Shattered Certainty

Text of the sermon preached on the Second Sunday in Lent (March 12, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Full disclosure: the chapter of the Gospel I just read to you easily makes my Top 5 list of favorite passages of scripture. Nicodemus is one of my favorite recurring characters in the entire Bible. John 3 has to be one of the most iconic pieces of scripture, especially for my generation. Specifically John 3:16. How many football players wear it on their eye black for games or other athletes have it tattooed on their bodies? I’ve probably read the words of this gospel at least a hundred times over the years. I barely needed to look at the Gospel book while preparing for this sermon, because these words have carved out a space within me. I know them by heart. I knew what they said before I ever even sat down to work on this sermon. I was certain of their content; just as certain of their content as Nicodemus is of his knowledge at the outset of his conversation with Jesus.

But such certainty comes with a price. Such certainty is dangerous. The moment I declare I am certain about what this wonderful story says is the same moment I stop looking for new wisdom within it. The moment Nicodemus says, “We know” and starts rolling up his sleeves. He has his work cut out for him. As their conversation progresses, Jesus shatters Nicodemus’ certainty and replaces it with a tentative, yet ardent, curiosity — an uncertainty that will lead to new ideas, new growth, and new life, an uncertainty that will lead Nicodemus from darkness to light and deliver him to the foot of the cross.

Like Nicodemus, we all crave certainty. It’s biological. Our ancestors moved from hunting and gathering to farming and homesteading because the latter was so much more predictable. We follow the same instinct when we allow the salesperson to tack on the three-year warranty when we buy new electronics. And who hasn’t gotten annoyed at the meteorologist who was certain it wasn’t going to rain the day of the big game?

We crave certainty. But each of us learns sooner or later that nothing in life is certain. The crops of our ancestors surely suffered droughts. The computer sometimes breaks the day after the warranty expires. And there’s a reason there’s an expression: “As variable as the weather.”

We crave certainty, and yet we live with uncertainty each day of our lives. What then should our prayer be? Should we pray for more certainty? Or should we pray for peace amidst uncertainty? Judging by Jesus’ side of today’s Gospel story, he invites us to walk hand-in-hand with him into the ambiguity of the uncertain, only to discover there truer, brighter, and more abundant life.

But let’s get back to our friend Nicodemus. As a Pharisee and leader of the Jewish council, Nicodemus would have been something of a judge for his people. Rather than asking questions, Nicodemus would have been used to answering them. Rather than embracing uncertainty, Nicodemus would have seen it as his duty to project an air of certainty about everything, for the noble cause of keeping public morale high in the midst of foreign occupation, if for nothing else.

And yet, there’s something about Jesus that penetrates Nicodemus’ certainty. After all, this Pharisee undertakes a scandalous nighttime journey to rendezvous with such an upstart rabble-rouser as Jesus, who has just recently made a spectacle of himself in driving the moneychangers and animal sellers out of the temple with a whip. But Nicodemus comes just the same Something compels him to come. Even the desire to see Jesus must have made a small chink in Nicodemus’s certainty.

But when he arrives, his programming kicks in, and he projects that ingrained air of certainty. Even though he calls Jesus “teacher” twice in his opening statement, he proceeds to try to teach Jesus something: “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.”

Right away, Jesus attacks Nicodemus’s certainty. He might as well have said, “You know, do you?” What he actually says is this: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Well, that’s sort of what he says, because the same words might mean this: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

In this response Jesus reaches for intentional ambiguity in order to start breaking Nicodemus out of his certainty. Jesus’ words could mean either thing, and I think that’s just the way Jesus wants it. His ambiguity achieves just the result he’s hoping for: Nicodemus asks not one, but two questions! If you’re certain you don’t ask questions. Perhaps there’s hope for this fellow yet, I imagine Jesus thinking.

And so Jesus feeds him more ambiguity: “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.” Not only do we not know from whence comes the wind, but even Jesus’ choice of word — wind — could mean breath or even Spirit. Jesus pulls Nicodemus deeper and deeper into delicious ambiguity, and disused synapses begin to fire in Nicodemus’s brain. When Jesus is finished, there’s a new fire in Nicodemus’s eyes as he asks the most sincere and uncertain question in the entire Gospel: “How can these things be?”

In one short conversation, Jesus shatters Nicodemus’s unrealistic and leaden certainty and replaces it with the true and natural uncertainty of life. When next we meet Nicodemus he is testing out his newfound uncertainty. He takes a risk in speaking out agains members of the council, who want to break their own rules to put Jesus to death. He doesn’t quite declare himself as a follower yet, but he’s on his way. The third and final time we see Nicodemus, he is standing in the broad light of day helping Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus from the cross and bury him in the tomb. In that moment, nothing is certain. Nothing is sure. Because their Lord has died. And yet they serve him anyway.

From his first appearance to his last, Nicodemus models the life of faith. He sheds the armor of certainty when he meets Jesus and pulls on the armor of faith — for certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith.

We crave certainty, but in this life we will never achieve it. Jesus knows this, and so he offers us something even better than certainty. He offers us the gift of himself. A good friend of mine once defined “peace” as the “deep and abiding presence of God.” This is the gift Jesus offers us — his abiding presence, his peace, a peace that thrives in the midst of shattered certainty.

When you feel the uncertainty of life threatening to overwhelm you — what the Book of Common Prayer calls the “changes and chances” of this life — I pray you might remember Jesus teaching Nicodemus to embrace such uncertainty because in such uncertainty we discover our faith. And when we discover our faith, we also find the promises of God for our lives — the promise that the deep and abiding peace of Christ will always and forever be traveling with us along the way.

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