Nicodemus and Do, do!

Grace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Today’s Gospel lesson reminds me of the “Who’s on First?” sketch by Abbot and Costello. There are two people who seem to be talking about the same thing, they are even using the same words, but they still entirely misunderstand each other time and again as the conversation goes on. Words are slippery. When I say “I had chicken pot pie for dinner” I’m thinking something surrounded completely by pie crust with a creamy-chicken and carrot filling. But here in Berk’s county chicken pot pie means something completely different. When Abbot says “Who is on first” he means it as a statement, but Costello hears it as the same question he just asked: “Who’s on first?” And today in our Gospel, Nicodemus doesn’t have a clue and he misunderstands time and again what Jesus is saying.

In the Gospel of John identifies Jesus in the beginning as the Word. If Christ, our God is the word, then the words John uses will always be important to catch. It is significant then, that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. This happens just after we hear in the prologue that Jesus is the light which shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not mastered it. Nicodemus’s arrival at night, means he comes in that same darkness. Darkness signifies sin, misunderstanding, and that Nicodemus has not mastered the light that Christ is shining.

This is his misunderstanding: he’s deep in do, do. Now, don’t misunderstand my words, I mean he is all about what people are doing. He comes to Jesus in the dark misunderstanding of night, and he is deeply into do, do, do! He’s all about actions, see, works, and deeds. He says “Rabbi, we know you are great because no one can DO the sings that you DO without being awesome. He says, it’s what you DO Jesus, that matters to me.” Do you hear what I am saying? He focuses on faith as if it was all about what we do.

And Jesus answers him by picking an image that makes it impossible for our own actions to be the focus of faith. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the relationship of God without being reborn.” There is nothing you can do about being born. You can’t decide for or against your being born. You can’t earn your birth, or work towards it. You can’t refuse to open the gift, or run the other way. Someone just plain squeezes or cuts you out when the time is ripe. Your actions have nothing to do with it! So it is with being reborn in faith.

All the same, poor Nicodemus is so deeply focused on himself and his works that he thinks Jesus still must be talking about something we can do. He says “How can I DO that? How can a fully grown person climb back into their mother’s womb? How DO I become born again?” To this Jesus picks another passive image. He says: “The wind blows where it chooses, you have no control over where it goes or where it comes from. You can hear its sound, but it must move in order for you to notice. It is not something you do that determines the wind and its course.”

Nicodemus still doesn’t get it. He asks “How can these things be?” And Jesus says, well if you don’t understand when I tell you this using earthly things, like birth and the wind, how are you going to understand when I talk about heavenly things? But Jesus tries the heavenly things anyway: “No one goes up to heaven, except the one who comes down, the Son of Man. Who will be lifted up on a cross, so that no one may perish, but all may have eternal life.”

So how you doing? Do you get it yet? My friends, the truth is, we are all in the dark. We all have a taste for do, do. We want to do things! We hear, just after our readings today, that the darkness and misunderstanding of Nicodemus applies to everybody: “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because the deeds that they do were evil” There is a bit of Nicodemus in all of us, because all of us are sinners, and all of us want to do something about it! But it is precisely our do-do-do focus that shows how much we are people in the darkness of sin and misunderstanding.

This is the light that none of us have mastered: God’s love and mercy is here, for us, for free. Faith, is not about what we DO, but what is done to us. God comes down, we don’t go up. God does faith to us, we don’t do faith for God. You can’t choose faith. You can’t decide or debate or do anything about becoming a better Christian. Instead, God must act on us! We pray every week in the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” And Luther asks along with Nicodemus in his small catechism: “How do these things come about?” The answer is, GOD MUST ACT. We do not make God’s name hallowed, we do not make God’s Kingdom come nor God’s will be done. God does all of these things without our doing anything. It is not because we do pray for them that God does them. “In fact,” says Luther, “God does them without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer, that God will also do these things in and among us.”

And yet, like Nicodemus, the moment we hear that faith is a free gift given to us, we immediately try to think of ways we can do something about it. We make the Nicodemus mistake. We say, “well, it’s a free gift, sure, but you do have to open the gift right?” Or I find myself thinking “It must be that we still have to respond to faith, do something, for it to be worth anything. Right?” But that is what Christ says is a misunderstanding! Christ is trying to get through to Nicodemus that it’s not about what you do both before and after faith.

See, Christ is saying, not opening the gift of faith is like trying not to open a flood when it surrounds your house. Water is going to get in and sweep you away no matter what you do. Not responding to faith is like trying to hold your breath instead of screaming when the doctor slaps your newborn bottom. You can’t do it! We are not in control. But God moves through, in and around us, like wind and water. God sweeps us off our feet, and we become reborn: new people. Right here! Every week, every day, and it’s free!

[Today we baptize Jack Domalski. He doesn’t have to do anything, and he chose nothing, decided nothing about it. But God will move through the water, and attach to it a word of promise. And Jack will be reborn. Today you can see God at work in Jack, just as God is at work in each of us.]

And here’s the surprising thing: after God’s work in us we end up doing things! Not because we have to do them, but because we can’t do anything else. We end up responding to faith because we have been slapped by baptism, and now there is nothing we can do but, cry out, breathe and wriggle. Now there is nothing we can do but help the poor and care for one another. Look how much God cares for us! Look how much God loves us! The gift opens upon us before we can even begin to open it ourselves.

The only difference between Christian works, and our doings, is joy. The light of Christ that shines through us, because we no longer have to do anything for our salvation. The only thing to be done about sin is God’s work in Christ on the cross. And that work is already done! Because Christ frees us from our sin, all the doings we are worried about melt away, and good things spill out of us spontaneously instead. All the good work we do for others spills out of us like kids through the front school doors the moment summer break begins. The excitement is uncontainable! That’s the bursting forth of the light of Christ. That’s faith that God does to us, dear Nicodemus. That’s how we end up doing things. But it’s not our work that is important about faith, it is God’s work in us. Without God’s work, we’d have nothing but dodo.

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1 Comment

  1. Tommy G! Richter
    Jun 1, 2015

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