It’s Not Knowing It’s Knowing

A sermon for Lent 5: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Vincent Gray was a child with problems seeing things; he saw ghosts. His therapist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, is not successful in helping him. Years later Gray shoots Dr. Crowe before killing himself. Crowe recovers and later that year begins seeing Cole, another child with a similar problem. He is completely dedicated to helping Cole, inspired in part by his perceived failure with Vincent. He rarely interacts with his wife anymore. And in fact, there is no conversation at all anymore.

Crowe becomes convinced that Cole has a gift to help the dead, complete their unfinished business. He is successful in helping Cole understand and accept his gift, and Cole saves the life of one ghost’s younger sister. He is also able to help his mother reconcile with her dead mother.

One evening when Dr. Crowe retunes home, he begins to notice subtle differences. His wedding ring is on the on the bed; he recalls that he has not had it on since he began seeing Cole. His wife is laying on the bed watching the video of their wedding. He hears his wife ask him why he left her. And then Crowe remembers Cole’s talking about the effects of a ghost’s unfinished business and realizes that Vincent had killed him and that with Cole’s help he has finally come to accept his failure to understand and help Vincent. Released of this burden Crowe is able to tell his wife she was never second, that he has always loved her and is able to move on.

The audience, I being one, is shocked by the reversal of perspective. As had Dr. Crowe we had all completely misunderstand the world of the story. M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense spins around Crowe’s misunderstanding of the critical moments of his life (Wikipedia). Crowe is not alone in misunderstanding, critical moments of life.

Today is the next to last Sunday in Lent. The Gospel story is about Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead. But I am no longer sure that Lazarus’ death is the point of the story, though it is an important element. The last four weeks the Gospel readings have had a central element of misunderstanding. In the wilderness, the Devil tries to trick Jesus into misunderstanding who he is. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus saying “being born again” as literal and not the transformative “being born from above.” The woman at the well misunderstands Jesus offering “living water” as something that will deliver her from having to come to the village well to get water thus avoiding the scorn of her neighbors. Driven by confusion, fear, and attachment to tradition the neighbors, parents, and authorities of the man born blind’s life misunderstand the relationship between life’s hardships and sin and the deepest meaning of Sabbath. All of Lent is a misunderstanding. They continue this morning.

The disciples misunderstand Jesus saying Lazarus’ illness does not lead to death, but God’s glory; and later when he says Lazarus has fallen asleep, they miss its customary reference to death (Harrelson, O’Day). When Jesus arrives, Martha misunderstands Jesus’ reference to resurrection as the classic Pharisee reference, drawn from Daniel (12:2), to the end of time, and that keeps her from hearing Jesus revelation of himself (Ellingsen, Harrelson, O’Day). When Mary hears of Jesus arrival, she goes to meet him, and so do all the mourners from Jerusalem. When they meet, Jesus is moved by her weeping and that of her friends. The misunderstanding here is at least as old as the King James’ Bible in which we first read “Jesus wept” (11:35). The original words express anger or indignation and agitated or troubled; they are not any way an expression of sentiment which we typically draw from ‘wept.’ (Harrelson, O’Day). The friends misunderstand Jesus’ tears leading them to wonder Could he who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying (John 11:37)? Martha’s misunderstanding of Jesus continues when she objects to removing the stone that seals Lazarus’ tomb because of her fear of obnoxious odors, and the tradition that after 3 days the soul has left for good, and there is no longer any hope of revival (O’Day).

Our own encounters with death, in all its manifestations, lead to confusion. When we die, we do not go to heaven to be angels. According to the bible, angles are their namesakes – messengers of God. When we die, there is a time of waiting, which is not revealed scripture, and when we face Jesus as the prosecutor, and Judge and oh, by the way, the defense attorney we face judgment. And by grace life in God’s presence is our future. Death, like barrenness, blindness, or any another illness or misfortune is not a consequence of sin; it is just life.

Any other popular conception of death is like attributing illness to sin; it is a misunderstanding. It seems if all the world is full of misunderstanding. Which leads on the wonder, what to do about all these misunderstandings?

One of the statements I think is more profound than first appears is

There are known knowns.
There are known unknowns.
There are also unknown unknowns (Donald Rumsfeld, Brainyquote).

When we hear the word ‘known,’ we generally associated that with knowledge. If you know something, it is a piece of information, maybe even a fact. But you can know somebody, and to know someone implies a relationship, and a relationship infers some sort of experience. So, Lent is not about knowing Jesus it is about knowing Jesus. All these stories reveal that it is not what information we know or what understanding we don’t know about Jesus that dispels misinformation. It is what we don’t know, that we have not experienced with Jesus that matters.

All the misunderstandings in these Lenten stories precede encounters with Jesus. With Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the man born blind, misunderstandings are transformed by their experience with Jesus (Lewis). Lent 1 is not a vicarious wilderness experience with Jesus. It is an invitation to take a wilderness experience of our won, with the assurance Jesus will be with you. For the last four weeks, we’ve heard various wilderness experiences, and in all of them, some folks have an experience with Jesus that leads them or other people to believe in Jesus, even if it takes some time. We should also acknowledge that not everybody will venture into the wilderness, and not every encounter with Jesus leads to knowing Jesus because things like tradition, existing belief or some other rules can get in our way.

As for each you, I believe each of you: knows your life with Jesus and knows your lack of life with Jesus; it is what you don’t know of your lack of life with Jesus that is the Lenten challenge.

Dr. Crowe faces misunderstandings around his death and is able to move on. Martha, Mary and a few of their friends face misunderstandings, around Lazarus’ death, and share in Jesus’ experiences that bring them to belief in him.

The question this morning is what misunderstanding, born of some shrouded death, will lead you to share in Jesus’ experiences that brings you to belief and life in him?

 

References

Brainyquote. “donaldrums.” n.d. http://www.brainyquote.com. 2 4 2017. <https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/donaldrums148142.html&gt;.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 2 4 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 2 4 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection Now. 2 4 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.

Liggett, James. “In Trust and Hope, Lent 5(A).” 2 4 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lose, David. Lent 5A: Heartache, Miracle, Invitation. 2 4 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 11:145. 2 4 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Wikipedia. “The_Sixth_Sense.” n.d. wikipedia.org. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sixth_Sense&gt;.

 

 

 

I am Nicodemus

A sermon for Lent 2; Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Wednesday a week ago, we had a long power outage. Most it was a big inconvenience; especially at night. It was dark; really dark; scary dark. Then again, if you were outside and if you looked up, as we did, you saw a sight we rarely ever see, the stars; all of the stars. Stars you can only see if you are in the dark. The dark enables you to see the night sky in an entirely new way; it is an inspiring experience; all because it is dark; really dark; enabling dark. Wednesday, it was dark, really dark, scary dark, enabling dark, inspirationally dark.

Some Wednesday night some 2000 years ago, a leader of the Jews is walking through the dark. He is seeking the leader of a new and growing group of followers. The leader is a rabbi, known for signs, perhaps a miracle worker, Nicodemus may simply be curious about this Jesus. On the other hand, he goes to see him in the dark and nighttime is the traditional time to study Torah, so perhaps he is seeking an in-depth conversation (Vena). Then again, night time and darkness are metaphors for separation from the presence of God (O’Day; Harrelson) so perhaps this devoted community leader has his doubts, his questions about all their ways of life. Perhaps it more than curiosity, perhaps Nicodemus wants to see the Kingdom as Jesus, and his followers do. Whatever his reason Nicodemus speaks with Jesus and life is never the same.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the Kingdom of God, you must be born from ‘above.’ Nicodemus asks him How can one be born ‘again’? The confusion come from a word with two meanings; it means both ‘above’ and ‘again.’ Nicodemus thinks Jesus is speaking literally. And that causes him trouble mostly because,

to be born again, as Nicodemus understood it, would have meant altering [his] … honor status in a very radical way and he was not ready to trade his honorable position in society for an uncertain new status (Vena).

 Perhaps Nicodemus just simply misunderstood (Gaventa and Petersen). But, Gail O’Day writes

that Jesus is being intentionally ambiguous and intends Nicodemus to hear both meanings inviting him to explore below the surface seeking deeper revelations. But his imagination is not flexible enough (O’Day).

Next, Jesus using Nicodemus’ confusion about live birth says no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit (John 3:5). Paralleling the double meaning of ‘again’ and ’above’ Jesus connects entrance into the Kingdom with both live birth, and spiritual birth; birth in the flesh, and birth in the spirit; thus, connecting flesh and spirit, which is very much against the thought of his day (Harrelson; O’Day). He compares this to the wind which blows where it will. The word ‘wind’ is the same word as ‘spirit,’ so Jesus connects new birth to the mysteries of free moving wind/spirit that is, quite simply, beyond our control (O’Day).

Comparing the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness also makes use of a double meaning word. ‘Lift up’ also means ‘exalt.’ Jesus exaltation is how we, by belief, have eternal life (Harrelson).

 For John, eternal life is defined by God, not as future immortality in heaven, but as a spiritual reality that can only be seen by those born of water and spirit as living in God’s unending presence right here, right now (Harrelson; O’Day; Vena). All this is too much for Nicodemus. And that is the intention. Nicodemus is intended to struggle with this trifecta of double meanings as he discerns what eternal new life, born from above, in water and spirit given by the raised up/exalted Son of Man really is. And so are we. The discerning struggle calls us into deeper and deeper listening to all Jesus shares that John recounts (O’Day).

This is not an easy trip for Nicodemus. He appears twice more; once saying that law requires that the Pharisees give Jesus a fair hearing (John 7:45-52) (Sakenfeld). His last appearance is when Pilate give Jesus’ body to him and Joseph of Arimathea for burial (John 19:38-42) (Sakenfeld). Nicodemus is not alone in a long perhaps wandering journey to belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God who died so we could have life in God’s presence. It took all the disciples a long time, a good three years, to understand.

So, if you have questions or doubts; if you don’t quite get all the nuances of how Jesus’ death brings you life you are in good company. If you aren’t quite ready to toss off whatever honor and status you have in life and commit to being vaccinated against death by a dead, resurrected, ascended Jesus, neither was Nicodemus (Hoezee; Harrelson).

I know, we all know,

that 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. (John 3:16).

We know it so well, it is trite. We believe it so strongly, it divides us. We know it so well, believe it so strongly that I doubt its Lenten value because it is too common, or too divisive to help us see ourselves and change our lives.

On the other hand, Nicodemus is a good Lenten model. He comes to Jesus full of expectations, ready to learn and misunderstands from the very beginning. He doesn’t understand life in God’s presence. He doesn’t understand water/flesh and the spirit as one, in the presence of God. He doesn’t understand the meaning of Moses, and the healing snake lifted up over Israel that saves them from death. He is bound to social customs of honor, prestige, and power he finds hard to give up. And so am I.

I hold miss expectations of Jesus and misunderstand his call if not daily, most certainly regularly. I look at the world and just don’t get life in God’s presence, especially in the here and now. There are too many people who are oppressed for arbitrary human divisions of race, gender, sex, skin color, national origin, faith, illness and lack of success. I believe; I have faith that Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension makes a difference in this world. But the failure of corrupt justice that crucified Jesus is still far too prevalent, and so I doubt. And I ponder my own subtle complicity in all this corruption. I find it as hard to give up social customs of honor, prestige, and power that I benefit from as Nicodemus did. So I am drawn to confess; I am Nicodemus.

So, in so much as you find yourself looking in the mirror and seeing Nicodemus looking back, I invite you to invite Nicodemus to guide your Lenten repentance. However, beware, it is a journey that is dark, really dark, scary dark, enabling dark, inspirationally dark. It is a journey from misunderstanding born of darkness, to darkness born of burying the one who loves you.


References

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 9 2017. 12. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 3:1-17 . 12 3 2017.

Jolly, Marshall A. “Digging Into Our Certainty, Lent 2(A).” 12 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. John 3:16. 12 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 2 A: Just One More Verse! 12 3 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 3:117. 12 3 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.