Based on Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17
In the book entitled, “The Good and Beautiful Community”, author James Bryan Smith writes the following: “…My wife is a very social person. She loves being with groups of people, having dinners, celebrating special occasions or just hanging out with her friends. She is an elementary school teacher, which means she spends a lot of time socializing and meeting new people as part of her job. When someone learns that she is the wife of a religion professor who is also a minister, they often ask her questions about God and faith.
Once in a while the discussion turns to serious questions such as, ‘How could a good God allow evil’ or ‘Why are there so many religions, and how do you know yours is right?’ Sometimes people are genuinely seeking answers and perhaps even seeking God. She comes home from these discussions and invariably says the same thing: ‘I wish you had been there.’ She says this because she thinks that I would be able to answer their questions….”
Many faithful people – not just pastors or other religious professionals – but laity across all religions encounter these types of questions from those wondering about faith. Often, like Smith’s wife, we find ourselves in over our heads with such large and challenging questions about life’s great mysteries. Like Smith’s wife, we find ourselves wishing for a minister or other person who knows more than we do to come and save us from our “hail Mary” of an answer or our honest but equally unhelpful answer, “I’ve often wondered the same thing!”
Take heart, gentle listeners, in our scriptures for today. From the calling of the boy Isaiah who knew he was not ritually clean and should therefore not be in the presence of God, to Paul’s admonishment to claim for ourselves the title of child of God and thus heir to the kingdom, and to the religious scholar and Pharisee, Nicodemus, who is befuddled by his interaction with Jesus and can only utter, “How can these things be?” God will always be beyond our understanding, but we are called to cultivate a sense of wonder so that we can keep questioning and thus growing in our faith. Before we go farther, let us go to God now in prayer, thanking God for allowing us to be children and ask lots of questions…
The call of the first major prophet, Isaiah, is an important one. Not only does it inaugurate the position of prophet in the Jewish mind and heart, it also creates a new communication line between God and God’s people. Kings were proving to be problematic for the Jews, as Samuel had prophesied, and they were moving farther and farther away from YHWH. God calls Isaiah and shows him a vision of the Temple of Solomon filled with the presence of God and God’s holy host. Isaiah was awestruck and knew himself to be a sinner from a people who sinned. He knew that he wasn’t ritually clean and should therefore not be in the presence of the most holy God. Yet God forgave his sin and guilt and asked if there were anyone present who would go forth for the LORD. Isaiah answered emphatically, “Here am I! Send me.” As with all of God’s prophets, Isaiah would come to wonder about his decision to be God’s mouthpiece.
Paul is telling the believers in Rome more about the Holy Spirit and our need to live in and through it. When we are forgiven through the Spirit, we become children of God and heirs of the kingdom of God. We go forth into the world in the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit to suffer with and for Jesus the Christ so that we might also know the glory of Christ in our resurrection. We often wonder how God can give eternal life to our mortal bodies, but Paul tells us that all we have to do is to cry, “Abba! Father!” and we receive the spirit of witness to our divine kinship – not as slaves to God but as loving children who will do the Father’s will.
Ahh, dear Nicodemus…leader of the Temple and distinguished Pharisee. What are you doing out and about at night visiting this character Jesus of Nazareth, we wonder? Nicodemus was wondering about Jesus – particularly about the “signs” that Jesus had been able to perform. Nicodemus knew enough to surmise that Jesus was of God (maybe like John the Baptizer) – but he wanted to know more, wanted to figure out this new and troubling voice. His interrogation of Jesus did not go as planned, however, as Jesus never answered a question and replied in what seemed to be riddles. Nicodemus stuck to his rationalism and literalism but became more befuddled as Jesus spoke to him in parables. He was left muttering in wonderment, more to himself than to Jesus, “How can this be?”
It seems like a good time to return to James Bryan Smith and his musing on his wife’s interactions with others who wonder about their faith. He continues with an answer to his wife’s wish that he would have been there to answer the questions posed saying, “…Every time she says this I respond, ‘It would not have made a difference if I had been there. Most of the questions they are asking are not the real issue. They are usually smoke screens hiding something else….’” Smoke screens hiding real issues, like the real reason that Nicodemus came to Jesus, or that Isaiah said yes to YHWH, or to Paul’s responses in all his letters to the questions and questionable behaviors of his church plants. What is the real issue that all these faithful folks are wondering about? Smith continues his response to his wife’s encounters writing, “…What they really want to know is, `Is it true?’ and the answer to that is not in an intellectual idea but in a changed life….”
This was the way of Jesus – his life spoke to the deepest part of his followers lives and their questions about God. His way of living out his faith in a real and approachable manner is what drew people to Him – what still draws people to His Church. Nicodemus, Saul who became Paul, Isaiah and all the prophets of old, and every believer ever minted have all wondered the same thing…is what Jesus said and modeled for us true? How can it be that our belief in something that we cannot see, taste, touch or smell can so inform our lives that we will give ourselves to it? How can it be that the scriptures that we read – narratives that are thousands of years old, can still touch and transform us?
It can be and is because God is eternal and never changing, but always revealing more of God’s-self to deepen our relationship. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – or if you prefer, God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Sustainer, work in divine harmony to love us from wherever we are to wherever God wishes us to go. Like the young sinner Isaiah, we sinners are all called and gifted to do something unique on behalf of God and the heavenly hosts. Like Saul, we are called to become a servant whose life is transformed through the love of the Holy Spirit into someone who can knit diverse communities together. Like Nicodemus, we are called to constantly reassess what we think we know about God and God’s people and to wonder aloud and in our prayer lives about what God is doing and how we can join. We are called to not sit with a fully formed faith which is concretized and immovable (like the Pharisees and Sadducees) but to a faith which is characterized by being continuously amazed and inspired by a God who is always creating and always revealing more of God’s-self to us.
The presence of faith is a gift from God’s love – from God’s grace – and it is wonderous. We do not earn it, we must discover it, and then we can only learn to honor and nurture it and hope that it grows towards the mind and heart of Jesus. The only way to discover this deep and abiding faith is to honor the questions of our hearts: is it true? and how can this be?, and then go out with God and God’s people in search of the answers. Jesus told all of us that we must be like children to enter into heaven. We must be willing to question what we see and what we think we know in a worldly sense with the miraculous possibilities God is calling us forth to do. A faith that believes it has all the answers is not faith, it is a lifeless dogma. A wondering faith keeps us seeking an ever-deepening relationship with the only entity that can truly give us life. Thanks be to God, for expecting us to be children with a wondering faith that continues to transform and deepen our relationship with God and all of creation! Amen and amen.