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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/16/2014

When I was at seminary, chapel services were held every day there were classes (which you might expect at a seminary) but Wednesday was the pull out all the stops service every week with Holy Communion and lots of music, choirs and so forth. Attendance could be sparse on other days but pretty much the whole seminary community showed up on Wednesday and most weeks the preacher was a member of the faculty. Some were better than others, but one that I came to enjoy was one of the worship professors who has since left the Lutheran church and become an Orthodox priest.

His preaching style though was rather unorthodox; I’m not sure he would have gotten good grades from those who taught preaching as he would create images or thoughts and just kind of throw them out there and then move on to something else. So it didn’t always hang together real well if you were looking for a nice sequence and flow, a beginning a middle and an end. At first I thought, “He’s just not a very good preacher,” but after awhile I realized that there was almost always something he said that connected with me, not all of it necessarily, but something. So while it wasn’t classic, by the book preaching, it worked.

As time has gone on I’ve come to think that the style he used was very much like the style of John’s gospel. John too can seem a little disjointed and hard to follow as he too throws out images, images like Jesus as bread and light and water and the shepherd and the vine and he works with them for awhile and then moves on to something else. So it doesn’t always have a nice narrative flow, but with most of us, something sticks, something connects; we find an image that we like and which helps us better understand and relate to Jesus.

John does the same kind of thing with many of the characters who show up in his gospel, especially in their encounters with Jesus. John doesn’t intend these as historical portraits of these people but instead the characters and their conversations are more symbolic, representative of matters and questions that are significant for many people. They were matters and questions that were significant in his time in the late first century and they’re still significant. Similar to other images John creates, we might not be able to connect with all of these characters or with all the issues they raise, but there’s bound to be a connection somewhere along the line.

So we start with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He comes to Jesus at night and night indicates darkness and in John darkness is frequently a hint that someone does not have complete understanding of what’s going on. That’s definitely true in the case of Nicodemus, but unlike some other characters who come and try to test or trick Jesus, Nicodemus seems open to Jesus and he’s portrayed as being genuinely interested in greater understanding.

On the other hand, his search for greater understanding is off track from the start. Nicodemus represents those who want Jesus to be a superstar, a hero. Remember last week I said that’s what the devil was trying to get Jesus to be with his wilderness temptations. “Just do all these flashy things,” the devil told him, “and the people will love you.” He was right! Jesus didn’t do those flashy things but he did others, healings and miracles that got people’s attention; they were impressed and that was true of Nicodemus. “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” he said to Jesus.

So it was like he was saying, “How’d you do it?” Nicodemus wanted to know how, but that wasn’t what he needed to know. Knowing how might have given him a peek behind the curtain, it might have given him a piece of information that he could go back and impress the other Pharisees with, but what he needed to know was what the signs meant, for him and for all people, and that’s the direction Jesus tried to take him in.

One of the issues that Nicodemus is representative of in our time is what is often perceived as the conflict between science and religion. Larry Rasmussen, who spoke here the other night, is a religious ethicist and as such he straddles the worlds of science and religion. At some point in the discussion during the time he was here though, he talked about how science shouldn’t be seen as being in competition with religion but that one informs the other because they are addressing different questions. Science is about how, about how the world and everything in it got here and how it works and the how is fascinating and useful, but it’s from religion that we get meaning, meaning that then informs how we act on the how of the science. They work together, but religion shouldn’t be understood as science and science shouldn’t be understood as religion, yet both of those things do happen.

Nicodemus wanted to know how, but Jesus was pointing him toward meaning with his talk of being born again. Nicodemus though, for the time being anyway, was stuck at a place that didn’t let him get to the meaning of what sounded impossible. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Note the “how” of the question; Nicodemus was stuck on “how.” Stuck on “how,” he couldn’t get to what it might mean to be born again.

In our time being “born again” has become something of a cliché, a cliché that has great meaning for some people, but which can have negative connotations for others. Setting that aside though, what being born again can mean in the context in which it appears here is that to understand the kingdom of God requires more than “how?” because it involves the spiritual. The spiritual can’t be understood by asking scientific “how” questions. The spiritual requires a move into or “being born again” into a world that is more than what can be explained scientifically. It involves what I have come to understand as imagination, imagination that takes us beyond “how” and brings us closer to meaning.

I came across a quote about imagination by the poet Adrienne Rich: “The imagination’s roads open before us, giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum that says “There is no alternative.” There is an alternative if we have the vision and the imagination to see it and that’s what Jesus was coaxing Nicodemus toward with images of being born again and images of wind blowing where it will. But Nicodemus was still stuck on how: “How can these things be?’

With that though, he is representative of all of us who sometimes get stuck on the wrong questions so that we fail to get the meaning of all manner of Bible stories including the ones about Jesus. In this text today we finally do get meaning with the familiar John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Martin Luther called it the gospel in a nutshell but If we get hung up on the how of that statement, we miss the meaning which has to do with God’s love.

I don’t usually watch 60 Minutes on Sunday nights but I happened to watch it last week and there was a piece on the ALMA observatory, A-L-M-A and I don’t remember what it stands for, but it’s an array of telescopes at a high elevation in the desert of Chile in South America. (maybe some of you saw it too) I guess because of the elevation and the dryness of the air it’s one of the best places in the world to observe the night sky. What I found interesting though was one of the people they talked to said that what they are looking at are not the stars, but the dark spaces between the stars because it’s there that they’ll find out more about the origin of the stars.

Jesus said that Nicodemus was stuck on earthly things when he was talking about heavenly things. Scientists say that the darkness of space will provide some of the “hows” of what could be called heavenly things. What they are looking for is fascinating and I’m sure, very useful! But unless the “hows” that come out of that darkness somehow lead us back to the light, the light of the world, then the hows, while providing useful information, don’t mean anything.

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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“Whoever
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welcomes me, and whoever
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not me
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