Sunday, March 16, 2014

2nd Sunday of Lent: Asking the right questions

John 3:1-17

“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”  Khalil Gibran

It occurs to me, without overstating what should be obvious, the world might be a better place if we would put more energy and effort into asking questions than in making proclamations, if we would work harder to understand our neighbors rather than demand they accept us and what we believe first.  There is nothing wrong with expressing confidence in what we believe (but not to the point of arrogance) but if we care to learn more about a subject or - more importantly - a person, questions AND a willingness to receive answers we may not agree with become necessary.  It is first about getting to know them.

In the pilot episode of a new TV series, "Resurrection", a young American boy suddenly woke up in the middle of field in China with no explanation as to how he got there.  Once he was finally returned to his home in Missouri, we learned the boy had been dead 32 years from drowning in a river behind his house in Missouri! 

Through the twists and turns of the yet-undetermined plot, the boy ran into a local pastor who remembered this boy to have been his childhood friend.  The preacher expressed his utter dismay and confusion to a friend when he said, "I'm seeing something I cannot believe, and I cannot explain it.  I'm supposed to have the answers!"  His friend replied, "Should you not rather help your congregation to ask the right questions than to think you can have all the answers?"

Check mate!  The preacher found peace in the reality that when we enter into the realm of mystery - especially the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven and of life and death - we are always in a much better position to ask questions than we are to have ready answers; asking is far better than making something up that sounds good to us!  This is especially important when we enter into the "mission field" to seek out the lost and the marginalized and the alienated as Jesus commands and expects of us, His Body the Church.  But in order to gain the trust and confidence of our neighbors who are too often strangers to us, should we not first set out to establish a relationship?  And is the first step in any relationship not geared toward learning more about the other person by freely entering into his or her world before we impose ourselves and our world upon them - especially if they have come to feel alienated from our world?  

Nicodemus approached Jesus very carefully "by night", as the Scripture says, but also by words.  He seemed to be feeling Jesus out not by challenging Him but by trying to determine exactly where Jesus was coming from.  The inquiry seems to be more about the nature of Jesus Himself rather than about the nature of His "signs".  Is this just another prophet, self-appointed rather than anointed, or is there more to Him than meets the eye?  We stopped asking questions like this a long time ago.

The Church has been so caught up in the tension between faith and works-righteousness as to what we "have to" do for so long that we seem more concerned about what it takes to be "saved" than we are concerned about being "sanctified" which will necessarily involve others.  Even in our efforts to reach out, we have become a little too obsessed with new "programs" that might attract new members - yet not nearly concerned with new ministries that seek to serve others rather than to serve ourselves.

"No one can SEE the Kingdom of God ..."  So when others in the New Testament preach and proclaim that the Kingdom of God has "come near", perhaps they are getting closer to what becomes necessary for us to be enabled to "see" this Kingdom which has "come near"; that there is something we must seek after so we can "see" this Kingdom which is upon us - without being so distracted by worldly things ... or our own concerns.

We must also remember that very little works in isolation to itself.  Just as fasting is meaningless without prayer, baptism by water can have no lasting effect if the Holy Spirit is not present.  So baptism (Exodus 30:18 and Matthew 3:6) and the reality of the Holy Spirit - which is the essence of the Living God (Micah 3:8) - were (are) not foreign concepts to Judaism, yet Nicodemus did not fully understand what Jesus was saying. 

As a "teacher of Israel", Nicodemus was well aware of the Presence of God in the Spirit and the use of water as a means of cleansing (some passages use "sanctifying" as ritually purifying oneself with water) as a matter of Law perhaps, but he was missing the crucial element: that what Jesus was proposing was something Nicodemus and the Sanhedrin (Jewish council) should have already been doing and preaching just as Jesus teaches "when you fast" rather than "if".  Nicodemus asks, "How can this be?"  Jesus seems to reply, "How can this NOT be?"

It must be understood from this passage, I think, that Nicodemus would have discovered nothing had he not approached Jesus the way he had.  The religious leaders of Jesus' day were never shy about "challenging" Jesus even as they asked what may be better described as "sarcastic" questions with ulterior motives, but few approached Jesus as Nicodemus did; i.e., "we know you are a teacher from God"; that is, acknowledging Jesus in a positive and inquisitive way rather than in a negative and challenging one.  Trying to learn something rather than trying to impose or defend something.

Recall that Jesus quotes the Scriptures when challenged by the tempter in the wilderness, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" (Deuteronomy 6:16, Matthew 4:7).  Quoting from Deuteronomy, Jesus was mindful of Moses' instruction to the people not to test the limits of the Holy Father's patience and mercy, for it follows that Moses states: "You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God".

I recall an online conversation I had some time back with a messianic rabbi about kosher law (messianic being Jews who embrace Messiah Jesus).  The rabbi pointed out that such laws are not strictly about diet and what one can or cannot eat; rather it is about a God who cares deeply about His people and that this thought alone should be enough for us who claim to "trust" the Lord.  He also reminded me that the prohibitions against certain meats should not provoke a "why not" from us but more along the lines of "what will I learn from this?"  Not in search for excuses but honest, genuine answers.  From the very beginning, even the Law calls the Lord's people to a life filled with the struggle of "right questions" that serve to prepare us for life's next moments.

Think about it in this way.  We parents know - or should reasonably know - that telling our children to "do" or "don't do" - BECAUSE I SAID SO - is asking for rebellion sooner or later!  They might be obedient for the moment, but they will have learned nothing.  Demanding blind obedience even when we answer "because I care" fails to teach our children the value of any particular lesson and does not help them to think through things for themselves.  The lesson is lost on them because we often feel our authority is being challenged or threatened because our children don't accept our inadequate answers that often do not speak to the topic at hand but rather to our parental authority.

"Going on to perfection" (what we Methodists understand as sanctifying grace) requires a certain resolve from each of us to always strive to do our very best in the Lord's name, but discipleship also requires that we "ask the right questions" - not to try and affirm what we think we already know but to grow spiritually in faith and in love of God and neighbor.

Lent is the time to ask questions - and lots of them.  Lent challenges us in prayer, in fasting, in Scripture study - alone and in fellowship with other disciples - in submission to the Spirit to always reach higher and go deeper. 

Our Lord Jesus assures us that when we seek, we will find ... not necessarily what we may be looking for only for ourselves, and certainly no excuses - but surely we will find what our Lord has in store for us.  IF we trust Him enough to ask.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

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