Seeking God in the Questions
Have you ever wished you could just ask God a few questions?
When my kids were little we had a book called, Children’s Letters to God, by Stuart Hample, where kids asked God a lot of questions:
Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?
Is it true my father won’t get in Heaven if he uses his bowling words in the house?
Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t You just keep the ones You have now?
Did you really mean “do unto others as they do unto you”? Because if you did, then I’m going to fix my brother.
Is it is very hard for You to love all of everybody in the whole world? There are only 4 people in our family and I can never do it.
If you could ask God a few questions, what would you ask? Sure, there’s always, “Why did you make mosquitoes?” But I’ll bet you have some questions that are much more important than that. Maybe even some questions you would hesitate to ask out loud.
God, why did my wife get cancer? God, how come I can’t I find a job that will support my family? God, why do I feel so restless? God, if you are real, what do you want from me, anyway?
Elsewhere in the bible, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
In our Wednesday night Lenten series that started last week, “Speaking our Faith” we’ve begun to ask, and seek, and find, and share, what it is we know about God and what God wants with us in the world.
In our Gospel today, we see someone else coming to Jesus to ask questions. Nicodemous, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews comes to Jesus by night. We aren’t really told why Nicodemus comes at night, but this is an important detail to the story. For the writer of John’s Gospel, images of night and day reflect the spiritual concepts of darkness and light. Night can represent spiritual darkness, blindness or even evil, as opposed to the day, which represents the light of God, the “true light that has come into the world.”
This is not to say that Nicodemus is somehow from the “dark side.” There is no indication that Nicodemus was sent by the rest of the Pharisees to ask Jesus questions or to try to trip him up, as we so often see in other stories of questioning encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees. I think more likely is the fact that Nicodemus is himself in a place of darkness – not yet understanding. He is too afraid, perhaps, to let his questions be asked in the daylight, in public, so he comes to Jesus by night. Perhaps he really does want to see spiritual realities better. Perhaps he is seeking true enlightenment.
Jesus doesn’t chide him for sneaking around, or coming at night. Jesus accepts Nicodemus as he comes, just like he does for us.
I find what happens next rather interesting. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, obviously looking for something, with some kind of question on his heart, but his first exchange with Jesus is not a question”
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Nicodemus knows Jesus has “something special.” Jesus’ actions and words have made him curious to know more, and he comes to Jesus, seeking something, but we never really find out if he has a specific question.
Sometimes, when we are in a place of spiritual seeking, we don’t know what the question is either. You know you’re looking for something, but maybe you don’t even know what it is yet. Perhaps if we hang out with Jesus, or with his friends and followers, we can find some clarity.
Jesus responds to Nicodemus by picking up on what he says, and illuminating it with a statement of truth about God and about the spiritual life.
Nicodemus had said that he knew Jesus came from God. Jesus answers, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
This answer doesn’t seem to help Nicodemus at all. In fact, it seems to make him even more confused. “Born from above?” The same phrase can also mean “Born again.” What, can a grown man crawl back into his mother’s womb to be born a second time?”
Part of Nicodemus’ questioning comes because Jesus has begun to break some of the molds that he had constructed for God.
Nicodemus would have understood the idea of a proselyte, an outsider, needing to be “born again” to become part of the Jewish faith. The Jews had rituals for washing and purification that signified “new birth” for Gentiles who wished to be part of the Jewish faith. But as an Israelite by birth and a Pharisee, one who kept the law strictly, Nicodemus would not have thought that he would need to be born again, to be born from above.
I imagine that this exchange with Jesus made Nicodemus feel like he wasn’t the leader or teacher that he thought he was. Jesus’ answer meant that Nicodemus had less control than he, or the other Pharisees thought they had.
In the same way, you and I shouldn’t be surprised when we come to God, asking questions, we sometimes receive answers that may rock our boat, or make us feel out of control. The answers we get from Jesus as we study God’s word are often NOT the ones that keep us at the status quo, comfortably thinking the same thoughts and doing the same things. Jesus brings new life, in all aspects of our life, and it’s not a process we can control.
You see, all of us need to be “born from above / born anew.”
Being “born again” isn’t just a once in a lifetime experience. Yes, at our baptisms, and perhaps for some of you in a memorable spiritual event, you or your parents made a decision for Jesus that gave you new life. But being born anew needs to happen over and over again, as we come to God in our seeking, asking for our eyes to be opened, and for Jesus’ spiritual realities to sink into our hearts.
In the Genesis story we heard earlier, God promises Abram that he will bless him, so that he may be a blessing to the nations. Perhaps one of our deepest questions to God is “How are the blessings of all my experiences, good and bad, shaping me to experience new life?” “How are you blessing me in order to bless others?” Being born from above helps us see those blessings and how God wants to use them in our life.
So How are we born anew? A baby doesn’t ask to be born. In the same way, we do not really control our own new birth. As Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses,… (and word here for Wind, also means Spirit!) The Wind blows where is chooses, you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” As you pray in your own quiet time, and as you read the bible, and as you study God’s word with others, and as you hear about other people’s experiences and encounters with God and share your own, God’s spirit works in you, bringing you the new life of the Kingdom. Being born again, from above, by the water and the spirit is a “both /and” proposition. It can happen for some people as a big, one-time decision or commitment, but it can also unfold over time. Either way, being born into life with God must be constantly open to growth and renewal. Being born anew is a process.
Nicodemus’ last question makes this clear. Jesus has explained being born again, being born of the water and the spirit, and Nicodemus responds, “How can these things be?”
This is the last question Nicodemus asks in this passage. We don’t get to see the light dawning for Nicodemus. We can’t tell if he “got it” during this encounter with Jesus or not. From later in the Gospel, we do know that Nicodemus defends Jesus before the Pharisees, and after his crucifixion, will assist Joseph of Arimathea with his burial. At some point, he becomes a follower. At some point, his questions are answered well enough that he can be born anew from above. But we don’t see when that happens.
Sometimes when you and I are asking the questions, we don’t get it right away. Jesus’ words don’t make sense to us at first. Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus is encouraging to me, because it gives me hope when I ask questions like, “How can these things be?” “Why is this going on?” “Why are you working this way, God?” “Where are you in this situation?” It’s encouraging to know that when I am in a season of questioning, and the answers don’t seem to come right away, God will always be faithful.
Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus not only gives shows us a man with questions, we also have some of the best answers there are in the Bible.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
“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.”
God’s answers to all our questions are ultimately a relationship with his son, Jesus Christ. Whether we come to God in times of personal darkness, or come in the light of hope, seeking to turn our blessings into blessings for others, God’s Spirit and love will help us be born anew, so that again and again, we can experience God’s blessings, and share those blessings with others.