Text: John 3:1-17
A little known fact I’ll share with you: I know how to play the organ. We had a rule in my house growing up, that you had to play a musical instrument in addition to playing sports. And so, when I was about 14, at the not so gentle insistence of my dad, I learned how to play the organ and for about 5 years, served as the organist in the small church I grew up in. This skill has come in handy from time to time. For instance, in my first call. The organist had called in sick on Friday afternoon, and people were panicking about the fact there was no available replacement for Sunday. Little did they know…..so after the opening liturgy that Sunday, I announced the opening hymn and walked over to the organ, sat down, and starting playing. One woman in the congregation was especially amazed. And so she turned to my wife Kelly in the pew behind her and gushed, “Is there anything he DOESN’T know how to do?” My wife replied, “Well, he doesn’t know how to put his dirty dishes in the dishwasher.”
We’re all familiar with the term: “knowledge is power.” And that’s kind of how the world works today, doesn’t it? The more we know, the greater the opportunities and possibilities. The greater our title or the more letters behind our name: PhD, M.D., CEO, and so on, the greater our status in the world. The truth is, knowing means we’re in control. Knowing tells us who’s got it figured it out, who’s got the answers…..the right ones. Knowledge is power.
Early in his preaching career, Billy Graham led a revival in a South Carolina town. Before the service, he wanted to mail a letter, so he asked a kid for directions to the post office. After the boy gave him directions, Graham said, “If you come to Central Baptist Church tonight, I’ll tell you how to get to heaven.” The boy replied, “No thanks mister. You don’t even know how to get to the post office.” As great a man as Billy Graham was, I think he was wrong on this one. And in our story from the gospel of John, Nicodemus gets it wrong too. Nicodemus comes, wanting to know who Jesus is. Jesus was performing signs and preaching in ways that astounded many. Yet I wonder if the real reason he came to Jesus was to figure out if Jesus had some sort of inside track, some sort of insider knowledge, some great insight that at the end of the day, if Nicodemus could tap into it, it’d mean he’d get a share of whatever power he thought Jesus had.
But as we find out, Nicodemus doesn’t understand. Jesus’ words are cryptic to him, and he finds himself left in the dark.
Knowledge is power. That is, until we hit those moments where we can’t know or we can’t understand. The unspeakable moments, both good and bad. The tragic loss of life due to unexpected bursts of rage and violence. The feeling that washes over you when you hold a newborn baby for the first time and that little face looks right up at you. Sometimes, the moments of life cannot be explained or fully understood.
Perhaps the only way to view them is through the lens of faith. Faith acknowledges that there is truth in unknowing. Faith acknowledges there’s peace in not being in control. Faith acknowledges life and come out of death and there is hope that no matter how ugly life is, we can be born again. And Faith says that it is precisely in the moments of mystery where God is present. The ever popular John 3:16 (and all those signs at sports events need to include verse 17, by the way) isn’t an ultimatum to believe the right things in order to get ourselves to heaven, but rather the divine mystery of love that says God comes down to us. God sends God’s only Son into the world, to suffer on an instrument of torture and death to show us that it is in our own moments of persecution and trial that God is closest to us, not solely in moments of triumph and success.
Knowledge thinks we have to ascend to God. Faith says God, out of great love, descends to us.
So this all sounds good, but does it really happen? Are there actually moments of mystery like this in the world, where God breaks into our lives bringing salvation and new life? Some of you may recall the Christmas Day ceasefire during WWI. All across the European front, Allied and German soldiers put down their weapons for a day. They came out of their foxholes to trade cigarettes and food. They sang Christmas songs together. Some even engaged in friendly games of soccer. What made this so amazing is that the ceasefire wasn’t mandated by military or national leaders. In fact, when the news of ceasefires arrived, the Generals threatened to punish soldiers who participated. That never happened. The ceasefire was totally the effort of the men in the trenches….and just for a day. They went back to fighting after that. But, just for a day, the unexplainable happened. Humanity was shared in a dehumanizing war. A moment of life amid so much death.
“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Life exists beyond what we control and what we know. Mysteries of faith are not only powerful, but they happen. Faith is not only believing they happen, but opening our hearts and minds to receive them, to seek them, and point them out.
In a world in which so much of what we know seems dark and hopeless, perhaps we could use a bit more mystery – the mystery of divine love descended to us in God’s Son – in our lives. Amen.