Sermon preached on 8th March 2020, at St John the Evangelist, Bexley:
Second Sunday in Lent; Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Those questions that come in the night? That keep us awake? The big questions?
Is there really a God? Why are we here? How come only some prayers seem to get answered? Are there aliens out there? And if there are can they get into heaven? Do other people see colours the same way I do? Who would win in a fight between a polar bear and a tiger?
Nicodemus comes to Jesus: The enquirer in the night: He has questions.
But he’s a Pharisee – and they had all the answers, didn’t they? How could a man with all the answers be up in the night with questions?
“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
“How can these things be?”
Some questions are easy to answer:
What’s the capital of France?
The letter F.
What is two plus two?
Well, five – for large values of two and small values of five.
Do you know the time?
*Looks at watch*
Yes, I do.
During Lent, we’re called to grow in faith in a number of ways: Prayer, fasting, penitence, and study… And maybe in our studies we’re searching, like Nicodemus did for the answers to the Big Questions: The ones that keep us awake in the middle of the night.
…And there are some models of Christianity that offer advertise a faith that will answer all questions – even the big ones: especially the big ones.
… And I must confess that’s an approach which I’m massively suspicious about! – The idea that we could flip open the Bible and have the Universe’s biggest puzzles solved! That we could sit in the pews listening to the Vicar and close the case on every conundrum and dilemma… Imagine!
My suspicion is that any religious worldview that claims to answer the big questions is selling a shallow faith indeed: But what of a faith that offers, not answers – but more questions – taking us into the depths of enquiry…
There’s a game you can play when you teach philosophy to children: Someone starts with a question, and the next person must respond with another question, and the next likewise – The rule is they have to be open questions: Nothing with set answers – and definitely not something that could be concluded with a simple yes or no!
The first time you play it it’s infuriating: Most of us are conditioned to want answers – this is after all, the Information Age: Quick references at the touch of a button: We like to know stuff, we collect facts and go to quiz nights: As far as we’re concerned an open question is a job unfinished!
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night seeking answers… Does he get them? Well no, not in a way that he (or we) can easily comprehend: Like the line of questioning in a children’s philosophy class, each question only opens more avenues for enquiry, the thinking becomes more abstract and ambiguous – away from the world of reason as we know it into another realm entirely…
“The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes…”
We are more ignorant than we could possibly imagine; the heart of the mystery is impenetrable and there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Nicodemus, than are dreamt of in your philosophy!
Nicodemus, the enquirer in the night, comes to Christ in confusion, and is completely bewildered by the time Our Lord’s finished with him!
We’ll meet Nicodemus twice more in John’s Gospel. In the Seventh Chapter, he is among his peers, the Sanhedrin as they demand the arrest of Jesus – and Nicodemus makes himself unpopular by sticking his head above the parapet and reminding them that the law prevents any man being condemned without a hearing – sticking up for Jesus… How many Christians in secular workplaces or communities can relate, I wonder? Those with a quiet faith but a pricking conscience?
Nicodemus’ third, and final appearance occurs immediately after Christ’s death on the cross: He joins Joseph of Arimathea at the Depostion, bringing a hundred pounds in weight of myrrh and aloes and assisting in the embalming and burial.
The journey of the night enquirer leads literally to embrace the body of the crucified Saviour at the foot of the Cross: It’s a point where none of Christ followers knew what was going on – and the events that followed would only result in more questions.
Like Nicodemus, every one of us has questions… And we may well see them as burdens – obstacles on the path of discipleship: Sinful failings that arise from the little pockets of agnosticism and lack of faith we carry within and are desperate to shake off… But this isn’t a faith that yields cheap answers to questions: It’s a journey deeper into the mystery, where the questions become more numerous and profound until we are engulfed. Surely a mature faith seeks to cultivate a sense of wonder, not conclude lines of enquiry?
Ours is a faith that delights in questions, that not only accepts them but learns to love that which is greater than anything we can ever solve, or prove or reason out.
My prayer is that we may grow in faith through our studies this Lent and beyond: We have so much to learn, and so many questions we will never answer in this lifetime: Questions that take us to the foot of the cross, and beyond…