The Heart of the Matter
A brief word of introduction to today’s gospel reading. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a great teacher and leader in the Jewish tradition. Nicodemus had been hearing a lot about Jesus, he had seen some of Jesus’ miracles. He was very curious. So, one night, under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus went to see Jesus. What follows, one of Jesus’ most well-known sermons, is part of what Jesus told Nicodemus that night.
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For 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.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized.
Nicodemus had questions. How was Jesus doing what he was doing? Was he magic? Were they just illusions? Or was he truly from God, as some were quietly starting to suggest. Nicodemus’ heart was stirred, troubled, and perhaps even strangely warmed by all he had heard and seen of Jesus. In the dark of the night, one rabbi to another, Nicodemus asked Jesus, “How can these things be?”
Jesus was also a curious rabbi. He had his own question for Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
Friends, don’t we all have our own questions? We are disciples of Jesus, and yet there is still so much we do not understand. At the core of the body of Christ (we the people) beats an often-restless heart; a curious heart which asks, like Nicodemus, “How can these things be?”
How can it be that God created the universe?
How can it be that God hears our prayers?
How can it be that Jesus is God in human flesh?
How can it be that we are forgiven?
How can it be that we are saved?
How can it be that we are loved unconditionally?
Nicodemus knew enough about God to leave room for the mysterious and miraculous, but he was also a wise man of his age, influenced by advanced philosophical thinking – a Hellenistic Jewish teacher. He valued probing questions with clear answers. He knew, on the one hand, that Jesus was able to perform miracles because he was from God, and yet he still wanted to know, and had to ask, “How can this be?” Nicodemus, the great religious leader of course left room for faith but, like so many of us, in the back of his mind he wanted to know, “How’d you do it, Jesus?”
Jesus pointed out this tension in Nicodemus’ thinking: “I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe; how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things.” Which is Jesus saying: if you cannot truly accept the miracles you’ve seen for yourself here on earth as being just that – miraculous – well, how can you accept what I have to say about the mysteries of heaven. Jesus then reminds Nicodemus of a fantastical story from their shared Hebrew tradition, a story about Moses and the Israelites wandering the wilderness. How they began, yet again, to question if God was really going to protect them, and to long to go back to slavery in Egypt rather than face all that remained unknown and mysterious about the promised land. The people back then wanted to stay in the knowable, the familiar even if that meant slavery, rather than face the uncertain and unknowable future, even if it promised to be a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of great hope and possibility.
That ancient story, Jesus reminds Nicodemus, is wild. Because of the people’s doubt, God sent poisonous snakes (or was it fiery dragons?) to bite the people. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent. In order for the people to be healed, they had to come and gaze upon the bronze serpent. At the heart of the story about the people in the wilderness is their ongoing doubt of God.
And at the heart of their healing is the need to trust in what was beyond belief, completely mysterious, magical and, miraculous. If God could send snakes to bite them, and God could heal them if they just look at a bronze serpent, then maybe, just maybe, God can lead them into the great unknown land of promise and hope. At the heart of the matter, in all these stories, is trust.
Friends, we are in a crisis of trust. As a people, we have a great distrust. We do not trust our political leaders, or religious leaders. There is distrust of our academic institutions, distrust of the media, distrust of scientists. There is a crisis of trust in almost every source of once trustworthy information. And now we are struggling as a society to trust even those close to us. There is a crisis of trust, even of God, which is not new. It has always been a herculean task for human beings to fully place their trust in God. Adam and Eve did not trust God, the ancient Hebrews struggled to trust God, and today we are more accustom to wrestling with faith, struggling to believe, than having the peace that surpasses all understanding, that is trust in God, hope in what is beyond belief.
John says in the gospel, “this is the crisis, that the light has come into the world,” and the people don’t trust it. “The people loved darkness rather than light.” Light came into the world but it has caused a crisis, for humanity has always struggled to trust; struggled to trust in God.
In the old Disney movie, Jungle Book, there is a wily serpent named Kaa. The serpent has mysterious hypnotizing powers which he uses to put his victims in a peaceful trance and then squeezes the life out of his relaxed prey. The serpent had his sights on a man-child named Mowgli.
Not unlike the serpent in the garden of Eden, Kaa tempts Mowgli to come close and listen. He begins to hypnotizes Mowgli, rocking him into comfortable submission and slowly, gently coiling around the boy, all the while singing, “Trust in me, just in me/Shut your eyes, trust in me/You can sleep, safe and sound/Knowing I am around,” and on that word, around, the serpent begins to tighten its grip. Singing still, “Just relax, be at rest/Like a bird, in a nest/Trust in me, just in me/Shut your eyes, and trust in me.”
The oldest story is that of humanity’s disordered trust. It’s a tale as old as time. God is good all the time, we can trust in God (never mind the poisonous serpents), and yet we are so often stung as we search for protection, success, comfort, in all the wrong places.
Ellen Stockstill and I just finished watching the first season of the show Ted Lasso about a college football coach who moves to London to coach soccer, knowing nothing about the game. Ted comes to learn many curious things about British soccer, including a very true popular saying: “It’s the hope that kills you.” It means basically, it’s better to have no expectations of success, rather than get your hopes up only to have your dreams destroyed. It’s too painful. It’s pretty much how Israel responds to Moses as he asks them to trust him, and God, and head out into the wilderness. Facing starvation, they grumbled: it’s the hope that’s killed us.
Maybe you know the feeling. Is it worth applying for that job, entering that relationship, joining that church, voting in that election? It’s the hope that kills you. Oh, the many times we’ve been burned, duped, tricked, forgotten, betrayed, abandoned, and gotten our hopes up, only to have them dashed. Any Atlanta sport fan knows the feeling. All the instance of shattered dreams only fuels our crisis of trust and cultural cynicism. Magic is just an illusion, love just the invitation for a broken heart. Better to stay in captivity than face the possibility there is no promised land and Moses’ pillar of fire is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, or the prophet on the mountain.” In into this vacuum of hope and trust someone always comes along, some golden calf, some bronzed politician singing, “Trust in me, just in me; you can sleep safe and sound knowing I am around.” But reliably, they’ll only squeeze the life out of you and swallow you whole.
But Nicodemus was fueled, not by cynicism, but by curiosity – curiosity, the very close cousin of hope. It is this hope-twinged curiosity which led Nicodemus through the dark, to find and question Jesus. Can I trust you? Dare I hope?
Something Jesus said that day made a difference for Nicodemus. In what we heard from John’s gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus over and over again to believe: “whoever believes in him may have eternal life,” “everyone who believes in him will not perish,” “those who believe are not condemned.”
The Greek word used here for believe means: a conviction full of joyful trust.
What Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and all of us, is he is not some magician, this is no trick, no illusion, no con job. Jesus says, “You can believe in me, you can throw yourself into joyful trust in me.” We live with a crisis of trust, nonetheless, Jesus, full of hope dares us to believe. That is the word Ted Lasso has emblazoned on a sign in the locker room: Believe. He tells his team that he disagrees with what they say about how “it’s the hope that kills you.” Ted says, “it’s the lack of hope that comes and gets you.”
I think Jesus got through to Nicodemus that night, with his impassioned speech about love, about joyful trust. You know why? Well, sometime after their meeting there came a day when Jesus was arrested and publicly executed, lifted up on a cross. The disciples shook their heads and mutter from the shadows, “See, it is the hope that kills you.” But the night Jesus died, Nicodemus came to him again, this time to Jesus’ lifeless body. He brought with him a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes.
Nicodemus helped as they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths and placed it in a tomb in the garden near where he died. Nicodemus was a Pharisee after all; he knew well the proper way to burry one who deserved great honor, one in whom he placed all his hope, one who would soon be mysteriously, miraculously lifted out of the grave, a source of healing for all the world to gaze upon, and have, truly have everlasting life.
Beloved, this is the very heart of the matter. Believe the good news, news that is beyond belief: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who trusts in him with great joy, will not have their hope kill them, but will have that hope lift and carry them into eternal life.” Amen.