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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/08/2020

A couple of weeks ago on Transfiguration Sunday I mentioned that I’ve gotten weirder as I’ve gotten older which I view as a good thing as it has helped me to better deal with strange stories like the Transfiguration. Another benefit of my increased weirdness has to do with how I now approach John’s gospel, specifically in being able to read it more poetically and imaginatively. That will come in handy for the next month as today we get the first of four rather lengthy gospel readings from John, all of them involving dialogues between Jesus and other characters, dialogues that often don’t follow logically as questions and answers frequently seem to have nothing to do with each other. Trying to read and explain these dialogues as verbatim accounts of actual conversations can thus be very frustrating.

At some point though, as I became more open to weirdness, I figured out that John wasn’t writing verbatim accounts; he was up to something else, something that invites us to allow the words of the text to work on us rather than having us work on them. In other words, rather than trying to make it all fit together logically, you allow a word or a phrase to change you or change how you look at things because…that’s what was happening to the characters Jesus encountered. It does require a different way a reading, a more poetic way and I would suggest that John was as much a poet as anything in his presentation of Jesus.

So, once again today and for the next few weeks, I invite you to join me in more closely embracing the realm of weirdness and…maybe we’ll also be joining Jesus in that realm because, strangely enough, in looking for ideas on how to approach today’s Nicodemus text, I came across an article written by Frank Honeycutt, who has a regular column in the Living Lutheran magazine, an article titled, Keeping Jesus Weird. Who woulda thunk it? Maybe being weird isn’t so weird after all.

In talking about the Nicodemus story, the author of the Keeping Jesus Weird article focuses on the unusual nature of Jesus interaction with Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and in John you remember that night or darkness almost always hints at a lack of understanding. Jesus however, does very little to alleviate the lack of understanding. If anything, he seems to want to ratchet it up and increase Nicodemus’ level of confusion.

Nicodemus leads with praise, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” That’s the equivalent of a visitor saying, “Pastor, we’ve come to check out your church because we’ve heard about how awesome you are.”

So how does one respond to that? I would say, “We do have a great church here, a wonderful group of people who care about each other, a beautiful facility, good music, an excellent choir. We also have a great coffee hour; stay for a while, enjoy some snacks and meet some of the people.” That’s how I’d respond, but how does Jesus respond? He says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” And Nicodemus is no doubt thinking, “That’s weird.”

Especially these days with declining numbers, our tendency is to make the bar to membership as low as possible. If someone expresses an interest in your church the goal is not to scare them away. You want to assure them that as a church, we’re not weird, we’re not going to ask you to do anything strange or very demanding. We’re a pretty low-key ordinary group. In our case we say that we welcome you as you are wherever you are on your faith journey. In our time and place I really think that is the best approach.

Jesus, however, didn’t take that approach. Instead, with his strange words about being born from above and being born from water and the Spirit, he immediately introduced mystery into things indicating that to follow him was no simple or ordinary thing, leaving Nicodemus to wonder, “How can these things be?”

John’s way of presenting Jesus is different from that of the other gospels, but in all of them, Jesus’ tendency when questioned is not to provide clarity but to introduce confusion or uncertainty, perhaps saying that a degree of confusion is a necessary step on the road to clarity and insight about who he is. The message might be that if some confusion hasn’t been part of your faith journey, it might not be Jesus that you’re following or at least that you’re missing something in how you understand him.

I do think that a low bar of welcome is the appropriate starting point, but I also think that once you’re here, if I don’t confuse you a little bit at least some of the time, if I don’t give you something to think about on your journey, I’m not doing what I should be doing. If I just make Jesus an answer man, I’m not talking about the Jesus we find in the gospels, I’m not keeping Jesus weird.

I can’t help but be reminded of my experience in seminary. Some of you have heard me talk about this before but what happens at seminary is they pretty much take all those things you thought you believed and that you thought were right, all those things that made you go to seminary in the first place, and they call it all into question. “A place to get your answers questioned” was the T-shirt slogan. It could be very frustrating at times; I distinctly remember sometimes wanting to say, “I’m tired of this; just tell me what you want me to believe and I’ll believe it.” In retrospect though, you realize that they were pretty much doing the same thing Jesus did and…out of the frustration and confusion, there were insights and new ways of understanding things and I should add, the process goes on, it doesn’t end.

What this process does is it allows Jesus to be Jesus, even if he is a bit weird sometimes. That’s was the point the Keeping Jesus Weird article. Rather than trying to simplify Jesus to make him easily accessible and understandable, wrestle with his strangeness. Especially during Lent, consider more honestly what it means to follow weird Jesus.

The Nicodemus story and the others that we’ll hear over the next few weeks could all be classified as journey of faith stories as characters struggle to come to a better understanding of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. What all of the stories indicate though, is that coming to faith is a process, it’s not a one and done kind of thing.

As a process, as a journey faith will have its ups and downs, its times of confusion, questions and doubts, but again, in stories like today’s, Jesus seems to say that such times are a necessary part of the journey. He’s always much more about the questions than he is the answers. Think about how in the other gospels when someone asks him a question, instead of giving a straight answer, he tells a parable which often raises even more questions. As I learned in my visit to Torah study a couple of weeks ago, it’s a very Jewish approach to teaching.

It is important to let Jesus be weird and to allow him to introduce confusion into our faith journey, but…confusion is not the goal. Discipleship is the goal, following Jesus is the goal and that’s what being born from above is about. You know that being “born again” is the slogan and rallying cry for one segment of Christianity, the idea that you have this moment when you accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior. It comes out of this text and to be fair, it can lead to faithful discipleship, but making being born from above about a decisive moment really misses the point. In a different way it repeats the misunderstanding of Nicodemus.

He heard Jesus words literally, and it made no sense to him: “How can anyone be born after growing old?” He missed the point, at least for the moment. Changing “born from above” to “born again” and making it about a particular personal moment of decision, also misunderstands Jesus’ point as the focus winds up being on me and my decision as the means of change rather than the focus being on Jesus and the cross and what he has done for me as the initiator of a process of change that will go on for a lifetime. That process might have dramatic personal moments, or it might not, but the focus of being born from above is still on Jesus and what he has done for us and for our salvation. From a Lutheran perspective, that’s an important theological distinction.

Another verse from this text that borders on cliché is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” Cliché or not, it is an important verse because it gets at the “why” of the gospel. Why did the Word become flesh, why did God give his only Son for a fallen and broken world, why did Jesus go to the cross for me? Because God so loved the world, that’s why, and what God loved was not some make believe perfect world, but this world.

Justifiably, there might be some confusion as to why God so loves the world, but that’s one point of confusion that we can set aside and not worry about. We don’t have to know why; in faith we can just accept it as part of the truth of the gospel.

Nicodemus’ last words in today’s text are, “How can these things be?” He was still confused by Jesus’ weirdness. He does show up two more times in John though, first encouraging his fellow Pharisees to give Jesus a fair hearing, and then at the end as one who brought spices to anoint Jesus’ dead, crucified body. That doesn’t mean that his confusion was gone, but he was on the journey; he was following; he was being born from above.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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