May 30, 2021 (Liturgical Year B)
How would you describe yourself? You might start with visible aspects. The color of your hair. Your height. Whether or not you wear glasses. Your family relationships. You might then move on to less obvious things. Your interests, likes and dislikes. Your profession and life experiences.
Here’s a tougher question. How would you describe God? (If you would even dare to try!) Since we believe God was physically incarnate in Jesus, we might start with the attributes He had when He lived among us. There were no smartphone cameras back then, so even this involves some guesswork. He was born in the Middle East, so he probably didn’t look much like me, or most folks in this church community. Carpentry and itinerant preaching were very physical jobs, so He was probably very fit and muscular. We know from the stories left to us in the Gospels that He was an articulate speaker, and could be rather blunt.
Here’s a tougher question still…how would you describe God the Father, or even God the Spirit? There are no visible attributes to use as a launching point. What we know about God quickly becomes a matter of the heart. How have we experienced the presence of the Spirit in our lives? Through those experiences, we (hopefully!) know that God is ever-present and all-loving.
Just as we know something about a person from the work they do, we can know something of God the Father based on His works. In place of a Psalm selection, today we read a short passage from the Song of Three Young Men. This piece is so short it doesn’t even have chapter divisions. You may know it as the story of the three friends protected by an angel of God after being thrown into a furnace belonging to the King of Babylon. The trio responds to their miraculous rescue by praising God. We read the beginning of their song, wherein they praise God for simply being God. They continue by praising God for His work in creation…
Bless the Lord, sun and moon…[and] stars of heaven!
Bless the Lord, rain and dew, all you winds…[and] cold and summer heat! Sing praise to Him and highly exalt him forever.
Bless the Lord, all that grows in the ground…you springs…you whales…[and] all birds of the air!
Bless the Lord, all people on earth…you servants of the Lord!
Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart; sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him forever!
In today’s Gospel, the teacher Nicodemus approaches Jesus. I’ve always thought Jesus’ response to him was overly harsh. However, a bit of linguistic knowledge will, I think, help us to understand Nicodemus’ motivation and Jesus’ response. Unlike English, the Greek in which the Gospel of John was originally composed has both a singular and a plural for you. (For those of us familiar with the Southern dialect of English, this is roughly the difference between “you” and “all y’all.”) In this passage, Jesus addresses Nicodemus using both the singular and the plural “you.” Based on this clue, scholars speculate that Nicodemus came to Jesus not only as an individual but as a representative of the Pharisees.1 Jesus responds accordingly.
The Pharisees are confident in their knowledge of “proper” belief and “proper” religious practice. If we say the right prayers in the right order, if we sing the “correct” hymns in the “correct” style, then God will be properly acknowledged and pleased. They are confident their outward, visible behavior made them right with God. Nicodemus — and those for whom he spoke — thought their knowledge of God was complete.
Jesus challenges Nicodemus to move deeper. He calls Nicodemus — and us — to true renewal.
There’s nothing wrong with beginning with the visible and obvious when we describe ourselves or even when we describe or worship God. But it becomes deeply problematic if we stop there. God is a mystery, as is each and every person we meet and love. Listening more closely and more deeply will help us to better love those around us and grant us a richer relationship with God. Of course, we will never love them as much or as perfectly as the God who created “the stars…the winds…and the whale” does. But in listening beyond the obvious, we can move a step closer to the richness and depth to which Jesus calls us.
1O’Day, Gail R. The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (vol. VIII). Abingdon Press: Nashville. 2015. p 468.