRUST you. Give us the GRACE to accept the fact that we are STUDENTS, forever learning from you. In Jesus’ name, we pray.


[1] Debie Thomas. Journeys with Jesus.