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  • Pastor Jim Gronbeck (Retired)

“Mystery & Understanding”

This past year and a half we’ve learned more about viruses and their transmission than I had ever thought about! The Coronavirus has been quite the learning experience. It began as a huge mystery. We knew where it started, but the facts remain a mystery. We knew it was highly contagious, but we didn’t know much about how it was spread. So, we masked-up, physically distanced, sanitized everything--including ourselves, and were on lockdown for a long time. We prayed for answers, for an effective and safe vaccine. That prayer has been answered. But so much of the past year and a half remains a mystery. There’s kind of an air of darkness that surrounds the whole Coronavirus ordeal.

Often darkness provides a cover for the mysterious aspects of life. When someone doesn’t want to be seen or have their activities discovered, darkness provides the best opportunity for going unnoticed. That’s what Nicodemus was figuring on as he made his way to visit Jesus. He came to Jesus in the dark, using the cover of darkness to escape notice from the other religious leaders or even the general population. Nicodemus was one of the Jewish religious leaders and as such he didn’t dare risk discover by the Jews because they did not like what Jesus was doing or saying.

This darkness theme also plays into John’s use of double meaning throughout his gospel. John’s double meaning has to do with understanding and misunderstanding—something we deal with as well. Nicodemus, one of the Jewish leaders, was in the dark—literally and figuratively. He and his colleagues didn’t understand what Jesus was about and who Jesus was. They oppose His teaching because they are caught in the dark. So, as Nicodemus comes to Jesus, darkness becomes an important theme.

Nicodemus has questions that are deep and soul searching. In his search for meaning and understanding from Jesus, Nicodemus finds that he misunderstands the things Jesus says to him. Jesus points out that unless someone is born from above, the person cannot see the kingdom of God. It may be obvious to us that Jesus is speaking about being baptized, but Nicodemus could only think of physically entering one’s mother’s womb again. And to him, that sounds preposterous (as it should to us as well!). The two men were on different wave lengths. Jesus was talking about the Spirit, (which was not a foreign concept to Jews) while Nicodemus was only thinking literally. Francis Wellford Hobbie, in commenting on this passage, says that Nicodemus was ‘earthbound.’ I like that idea.

How often are we ‘earthbound’ in our conversations and discussions with others? Nicodemus couldn’t see past his own sphere of life; he couldn’t ascend to the level of thought and teaching from Jesus.

When parents sit down with their teenage children, how often do the words, “But you don’t understand me!” come up? How often does someone involved in a disagreement with another person exclaim, “But you’re not listening to what I’m saying!” We may think we are on someone’s level, we may think we have someone ‘figured out’ on something, but unless we really listen with an open mind and hear will we truly understand. We need to listen for understanding.

When you discuss an idea with someone, do you ever find the conversation stalled because of a lack of understanding? Sometimes I find that I am so bent on getting my point across that I fail to truly listen to what the other person is saying. I think I know what the other person is going to say and I make up my mind based on my own idea of what they think. It may take someone outside the situation to show us that basically we’re saying the same thing, but in different ways.

One of the tools we use when working with a couple preparing for marriage is to talk about and practice ‘assertiveness and active listening.’ Assertiveness is the ability to ask for what you want from someone else. Active listening is letting the other person say what they need to say without interrupting, then relating back to them what YOU heard them say. This way there can be discussion and even compromise when both persons feel they have been heard and understood.

Nicodemus desperately wanted to know more about Jesus and His teachings, but Nicodemus remains ‘earthbound.’ Twice Jesus tries to lead him from his earthbound, literal thinking to the more profound meaning of being born of the Spirit. But the realm of the Spirit, it seems, is misunderstood.

Here Jesus plainly tells Nicodemus, and all who read this passage, that the power of God works among the people of God in a Spiritual, not earthly manner. Our birth, the day we physically entered this world, is of lesser importance than our Spiritual, or Baptismal birthday. As Lutherans, we normally baptize shortly after birth, or whenever the Holy Spirit puts its claim on us. It is important for us to baptize infants because it is God who does the work, and it is God who claims us. The Nicodemus story makes this crystal clear. Even though Nicodemus didn’t understand and wasn’t able to transcend to Jesus’ level of understanding, he was called to act in faith. We act in faith in our Spiritual lives because we cannot understand all that God has done, nor can we comprehend the depth of His love and grace.

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday. It is the day we set aside to commemorate the 3 persons of the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know by faith that God comes to us in these ways, but yet we cannot fully understand it. The more I try to understand or explain the concept of the Trinity to a confirmation class, for example, the more confused WE ALL become! There are simply some things that we must receive by faith and simply believe, though we do not fully understand. It is okay to have mysteries about our faith. There are things we will never understand this side of heaven, and that’s okay.

Jesus calls us to come to Him, not under the cover of darkness, not afraid to let our faith be present in our daily lives, but Jesus calls us instead to come with simple trust and deep devotion.

Some things are beyond our understanding--plain and simple. There are things about the past year and a half dealing with the Coronavirus that we will probably never figure out or understand. At least most of us! Other things, in our dealings with one another, can be discussed and people can come to an understanding if we just practice being assertive and listening for understanding.

Jesus encouraged Nicodemus to come out of the darkness and into the light. Nicodemus, it seemed, didn’t understand Jesus, and left in the dark. But on the day Jesus was crucified, it was Nicodemus and another Jewish leader who stepped up in broad daylight to care for Jesus’ body. Understanding and faith can be complicated. Jesus simply says, “Believe in Me and follow Me and come to the Light of God.”

In so doing we will find the grace of God to bless us with all we need to be His disciples.



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