How can we know God?

How often have you said: ‘leave it to the expert.’   There are many areas of life in which we do not feel competent; when it is better to ask someone well qualified to complete the task in hand efficiently, effectively and safely.   I would not begin to tackle such projects as re-wiring a house or rebuilding a car engine let alone fixing the computer.   These things for me are better left to the people who are trained and skilled and have the aptitude for them.  To have a go may well end up costing more in the long term and could be downright dangerous.

Are we not tempted sometimes to apply the same reasoning when it comes to matters of religion, faith and belief?  To feel that we have not been trained, that we are not an expert.  Perhaps then we need to meet Nicodemus, the character at the heart of our gospel reading today. (John 3.1-17)

The first thing we learn about Nicodemus is that he was a Pharisee.  Pharisees believed that Israel had ended up in exile in Babylon because the nation had failed to keep the law, The Torah.  In the hundred or so years before Jesus, they made it their job to know, understand and interpret the laws passed down from Moses believing that if they could get all the common people to keep them, such a disaster as exile would be averted in the future.  They were experts in the law of their faith.  So we can understand Nicodemus as a kind of barrister and theologian rolled into one.

Secondly, we hear that Nicodemus is also a leader of the Jews.   Whether or not he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the judicial council of the Jews where Jesus was tried after his arrest is not clear.  Certainly, he was one of the leading Jews who debate whether or not Jesus is the Messiah in chapter 7 of John (John 7.50) Undoubtedly, Nicodemus was a ‘big noise’ a significant political voice in the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem at that time.

Thirdly, Jesus describes Nicodemus as a teacher in Israel. (verse 10) Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus by addressing him as ‘Rabbi’, which would indicate that he regarded Jesus as a fellow teacher and scholar.

So we have a pretty clear picture of Nicodemus’ credentials.  He is an expert in the law, a teacher, theologian and local politician.   He is clever, gifted, well recognised and connected.   He sees that Jesus has similar qualities and comes to him with flattering words: ‘…we know you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’  (verse 2)

In spite of all his intellect and learning, these words already show that he has not really grasped what Jesus is about and what he offers.   As Jesus’ reply makes clear, there is more to life than the attributes which Nicodemus possesses in shed loads.  ‘No can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above or born again’ says Jesus. (verse 3) The Greek word used can mean either born from above indicating a godly or heavenly birth or simply rebirth, born again.

Nicodemus’ next reply shows that he is even further away from Jesus’ line of thought.  He interprets Jesus’ words to mean that a grown person might re-enter their mother’s womb to be re-born’. (verse 4)   His education, background and experiences do not help him to grasp what Jesus is saying about the radical change which a person must undergo if they are join God’s Kingdom.    After Jesus has spoken some more about being born of water and Spirit…that it is like the wind, Nicodemus still asks: ‘How can these things be?’  (verse9)   When it comes to grasping the truth which Jesus offers, Nicodemus, for all his understanding remains in the dark.

How do you feel about that?  Do you think: ‘Well if Nicodemus could not get the hang of what Jesus was on about then there’s no hope for the rest of us!’  OR could you not think of it another way?  Perhaps Nicodemus is barking up the wrong tree.  Is he using the wrong tool for the job like trying to use a mathematical formula to open a tin of beans?    Is he trying to use his vast knowledge of the Old Testament and his clout as a Jewish leader and teacher to try to understand on an intellectual level what Jesus is saying when in fact he should be engaging his heart and soul?  Is he thinking that Jesus’ teaching is all about him doing things when in fact it’s really about what God does?

When Jesus talks of a person being born again, born from above, born of the Spirit, he talks of what God can do in the life of one who is open, penitent, trusting and believing.   This is not something that requires intellect, power, wealth or physical strength.   It is not for experts.  It is for every human being.  Nicodemus would have known the desert winds which seem to come from nowhere, whose powerful effects were known.  What was not known was how and why they happened.  The work of God’s Spirit which causes rebirth, a new way of being and thinking in relationship to God, is also a mystery.  We cannot capture or understand it by science or even theology.  It defies every expert.  It is thus available to everyone just as the wind which blows on every human face.

How then can we begin to know something such as this which is beyond human understanding?

As Jesus continues to gently chide Nicodemus (verse 10-12) he goes on to point to himself as the evidence of the work of God and the Spirit.  If we want to glimpse the heavenly, even as through a glass darkly, then we must look to the Son of Man who alone has ascended and descended from heaven.  (verse 14)   Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the story in the book of Numbers that he would have known well about how the Israelites when they were afflicted with poisonous snakes could look to one that Moses put on pole and live.  In looking towards the crucifixion, he, Jesus, will become the means by which all who will look to him will live reborn the eternal life of the kingdom.  (verse 15)  All is then summed up in that verse which you should all know by heart and in your hearts: ‘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. (verse 16)

How then do you approach your faith?   Is there a lingering temptation to feel unqualified and unequal?   I think the conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus should give us all confidence, not in our own abilities but in God’s love which reaches out to us all in the cross of Jesus.   It is not that gifts of the mind, skills learnt, positions of influence obtained and the like are of no value.  It is just that they are not the means to rebirth in the life the Kingdom of God, to eternal life, life in all its fullness.   For that we are to be open to the wind of the Spirit of which the water of our baptism is the seal.   In this same Spirit, may we all recognise one another and play our part in the life of our church and the wider world.

Lent 2    12.03.2017

Rev Jonathan Smith

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