S. Lent 2.17 “On Shutting Up” John 3:1-17
It’s never a great idea, when you talk to Jesus (if you talk to Jesus?) to start the conversation with what you know. This is my big takeaway from this Gospel, which has had a few pretty significant takeaways over the years. Maybe my takeaway seems minor and insignificant compared to the signs they hold up at sporting events. But God is in the details; and sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest difference in your life. This one, I can attest, certainly might for you…
It’s the road less traveled though, in our day [not dominating the conversation with Jesus with what you know, that is], especially among the more “conservative” Christian groups. A pervasive spirit has grown up in the modern church, a couple centuries before we were born, so that it is difficult for us, I think, to see this approach as anything but typical and biblical and sound. If you survey 100 professing Christians, especially of the “evangelical” variety and asked them what sort of conversation they imagine having with Jesus at the Last Day, in front of those gates of pearl, most picture some sort of information dump on their part [I know this only because I’ve asked a lot of people this question over the years]. They imagine entrance to heaven depends on what they know about Jesus, and slightly less, how well they behave.
Jesus, in this view, is pictured as guarding the gates to heaven, like a bouncer. And the nervous would-be heaven-dweller pours out information designed to get them in by showing how much they know about Jesus. “Well, I know you mom’s name is Mary, you were born in Bethlehem, in a stable. Your dad’s Name is Yahweh, or Jehovah, depending on spelling, but you just call Him Father. You had these 12 disciples, one of whom was a traitor, Judas [I hate that guy!]. You did a bunch of miracles, and they killed you for it, those rotten Jews and Romans [I would have been on Your side!] and after three days You rose again. You ascended into heaven. You wrote it all down for us in the King James Bible, with Your words in Red Letters(!), so they stand out better. And I know, if we behave ourselves and go to church [which I always do!] and can recite the facts with sincerity and love [as I think I’m doing a good job of now!] You will have to let us into heaven, because it’s not easy to believe all this stuff and keep it straight, but look how well I’ve done!” Something like that, anyway…
It’s a lot pressure, but few people seem to notice that, in the one description Jesus gives of that scene at the Resurrection Day (Matt. 25:31 ff.), He initiates all the conversation, does all the talking, shares what He knows of us [which seems to be a much better picture of us than we’d paint] and generally suggests it’s what He knows about us that matters, rather than what we know of Him. We really don’t have a speaking part in that play, except to go: “when did we see you down and out, Jesus, and do anything about it? I can’t remember doing stuff like that for You!”. Which does sound like us, though not in our finest moments, not sounding like a winning interview strategy for landing a coveted position…
Nicodemus is with modern Christendom on how you have a conversation with Jesus. He starts the talk by coming to Jesus (at night) and tells Him what he knows about 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.” And that sounds pretty good to most of us, doesn’t it? Respectful, reverent? He’s seen the signs, and put it together: that Jesus is from God, stands in the presence of the Almighty.
But Jesus is not impressed, nor particularly happy. He goes: “Oh, Amen, Amen, brother, yeah, preach it to Me, man! I’ll tell you one thing, though: no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew, from above.” [Text note: the Greek word ανωθεν can mean “anew” or “from above”. “Again”, is not a great translation. I think “anew, from above” is actually best, but forced to choose only one, I’d go with “from above”.] And Nicodemus is befuddled! This is not going the way he expected. He tells Jesus the great things he knows about Him, but, instead of Jesus being impressed and commending him for his great knowledge and spiritual insight, this feels like criticism, maybe even a whiff of sarcasm. Not grateful, as Nicodemus expected Jesus would be!
Nicodemus, caught off guard, argues with Jesus. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?! Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born!?” If it’s not a great idea to start a conversation with Jesus with what you [think] you know about Him, it’s really not great to argue with Jesus. But, starting by showing off your deep knowledge and insight kind of leads there…(!)
Jesus shoots right back: “Very truly I tell you: no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “you must be born from above.” The wind [the Greek word here means wind and spirit, both] blows where it will, 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.”
“You do not know where IT comes from! You do not know where I come from, Nicodemus! You don’t know diddley-do about the Kingdom of God, because you can’t see it without being Spirit-born, by Water and the Word!” Here is the birth of Faith—the faith that leads into eternal life. It doesn’t come from what you know about Jesus. It comes from what He knows and does to you by Water, Word, Spirit, Cross…!
What most of the world calls “faith” seems to me a pale imitation of what Jesus pictures. We have gotten so obsessed with our head knowledge and factual grasp and historical grounding, we are like those annoying show-off kids in class: “Oooh! oooh! Teacher, teacher! Call on me, ‘cause I know the answer!” Well, good for you!
Now, Jesus is a pretty forgiving Guy, so you might get away with it. (Nicodemus does, actually, get away with it (!). I peeked ahead, and he ends up in the disciple group, tagging along with a certain Joseph of Arimathea, getting Jesus’ body off the cross, and together, burying Him properly—which is very encouraging for those of us who talk too much, volunteer too much information, like to show off in class). But he keeps his mouth shut during the whole rest of the Story, Nicodemus does, knows better now Who directs the conversation!
Faith, I would say, is marked by this above all: IT knows when to shut up and listen, when to simply bow down, empty-handed, and receive a free gift from the One who knows you better than you know Him (or yourself!). Faith has learned some manners: that, in the presence of Royalty, you let the King start and end the conversation. You bow down empty-handed and tight-lipped and receive (like the beggar you are) the royal charity that saves. And for those of us who talk too much, who like to show off how much we know about Jesus, this is a tall order. But the Spirit blows through again today for us, as for Nicodemus, to shut our mouths, open our ears, and grant us Peace surpassing all understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.