First of all, I didn’t know there was a Twitter account for such a time as this—it’s called Lectionary Memes for Liturgical Dreams. I like this one best for this week:
Second of all, last night, having cleaned my whole house, I collapsed back in my chair and tried not to scroll through the internet, which meant, as the next best thing, skimming through another listicle in Brianna Wiest’s 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think.* The essay was number 45, “Experiences we don’t have English Words For Yet.” As we wander over to this morning’s lections, here is a smattering of the 33, my commentary and suggestions for possible words are in the […]:
When sunlight shines through the trees, the interplay between light and leaves. [Me: there are a thousand wonderful ways to describe this. Do you have to just have one word?]
The inability to grasp the fact that we can’t grasp what we don’t know yet. [the dunning-kruger effect]
Not just assuming we know what other people are thinking and feeling, but acting on that “knowing,” judging them for that knowing, and really in a lot of ways capping off their potential with what we think we know of them. [the word you’re looking for is “hubris”]
The kind of stuck feeling of knowing something isn’t quite right, but you’re not yet aware of what the alternative would be. [life]
The feeling of realizing that your “purpose” won’t usually feel like a “purpose” as you have to do the work regardless and so the whole act of “finding it” was just a mechanism of the ego in the first place. [unbelief in God-also known as athiesm]
A course of study that teaches you the art of the non-traditionally-academic things that take up the majority of our lives: love, relationships, doubt, faith, parenting, work, friendship, self-image, etc. [you could go to church…it’s basically “non-traditional” at this point, and it’s free, and there are people there who know this stuff and will just tell you if you ask them]
The feeling of feeling a feeling. [not to be boring, but you can use the word “life” again here if you like]
A person or thing that also feels like “home” (a non-house home). [I don’t think not having a word for this is a lack. Using lots of words to describe something is sometimes a good thing.]
The idea that is “all is as it should be.” [Don’t put scare quotes around that! That’s what we’re here to talk about today.]
So anyway, in the Bible this morning we don’t have to bite down on the dry sawdust of yet another list. Instead, we have two strange stories of people who are groping around in the dark, trying to figure out where to put their feet, trying to understand why what they thought they knew turned out to be only a shadow of something more glorious. John tells us this curious story:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
This man, of course, had it together. He did not ever have to read a self-help book to figure out what to do next. In fact, people came to him for advice. What’s that called, when you work hard to study the Law and then you teach other people what you know? Respected? Honored? Wise? This man was someone who did all of his dealings—or probably most of them—in the day when the sun had time to turn the leaves into a shimmering brightness by its light. But for some reason, one that isn’t hard to understand at all when you think about it, this man “came to Jesus by night.” He wanted answers. He felt all the ground shifting under his feet. But he didn’t want anyone over whom he had sway to know he was so unnerved, so curious about this person, Jesus. Look at what he does know:
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.
Most of Nicodemus’ colleagues did not know that. Or, if they “knew” it, they refused to acknowledge it. How do you know what you know? That’s what I always want to ask people like Brianna Wiest. It’s so easy to take your own vague sensations, ascribe meaning to them, and then go around applying that meaning willy-nilly in all directions. This isn’t a new problem. It’s always been there, since the first moment when Adam and Eve decided to own their “knowing” (I’m misquoting Glennon). “Knowing” things has been the business of piecing bits of things together by trial and error, trying to peer into the dark hearts of all your friends and relations without even being able to see inside your own. We’ve never been able to peer through the gloaming and definitively know how things really are. As a result, we are anxious and irritated. Low-grade disappointment and anger are the bed upon which we lie, and the rocks over which we stumble. I say “we,” of course because it’s not just Brianna Wiest who has this problem. Everyone does.
I mean, not everyone. Sometimes people gain a new kind of knowledge—when God himself speaks so unmistakably and clearly that the person really knows what to do and can’t be shaken off the path, however unexpected.
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” What’s the word for that—when Jesus answers a question and so surprises you that you become more disoriented, at first, not less, because you were not expecting it? Oh, and what’s the word for a metaphor that is so visceral and true, that so wonderfully points to the thing to which it is pointing, that you have to do mental and linguistic gymnastics to avoid its implications? Nicodemus is trying his best to keep up: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus passes his hand over his brow (if he is the Chosen Jesus) and shakes his head. It’s not that kind of birth. But take a half step back. If you aren’t born, you can’t see, can you? You can’t have or do or be anything if you aren’t born. You’re in the dark cocoon of your own ignorance if you aren’t born. In the words of Wiest, your potentiality is waiting for yet more listicles.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
To put it another way, you don’t give birth to yourself. You cannot enact your potentiality. You cannot arrange and manage your own life. I mean, you can, “in the flesh.” You can go on doing all the things that you “know” how to do. But your knowledge is extremely limited. You don’t know that, of course. You get super confused and after a while think that you are literally God, or that buying more stuff will make you happy, or that reading lots and lots of lists will actually “change the way you think.”
No, there is only one way to be changed from a person who doesn’t know into a person who does know, and that is to look Jesus square in the face and say something like, “?” or in the words of Nicodemus, “How can these things be?” And then Jesus will say, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Have you really studied the scriptures? Because over and over again there has been written in the pages the sure, reliable, and understandable revelation of God about that which is certain and true.
“Truly, truly,” says Jesus again, letting you know that he is not just making things up, but that he does actually know, and not with any scare quotes, because he is both God and Man and was there at the beginning and knows whereof you are made and that is why you must be born a second time, “I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.” That is, you don’t know because you don’t want to know. To put it another way—you do know, but you don’t want to admit it, and so you are “knowing” a lot of things that aren’t true, or are only partially true.
I say “you” here because “we” all have to face this one by one. The corporate “we” of hubristic darkness is only chipped away as God has mercy. One man is called out of Ur and drags his wife and nephew and all their household to a land he hasn’t seen before. One person sits down to write a Psalm in the quiet of his cupboard, pouring out his heart before God. One person, in desperate obedience, puts the bronze snake on the pole that so many rebellious unbelievers might be saved. One person tears at his hair in astonishment as the heavens are opened up to him and he sees what is to come. One person finally flings down her kindle and slumps in a pew, flicking through the pages of the Bible trying to understand how “these things” can possibly be.
Jesus is still talking though, even if your mind has wandered.
If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Do you think you can arrange even one moment of your life? And yet God, from a long way off, arranged for the Son of the Man to become the Curse that you brought down on your own head, that sent you into a forever darkness from which you could never escape. He came and died instead of you. This is the most sure knowledge, the thing you can believe more than any other thing, that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
What’s that called, when God makes it all ok? When “all is as it should be?” There are many words for this. The Parousia, the Eschaton, Salvation…but the one I like best this morning is Jesus himself, the perfect rest, the land, my hope, my All in All.
*Reader…they did not, but maybe they will for you, if you’re really desperate for that sort of thing.