My dad recently bought a coat. It’s a big, red, super-duper coat from Land’s End. He’s been eying it for a while, and my mother snatched it up while it was on sale. This past weekend, when they were in town for our son’s first birthday, he took time to show off his jacket. “Only $65.00,” he said, proudly. I was excited, too. I love a good deal. And my dad knows that. Which is probably why he told me (and everyone else in the house) at least four times that the jacket was only $65.
On Saturday morning, my father and I went to the grocery store. On the way back, the conversation turned to the weather and how it gets bone-chillingly cold every time my parents come to visit. (You’d think residents of Baldwin County, Alabama, could manage to bring warm weather with them.) As we pulled up to a red light, I chuckled to myself. “What?” my dad asked. “Oh nothing,” I replied. “I was just going to ask how much you paid for your jacket as a way of joking about how many times you’ve already told me…but I was afraid you wouldn’t get the joke and would actually answer my question,” I explained. My father pretended to be amused.
I usually find it funny when someone doesn’t get a joke or a subtle jab. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but often the misunderstand itself becomes a source of comedy.
Early this morning, I had breakfast with some of our youth. After we ate, we played a game called “Psychiatrist.” In this game, one person (the psychiatrist) leaves the room while the other people (the patients) make up a condition, which they all share. Then, when the psychiatrist returns and asks questions about the condition, the players betray the ailment in their answers. For example, all the patients could decide that every time they give an answer to the psychiatrist’s questions they will touch their nose. If that seems obvious, it is. But, when you pick something far more subtle, the game is fun.
For our third or fourth round, we decided that the third word of every answer we gave would be “the.” It proved to be as tough for the patients as it was for the psychiatrist. When one of the patients broke character and complained about how hard it was, I whispered back at him to stay with the game. He looked at me disapprovingly. “You weren’t listening,” he said. Sure enough, when I replayed his comment in my head, I realized that the third word had actually been “the.” He was being clever, and I just didn’t get it.
In today’s gospel lesson (John 2:23-3:15), we read about Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews who has a hard time picking up on what Jesus is saying. Jesus stresses the need to be born anew, but Nicodemus is lost in the literal: “How can someone climb into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” Of course, as Jesus makes clear, he is talking about a spiritual rebirth. And, just when we think Nicodemus will grasp what is being said to him, he stumbles again: “How can this be?” Jesus shakes his head in exasperation.
I used to think this passage of the gospel is about the religious tension between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. I used to think that Christians (like me) were able to see what the rest of the world (like the Pharisees) couldn’t grasp. But then, thinking about my visit to the psychiatrist this morning, I realized that the problem isn’t a Jewish-Christian issue. It’s a human issue.
God is God, and we are not. God shows his love to the world, and we’re still trying to use words to describe it. And guess what! We don’t get it. We’re obtuse. We’re slow on the uptake. We’re like Nicodemus, trying as hard as we can to understand what God is doing, but we’re looking through flesh-colored glasses.
God’s salvation is bigger than we realize. God’s love is more powerful than we know. What it means to be a disciple of Jesus is more involved than words can describe. We’re still using images and analogies to explain it. Perhaps the whole Jesus event—Incarnation, Death, Resurrection—is itself a pronouncement of a deeper truth (God loves us). My prayer today is that the scales might fall off my eyes long enough to get even the tiniest glimpse of what God is really doing in my life and in the world around me.