Do you remember the name Robert L. Ripley? Back in primarily the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Ripley shared odd facts about people, animals, the natural world and exotic locations. As you may recall, these oddities of life were first shared in one cell comics, later on the radio and ultimately on television as well as in Ripley Museums. Just as Robert L. Ripley was famous for traveling the globe in search of more and more bizarre factoids to share while ultimately visiting over 200 countries, he was also famous for his tag line connected to every unusual story. After passing along the latest interesting piece of information, Ripley would famously say to the reader or hearer, “believe it, or not?” (“robert ripley”, wikipedia)
With the work of Ripley, one had to have the courage to believe. And, in essence, with our text for today from John’s gospel focused on the story of Nicodemus, Jesus also challenged this early would be follower to dare to have the courage to believe as well. In fact, in our passage for this morning, the word “believe” is used 4 times within the span of the final 8 verses.
Why was belief such a hard thing for Nicodemus? Well, truthfully, I think there are a lot of answers to this question. After all, Nicodemus was a significant Jewish leader. He had clout, status and a reputation. In essence, to believe in Jesus would be to throw all of that away and likely to even put his life in danger. The text says that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and I think we can rightly surmise that while in John night and darkness are associated with being on the wrong path, in the Nicodemus story, the darkness also gave him a degree of protection lest anyone see him talking with Jesus.
Further, as the text makes clear, what Jesus was saying was hard to get one’s arms around. Jesus used phrases like “born again” that were simply hard to understand and they required a level of trust and faith even as the person tried to work out exactly what was meant by them.
But, I think there is something else here that made belief difficult. In many ways, Jesus’ presentation of God’s love went against much of Nicodemus’ own understanding. After all, he was from a way of thinking about faith that connected God’s love for us to our actions, our behavior and our ability to follow the rules. And, of course, that side of faith focused on doing what is expected of us and living by God’s plan for life is very, very important. In fact our own text for today, particularly in the concluding verses, advocates for right behavior as a result of belief.
Yet, what Jesus was asking Nicodemus to do, first and foremost, was to simply believe that he was loved by God, as he was, even before he did anything. And, this was a hard thing for Nicodemus to do in light of how much he had been taught and shaped to directly connect God’s level of love for us with our behavior.
In the very midst of the Nicodemus story, and the challenge of Jesus to have the courage to believe, comes arguably the most famous verse in all of the New Testament which is John 3:16. What is fascinating is that while most Christians love this verse and for many it is one of only a handful of verses they can quote by heart, the vast majority of believers don’t know that it comes in the midst of the Nicodemus story and thus its context is lost. For most of us, it is just a free floating verse not at all connected to a larger story. Yet, it only further emphasizes the fact that God loves us first and that God’s love, not our action or behavior is that which ultimately saves us.
Remember how the famous verse is stated, “for God so loved the world…” John 3:16 doesn’t say that if we do the right things that God might love the world. John 3:16 begins with the statement that God loves the world and our first response to that love is simply to have the courage to believe in it.
We had an interesting thing happen this past week in the church office. We only have 10 of us on the church staff when you count our ministerial staff, office staff and custodial staff. In one week, we celebrated the birthdays of three of the 10. It all made me think about how interesting the act of celebrating a birthday really is at its foundation. Sure, ultimately we remember people’s birthday because of the role they play in our lives or due to what they have done for us. But, in truth, celebrating a birthday in its essence is about honoring someone not because of what they have done but solely as a result of their having been born. They are important because of the shear fact that they exist.
Nicodemus’ belief that his worth in the eyes of God was built on his obedience to the law is very much like our belief that we matter or don’t matter as a result of what we have done or as a result of what we haven’t done. Our world teaches us daily that our personal stock rises and falls like the stock market based on quantifiable things. Yet, Jesus came into this world daring us to believe that these ancient ways of quantifying people, must be set the side, that we might embrace God’s way which has nothing to do with our accomplishments. Like at our birthday, God loves and celebrates us because we exist. For God so loved the world…
So, what do we do with this. Two things very quickly come to mind. First, if we have never accepted Christ as our savior, we must dare to believe that God wants to love us, right now, as we are. God isn’t waiting to love us when we get our lives together. God loves us right now. Accepting Christ as our Lord means having the courage to believe this.
Second, as people of faith, who accepted Jesus and were baptized long ago, we must get up every day and dare to believe that the question of God’s love for us is already settled. So often as a result of our broken lives and bad decisions, we buy into the idea that God doesn’t love us anymore or at the very least that God no longer loves us as much. Yet, we must have the courage to believe that God can’t possibly love us anymore than God loves us right now.
I am not a huge fan of poetry. But one poem that I really like is called “Looking for Mt. Monadnock”. The poem captures the real life experience of the author and his wife as they visited Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire one day. As he writes, the poem’s author speaks of seeing signs for Mt. Monadnock, passing businesses that say Monadnock Reality or Monadnock Pottery and all along looking out their window for the great mountain itself. After the frustration of looking and looking without seeing the mountain, they finally figure out the problem. They can’t see the mountain because they are on the mountain. It wasn’t out there somewhere, it was right under their feet. (As offered in Eugene Peterson’s book Practice Resurrection, pages 84-85)
We search and search for what we must do to garner God’s love. When it reality, God’s love is right here, under our feet, waiting for us to have the courage to believe in it and embrace it – not someday when we straighten up and fly right but rather today, just as we are. Amen.