Text: John 3:1-9
Bob Poerschke, my seminary professor who is now deceased and who was a member of this church, was a master at asking good and thoughtful questions. However, this masterful skill frustrated many students and, I would venture to say, many of his colleagues. We are taught from an early age that what people want from us is not more questions, but rather right answers. It has always been interesting to me that the human instinct, from the time we start talking, is to ask questions. “Why?” is the common refrain of a two-year old. Children are full of curiosity and as a result they ask numerous questions like: Why is the sky blue? Why do we burp? How are babies made? Often, our response as adults is to reply, “Why do you ask so many questions?” Or, when we don’t know the answer to their questions, to say: “Because God made it that way.” In our impatience and frustration and limited knowledge, we fail to explore with them their open and curious mind and instead we give our children short, unimaginative answers to satisfy the moment.
Going back to Bob, my professor, this process was somewhat reversed. Bob would come into class prepared with a whole list of provocative and thoughtful questions intended to help his students wrestle with the topic of the day. I would watch the frustration grow on my classmate’s faces the further down the list of questions Bob would go. With each open-ended question, the intensity would build until one student, in exhaustion, would exclaim: “Just tell us the answer.” Even as adults, we have been trained to look for the right answer instead of focusing on the right question. Murray Bowen, the famous psychiatrist and family systems theorist, has been credited with saying, “it is better to have the right question than the right answer.” In a society where it often seems that we have a surplus of answers and a shortage of the right questions, maybe we could benefit from Bowen’s insight.
The story of Nicodemus is a powerful reminder of the importance of asking the right questions. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin; who, according to the Gospel of John, showed favor to Jesus. He appears three times in the plot: the first is when he visits Jesus one night to listen to his teachings (John 3:1-21); the second is when he states the law concerning the arrest of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:45-51); and the last follows the Crucifixion, when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the corpse of Jesus for burial (John 19:39-42). The discussion with Jesus in John 3 is the source of several common expressions of contemporary Christianity, specifically the descriptive phrase “born again” used to describe the experience of believing in Jesus as Savior.
Scholars and preachers alike have questioned Nicodemus’s motives in the dialogue that Mary Ann has read to us this morning. We really don’t know Nicodemus’ motivation for coming to Jesus, either at the beginning or, really, at the end of the passage. Could there have been a genuine spiritual quest? Or was he trying to “co-opt” Jesus for his movement? Was he trying to “build bridges” between the Pharisees and Jesus? Was he trying to “gather evidence” that could be used against Jesus at a later time?
One scholar writes of Nicodemus, “Portrayed as a cowardly dolt, Nicodemus is usually spotted skulking about under cover of darkness. He is a Pharisee ready to betray his brothers—to the delight of Christians near and far. His pharisaic training seems to trap him in the minutiae of the law. And we can never seem to decide: is he too smart for his own good? Or is he, in fact, an embarrassment to his kind, too dimwitted to understand about being born again?”
While it’s often said that Nicodemus meets Jesus at night to avoid being seen in this illicit liaison, an alternate interpretation may be more instructive. The rabbis had taught that the Torah was best studied at night when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided. It could be said that Nicodemus uses his precious study time to expand his search beyond the standard texts. In this view, Jesus himself becomes the book into which Nicodemus delves, mining every word for wisdom and understanding as he asks the big questions of faith.
We often think of the big and important questions of faith as those that the theologians and philosophers, the scientists and poets have written about through the ages. Questions like: Why do we suffer? How do you reconcile the evil in the world with a loving God? Is there an after-life? Does God answer prayer? Is there a God? If so, is God omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), and omnipresent (everywhere)? Indeed, these are the hard questions of faith. But are they the big questions? For all the theological discourse on these topics—for all the answers given—humanity still struggles to offer any conclusive or definite answer to any of them. One of the problems with trying to answer the hard questions of faith is that even the Bible—the book of authority that we turn to to give us answers—is unclear, and even offers contradictory answers to these questions. Take for instance the question, Why do we suffer? The book of Job has three sets of answers to the problem of suffering: a test of faith, a punishment for sin, and there is no answer. “…these views differ from the views of the prophets. And the prophetic answer—found throughout much of the Hebrew Bible—is at odds with the views of Jewish [thought] and even Jesus.” (Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem) My point is that all too often the Bible does not give simple or singular answers to the hard questions of faith.
What I like about the Nicodemus story is that his questions are not so much the hard questions of faith but the big questions of faith. What do I mean by that? Nicodemus asks the big questions that deal with the heart and soul. I don’t mean to suggest that the other questions—the ones I have called the hard questions of faith—are not important. They are. But there is a difference in questions that address the validity of God and faith and the questions that go to the heart of what it means to live a life of faith. Nicodemus asks three questions that I believe go to the heart and soul of what it means to live a life of faith: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” And last, “How can these things be?”
Like most of us, Nicodemus is limited by the familiar “word world,” the world he knows best. He responds in his best thinking, legal-scholar, word-parsing mode. He sees tricks, dead-ends, and practical impossibilities. It is all he knows how to see. Yet Jesus persists from his heart vocabulary, with rich images of wind, spirit, and expansive love. We do not know how long Nicodemus dwells in this liminal space between worlds, moving back and forth between what is familiar to him—the world where his status is recognized and esteemed and his worldview reliable; and this new world that Jesus speaks of—a world of spirit and love. His question, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” can seem like he misses the point. But I don’t think so. His question goes to the heart of one of the big questions of faith: How do we allow God’s spirit and love to change us? It is a fundamental question of faith: How do we leave behind the truth as we have known it in order to explore something new? How do we let go, set aside all that we are trying to protect—our power and privilege—to risk a life of freedom and forgiveness and grace? How do we let go of the familiar world of self-doubt and limited possibilities for the unfamiliar world of God’s love and blessing and redemption—of limitless possibilities? It is a big question of faith. And Nicodemus had the courage, even if it was in the darkness of night, to ask a good and thoughtful question rather than just seeking the answer to an old worn-out question.
Sometimes it can feel like we are more interested in hiding behind the hard questions of faith that history has proved will never be satisfied by our word world—that will never be satisfied by own limited answers—instead of seeking out the big questions of faith that might lead us to an unfamiliar place of having a life in the spirit—a life of freedom and blessing, of forgiveness and grace, of hope and joy.
Like Nicodemus, we dwell in this liminal space between worlds, moving back and forth between what is familiar to us: the world where our status is recognized and esteemed and our worldview reliable; and this new world that Jesus speaks of: a world of spirit and love. Nicodemus teaches us that asking the right question is more important than having the right answer. What questions are we asking? And what answers are we willing to let go of in order to explore new possibilities?