Lent I 2019
I sure would love to win the lottery. Oh, what I could do with a great big winning pot. Pay off the kid’s education, give to the church so we could close the struggle we have every year and invest in an education director, oh the things I could do…
There’s just one problem, in the thirty-two years of the lottery, I’ve never played it! Don’t get me wrong, it’s not so much that I object to it on moral grounds, (though I don’t think government has any business in the gambling industry); the real issue is that I don’t like spending money on something unpredictable. I can’t afford it.
Do you remember the plot line in the second Back to the Future movie? That’s the one where Marty goes forward into the future and discovers a magazine that lists all the winning sporting events for the previous fifty years. When he goes back fifty years in time the book makes the villain a fortune when he gets his hands on it. Now, if I had that book…Hmmm.
That’s the thing, isn’t it, we like sure bets, to know the future. Life is so chaotic, uncertain, changing, and unpredictable that we want the deep comfort of things we can be sure of, rely on, trust never to change.
Yet, have you noticed how many mystery books line the shelves of the library, or how many mystery shows there are on TV, or plays or films. We love mysteries to entertain us. We just don’t want to actually live with mystery. Nowhere is this more acutely reflected than with the mysteries of faith. Maybe that’s because drama and fiction usually adhere to the principles of Freytag’s Pyramid with its five predictable parts. We can label the characters and plot the rising and falling action, and we can anticipate a satisfying denouement. That is how we like life, easily chartable and wrapped, at the end in a neat bow.
But the life of faith does not follow Freytag’s classic analysis. In fact, the narrative of God’s interaction with humankind often defies any logic. Think about it, the beginning of creation is not really the beginning, because God exists always; death is most definitely not the end of life. People of faith live in a holy tension of ever-ness of which we see and inhabit only a miniscule fraction in this present reality. Paul tells us we are to be “stewards of the mysteries of faith.” And mystery is the last thing we want to embrace about our faith. We want certainty, predictability, unchanging, faith.
As John tells this story, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night seeking answers. He realizes that there is something wholly different about this rabbi, that Jesus has to be from God, but he can’t quite wrap his mind around the reality. And instead of answering his questions, Jesus gives Nicodemus even more to ponder. “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks. Again, instead of an answer, Jesus continues to pant layer upon layer of holy mystery onto the canvas of Nicodemus’ faith.
We don’t know exactly what Nicodemus’ life was like after his covert encounter with the Messiah, but we do know that folks still wrestle today with how to take Jesus and what it means to follow him faithfully and fully. How does one follow a God who won’t be put into easily accessible boxes? How does one live as a disciple in a world that likes ready answers and easy solutions? In short, how are we to embrace a faith that even the best of us contends with at times?
Frankly, there are no handy-dandy-one-size-fits-all formulas for disciples. We can turn the pages of scripture and take guidance, comfort, and even discomfort, from those who have gone before us: Moses, for example, did what so many other faithful folks did when God calls; he went as the Lord told him. The journey was long and fraught with blessing and hardship, mistakes, joys, and tears. Time and again, the people were overwhelmed by mystery and turned away. Time and again, Moses held fast and led them as God directed.
We can thank Paul, whose impassioned writing and powerful witness have been moving others to greater faith and discipleship for centuries. His willingness to bear the story and share the good news of Jesus strengthens and equips us for the journey today.
And of course, we look always to God in Jesus Christ, as the One who loved us beyond measure and without merit—not condemning us for our lack of understanding, faith and human brokenness, but rather loving us to death and beyond, that we might become part of the story that always was and never ends.
In his encounters with people, Jesus finds the weak spot as the locus of transformation. For Paul it is the mysterious “thorn” in his side. Paul begs God to remove it, but hears instead, “my grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in (your) weakness.”
For Peter, it is his three-fold denial. After the resurrection, Jesus will ask three times, “Do you love me?”
For Nicodemus, it is his certainty of knowledge. “How can that be?” “But?” Jesus meets the Pharisees’ literal-mindedness with a frustratingly wild metaphor. “The wind blows where it wills, you hear the sound of it but you do not know from where it comes or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Jesus confronts Nicodemus’ knowing with the essential necessity of mystery. God can be loved, says the author of Cloud of Unknowing, but not thought. By love God “can be grasped and held but by thought neither grasped or held.”
Human temptation compels us to make everything fit nicely into neat, organized and manageable boxes. It is the tip off, that we want to settle for a God we control, or even a God crafted in our own comfortable image, rather than the other way around. Hold the mystery, give us God we can predict.
When we hold that bit of bread or wafer in our hands and hear the words “The Body of Christ given for you,” it’s certainly easier to swallow it down rather than contemplate the holy mystery. When tap water mingles with words in Baptism, we are more prone to take pictures than to hold and dwell on this mystery of faith—how God uses the simple elements of wine, bread and water to fulfill his promises of divine presence, that love and grace will abound.
Jesus, as evidenced by his conversation with Nicodemus, and his often obtuse responses to the questions from those around him, consistently nudges us out of our comfort zones into contemplation and into dwelling in the tension of not knowing it all on our own terms but rather having it all through our faith in God.
These mysteries of God—which the mind cannot comprehend, which the heart can feel, but which we believe through faith—bring us closer to the divine. And this is good news worth embracing with care and sharing with the world.