Nourishing Questions and the Reign of God

March 05, 2023
John 3:1-17

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night, presumably because he has questions, questions about Jesus, questions for Jesus. He comes under cover of darkness which means these questions unnerve Nicodemus, or are risky. It is probably hard for Nicodemus to ask his questions. He is an educated man of power. Starting with a question might seem lame, like a way of giving away power. So Nicodemus starts with a statement. He starts with what he knows. And not just what he knows – but what is already known by his colleagues. Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher come from God, for no one can perform the signs and wonders you do, unless by the power of God.”

Jesus does not dispute what Nicodemus says, that Jesus is a teacher come from God. But he also doesn’t say, “Well, thanks for noticing.” Instead, Jesus complexifies Nicodemus’ statement, and suggests that Nicodemus join in this power of God. “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, (or born a second time, or born again,) one cannot see the kindom of God.”

Nicodemus doesn’t understand this truth, as Jesus calls it. Being a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, maybe this birth metaphor confuses him. The Sanhedrin are the lawyers, the supreme court justices. They deal in law, not in poetic turns of phrase. Jesus’ strange reply helps Nicodemus to ask a question. How can an adult be born a second time? It might not be the original question that has him tip-toeing in the night but it does get the conversation going.

Nicodemus sees what Jesus can do and senses who Jesus is. And he wants a logical explanation. He wants an answer he can take back to his colleagues that explains the signs and wonders associated with Jesus. Nicodemus is an intellectual, on the court with the other intellectuals who know the law and how to live out that law.

But signs and wonders like Jesus performs are works of the Spirit. They are poetry in motion. They are not laws to be grasped and implemented; signs and wonders are to be savored and marveled, turned over in the mind like “nourishing questions.” They are the wind that can’t be pinned down. Signs and wonders point to the reign of God. And Jesus says, we don’t see, we can’t see, the Reign of God unless we start over again, unless we are born again.

Could nourishing questions, asking questions, be a way to start again, to be born again? Certainly children ask a lot of questions. Can adults learn from children? Could living into questions instead of holding tight to the answers be a path that leads to glimpses of the Reign of God?

The labyrinths that we have with us during lent can help us ask questions, provide space for us to ask questions. The labyrinth downstairs has one path, the same way in and out. It might seem like there is no room for a question when the path is already laid out for you, there’s no room to start again. But the path that looks like it is taking you to the destination in the center, takes you all the way out to the edge again, sort of like a question in itself. It might feel like you are starting over, again and again. Before you know it you have reached the center where you can ponder and wonder some more. Then you begin the long walk back out – to the same place where you started. Does anything look different now? Even metaphorically?

This labyrinth here is different: it doesn’t quite follow the rules that I have learned about labyrinths – which is that there is only one path. This labyrinth has two entrances. If you start from the right entrance, it takes you immediately to the center – if that knobby thing is the center. There is not much time for pondering and wondering on the path.

If you choose the other entrance here on the left, you wind around and around until you get to the center. Follow the path a little bit more and you are spit out – at the other entrance. You don’t end where you start. Why, we might ask, take the long way (on the left) when you can take the short cut?

We might notice however that entering from the right, taking the short cut, also leads to a long way and the other entrance or is it an exit? This raises more questions: is it more about the path, the winding road, than about the destination? Is there more than one way to ask the questions, to find the center? Can the wind of the Spirit blow from either direction? Do either of these paths help us begin again?

Jesus invites Nicodemus to question what he thinks he knows, to start again, not in his head, but from his heart. Jesus’ challenge is to loosen the tight hold on the answer we think we know. Jesus says if we want to really see the Reign of God we have to start again, from where poetry and metaphor reside, be willing to wander the path. We have to let the wind of the Spirit blow where it will, not try to control it.

It is ironic then, isn’t it, how this very passage of scripture has been used as something to grab onto tightly, as a way to prove faithfulness, to pin down belief. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

It is a beautiful verse that many have memorized, definitely in the King James Version. It is the answer to the questions we have about life, death, eternity. But what if we have held onto this verse with so much certainty that the Spirit can barely blow where it will? What if we have choked the life out of this text so that it speaks with a rasp, unable to ask us the questions it is designed to elicit?

Nicodemus sees the signs and wonders. He sees and hears something that intrigues him enough that he comes late at night to have a conversation with Jesus. He sees with his eyes but he has a hard time letting go enough to feel the wind of the Spirit, blowing where it will. Does he feel constrained in his role as representative of the Sanhedrin? Will his head ever get curious enough that there is room in his heart to sense the Spirit? Will he be able to start again, be born again?

I wonder what it looks like for us to start over again? How are we nourishing questions? How are we asking nourishing questions?

The money we received from the sale of the International Guest House, and the subsequent sale of the Voluntary Service house, is an opportunity to start again. Sometimes, as we decide what to do with the money, it feels like we are taking the long and winding path. Are we heading to a center? to an exit?

  • I wonder how Nourishing Questions might help us find our way toward the next steps.
  • How can we, do we, hear or sense the Spirit, that blows where it will?
  • Might we catch a glimpse of the reign of God, at the end? Or even in the process?

I hope we can keep trusting each other, keep listening to each other, keep wondering together, as we walk the path.

Nicodemus seems to fade into the night at the end of this story. But we get two more glimpses of him in John’s gospel. In chapter 7, we hear Nicodemus ask a question, this time in daylight. The scene is this: Jesus is quoting scripture at the Festival of Tabernacles, creating quite a stir with his commentary. The temple guards report to the religious leaders that Jesus’ teaching is creating some friction, we might even say conflict, in the crowd gathered for the Festival. The leaders fear they may be starting to lose their grip on power. They ask the guards why they haven’t arrested Jesus when he is causing such a stir. The guards say, “Well, no one ever spoke like this before.”

Those in power let loose: (to the guards) “So you also have been taken in! (to the Sanhedrin) Do any of the Sanhedrin believe in him? (and trying to reassure themselves) This rabble rousing crowd knows nothing about the Law – they are damned anyway.”

It is in the midst of this anger, and fear, that Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, finds his voice. He risks letting the Spirit blow where it will. He asks a simple question. It is perhaps not a profound question but he tries to start the conversation over again. “Since when does the Law condemn anyone without first hearing the accused and knowing all the facts?”

You know how it goes in these situations, when the people in power are holding tightly to what they know. They don’t want to be challenged, they don’t want to hear other voices, understandings or experiences. They snap back angrily, they put Nicodemus in his place. “Don’t tell us you are a Galilean too! Do your homework. No. prophet. comes from Galilee.”

Finally, near the end of John’s gospel we see Nicodemus again, this time as the Sabbath approaches. He has no questions, at least none that are recorded. Nicodemus comes with Joseph of Arimethea, a secret disciple of Jesus, to retrieve Jesus’s body from the cross, wrapping it in spices and placing it in a garden tomb.

Nicodemus may still have questions about the Spirit and the wind, eternal life, signs and wonders, the Reign of God. But now he is not asking the questions with words. He is learning, maybe even teaching Joseph of Arimethea, to be a word of love himself.