May 31, 2015 – The 1st Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Even though I grew up on the coast, I never had a boating license. I was seventeen when the State of Alabama began requiring people to have a separate classification for operating a motorized vessel. By then, I was one year away from college, and I haven’t really spent much time on the water since then, so it never seemed important that I get it. But it’s been in the back of my mind for a long time, and, a few weeks ago, when I noticed that my driver’s license was about to expire, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and get that “V” added to my license when I renewed it.
So I began to study. I downloaded the .pdf file from the Department of Public Safety. As I digitally flipped through the pages of the manual, I was reminded of some things that I had picked up as a child, and I learned a few things I had never known before. I read about “red on right returning” and 360o lights and not fueling a boat when it’s dark. Before long, I was ready for the test—or at least I thought I was.
When it was my turn, the license examiner told me which computer terminal was mine. As I stood up to take the text, she kindly hinted that if I didn’t know the right answer I should skip the question—that skipping a question wouldn’t count against me and that all I had to do was get 20 right before I got 5 wrong. That sounded easy enough. Question #1: What is the minimum age for getting a boating license? Uh oh. I don’t know. I’m 35. Why do I need to know if you have to be 12 or 14 or 16 or 18 before you can operate a Sea-Doo? Skip that one. Question #2: If you’re operating a sailing vessel at night but are not moving, what light should you display from the stern? Heck, I don’t have a sailboat, and I don’t intend to be on the water at night. Why would I need to know that? Skip that one, too.
What the license examiner didn’t tell me was that you can only skip a question once. When it comes back around—after you’ve answered all the easy ones—you have to answer whichever one comes up. Yeah, trouble. In the end, though, I passed. I guessed on the last eight questions but managed to get enough of them right to put me over 20 before getting that fifth question wrong. So I’m official. I have my boater’s license. I know enough about boating to legally operate a motorized vessel on Alabama’s waterways. So who’s ready to lend me his/her boat next weekend?
There’s a big difference between knowing enough to pass a test and truly understanding something. Despite what my license says, reading a book doesn’t teach you how to operate a boat. And, no matter how many YouTube videos I’ve watched, I am not qualified to fix a broken pipe or replace drywall. And, despite bragging to anyone who will listen about what a big help I was when Elizabeth gave birth to our first three children, I don’t have the first clue about what it really means to bring a life into the world. But, when it comes to the unsearchable, unfathomable mysteries of God and God’s nature, my knowledge might only be a drop in the sea, but I do understand with my heart what it means to follow Jesus.
Have you ever met someone who seems to know a lot about the bible and about Jesus and about the church but whose attitude suggests that he or she doesn’t know the first thing about being a Christian? Do you know anyone who can cite the chapter and verse for every one of Jesus’ commandments but still doesn’t know what love is? Have you ever noticed that little children, who can’t explain the difference between the risen Jesus and a back-from-the-dead zombie, seem to know better that any of us what it takes to belong to Christ? What about you? Do you call yourself a Christian because you come to church? Because you say the Creed? Because you’ve figured out how to wrap your mind around the death and resurrection of God’s Son? Or are you a Christian because you know what it means to follow Jesus?
A long time ago, a man named Nicodemus couldn’t sleep. He lay in bed, tossing and turning, trying to figure out who Jesus really was. At last, he couldn’t stand it anymore, so he got up and walked to the place where Jesus was staying. When Jesus opened the door, Nicodemus said to him, “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.” That’s not a bad opening line, but what Nicodemus was really saying was, “Ok, clearly these miracles indicate that God sent you here, but your behavior is way out of line. What’s up with that?”
On the one hand, Jesus was everything the religious authorities expected him to be. He preached God’s word with passion and zeal. He talked about the day when God’s kingdom would be established here on earth. Filled with God’s Spirit, he had power to do amazing things that no one else on earth could do. But, on the other hand, Jesus was a troublemaker. In the chapter before today’s gospel lesson, Jesus had charged into the temple and turned over all of the tables and chased out all of the money-changers in a defiant act that flew in the face of everything God’s people knew to be sacred. How could this be? How could a holy prophet sent from God be such a profane, irreligious miscreant as this? Nicodemus had to know. He needed Jesus to explain himself.
But the only answer Jesus gave was, “You must be born again.” Jesus wasn’t interested in explaining himself because he knew that no earthly explanation would make sense. The only way to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus is all about is by being born again. “But how can that be?” Nicodemus asked. “How can I be born again? Am I supposed to climb back in my mother’s womb and be born a second time?” “Yes,” Jesus said. “That’s exactly what I mean. You must start all over, give up everything you know about God and how God’s kingdom is supposed to be, and follow me as if you were a newborn infant, a blank slate, an empty vessel.”
If you want to know what it means to be a Christian, stop trying to make sense of Jesus with your mind and start following him with your heart. You can’t think your way into heaven—no matter how smart you are. That was the problem Nicodemus faced. He wanted to make sense of Jesus and God’s kingdom using a familiar religious framework. But Jesus wasn’t like anyone else. He didn’t fit within the religious context of his day, and he doesn’t fit this time and place either. God and God’s kingdom cannot be conformed to the ways of the world. They will not bend themselves to your expectations. Instead, you must step out, take a risk, leave this life behind, die to this world, let go of everything you think is true and right, and be born again as new as new can be.
If you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again. It doesn’t matter how much you know about the bible or about Jesus or about God or about the church. The only thing that matters is where your heart belongs. God doesn’t just want your mind; he wants all of you—the whole thing. And the only way you can belong fully to God is if you start over from scratch and let him recreate you as one who truly belongs to him. If you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again. Jesus wants to totally change your life. “But I like my life just the way it is!” you might object. Well then, you’re in trouble because, if you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again.