Monday, February 18, 2008

The Struggle to Believe

(A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent based on John 3:1-17)

In the story of the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus we have an adventure in missing the point. That is, Nicodemus consistently misses the point that Jesus is trying to make. Does Nicodemus struggle to believe? I think so. Does he struggle to understand? I know so. Does his struggle to understand get in the way of his need to believe? I suspect so.

We miss the point, too, when we won’t pay attention or don’t pay attention or can’t pay attention to what Jesus really says and to what God is really up to. Somehow we need to grab hold of the truth that God is after us.

Nicodemus is on to something when he asks “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” What he is saying is that Jesus has stated an impossibility. “This cannot literally, physically be done,” he said. In one way, Nicodemus’ thinking was wrong. Nicodemus was bound by the limitations of his own mind and experience; he could think only of the physical. In another way, though, Nicodemus’ thinking was right. What has to take place for a person to come into God’s kind of life—eternal life—is not physically possible; you can do nothing to accomplish it for yourself. It is from beyond us.

The imagery of being born guides us in that direction. You will have noticed the translation from which I read (NRSV) has Jesus say, “You must be born from above.” We are accustomed to hearing Jesus say, “You must be born again.” The truth is that the Greek word can mean either thing. It seems best to me to read it this way: Jesus meant “born from above” and Nicodemus heard “born again.” I say that because Jesus’ subsequent comments on the matter emphasize how such birth must come from God. Still, there is probably something of both meanings in the word as John reports Jesus using it.

The image of being born guards us against two misunderstandings. One is the notion that we somehow do something to bring about our own salvation. As Anna Carter Florence has pointed out, “born” is the past tense of “to bear” [Lectionary Homiletics,(February/March 2008), p. 26]. One cannot bear oneself. That is true of our physical birth. We could not give birth to ourselves; someone else had to give birth to us. Sometimes we hear Jesus’ words “You must be born from above/again and we think of in terms of something that we must do. But being born is not something that we do; it is something that happens to us. Jesus said that we must be born from above, from God, from heaven, from the Spirit. We don’t do it; God does it.

The other misunderstanding against which the image of being born guards us is the one that says that being “born from above/again” must be an instantaneous experience. Now, it is true that a moment came when you and I made our appearance in the world. It is also true that a moment came or, if it has not come for you yet, will come, when we were born into new life. But an awful lot had to happen before you arrived on the scene. Somebody married somebody and had a child; that child married somebody and they had a child; that child married somebody and they had a child; and so on and so on. If any one of those events had not happened—if someone had married someone else or if someone had not had a child or if that child had died before producing a child—then you would not be here, would you? As I said, an awful lot had to happen.

Similarly, a lot has to happen before you can be “born from above/again.” A lot has to happen in your life. And all of those events that happened and all of the people you have come to know and all of the thoughts you have thought and all of the sins you have committed and all of the love you have shared and all of the hurt you have inflicted and all of the achievements you had had and all of the failures you have suffered—all of that goes into your experience of rebirth.

When we come toward Jesus we certainly come with our limitations. Nicodemus brought whoever and whatever he was with him. He was a Pharisee. That was a noble thing in its own way but it had its drawbacks, chief among them being the frustration of trying to keep the law to an extent that one could feel righteous. Nicodemus brought his smarts, his standing, his reputation. He also brought that hole in his soul that he just couldn’t reason away. We know that because he came to Jesus. He came to Jesus because it seemed to him that Jesus just might have something, something that he needed. The Spirit spoke into his emptiness to cause him to move toward Jesus. So he did. And they talked.

What do you bring as you come out of the darkness? You certainly bring your sin. You certainly bring your background, all of the experiences that have made you into you. You bring all the steps and missteps, all the successes and failures, and all the joys and sorrows. Perhaps you bring your pedigree, your security blankets, your opinions, your reputation, and your value system. But something is nagging at you. You’ve never quite been able to believe in Jesus, but something is nagging at you. Or maybe you’ve been professing belief in Jesus for a long time, but something is nagging at you.

Something may be drawing you toward Jesus. If so, that’s a good thing. Only the Spirit of God can do that.

Maybe—just maybe—the Spirit of God is what’s nagging at you. Maybe—just maybe—you’re being pursued. Maybe—just maybe—the Spirit is driving you toward Jesus. Maybe—just maybe—the Spirit is trying to get you to throw your life open to the miracle that he is trying to do in you.

But Nicodemus just couldn’t get it. Don’t you see, though—that’s the point. You don’t get it—it gets you! You don’t get God—God gets you!

A story told by Donald Miller in Blue Like Jazz might help you to see what I mean. His friend Laura was depressed. Don asked her what was wrong with her. It wasn’t a boy. It wasn’t her college classes. So Don asked her, “Is it God?” She said, “I feel like he is after me.” When Don asked who was after her, Laura answered, “God.” Don told her that he thought that was a beautiful thing. She answered, “I can’t do this.” When he asked her was it was she couldn’t do, Laura replied, “Be a Christian.”

She said, “My family believes…. I feel as though I need to believe. Like I’m going to die if I don’t believe. But it is all so stupid. So completely stupid.”

They talked a while, Don encouraging her to confess, which was something she had said she felt a need to do. Then she said, “I can’t Don. It isn’t a decision. It isn’t something you decide.” When he asked her what she meant, Laura replied, “I can’t get there. I can’t just say it without meaning it. I can’t do it. It would be like, say, trying to fall in love with somebody, or trying to convince yourself that your favorite food is pancakes. You don’t decide those things, they just happen to you. If God is real, He needs to happen to me.”

That’s what Jesus was saying when he said, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The wind is mysterious; so is the Spirit. The wind goes where it will and blows on whom it will; so does the Spirit. That’s what God does—he happens to you, and it’s wondrous and mysterious and fantastic and unbelievable.

You have to believe, it’s true. But you can only believe because God has first come to you. You can only follow because God summons.

Some of you, like Nicodemus, are struggling to believe. You are struggling because you think you have to understand or because you can’t break out of your box or because it all sounds so outlandish. Well, let me tell you—you won’t understand and you do have to break out of your box and, quite frankly, it is all outlandish.

But what happened to Don’s friend Laura can happen to you.

One morning he had an email from her. It said,

Dearest friend Don,

I read through the Gospel of Matthew this evening. I was up all night. I couldn’t stop reading so I read through Mark. This Jesus of yours is either a madman or the Son of God. Somewhere in the middle of Mark I realized He was the Son of God. I suppose this makes me a Christian. I feel much better now. Come to campus tonight and let’s get coffee.

Much love,


Amen. And so may it be for all of us.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is God’s only begotten Son and whosoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life. Is he pursuing you? Is his grace clawing at you? Is the Spirit prompting and poking you? Is his love making the stakes feel rather desperate to you? Be glad. Be very glad. And stop struggling.

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