(listen along for a more enhanced sermon experience!)
1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“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.
17“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.”
I wonder why Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night?
What do you think about in the middle of the night? When you can’t get to sleep? When you wake with a start? Or have a dream that unsettles you?
Probably whatever preoccupies you in the middle of the night is the kind of thing that made Nicodemus come to Jesus at night.
Maybe his mind and heart kept turning the same thing over and over in a continuous loop. Someone he was close to needed help and he couldn’t figure out what to do. Or he needed to apologize to someone. Maybe he didn’t know how he was going to pay the bills. Or maybe in the darkness, the world’s terror and violence threatened him like a giant sink hole we could all fall into and never climb out of.
Maybe he felt the longings that only surface when daytime busy-ness is still. Those vague but real needs for wholeness, deeper connections to others, especially those we love or want to love most. Maybe he just couldn’t find clarity about the purpose of his life — Or whether his life really had much value. He didn’t feel confident his loved ones would be ok in this crazy world of ours.
I imagine Nicodemus doing what I do on those nights. At some point, I just have to get up and DO SOMETHING. So, what Nicodemus did was go out into the dark, alone and without letting anyone else know, to seek out Jesus.
(Let me shift gears here for a minute.) Every pastor has some great baptism stories. Pastor John Buchannan tells about baptizing a 2-year-old. He had just intoned: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Sprinkling water on the child with each person of the Trinity. Then he said, You are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. The toddler looked up at him, and said: Uh oh!
Hah! Of course, everyone laughed! Uh oh!? What’s to worry about? Baptism’s “just a little water”, right? But that toddler was right on. No matter how few drops of baptismal water roll down the someone’s forehead, they are being baptized (the Greek word for immersed) into a God who uses faith as small as a mustard seed to move mountains — to do the seemingly impossible.
So, who KNOWS what may happen to someone, as a result of being immersed into this God, the Creator, Redeemer and Life-giving Spirit?
Which is kind of what Nicodemus says, when he finds Jesus. He’s gotten up from thrashing and turning on his bed, telling himself he’ll feel better if he can just get the teacher to answer a few questions for him. He comes respectfully.
But instead of asking polite questions and getting answers, Nicodemus has an encounter. With God, coming close in Jesus. So close Nicodemus can feel his breath as Jesus speaks of mysteries, with words like wind and water and Spirit and birth. And as Jesus speaks of love: God so LOVED the world, that God gave God’s only Son that all (that means you, Nicodemus) may not perish, but live the life that is eternal.
When Nicodemus stutters — but how??? Jesus invites him to become like an infant — Surrender his self-reliance, his illusion of control, his theological answers, his logic, and begin again, open as a baby.
And THAT’S where Nicodemus and being born anew/from above and baptism and the Trinity and you and I all bump into one another.
What does the Trinity have to do with it, except for the fact we baptize in the name of the Triune God? It’s a theological construction that reminds me of a trip I took to the Children’s Museum with my 4-year-old friend, Dexter.
We got to the “construction site”, and he was raring to go. He strapped on his “tool belt”, a vest and a hard hat. He gathered panels of different sizes and shapes and colors. He watched what the other kids were doing, and squatted on his haunches, excitedly putting things together. Sometimes they fit, sometimes, they didn’t. He kept at it. He depended on grown-up help to hold some of the pieces upright, until he could get it to stand on its own.
Finally, he was done. He stood back for a look. He called his mom over. He described what he’d done. She was enthusiastic!
But, honestly, it didn’t work that well. There were no windows. Or doors. Dexter could sit in it, if he clutched his knees to his chest, but he had to take the roof off and enter from the top — and once in, you couldn’t put the roof on.
On the other hand, none of that mattered much to Dexter. He was delighted with what he’d done.
The Trinity’s like that. it’s a doctrine that takes the different shapes and sizes and colors and experiences and wisdom we have available, and tacks them together. It’s still standing, after many centuries. We all know what it’s supposed to be, and so far, it’s the best box for God that we can make.
It REMINDS us of some of the most important realities about who God is, and God’s oneness — but the Trinity is clearly never going to be a satisfactory dwelling for God, or even for the IDEA of God, any more than Dexter’s box will provide the shelter and comfort of a real house.
We usually focus on the 3 PERSONS of the Trinity. We think we’ve said it all when we say Father, Son and Holy Spirit; or Creator, Redeemer, Life-giving Spirit. But even that just scratches the surface — and within the center of the triangle we usually use to symbolize the Trinity, God remains mystery.
Not just saying God is mysterious — although that’s true.
Not saying God’s mystery is all the things we’ve haven’t yet figured out about God and life and about the world.
What I’m saying, friends, is, no matter what words or ideas we assign to God, God’s own self is and always will be, mystery. Transcendent. God isn’t boxable.
Uh oh. God isn’t boxable. God is mystery. That’s why when the prophet Isaiah has to resort to imaginative beings with a heartbeat rhythm of “Holy, Holy, Holy“ when he’s trying to describe his overwhelming and irresistible encounter with God’s mystery. A famous theologian called experiences of God like this, Mysterium tremendum et fascinans:” an“awe inspiring mystery” we experience as urgent and fascinating — spell-binding.
Someone else called these moments, an “overplus” of experience. When we have them, they remind us of there are forces beyond our control and of our smallness in this universe.
And maybe the most mysterious and astonishing thing of all is that no matter how mysterious and unexpected an encounter with God like this is, there is a You-ness to it. We feel as someone/thing is addressing us and we are in relation to it.
Because the overall experience is love. Being loved by One far beyond our understanding, far more immense than our hearts can contain, being surrounded, and filled, and held by love, like water surrounding and holding us up.
I had a powerful experience of that love when I was in 11th grade. I can tell you more details later, if you haven’t already heard my story, but speaking in tongues was one symptom of my joyful, unexpected and life-changing “overplus” experience.
And my parents were concerned. They thought for sure I was “going off the deep end!”
They invited my Trigonometry teacher, Bro. John Lemker over for dinner. Bro John was NOT one of those teachers all the students went to with their problems. He was a geek. But he was wise. He asked me just one question: Did you experience love? When I said, “Oh, yes! Totally!” He said, “Then, your experience was of God.”
Is it just “holy” people who experience God’s mystery and holiness? Hardly. But I do think we carry around a lot of assumptions that make experiencing God’s holiness much more difficult. We put a lot of stock in logic and rational thinking as the best ways to know anything. We consider ourselves self-reliant, and if we aren’t, well, then, something’s wrong with us. We assume we make ourselves who we are, forgetting that we did not bring ourselves into being in the first place. We think we can arrange our world to our own liking — if we just work hard enough — and we feel a bit ashamed if we can’t.
There’s some truth in these assumptions, but there’s a lot of hoo ha, too. Don’t you feel it whenever someone you dearly love dies untimely? Or when illness, mental or physical, takes you down? When you push yourself beyond what’s healthy to try to prove you’re something you really aren’t?
So, we’re really taught to push away encounters with God’s holiness. Like my parents, we distrust them. It feels like we’re going off the deep end.
But being open to encountering God – does involve letting go of control. Humbling ourselves in relation to God.
There IS definitely an uh oh dimension of God. As loving as God is, we can’t tame God to our specifications. As Jesus said, The Spirit blows where it chooses. This is why everyone who has an encounter with God in the Bible must be reassured: Do not be afraid.
And that is my message to you: Do NOT be afraid. Be open. Open to what you will never understand or control. Be open enough to discover there is another deeper, holy dimension to all of life
This kind of experience is not a requirement FOR living in faith. Nor is it a certification we ARE living in faith. But how sad if many of us are missing out because it never even occurs to us that when we come to Jesus or to church with our questions, with the things that keep us up at night,
Instead of getting answers — we may receive something far better:
an experience of the presence of God.
Be open, because when God loves, things happen. Always. In us. Through us. and in the world. Great things. Unexpected things. Life beyond death things. Light shining in the darkest darkness things.
In the mystery of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Spirit — (Making the sign of the cross.) Amen.