Has anyone every told you a story of something incredible – so incredible that you couldn’t help but to have some doubts about it? I have. In fact, it came from some of you. A couple members of our church, Buddy McMullin and Larry Curry, told me a story one day several years ago. The story was so incredible that it never really left my mind. About a year later, I asked Buddy about it again and heard the story for a second time. And this week I took time to hear the story again from Larry. Incredible stories often leave one with lingering doubt. And questions, lots of questions. How can these things be?
In our Scripture this morning, Jesus speaks of something incredible. Something that leaves a Jewish leader named Nicodemus with some lingering doubt. And questions, lots of questions. Let’s hear hear this story. I’ll be reading from John 3:1-17. After the reading, I will give God thanks and I invite you to respond, “Thanks be to God.”
Buddy & Larry’s Excellent Adventure
After hearing Larry’s incredible story – I felt like Nicodemus. The story goes like this. Buddy, Larry, and a few others were out riding their dirt bikes as they often do through the mountainous terrain of some backwoods area of Northern Alabama. This dirt-biking crew were just minding their own business enjoying the brisk ride through the woods when they happened upon an unprecedented archaeological find. At first it just looked like an unusual pile of rocks. But it was interesting enough for them to stop their bikes and take a closer look. Upon inspection, the rocks seemed to be oval-shaped, but had fossilized together in cluster-like formations. They realized that this was no standard pile of rocks. This was an incredible find. This dirt-bike crew realized they had stumbled upon a nest of dinosaur eggs. And not just any dinosaur eggs – these were Tyrannosaurus Rex eggs. The ground they stood on was an ancient breeding ground for the mighty T-Rex. Not only were there eggs, they could see dinosaur parts in the fossilized remains of this rookery. One of the members of this crew was answering the call to nature, if you know what I mean, when he realized he was doing so right in the middle of a T-Rex footprint, etched into limestone. The footprint was complete with three pronged-toes pointing forwards and one pointing backwards including the claw marks. [more…]
Todd Doubts the Incredible
Now, I’m not an expert in dinosaurs or fossils, but all of this seemed to me to be a rather incredible claim. It occurred to me that Larry and his crew may have found something unique, but T-Rex eggs? “How can these things be?” I asked them. “Could there be another explanation?” Buddy responded to my question, “What else could it be?” Larry said, “if it looks like a dinosaur, sounds like a dinosaur, you can find examples just like them in books, then it’s a dinosaur.” My doubt remained. I thought to myself, “These guys aren’t exactly trained paleontologists.” How can these things be?
Aside from the sheer incredible nature of such a find, I had other reasons to doubt. They never said exactly where these eggs were found and they won’t tell you if you ask them either. For the first time, this week, I managed to squeeze out of Larry that this area is near Paint Rock Valley, but that’s as specific as he would get. Finally, last night, on the eve of my sermon, as if to taunt me, Larry sent me a picture of one of these rocks that he enlisted some local help in smuggling out of the area that now adorns his backyard. Buddy and Larry claim that if they let the location out, then historical markers would go up, lots of people would travel to the site and the sacredness of this incredible place would be threatened. They could no longer smuggle fossils out. This did not help my doubt. The picture didn’t clear things up for me. Their rationale for secrecy also has the convenient benefit of preventing anyone else from corroborating their story. Moreover, I doubted the credibility of the storytellers. Larry, is a consummate deal-maker, and has been known to embellish on things from time to time. Originally, I thought I detected his trademark sly grin during the first telling of this story. Buddy is a masterful storyteller himself and just seems to relish folksy stories such as this. Both of them are what you might call “characters.” I could totally see these two “characters” creating an incredible claim, a whopper of a tale, from a small nugget of truth. I even sensed a bit of pressure during the storytelling. Pressure to say, “I believe you.” I even wondered if this was some story that they tell every preacher that comes their way, just to see what happens. I didn’t want to be the gullible young pastor. Eventually I realized, they weren’t trying to trick me – they believed this incredible thing.
I remained doubtful, but neither was I ready to totally dismiss their claims, either. I was curious, but didn’t want to be gullible. Doubt is that place between belief and unbelief – it can go either way. I think this was the space that Nicodemus was in. Perhaps it was the reason why Nicodemus went to Jesus at night. The scripture says Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews. Jesus was seen as a threat to the Jewish establishment. His radical interpretations of Jewish law and startling claims that he was born from above, the son of God were blasphemous. But, it seemed, that God was moving in Nicodemus’s life. He wasn’t ready to believe, but clearly he was curious enough to want to speak with Jesus. But he couldn’t just come to Jesus in the day time – he would be chastised for giving Jesus any credence at all. The rest of the Jewish leadership might find out and label him as gullible. But, neither did Nicodemus want to dismiss Jesus outright. And so he comes asking the question, “How can these things be?”
The Earthly & the Heavenly
In talking to Nicodemus, Jesus makes a clear distinction between the flesh and the Spirit. Between the earthly and the heavenly. Like Nicodemus, we don’t have too much trouble believing in either the earthly or the divine. We certainly all understand the flesh and the earthly. Likewise, we come to church and talk about Godly things and certainly ancient Jewish leaders like Nicodemus took God very seriously. But Nicodemus had doubt that the two can ever meet. That the heavenly and earthly can touch. This is where we tend to doubt as well. We think of heaven as only a place where we go once we die. We think of Jesus as being the single exception where the divine and fleshly live together. The divine and the earthly are separate. But Jesus says something incredible: “You must be born from above.” You can carry the DNA of God within you. You can be a son or daughter of God. That changes things. What is born of the Spirit is spirit.
The Spirit & New Birth
In Scripture, the Spirit – the breath or wind of God – seems to be present, whenever new life is born. The breath of God swept over the waters in the Creation story. God breathed life into Adam and Eve. In the prophets, wind often accompanies God’s promise of deliverance from oppression. A rush of violent wind came over the believers at the birth of the church at Pentecost. And here new birth – being born from above – is linked to the Spirit. The wind blows where it chooses. It’s unpredictable. It resides within you, but it comes from a source beyond you. It is the eternal within the temporal. Birth in the Spirit guarantees unpredictability. Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Then Jesus goes on to say that whoever believes this, whoever can be born from above may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, born from above so that we too might be born from above, that the eternal life of heaven, might be the life that we can live right here on earth. Jesus says that he came not to condemn the earthly, but to save it by touching it with the heavenly.
Doubting That Heaven Touches Earth
This is what we doubt. We find ways to reduce heavenly and earthly contact just to Jesus. When we hear John 3:16, we think the belief in him part is limited to our believing that Jesus is the Son of God. And that this is what gives us eternal life. The good news is much more incredible. Much more difficult to believe. Jesus had been talking about being born from above. Jesus told Nicodemus that he was not the only one who could be born from above, he said, “You must be born from above.” The Greek for the word ‘you’ here is actually plural, so Jesus literally says, “Ya’ll must be born from above.” It is universal. All of us have the capacity to be born from above, to be sons and daughters of the living God, to carry the divine, the heavenly within our earthly bodies.
Jesus Explains It Again
It seemed that Nicodemus didn’t understand it, so Jesus explained things again another way. Explaining things through the analogy of new birth didn’t seem to work. And so Jesus alludes to a story about another instance of the divine touching the earthly that Nicodemus would be familiar with. The Israelites were being punished with poisonous serpents for whining in the wilderness. People were dying. Moses prayed to God for deliverance and God told Moses to make a serpent upon a pole that the people could look upon. When they did so, they would live. It was an invitation for the earthly to connect with the divine. The symbol of the serpent made its first appearance in the Bible as a pull away from God, inviting Adam and Eve away from the heavenly. The serpent is the ultimate symbol of earthliness. But in the story of Moses and the serpent on a pole, God redeems the earthly and in fact uses the most earthly symbol imaginable as vehicle for life, the conduit of heaven.
People Hungry for the Word of God
In seminary, I had the opportunity to serve and learn as a chaplain at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey. My job was to check in with patients in the hospital, just to be a listening presence for them. I would hear their stories and offer prayer. If anyone needed spiritual support in any way, I would do my best to provide it. One day, a patient in the ward I was serving came up to me and said, Chaplin Todd, “The people on this ward are just hungry for the word of God.” Not knowing exactly what to say, I just responded, “Oh, that’s great.” He grew more emphatic, “No people on this ward are really hungry for the word of God.” I responded, “Does someone want me to read Scripture to them or need me to request a Bible for them?” “No!” he said. Then he held up a Bible that I didn’t notice before. And this Bible literally had a huge bite mark taken out of the corner of it. And he said again, slowly, “People on this ward are really hungry for the Word of God!” And then I really had no idea what to say. How can these things be? We were talking past one another.
God Does the Incredible
So were Nicodemus and Jesus. Jesus was trying to connect, but it seemed that Nicodemus didn’t have ears to hear. He knew what Jesus’s words meant individually, but he missed Jesus’s meaning. That’s what happens with incredible claims. We have doubt that such things are even possible. Ordinary people you know making astonishing archaeological finds. People literally eating the Word of God. Or most incredible of all – our own bodies being born from above as the sons and daughters of God. It isn’t so much that we doubt God – it’s that we think we know the earthly so well. Who are these ordinary dirt-bikers to make such an astonishing discovery? Who am I to be born of God? We are too well acquainted with our earthliness to gullibly believe such incredible claims. The divine and the earthly are separate…but God is bringing them together. For God so loved the world. The heavenly so loved the earthly. Love is an attracting force. God is always finding ways of touching the earthly. And when the divine touches the earthly it is redeemed, born from above, healed of poisonous serpent bites, given life. Life, in all of its incredible, eternal, abundance exists only to the extent that heaven and earth have come together. Everything else on this earth is perishing. But God has not come to condemn the world, to let it perish, but to save it. And so the kingdom of God grows – on earth as it is in heaven. It seems too incredible to believe. News too good to be true. How can these things be? God so loved the world.
Even you. Especially you.