Growing in Spirit, Living as Disciples,
Serving God's World

"What Nicodemus Didn’t Know"

  • March 12, 2017
  • Passage: John 3:1–3:17

© 2017 Rev. Dr. Ben Trawick. If material herein is quoted under Fair Use, please give credit to the author.

You know what I really can’t stand, what really makes me crazy? You needn’t try to answer, it’s a rhetorical question, and besides, I’m about to tell you. I really can’t stand it, it really makes me crazy when I’m at a presentation or a lecture and the time comes for the question and answer session, and invariably, THAT PERSON is there.

The person who goes up to the microphone, and they really don’t have a question—what they want to do, more than anything, is demonstrate to the speaker and to everyone present how much they already know about the topic at hand. They don’t want to avail themselves of the speaker’s expertise, in other words, they want to demonstrate their own.

So, the “questioner” launches into this great, long, extended monologue, holding forth until the speaker finally inquires, “did you have a question you wanted to ask?”

To me, it feels like Nicodemus is sort of “that guy.” Oh, he comes to Jesus to check him out, but he does so BY NIGHT—doesn’t want to be seen seeking Jesus out or be too open in his inquiry or his enthusiasm. He wants to get the low down, but on the down low, if you know what I mean.

And his first words to Jesus are: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do the signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Which is to say, it seems, “Jesus, we, who are knowledgeable and respectable, acknowledge your bonafides as a teacher from God.”

It is a compliment, I suppose, but it is a compliment wrapped in a condescension that asserts Nicodemus’ authority and position even while acknowledging Jesus. It implies, in other words, that Jesus in some way needs the approval that Nicodemus grants. I’m not saying that Nicodemus is being mean-spirited or unpleasant at all, by the way. He might not even recognize his approach as condescending. Condescenders seldom do. It’s sort of like an older person who says to a younger one, “You’re very bright for your age.” The compliment is genuine, but the “for your age” qualifies it and establishes a pecking order. So it is here, I think: WE KNOW that you are a teacher who has come from God.

Now, before going on, it must be acknowledged Nicodemus is, in fact, a very learned and knowledgeable and respectable figure. He is described by John as a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin. In other words, Nicodemus is deeply steeped in Jewish religious law and serves on the Jewish high council.He has come to Jesus on what seems to be a personal, unofficial fact-finding mission. He wants to see for himself where Jesus fits in to his religious world view.

So, it is interesting to see how Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ overture—WE KNOW you are a teacher who has come from God:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born from above, or born anew.”

Now, what does that phrase “enter the kingdom of God,” mean? Well, throughout the gospels, when Jesus speaks of the kingdom, he isn’t speaking of some distant heaven, but of what God is up to on earth. The kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven speaks of what earth would be like, submitted to God’s rule and to God’s will. So, Jesus is saying to Nicodemus,

“Here is what you don’t know. All of your learning, your wisdom, your knowledge of the Law is not sufficient for you to grasp or to quantify or to understand God or God’s will or God’s kingdom. You must be born from above or born anew—you don’t grasp God, God grasps you.”

Well, Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He just doesn’t get it. So as with most conversations in the gospel of John, this one proceeds on two different levels. Jesus is speaking figuratively or metaphorically of a new or a spiritual birth, and Nicodemus is hearing him literally and not understanding at all: How can anyone be born anew after having grown old?

The gifted writer and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story that beautifully illustrates Nicodemus’ problem.

Once, it seems, there was a woman who set out to discover the meaning of life. So, she read every book she could get her hands on—all the greats and all the classics: books on history, philosophy, religion. “While she became a very smart person,”Taylor writes, “nothing she read gave her the answer she was looking for. She found other smart people and asked them about the meaning of life, but while their discussions were long and lively, no two of them agreed on the same thing and still she had no answer.”

Finally, the woman sold everything she had and set off to search the globe to discover the meaning of life. She travelled countries and continents. And everywhere she went, people told her they did not know the meaning of life, but they had once heard of a man who did, only they were not sure where he lived. At times uncertain he was anything more than a rumor, she chased news and hints of him everywhere until finally, deep in the Himalayas, someone told her how to reach his house--a small and simple hut high on the side of a mountain.

She toiled and climbed to reach his front door. And at last, she reached her destination and she knocked, and a kind faced man who seemed older than age itself answered the door. From here, I’ll tell the story in Barbara Brown Taylor’s own words:

"I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question," she said, gasping for breath. "What is the meaning of life?"

"Please come in and have some tea," the old man said."No," she said. "I mean, no thank you. I didn't come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won't you tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?"

"We shall have tea," the old man said, so she gave up and came inside. While he was brewing the tea, she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened (which was just as well, since his visitor did not leave any room for him to reply), and as she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea.

She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall.

"What are you doing?!" she yelled when the tea burned her hand. "It's full, can't you see that? Stop! There's no more room!"

"Just so," the old man said to her. "You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and then we will talk."1

What a beautiful, Zen-like description of what it is to know so much that you struggle to be taught anything new. You have to first un-know what you think you know. And that is what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus.

WE KNOW you are a teacher who has come from God: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God, no one can know what God is up to or about, without being born from above, or born anew.” And of course, when one is newly born, one knows nothing, except, perhaps, the arms that hold you.

In other words, Nicodemus, everything you think you know about God—inhibits you from knowing God. You don’t grasp God, God grasps you.

Think of the woman in Taylor’s story—she has studied and learned and travelled and talked, trying to discern with exactitude the meaning of life, and in so doing, she utterly overlooks the living of her own life—one almost wonders if she tasted the food she ate along the way, noticed the breeze on her face, touched the people she talked to—for example, when the old man offers her tea, she has no time for it, she wants the answer.

That is, it seems to me, what Jesus is striving to teach Nicodemus: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God, no one can experience or know God, without being born of water (that is, the amniotic fluid or water of birth) and of the Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of Spirit is Spirit. 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 know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” And with what I think is a friendly, sympathetic laugh, Jesus replies, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things?” Which is as if to say, “Come back when your cup is empty. Then we can talk.”

Nicodemus goes away confused—but he also keeps trying. We encounter him twice more in John’s gospel. In the seventh chapter of John, Jesus is embroiled in an intense conflict with the religious authorities and it is Nicodemus who comes to Jesus’ defense among his peers on the Sanhedrin: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” And then once more, we encounter Nicodemus when in the 19th chapter of John, he assists Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus. So, I think the arc of the story is that Nicodemus is on a journey—he doesn’t get Jesus, but he wants to, he’s open—and by the end, something has changed.

I don’t know that the story ties up neatly with a bow—our life’s stories seldom do…. but then, faith isn’t about grasping all the answers is it, but more about living amid the questions?

I’m challenged by the story, really—like Nicodemus, like the woman on a quest for meaning, like so many of us, I want the right answers, the purest doctrine, the fullest knowledge and the clearest understanding. I want, I suppose to capture God, which as Jesus tells Nicodemus, is a bit like trying to capture a wind that blows where it will.

But what if I set about, instead, trying to let God capture me? What if I knew a little less, listened and loved a little more? What if I focused myself on simply making more room for God, striving to create a space in myself and in my life where I can listen for the Spirit wherever and whenever it (by grace) blows through my life and the lives of those around me? That, it seems to me, is one of the chief purposes of this season of Lent—Lent is our coming back to our faith with an empty cup, making space for God to be at work: Devotional space within my schedule instead of being so busy and task driven—listening space within my prayers instead of piling up words and petitions. At first in our story, it seems to me, Nicodemus is so full of himself that there is little room for God’s work. But the conversation seems to begin something in him. I wonder if he looks back at his encounter with Jesus later on and thinks something like the words of the old Bob Dylan song: I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now?

Perhaps our faith journey, is in truth, knowing less and less and less and less until we know nothing with certainty except God’s love. Maybe that is what it means to be born anew.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Ben Trawick
Grace Presbyterian Church
12 March 2017
1Stay for tea, Nicodemus.  Taylor, Barbara Brown. . February 1996.  Christian Century;2/21/96, Vol. 113 Issue 6, p195.

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