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Loving in Uncertainty

A sermon on John 3: 1-17

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash.]

For anyone who has ever fallen in love, do you know that feeling when the object of your adoration says “I love you” for the first time?

That feeling like you kinda can’t breathe, but in the best way. And your stomach feels all fluttery, and you can’t stop smiling, and you can actually feel your heart physically swelling in your chest because you could swear it doesn’t fit inside your rib cage anymore?

My husband, Tyler, first told me he loved me about 24 years ago, and I could have walked on air.

He still tells me he loves me very regularly… and it’s doesn’t make me ridiculously giddy anymore.

Which is weird, because I actually love him SO MUCH MORE now than I did when we first started falling in love in college – because I KNOW HIM so much better now. We have shared more than half our lives together. And I know he loves me so much more too – he has shown me over and over again in so many ways.

But… the thing is, I have heard him say he loves me over and over again… and even the most amazing, thrilling, life-changing claims lose their wow factor after they become so familiar.

And I think that’s what happens for a lot of us when we hear, “God so loved the world, that God sent the only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

It’s a powerful claim. It’s a potentially worldview shifting assertion that God’s driving motivation in reference to humanity is love, and that that love calls God into the action of self-giving.

But we’ve heard it so often that it can come to feel a bit like the “love you” thrown in with a kiss on the cheek when a spouse of several decades heads out the door.

We know it’s true. But we’re used to it. It doesn’t feel fresh and awe-inspiring anymore.

As I was wrestling with my sermon this week, I wanted to try to find some way to make this familiar claim about God’s love grab us with the power it would have if we were hearing it for the first time… if this were the very first time that we were told we are deeply, life-changingly, LOVED by the Creator of the Universe.

So I went looking for some inspiration… googling various writers and theologians that often speak to me to see what they have to say about this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.

And, I just stumbled randomly across something I wasn’t looking for: a story about Nicodemus, Kansas. [1]

Apparently, there is a town named Nicodemus in a rural area of the Kansas plains and the town gets its name (at least in part) from this same biblical character.

The town is the only remaining Western settlement of its kind, founded as an all-Black town by six formerly enslaved men during the Reconstruction Era.

The founders hoped that the town would be a chance for “rebirth” for freed Blacks… hence the decision to name it after the man to whom Jesus famously talked about being born again.

Unfortunately, systemic racism being what it is, and the history of our country unfolding as it did… the biblical Nicodemus’s question to Jesus about “how can these (improbable) things be?” was relevant.

The early residents of Nicodemus were seriously oversold on what they were heading toward. In the early years, they had to live in dugouts in the ground, with sod roofs, because there were no building materials available out on the plains, and they depended on the generosity of the Osage tribes to get them through the first winter.[2]

Many hard-working people, nevertheless, emigrated to the Kansas “Promised Land” and managed to build a solid economy with strong Black self-government and social institutions. Nicodemus actually thrived… for a while.

But the Union-Pacific railroad opted to bypass the town, and the Great Depression hit it hard.

It has survived thanks to a National Historic Site designation, but as of the 2020 Census, it only recorded 14 residents.

I really wanted the story of Nicodemus, Kansas to be a better story. I wanted it to give us first-love butterflies and to illustrate the kind of “new life” that can spring from faith and love… for it to remind us that things that seem impossible to our limited understanding can actually happen.”

I wanted THAT story so much that I almost decided to just drop the real story of Nicodemus and go a different direction with my sermon.

But then I started thinking…

The biblical Nicodemus came to Jesus looking for something OTHER than what he found too.

He came wanting certainty. His opening line calls Jesus “Rabbi” (meaning teacher), and then makes a claim about what “we know.”

This, despite the fact that he came to see Jesus at night, in secret, and that the “we” he claimed to speak for, as a Pharisee, was a group who was in no way prepared to publicly attest to Jesus’ divine origins.

It seems clear to me that Nicodemus was feeling rattled about Jesus’s acts of power that did not fit into his established worldview, and he wanted clarity, a sense of order and solidity… so much so that he didn’t even ask Jesus a question. He just made a statement about what he saw in the hope that Jesus would confirm it and make it all make sense.

Instead, Jesus gives him riddles:

You have to be “born from above,” of “water and Spirit.”

“The wind blows where it chooses… you hear it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

“no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven.”

“The Son of Man must be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.”

So, yeah! Not really offering a lot of clarity.

But then we get to the good stuff: the assurance that Nicodemus doesn’t actually need certainty, because he has something better.

God loves him. And Nicodemus doesn’t have to understand how it all works because there is only one thing required of him to receive the gift of God’s love and the life that comes with it: just TRUST.

That’s what verses 15 and 16 are getting at when they talk about “whoever believes.” The Greek word translated in English Bibles as “believes” mean believing that you can rely on, put your faith in, trust in Jesus.[3]

Nicodemus comes to Jesus looking for a simple, clear story that will restore his sense of certainty about how the world works.

And Jesus says, “Sorry. I’m not offering certainty. But if you will trust me, I have something so much better: God’s life-changing love.”

It’s good news, and it’s difficult news to embrace.

Because the reason that Nicodemus, and probably most of us, are drawn to certainty is because holding onto a worldview in which everything makes sense can offer a sense of safety in an inherently unsafe world.

And the world is inherently unsafe.

We know that from the story of Nicodemus, Kansas, and from every story of systemic disadvantage, or economic insecurity, or senseless violence, or environmental catastrophe, or… you name the peril the was featured on this morning’s news or that came up in your life this week.

We live in an insecure world where bad things happen all the time. And that’s a difficult context in which to just “trust.”

But the gospel writer understands that… in fact, the reality of the insecurity of the world is probably much more a part of his consciousness than it is ours, because he is working from a Platonist worldview that explicitly divides reality into two “spheres”:

The sphere of the world – as one commentator describes it[4] – is marked by “hate, darkness, falsehood, slavery, and scarcity,” compared with the sphere of heaven, where everything is “life, light, truth, freedom, and abundance.”

This way of understanding the world means that when John’s Jesus talks about being born from above, he is evoking the idea of the two different spheres of reality intersecting….

When he talks about eternal life, he’s promising the chance to “live as a colony of heaven”[5] in this broken world.

He is saying that God is diving into this broken world through Jesus and offering us the chance to live as citizens of heaven even while we are here, by offering us the assurance that God’s love lives with us here and that IS something we can find security in, even when the world is a mess.

John’s Jesus isn’t pretending that everything is fine in the world we live in, and he’s telling Nicodemus that he doesn’t have to pretend that either.

Pretending that everything makes sense, and happens for a reason, and follows predictable patterns that we can understand and therefore control cannot offer us security in an insecure world.

It doesn’t work that way, any more than the several thousandth “I love you” can cause the exact same swooping butterflies that come from the first.

But pretended certainty is not actually what we need in this broken world.

And a love that spans decades is BETTER than the first moments of love anyway… because that is a love that has survived all of the realities of a messy world with all of its uncertainties.

And the love that God promises us through Jesus is a love that spans not just decades, but eternity.

Thanks be to God.


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