How Can These Things Be?
Fourth in the series: Crucial Questions
First Lesson: Numbers 21:4-9
Second Lesson: John 3:1-21
Rev. Scott Dickison
Over these Sundays of Lent we’ve focused our attention on question-asking as a vehicle for the Gospel that’s essential to the life of faith.
Each of the scripture passages we’ll read together in this season includes some question in them, at times more than one. Which is especially true in our passage this morning, where it seems half the verses are questions! In fact, of all the passages we’ll encounter this season, none embody this whole theme of “crucial questions” more than this long and at times confusing late-night conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus.
And the temptation here is to rush ahead to the sixteenth verse in the chapter, which may be the most famous verse in the New Testament, if not the entire Bible. You’ve seen it on billboards and at sporting events. If you grew up in church, and certainly a baptist church, you likely memorized it at a young age and it’s been so deeply imprinted you can still recite it by heart:
For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.
And in a way it’s a shame that this verse has become such a punchline, because it is powerful and important. Martin Luther declared it to be “the gospel in miniature.” The problem is that when we plaster it on billboards or signs or quote it at people, and lift it from its context, we lose something important. We lose the depth, we lose the empathy—we lose much of what makes it the gospel in miniature. Without its context this verse risks becoming a blunt object that can be used to bludgeon would-be believers, when in fact it’s intended to be a word of comfort offered by God’s love in the flesh.
It’s very early on in Jesus’ ministry. Just a chapter before he’s turned water to wine at the wedding in Cana, revealing himself for the first time as the bearer of abundant life. From there he went to the Temple in Jerusalem and caused a great scene, turning over the tables of the money changers, chasing all the vendors off with a whip of cords, and decrying the whole system for turning the house of God into a Marketplace—profaning that which was intended to be holy. This event obviously left an impression of at least one. Nicodemus, a pharisee, comes to Jesus by night to hear more, perhaps not wanted to be seen by the others and risk being on the outs with those at the temple.
But there seems to be more going on here. On one level, this fits into greater themes of light and darkness in the Gospel of John: we’re told in the opening verse of John how Jesus is the light of the world that the darkness “could not overcome.” Nicodemus, coming from the center of power and authority approaches this light from the darkness. And he clearly remains in the dark for much of this conversation. He and Jesus seem to be talking past each other, with Nicodemus asking a question to clarify what Jesus has just said, and Jesus responding with more unclarity. Nicodemus starts off by complementing Jesus, saying, We know you are a teacher who comes from God—perhaps just some simple flattery to break the ice, build some trust. But Jesus responds by jumping right into it: Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.
You can almost hear Nicodemus trying to find himself being caught so off guard, and in doing so, perhaps revealing something more of what’s led him to call on Jesus this night:
How can anyone be born after having grown old? he asks him. And he’s not just pointing out the obvious here, that you can’t be born, in the literal sense, once you’ve already been born. He says, literally, How can anyone be born when he’s an old man?
This feels personal.
This feels like something he’d been thinking about long before he came to Jesus that night.
I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit, Jesus responds, pressing on, referring to baptism.
You must be born from above. 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. This is how it is with the Spirit.
In other words: God is known to work in mysterious ways. Even in you, Nicodemus. Even an old man.
And Nicodemus, having approached Jesus with the words, Rabbi, we know, now finds himself disarmed and in the dark, saying to him, How can these things be?
You might call Nicodemus a seeker—but he’s a reluctant one. An embarrassed one. There’s something about Jesus that has him thinking, has him searching—something that’s stirred something in him, even in his old age. Questions he thought he had long ago put to rest have suddenly reappeared. Questions of purpose. Questions of meaning.
Who am I?
Who did I want to be?
Can I still be him?
In fact, it was likely these questions that brought him to Jesus that night in the first place. Frank Tupper, a friend of many in this congregation and the longtime professor of theology at the Divinity School at Wake Forest and Southern Seminary before that, calls these “2am questions.”
You know what these are. They’re the questions that always and only seem to come upon you in the middle of the night. They play like a record on loop in your head. They come out of no where and don’t ever seem to get answered. They’re simply deferred by morning light. At times 2am questions are shared. They have to do with more than just us, they involve others, usually the people we’re with at 2am.
There are certain things that can only be said at night. Certain questions that can only be asked by the cover of night, to God, to ourselves, but also to another. Certain conversations can only happen at night, when the truth has a way of finding you—be it hard or beautiful or both. They’re so mysterious, when the morning comes you have to ask yourself if they happened at all.
I remember staying with my father the night he spent in the hospital, about two weeks before he died. Earlier that day we’d made the decision as a family to stop chemotherapy and begin hospice care. It had been a long, exhausting, gut-wrenching day, and my mother was so worn down from staying with him the nights before, and really the previous seven months, that I offered to stay. And I remember the silence that fell over the room once the family left for the night. The sound of oxygen, the rhythmic beeping of his vitals. We sat there for a time in the silence until one of us spoke, I can’t remember who. And we began to say all the things we needed to say but hadn’t been able to. We shared all the fears, all the memories. We asked all the questions. We talked about the past, but also the future, the future we had resisted imagining to that point but that was now coming more into view. We did something I’m not sure we’d ever done before, which was cry together. We said I love you. And we said it again and again.
And when we’d finished and turned to go to sleep, sensing the fog that might come with the morning, I grabbed my notebook and wrote as much as I could down. I didn’t read it for a year, and still don’t read it often but whenever I do I’m there, hearing us say those words all over again, which in the end amounted to the question Nicodemus finds himself asking Jesus: How can these things be?
Now, usually when we hear Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, it’s tempting to read some fire into his words: Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? I’ve told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how do you think you’re ready for the heavenly things? and so forth.
And it’s possible this is how Jesus meant them. It’s possible.
But when I imagine this man who’s come to him in the middle of the night, his mind churning, his heart breaking. When I imagine him sitting there in front of Jesus and asking him the question we’ve all asked at some point when considering the cross, or our own crosses—How can these things be?—I don’t hear Jesus throwing it in his face. I see Jesus looking at him, as the gospels say elsewhere, and loving him, and saying to him, Nicodemus, God loves the world in this way: God gave his only son, so that all who trust in him—no matter how old they are—won’t die, but will keep living.
In other words,
Nicodemus, your life has just begun.
And it had.
We hear from Nicodemus a few more times in the Gospel of John. A little bit later on when he tries to vouch for Jesus and tells the others not to rush to judgement and gets smacked down mightily. And then much later, he appears again at the crucifixion. It was Nicodemus, “who had first come to Jesus by night,” as John puts it, who took Jesus’ body down from the cross, washed it, covered it in spices and aloes in preparation for burial, and it laid it in the tomb.
For God so loves the world.
In other words, there’s hope for us yet.