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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Questions For Times Such As These - 05/30/2021

Nicodemus has come to Jesus in reverence, in the cover of night so as not to be easily found out. He has come seeking … answers maybe, understanding. It is not the social position to which someone like Nicodemus is accustomed. The tone and air of authority he typically carried in his role as a privileged and powerful religious leader in Jerusalem, the tone and air he would have carried with any other wandering rabbi from some Podunk Galilean fishing village—well it all fell away in the presence of Jesus.

They are an unlikely conversation couple—Nicodemus the priestly leader who has dedicated his life to teaching and preserving Jewish law, to interceding for God’s people, leading them as he had been taught by his elders. And Jesus, the young, incredibly gifted and progressive rabbi seeking to free God’s law from layers and generations of human interpretation and addendums people like Nicodemus added—in good faith and sometimes not.

To anyone who might have been looking on or listening in, these two men in quiet conversation on a roof top in Jerusalem would not have seemed possible. In the public sphere these two were at odds and everyone knew it.

Just before this scene with Nicodemus, Jesus was in the Temple where he totally lost it at the sight of people selling animals that were exclusively perfect enough to be used as temple offerings. They sold them to the thousands who came to Jerusalem for the Passover, faithful people trying to please God. It was exploitation in the name of so-called law. And so, “making a whip of cords, (Jesus) drove all of them out of the temple…He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables … ‘Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’” he exploded. (John 2:15-16)

All this while Nicodemus and his colleagues looked on. Everyone knew what list that outburst got Jesus put on—if he wasn’t on it already. Already too many believed he was the Messiah.

And yet, there they were, Jesus and Nicodemus, who begins to do something even more astounding. He starts asking Jesus questions. Deep questions. Questions not asked freely in the light of day.

Could there be a more relevant text for our time?

I mean, let’s admit it, we don’t live in a culture in which we reward asking questions. I remember learning this as a young child in religious education. My teacher told us stories from the bible – the story of Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Jesus the Good Shepherd and faithful protector of children. I loved these stories. I loved that I was part of these stories. And I had questions. I asked too many though and the only answer I remember ever getting was “Ann Maria, stop asking so many questions.”

I’d argue we see this aversion to questions around in many cases still. Start asking questions about how safe the COVID vaccines are, and you’ll probably find that some people automatically assume you are an anti-vaxer.

Ask too many questions about whether civilians really need weapons designed for war and suddenly you are perceived as being against rifles and pistols.

Wonder out loud about what this nation really needs to do to make reparations and break free finally from our national sin of enslaving black people, and surely that also means you must be a cop hater.

Even though it is certainly possible to hold these seemingly opposed ideas at the same time.

One can be both unsure about the COVID vaccine and care very deeply about public health. Those things are not mutually exclusive. A person can be solidly opposed to automatic weapons in civilian society and still celebrate the annual hunt and support community gun safety courses. I can see how our Beloved nation is mired in our legacy of slavery and betrayal of black and brown bodies and still respect and value those who dedicate their vocations to public safety and policing.

Like the Pharisees and the Zealots, and sometimes even the disciples, we are so often trapped in a “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” kind of mindset. It becomes risky, uncomfortable, too hard or humbling to ask questions, to encourage others to ask questions, especially when life gets real and we feel very sure that our way is the right and only way.

The thing about asking questions is that it can make us feel vulnerable, it can bring us into deeper understanding, even of issues, topics and ideas we thought we already knew, front to back. Asking questions can cause us to see or develop connections between ourselves and those we see as opposition or enemy. It can be dangerous, and it doesn’t play well with the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” mindset. It doesn’t for us today and it didn’t for our friend Nicodemus 2,000 years ago.

And yet, here they are—Nicodemus risking vulnerability, risking being somehow changed by asking the questions on his mind and heart. And Jesus, the very presence of God, patiently answering those questions and challenging Nicodemus’ assumptions and sureness.

Nicodemus asks, how can one be born again? How could anyone, an old man like him even, re-enter his mother’s womb to be reborn?

Precisely, Jesus says. Just as no human being can do that, just as no human mother would even consider that, no one person can enter the kingdom of God of their own volition. It can only be done by being born of the Spirit.

Jesus is speaking God promise here. This is what he has come to do for us. This is our new birth because of Jesus.

It is true that we cannot know how that birth takes place, Jesus also says—not entirely anyway. We can see that it happens in our birth through baptism, for instance. We can be confident that we are born of water and Spirit there, even though we cannot comprehend precisely how God accomplishes this. Nor can we comprehend all the other ways God surely accomplishes this birthing.

This re-birth is out of our hands. There is nothing to be done to make it happen, to stop it, to regulate it, to earn it.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus seems to plead for mercy as he asks this next question. What Jesus is saying changes everything Nicodemus understands about God’s law and his priestly role in helping God’s people keep it. If keeping this law is not about engineering or behaving or paying your way into the kingdom of God, what the heck is it all about? What is his priestly calling all about?

Ahhh. Now Jesus, the calm and patient and ever-loving presence of God, is getting somewhere. In Nicodemus’ vulnerability of asking Jesus these questions, he’s come to exactly the point Jesus has been trying to make in his teaching. God’s law is not meant to be difficult regulations and punishing requirements to cover every imaginable human flaw or mess. God’s law is not meant to put us into small boxes of possibility and imagination. God’s law is meant to give us life and free us to God’s abundance right now; to free us to life in Beloved Community.

Nicodemus is beginning to see this. His questions are beginning to change him and shake his certainty, just like the presence of God shook the pivots of the doors of the temple in the Isaiah’s vision.

This encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus might seem miraculous, especially when we apply it to like-situations in our own lives. Places we feel are entrenched in opposition or concrete and clear in who is right and who is wrong. Disagreements among family members; co-workers and colleagues who have fallen out with one another; a nation so distracted and blinded by politics and ideology we risk appearing callous and dismissive of the fact that this Memorial Day, we remember the nearly 600,000 Americans we have lost to COVID so far.

Think of it. People of opposing ideas in all these kinds of places and more, asking questions, listening and challenging one another, risking changed hearts and minds. It doesn’t seem possible. It seems like fantasy.

Except this story reminds us that is not impossible. It doesn’t have to be fantasy. “Do not be astonished when I say to you ‘You must be born from above.’ The (Spirit) 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,” (John 3:7-8) Jesus says. Maybe we should expect miraculous conversations, impossible encounters, unlikely deliberations and lots of questions if we are following the Way of Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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