Questions and Night
The following sermon was preached by Terry Baeder, Director of Field Education, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, March 23, 2011.
Questions and Night. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about questions and night; in fact, lately a number of my nights have been filled with question. As I talk to others in this community, I know that I am not alone. Sometimes they are the Abram & Sarai questions: about the things that are unknown in our future, where am I going and what will that bring? Sometimes it the Nicodemus questions: How do I even begin to understand this world around me? Even more, how do I understand God’s presence in the midst of all of it? Sometimes they are very personal questions: about life, or death …things that I just don’t understand; things that press against me. Questions, …that often pull me deeper into the night, deeper into my self!
It’s why I love the story of Nicodemus. Nick comes to Jesus; it was night, …and he was filled with questions.
We don’t know a lot about Nicodemus. The text says, “a leader of the Jews,” a Pharisee, a mover and shaker; …probably a member of the Sanhedrin (John 7). So Nicodemus come to Jesus …at night. But, this is not just another episode of “Nick-at-night.’ John is a wordsmith; he loves to play with words. So… night is not just a time of day, it is a condition of our lives. That simple word, night is layered …and textured.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot …about questions & night. Was Nicodemus coming at night in order to hide?
Well, …maybe. Have you ever noticed that in John’s Gospel, this story occurs right after the “cleansing of the temple,” when Jesus took a whip to the money-changers? Interesting, because in the other gospels, the cleansing of the temple occurs at the end of Jesus’ ministry, during Holy Week. Intriguing…! So is the temple story a set up for Nicodemus coming to Jesus? Was Nicodemus one of the leaders who had been in the temple? Was he coming to Jesus because he has been intrigued by Jesus’ cryptic statement about rebuilding the temple in three days?
I keep thinking about questions and the night.
So… maybe Nicodemus was a prototypical 1st century seminarian? He senses there was something very intriguing about this Jesus; that there is a “presence of God” within him. Something seemed to pull at Nick’s spirit. And, certainly he had to know that it was dangerous to be seen with Jesus. This incident in the temple…the whip and the tables… well, that didn’t make things any easier. So…Nick came to Jesus “under the cover of night.”
Or… is John using Night and questions to take us deeper into ourselves, …deep into the corners of our souls, where we are unsure of ourselves; those hidden places where we look for meaning, where, in the middle of the night, sometimes we struggle with our most penetrating questions.
We began our service today with a series of questions. Have you noticed how the “theological journey” always begins with questions. Much like Nicodemus’ questions: We come wanting to understand the presence of God in our lives, …and “teacher” start talking about baptism? Could I, somehow, go back to a beginning I don’t remember, climb back into the comfort of my mother’s womb? How in the world can I ever know which way the wind is blowing? And suddenly, this Presence of God, the Wind blows over us and pushes us deeper into our questions, deeper into our journey, deeper into this process called faith.
See… I’ve been thinking a lot about questions and night. What are the questions that fill your nights? At this point in the year, we are all filled with questions; Wondering with Abraham and Sarah where in the world God is leading you? Faculty struggling, not just with how to get all the material completed, bur how we shape the souls of modern-day Nicodemuses. Staff and Administration wonder not just about buildings and budgets, but about how we provide the structures and securities that allow God’s children to grow. And each of us continues to get pushed to deeper and deeper questions.
As I think about questions and night, I am reminded of the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. …Live your questions now, and perhaps without even knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”
And it was about the time that Nicodemus was totally lost, that Jesus starts talking about being exalted!
Finally, something Nicodemus understood: Remember… he was a well-known leader in the community. He understood exalted. But when Jesus started talked about “being exalted” …He was talking about …being “lifted up” …on a cross. It was at that point that Nicodemus walked away. The good news is… that when Jesus was lifted up… Nicodemus returned, …and so do we. The cross keeps pushing us deeper into the night, into our selves. And… it is finally the cross that speaks to that which is deepest and darkest within us. It is how we “will live along some distant day into our answers.”
In your bulletin this morning, you received a small piece of paper. As we offer our prayers up to God and prepare ourselves to receive Christ’s body and blood, we invite you to write your questions on the paper. After you have had a moment to “Live your question” at the Table, we ask that you deposit it in the slit on the artwork on the east wall of the chapel. Our hope is to take these pieces of our lives and use the ancient art of origami (in honor of our friends in Japan) to fashion our questions into flowers that will decorate the darkness.
Our faith calls us, sometimes, not to find the answers, but to live the question. In the midst of questions that often have pushed me to even deeper questions, I find myself praying the words from Vespers, …the Service that welcomes in the darkness:
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.