During Lent I will be preaching a series with an emphasis on welcome and the many ways that Jesus extended a welcome to all sorts of people. This week we meet Nicodemus, a member of the educated elite who can’t quite understand Jesus. He comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness and Jesus welcomes him and his questions. Even though he doesn’t really answer all of Nicodemus’ questions he does give him a lot to ponder and wonder over – more than we have time to fully explore this morning. Next week we will read about the Samaritan Woman at the well and how Jesus meets her there against all of that society’s norms – reminding us that Jesus welcomes people we would not normally expect; there he offers her living water -life and hope. The following week we meet up with Jesus in the temple where he heals the blind – also going against the norm, since this man is considered by everyone to be unworthy and a sinner. We learn that Jesus often welcomes those who others see as sinners. On March 26, we will hear about Lazarus and how Jesus brings life and a fresh start when the world sees only death. On Palm Sunday we see how the crowds welcome Jesus and on Easter Sunday we welcome the best news as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus welcomes all sorts of people in all sorts of circumstances and he challenges us to do the same. Often the sort of welcome Jesus encourages in us isn’t easy or simple or obvious. Sometimes, we must get our hands a little dirty or stretch beyond what we think good Christian folks should really do to welcome people Jesus brings into our lives (our circle of influence).
Today, we have a very interesting yet confusing encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus comes representing the privileged leadership in the Jewish community. He is most likely educated, devout, used to being listened to and obeyed. He is an insider, an elite. He is not used to being an outsider. Yet, this Jesus has stirred something powerful enough in him to draw him in. He and others are fascinated by the signs Jesus has done, they know he is something but they are not quite sure what. He is definitely, not a part of Nicodemus’ in-crowd. But there is something…. Still, he goes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus isn’t quite “all in”, he has questions for Jesus; maybe he even hopes to expose Jesus as a fraud. I don’t think so though, as I think his questions are genuine. I think he senses something special about Jesus and in his skepticism, he questions and doubts; perhaps he wants to believe, but something holds him back.
Have you ever been given the impression that it isn’t okay to bring some of our faith questions out into the open? Does it seem that we should believe what we are told and that questioning is equal to denying any belief? Does it seem as though Nicodemus and other skeptics are just damned to darkness? It’s not true, because our faith and our God is bigger than our questioning. Our faith can welcome the skeptical person. Think about how children learn – often by asking questions (sometimes, too many questions), but that is how we learn. And asking questions can lead to greater understanding and a deeper faith. Jesus himself was a question asking sort of guy. He liked to answer questions with another question, and he asked way more questions than he answered. Writer and Homelessness Advocate Kevin Nye writes: In the Gospels, Jesus is asked 187 questions. How many of these does he actually answer – not many. He himself, however, asks 307 (questions). Maybe faith isn’t about certainty, but learning to ask – and sit in the complexity of – good questions. What are some questions that you have asked of God? I think the problem comes, when we allow our questioning and doubts to keep us from God – when we allow the questions to separate us, to become a barrier to faith. Even then, we have a way forward in Christ.
A pastor friend once shared with me an illustration, that may be helpful. He drew a big circle and wrote in the middle, “Jesus – Redeemer and Lord of my Life”. He then invited me to really consider where I would place myself in regards to this circle – fully in, just on the edge, outside but getting closer, nowhere near. He then shared a time he was counseling with an individual who placed himself outside the circle. He wanted to believe, but just couldn’t quite set aside his questions and skepticism. My pastor friend asked, “What’s preventing you from fully committing yourself to your faith and to Jesus? What doubts are stopping you. What are you skeptical about.” They met for several weeks to discuss the many, many questions that stood between this person’s willingness to believe in Christ and denying Christ altogether. Some of his questions they resolved, others remained. There were things that really troubled the man, questions he could not seem to get past, or to which there seemed to be no real answer. As each question was discussed, the pastor placed a little hashmark around the outside of the big circle – soon it looked something like a porcupine. But this person felt drawn to Jesus and his teachings in spite of this. So drawing a line from outside of the circle to the inside – almost like a bridge that spanned the gap – the pastor invited the man to see this as a way to make a first tentative step inside the circle. To say yes to Jesus – not erasing the questions or ignoring them but deciding that even so, to receive Christ and to step into the circle of faith. This man was truly seeking and I think Nicodemus was truly seeking, also. I think many people are, and we may not have all of the answers but we can point to the circle – we can point to the bridge.
I am partial to British detective dramas and one of my favorites is PBS’s Grantchester. Grantchester takes place in the 1950’s in a tranquil English village (Grantchester); it portrays a down to earth, police detective partnering with the local vicar to solve crimes. The characters are wonderful – I appreciate the way it portrays the vicar as down to earth and prone to questions and doubts of his own as he cares for his little congregation. The vicarage is cared for by the non-nonsense housekeeper, Mrs. Maguire. In the most recent season, the ever-faithful Mrs. Maguire is diagnosed with cancer and is facing very difficult surgery and treatment. As a result she begins to question her faith and becomes very angry with God, refusing to even let the vicar pray for her. This is dismaying to all those who care about her – she has always been the one strong in faith for others. Then in an especially emotional scene, in the final episode, she has a change of heart and blurts out, “I don’t know why I ever doubted you, God.”
But mostly we do know, on some level we can relate because either we ourselves or someone we love has doubted God at some point. It can be painful to experience doubt. Yet even our questions can lead us to a deeper place of faith and trust. Sometimes, though, as in the example of Mrs. Maguire, questioning can lead to a deep anger at God. Perhaps you have encountered someone who fits that description or who is deeply questioning their faith or who is skeptical. I wonder if we might be able to actually see this as a positive? How? It’s a pretty good sign that there is a starting place, some point of belief to build upon.
When we hear the passage we read this morning there is one verse that stands out – we hear it often and it is often called the gospel in a nutshell – John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). I wish that we were as familiar with the verse that follows: “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” (John 3:17).
God longs for us to move into a deeper place of faith – maybe even as we struggle with our doubts. We are invited to enter into a deeper relationship with the God who loves us so much – whose goal is not condemnation but reconciliation. Our God longs to draw us into a place of belonging and of light and of goodness. A place that is rejected by many. Yes, Jesus does welcome the skeptical and seeks to move the skeptic into a place of acceptance, and welcome, and love, and light. Into the circle.
Perhaps today, you are the skeptic, the questioner, the doubter. I wonder what would happen if you walked across the bridge that was made for us when Jesus was lifted on the cross – if you walked into the light and if instead of allowing all of those things to hold you back – if instead you brought them as an offering. I wonder what would happen if you said, I have these things I don’t understand – but nevertheless I profess my faith in you, God. I wonder what would happen if – even though you aren’t quite sure – you made that first step. Are you ready to do that? Are you ready to step into the circle? Or maybe you are partway in and it is time to be “all in.” As we come to the time of shared communion in just a few moments – you might seal that commitment – symbolically taking that step, letting go of your need to have all the answers, your need to be right, your need to hold onto your doubts. Let them go and let God handle them.
In the last episode of Grantchester, Mrs. Maguire finally has her surgery, and several other dramatic things occur until she finally comes to see her relationship with God in a different light as she proclaims, “I should never have doubted you.” But here’s the thing. Mrs. Maguire may have doubted God, Nicodemus may have had doubts, you may have doubted God – But God has not doubted you. God has been steadfast by your side – longing for you to turn to him. Wanting you to long for the true light. So loving the skeptics of the world. So loving you.