“To Know What We Don’t Know”

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?   Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just 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.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the God who has come to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Or Creator, Christ, and Spirit, as we say at the beginning of our service.  This can be a tough Sunday for preachers, especially if we think we’re supposed to help our congregations understand the Christian faith.  Today we talk about a doctrine that’s beyond our understanding.  It’s been said that a preacher opens a Trinity Sunday sermon apologizing for his ignorance of the subject before spending the next 20 minutes demonstrating that ignorance.

How God comes to us in the presence of the creative Parent, and the incarnate Son, and the powerful Holy Spirit — that’s a great mystery of the faith.

Unfortunately, many of us aren’t good at mystery. We’re good at knowing.  We’re good at explaining.   Nicodemus was like that.

In today’s passage, a knowledgeable and prominent leader of Israel, Nicodemus, comes to Jesus at night for a discussion.  He begins his talk with Jesus by saying, “Now, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”

After that, the conversation gets convoluted and confused.  Nicodemus tries to understand what Jesus means about being born anew, or born from above.  “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asks.  “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  By the time Jesus gets through with him, a befuddled Nicodemus asks, “How can this be?”

Maybe Nicodemus’ problem is right there from the beginning, when he comes to Jesus with the words, “Now, we know that…”

“I know.”  “We know.”  How often do we think that?  How often do we say that?  We’re modern, educated people who know so much.  We can explain the inner workings of the atom.  We’ve sequenced the human genome.  We’ve landed on the moon.  We can even forecast the path of hurricanes.  We know.

So maybe it’s only natural that we approach God in the same way.  God is to be understood, explained, investigated, and questioned.  We know that God is love.  We know that God is all-powerful.  We know that God is all-knowing.  We know.

But what’s equally important as knowledge is recognizing all the things that we don’t know.  We need to know that there are things we don’t know.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons that we’re all here – to be reminded what we don’t know.

Many people who don’t attend church sometimes look at us “church-goers” as know-it-alls, if not self-righteous know-it-alls.  They assume that we Christians are automatically filled with strong faith, sure beliefs, and filled with Biblical know-how.  But I think we all can admit that’s not true.  Often we arrive here, if not in the dark, at least in a bit of a fog.  In many ways we come unaware of what the kingdom of God is really about – like Nicodemus.

Jesus told Nicodemus that he couldn’t even SEE God’s kingdom, much less ENTER it, without being born again, without knowing birth from above.  But Nicodemus just didn’t get it.  To be honest, do any of us really get the Trinity?

The Trinity is a mystery; God revealed in many ways:  as Creator, the one who seeks a relationship with humanity and the world;   as Christ, the one who invites us to be a part of God’s work in the world, by giving us an example, and by opening doors to God through his death and resurrection;   as Holy Spirit, the one who provides the power for us to be in relationship with God, the one who is given to us, and through whom we’re born from above.

Like the Trinity, God is not something we know; God is something we love.  We’re not meant to explain or prove the Trinity, but to worship the Trinity.

Our God is large, living, uncontainable.  We can’t define God.  We can’t put God into a box and carry it around with us.  We can’t explain God through mechanics or logistics.  The more we know, the more we understand how little we know.   We can’t control anything when it comes to God.  We can no more control what God is going to do with us than we can control the wind.

Life with God is an adventure, a journey, a leap into the unknown.  And we need to love and embrace that unknown.  We need to cultivate an expectation that, even in the case of the most regular church-goers among us, there will be surprises, jolts, shocks.

How often have you come here – perhaps looking for a sense of God’s peace, wanting to renew your faith, seeking strength for your spiritual journey, or searching for solace in the familiarity of this sanctuary – only to be surprised by something you heard in the scripture?  How often have you come craving comfort, only to be met by some word that challenged you in the sermon?  How often have you come here to be with other Christians who share your values, only to be disturbed by the words of a fellow worshipper?

The Presbyterian pastor Rev. John Buchanan, editor and publisher of The Christian Century, shares the story of a Sunday service during which he baptized a two-year-old child.  He read the standard pronouncement from the prayer book: “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.”  Unexpectedly, the child responded, “Uh-oh.”  Buchanan writes: “It was an appropriate response…a stunning theological affirmation.” In the same way, Nicodemus’ response to Jesus could be heard as a shocked “Uh-oh.”

Moving politely toward Jesus with an in­quiry, Nicodemus alarmingly finds Jesus moving toward him with words, like wind, seeking to transform, rescue and save him.  Jesus doesn’t want Nicodemus’ knowledge or even his respect; he wants Nicodemus’ soul, his whole being reborn.

That night as Nicodemus talked with Jesus, he began with what he knew.  Then he ended with questions about what he didn’t know.  He arrived fairly confident that he had a good grasp of who Jesus was; he left having been encountered by the mysterious, majestic God in the flesh.

So maybe the point of our encounters with Christ, like the encounter we have here on Sunday morning in worship, is not so much to know as to be known, not so much always to understand, but to stand under this truth, this way, and this life we name as Trinity.  Amen.