Nicodemus and I would have been friends. He had enough curiosity and a sensitive enough spirit that he came to Jesus to find out more, but he also had a big enough need to understand things that he let his uncertainty get in his way. He struggled to embrace what was beyond his understanding. He got tripped up on the mystery. Instead of receiving the good news that Jesus offered, he spun his wheels trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. He couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
I struggle with things I can’t understand, too. In fact, as I studied this passage from John 3, I kept getting stuck on verse two every time I read it. Verse two says, “He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘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.’” Who is “we?” It’s possible that Nicodemus was so nervous about approaching Jesus – after all, he was a leader of the Jews and a Pharisee, that he hid his questions behind some imaginary “we.” Or – and this is where I kept getting stuck – it’s possible that the Pharisees had seen what Jesus was doing, and they recognized that his spiritual authority came from God, and they wanted to know more.
Could that be? Is it possible that I had been wrong about the Pharisees? I had imagined that during all of Jesus’s ministry, the Pharisees were antagonistic towards everything he did. Whenever the Pharisees were mentioned in a Bible story, I assumed they were there to challenge Jesus, trap him in his words, or to turn people away from him. Even though I thought I had been careful not to cast the Pharisees in a negative light every time I preached stories that included them, it seemed I had judged them in my heart. What if things were more complicated than I originally thought they were?
Nicodemus came to Jesus because a mysterious “we” had seen Jesus’s acts of power and they knew that God was at work through him. Nicodemus had come under the cover of nightfall, probably because he didn’t want anyone else in the community to know that he was making this trip to talk to Jesus. What would it look like for a prominent religious leader to put stock in Jesus’s ministry? Nicodemus couldn’t risk being seen. So, he goes and tells Jesus that he sees God in the things Jesus was doing. Jesus’s response? “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Some translations use the phrase “born again” instead of “born from above,” but in either case, Nicodemus hears Jesus’s words and is confused. He gets stuck. From that point on in their conversation, Nicodemus tries to make sense of something that can’t be understood. He didn’t understand, and so he stopped moving forward. He lingered in the confusion instead of leaning into the mystery.
In this chapter from John, we encounter Nicodemus, a person who gets stuck when he doesn’t completely understand. This story invites us to ask ourselves, “What do we do when we don’t understand?” What better day for us to ask this question of ourselves than Trinity Sunday – the Sunday of the church year dedicated to an attribute of God that defies understanding?
When it comes to our faith journeys and our life in Christ, the first thing we have to get comfortable with is not understanding everything. God is so vast, so mighty, so…God. We cannot understand all of who God is or why everything that happens in this world happens. We just can’t. So, we need to get comfortable with not having all the answers or all the understanding. As it says in Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” When it comes to matters of the Spirit, matters of God, there are going to be things we just don’t understand.
I heard a story not long ago, and I wish I could remember where it came from. But, in the story, a person who went to seminary called her dad who was a pastor and told him she didn’t think she was cut out to be a pastor after all. The reason? They had been studying the Apostles Creed, and she had come to a line she did not know that she could say in good faith because it was something she just didn’t understand. Her lack of understanding bothered her so much that she was ready to drop out of seminary because of it. Her dad responded, “Do you know what part of the creed I have the hardest time understanding?” “What’s that?” she asked him. “The part about the forgiveness of sins. I’ll tell you what: When I get to the line that’s tough for you, I’ll say it for you. When you get to the line that’s tough for me, will you say it for me?”
When it comes to matters of faith, there will be things we don’t understand because we are human. That’s why it’s called faith and not answers. Just like Nicodemus, we can bring our doubts, our wonderings, and our lack of understanding to God. But, no matter how long we’ve been at this – whether we are brand new to the Christian faith, or we’ve believed our entire lives, there will be things we just don’t understand. I think this is one reason (among many) that the Gospels make sure to let us know how often the disciples – and others – didn’t understand. If they walked with Jesus and heard his teaching firsthand and yet did not understand, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we struggle to understand, too.
We are not going to understand everything. That’s just how it is. The question is: what do we do when we don’t understand? Nicodemus and the Pharisees were struggling to make sense of the things they saw Jesus doing, so Nicodemus brought his questions to Jesus. Jesus met Nicodemus in those wonderings and questions. He didn’t answer everything in a way that Nicodemus understood, but Jesus was there with him as he asked.
Nicodemus said that Jesus could only do the things he did if God was with him. He knew that much. But I think Nicodemus struggled to understand why Jesus was the one doing these things, and not someone from among his own ranks. Why wasn’t it one of the Pharisees, or someone else who had trained to be a rabbi – rather than the son of a carpenter? I wondered what things Nicodemus had seen that got him questioning because not much had happened yet in the Gospel of John. This conversation takes place in chapter 3. Chapter 1 is a theological statement about Jesus being with God from the beginning, and also some stories about John the Baptist. In John 2, Jesus changes water into wine at a wedding, and he drives the money changers out of the temple. That’s all he had done to this point. And yet, already, the Pharisees could tell that these miraculous things were only possible through the power of God.
So, Nicodemus comes to ask him about it. We, too, are invited to bring our questions to God. Jesus will sit with us as we ask. He will draw close to us in our questions, but that doesn’t mean the answers we receive will clear everything up.
Jesus responds to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” And this is where the whole thing starts to break down. Jesus uses the symbolism of new birth to describe entering into the kingdom, and Nicodemus gets confused and starts to spin his wheels. He clings to his questions about the physical stuff – about how he’s old, and can’t climb back into the womb, and how he doesn’t understand the idea of a Spirit that comes and goes and can’t be controlled or tamed. Interestingly, as Jesus answers Nicodemus’s questions, he uses the plural form of the word “you,” which makes it pretty clear he’s addressing his answers to more than one person.
When it comes to matters of faith, there are going to be things we just can’t understand. That’s all part of it. And, when we have those questions and doubts, we can bring them to Jesus. He’ll sit with us as we ask, even if he doesn’t give us all of the answers we are looking for.
Then, we have to lean into the mystery and keep moving forward. When Nicodemus didn’t understand, he got stuck. He wanted answers. Or, maybe he wanted proof. In any case, Jesus didn’t shy away from the mystery. He told Nicodemus about the spontaneity of the Spirit, about the way he would be lifted up and make possible eternal life for all who believe. He shared the amazing news that God loved the world so much that he sent Jesus to save us. And, then he makes this interesting statement: “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
I wonder how Nicodemus, who came to Jesus in the night, heard Jesus’s words about people loving darkness rather than light. In the darkness of his confusion, Nicodemus drew near to Jesus’s light, a strange and perplexing light that both illuminated the world and all that we cannot understand.
I came across a beautiful quote from Soren Kierkegaard that says this: “It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”
If you’re like Nicodemus – or like me – it can be a struggle when we run up against things we don’t understand. When we find those things, we are invited to bring our wonderings and our doubts to God, but we can’t let ourselves get stuck in them because life is lived forwards. Often, it is only in looking back that we can understand. In the moment, we might not see things as they really are. Even still, we have to keep moving forward, leaning into the mystery, and asking Jesus to walk beside us even when we aren’t sure what next step we need to take.
Friends, this is indeed good news. Jesus did not say that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever understood everything perfectly might never perish. No. We join our voices with the father who cried out to Jesus in Mark 9 – “I believe; help my unbelief.” And somehow, that is enough.
On this Trinity Sunday, may we be overwhelmed by the enormity and the incomprehensibility of God. May we be comforted in knowing that our doubts and our questions are safe with Jesus. And, may we find the courage to move forward and lean into the mystery, even when we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. May God equip us for the task and guide us on our way home.