Sermon based on a reading of John 3:1-21
“Behind the depressing silence of the sea, the silence of God …. the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”
These words, expressed by the character of Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues, in what is one of my favorite books, Silence by Shisaku Endo, (which you should all read if you get a chance) – these words speak concisely about one of our great struggles in faith – the struggle to hear God…the great fear that God is not listening and the even greater, unspoken fear as to why that might be the case. The struggle to know how to act when God appears silent and most importantly perhaps the greatest fear of all – that God does speak, and the struggle to know how to react when this happens.
In order to try and understand these things we must learn to attend, accept and then act. If we can learn to do this enough we might even come to anticipate. These are the things I want to talk to you about today.
Growing up my mum thought I had trouble hearing.
I would be watching Bugs Bunny, Spider-Man or G-Force or some other cartoon on television and she would ask me a question: “Peter? Peeeeeter? PETER!?!?”
Nothing. No response. It was as if I was deaf.
She was so seriously concerned about my ability to hear that eventually she made an appointment for me to see the audiologist.
I went to the audiologist and they sat me in a sound proof room, put headphones on me and told me to push a button whenever I heard a tone in one of or both of my ears. I randomly pushed the button but mostly ignored it. Eventually the audiologist spoke into my head and said “Peter – I know you can hear these tones.” Which scared the heck out of me because I had no idea he could speak to me, which led me to wonder what other powers he might have. Magically after that my hearing got better.
You see I actually have excellent hearing – I just consciously chose to ignore my mum. I heard her speak. I suspected that she wanted something from me and so my strategy was that pretending not to hear her would make her stop speaking. I was not attending to her.
One of the definitions of “attend” in the Oxford Dictionary is “to pay attention to…” and another is “to wait upon”.
In the reading from John 3 today we are confronted by Nicodemus. Nicodemus attends but he does not listen and so he does not understand. Nicodemus is very much like us in many ways. He means well. He seeks out Christ. He asks questions of him but he does not understand and he does not pay attention…at least not in a way that can lead to understanding.
As a Pharisee he represents the teachers of Israel, those that historically seek out God’s wisdom…those who are supposed to attend to God’s Word that they might gain insight and provide insight to Israel and through Israel to the world. In all of this Nicodemus also represents the kind of relationship Israel has with God…a relationship not unlike our own…often inattentive except when sudden need arises. At other times self-defined. But if all of this seems slightly negative in one thing Nicodemus shines – he is seeking God out but he is ill-equipped to understand what God-in-Christ is trying to say.
Christ is not revealing new information to Nicodemus – he is saying the same thing that God has said again and again – “if you wish to be saved only I can save you, you cannot save yourselves” – in response Nicodemus can only say “How?” again and again. It is as if God is speaking a language Nicodemus cannot understand.
Even though Nicodemus sought out Christ he is not fully attending to his words and so cannot move forward…he cannot accept and he cannot act.
In the Old Testament God calls out to Moses from the burning bush atop the mountain in the desert and Moses simple response is “Here I am”. Earlier in the Old Testament God said to Abraham “Go” and he went. Of course there is wonderful Jonah to whom God said “Go…” and Jonah went but in the opposite direction.
I can identify with Jonah. Israel could identify with Jonah and most of us, I dare say, can identify with Jonah. In the instance of Jonah he is in fact attending on God. He is attending enough to understand what is being asked of him and so he acknowledges the request but he cannot accept it. God has asked Nineveh to basically “cut it out” – the “it” being the various and sundry ways Nineveh was being disobedient. Jonah would prefer not to warn Nineveh because Jonah would prefer Nineveh not be forgiven but rather blasted to oblivion. It’s a little like a parent telling an older sibling to ask their young sibling to come to dinner and the older sibling deciding it would be much more fun if their sister or brother starved instead. Jonah has decided what God should do and does not agree with God’s offer of grace, preferring judgement instead.
Like so many who seek or claim to hear God, in the end, Jonah can only hear his own desires.
Perhaps the most beautiful example we have in scripture of the process of attending, accepting and acting in response to God is found in Luke’s account of Mary, the mother of Christ. Mary, who by most accounts would likely have been a young teenage girl is confronted by God via his messenger Gabriel who essentially says to her “Guess what – you are going to become pregnant and your son will be the saviour or Israel and the saviour of the world through whom God will work all that he has been telling Israel about for the last 1,500 years or so.
Imagine this for a moment. We would not blame Mary if she got up and ran away screaming or burst out laughing. Instead we are presented with a thoughtful person who models what it means to attend or wait upon God. One who is in a ready state to hear and know the difference between her own imagination and God. She asks questions just like Nicodemus. “How can this be?” demonstrating that we can question God – a God who welcomes questions and this is modelled in many other places in scripture.
Then, upon hearing the answer to how, and still likely in a state to not understand (not unlike Nicodemus) it is enough for Mary that having attended upon God, acknowledging God’s word to her, she accepts what she has heard and is prepared to act as her response outlines in Luke 1, verse 38 when she says
““Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
This is our model, perfected in Mary, seen in Noah, and Abraham, and Moses before but not so succinctly as we find in Mary.
Now when I ignored my mum I was a child. Over time, as I came to know and understand her; as I came to love her as a person coming into their own and not simply a child’s love, those silly games of pretending to not hear her and not understand her went away. Now when she would ask me to go to the store for her I never responded with “let it be with me according to your word” I would go because over time I learned to attend to her…which in this sense is code for coming to love and respect someone as a result of living deeply in relationship with them. I strive for the same thing with my wife and with my children. It is the same with God.
It is difficult to hear the voice of one we do not spend a lot of time with. It is more difficult to accept and act on that voice – particularly when that voice may be asking us to act in ways that terrify us. The voice that asks us to do terrifying things like to give sacrificially; to think less of ourselves and more of others; to heal the sick; to visit and bring hope to the imprisoned; to forgive. These are very difficult things for us because our nature is one of self-interest.
Sometimes, like Nicodemus, even after we have gotten to the place where we can seek God and hear God’s voice we find that what is being asked of us is too difficult because we lack the trust to move in the direction we are being asked to go. Like the rich young man in Mark 10:17-22 when he speaks to Christ and asks –
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Sometimes we do everything right – we attend upon God and we specifically seek out guidance for our circumstance and hear God’s voice but what is asked of us frightens us and only the deep trust that rises out of an exceptional relationship would allow us to move forward.
We come to know God in prayer; in God’s word; in attendance to God’s creation…and as Christ relates in Matthew 25:34-40 –
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
You see the key to what we have been talking about is not so much obedience (although that plays a role) as much as it is being given the opportunity to participate with God on any of the numerous things God is doing in and around us and all over the world every moment of every day. We are not helping God so much as seeing opportunity to let God help us as we draw near, as we attend, accept, act and, eventually, anticipate.
The opportunity to be a part of the ever emerging new creation that God ushers in, in big and small ways. In terrifying and in mundane ways. When we take the time to come know God enough, when we regularly and out of habit attend, accept, act and anticipate God’s nature it becomes easier to move ahead in the frightening ways that make us want to close our eyes, because we have come to trust.
Like Mary this path can lead us to a place where we can glimpse what God is doing and say in response “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”