I’ll Speak Slowly, So You Can Understand

Posted: June 8, 2012 by Todd in Sermons
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I preached this sermon on June 3, 2012 at Grace UMC.

The text was John 3:1-17.

“I’ll Speak Slow, So You Can Understand.”

A couple weeks ago, my son, Carter, and my wife Christy and I went to Sweet CeCe’s Yogurt over in Providence.  The new owner gave us a rewards punch card – buy 9 yogurts and you get the 10th free.  He told us that on Tuesdays, it is double punch day.  As we ate our yogurt, we casually talked about how we should have come on Tuesday instead of whatever day it was.  Well, I forgot all about CeCe’s Yogurt and “double punch Tuesdays,”  but Carter had not.  The next Tuesday after we got home from school, Carter asked if we could go to “fun day.”  I was like, what’s “fun day?”  Frustrated, that I had not remembered this obviously important upcoming milestone, Carter proceeded to try and communicate with his idiot father, not by explaining what he meant by “fun day,” but by saying it louder.  “Fun Day.”  I tried to ask, is “fun day” something at school.  “No, Fun Day!”  Is it at church?  “No,” he started to laugh, “FUN….DAY!  You don’t get it daddy,” he said.  Indeed, I didn’t.  Carter, using the abnormally large vocal capacities that the Lord has seen fit to bless him with, tried to break through the darkness that I was living in, missing the obvious things that were right in front of me.  We fumbled around a bit longer and eventually figured out that fun day meant “double punch day” at Sweet  CeCe’s   Yogurt.   I think most parents and kids understand that speaking the same language doesn’t always mean you can get what each other is saying with ease.  Sometimes we’ve got different things going on up here (head) and in here (heart) that illuminate, or disguise,  or even blind us from what is in front of us.  Sometimes we’re aware that we’re walking in darkness, so to speak, but perhaps more often, we think that the filter through which we see the world is  reality.   We’re not aware of our blindspots. [more…]

I think that’s what Jesus was dealing with when Nicodemus came to him.  Because Nicodemus was walking in darkness,  he was having trouble making sense of all the facts he was taking in.  He was a respected Pharisee, a leader of the Jews.  God was on his side.  Yet, Jesus was critical of Jewish leadership in his day.  But Jesus did many signs – that’s John’s way of saying miracles, and that couldn’t happen apart from God.  It was a puzzle and the pieces didn’t match Nicodemus’ mental map.  And so he came to Jesus about the thing that he was having trouble making sense of.  [say with indignation] Now, Nicodemus didn’t do it in the daylight at the synagogue in front of his peers.  No, he came in the night, the text says.  Here the author gives us a clue about Nicodemus’ blinders.  Throughout John’s gospel, “night” and darkness constantly surrounds those who cannot see what God is doing in their midst.

And so, when Jesus responds to Nicodemus, he wasn’t able to hear it.  To him, it was like Jesus was just trying to speak louder, [sarcastic tone] as if he hadn’t heard Jesus’s basic message before.  I imagine in Nicodemus’ unconscious mind he says to himself without any self-awareness, “Who me?  I’ve got to change and be reborn, spiritually?  No, that’s not possible, I’m a Pharisee.  God’s on my side.”  And so, there’s only one possibility left when Nicodemus considers Jesus’ response through his nighttime filter.  Somehow to Nicodemus, it seems more likely that Jesus is saying a grown man must enter into his mother’s womb and physically be born again.  I tried to find an image of this for the front of the bulletin – it’s amazing what you can find on the Internet.  We’ve come so far.  But we’re still in the darkness.

Even though Nicodemus and Jesus both spoke English, they couldn’t connect.  Some of you are saying, “now wait a second…”  So Jesus did what Carter tried to do when I didn’t have the eyes to see that “fun day” meant “double punch day” – in frustration, he spoke louder, simpler, so any moron could get it.  “No!” Jesus tried to explain, “there are two different kinds of birth – a physical birth in the flesh and a spiritual birth.  Once you’re born of the Spirit, your life isn’t your own – God pulls and pushes you every which way, like the wind.”

Still, not understanding, as Jesus knocked down his reluctant grown-man-enters-his-mother’s-womb-theory, Nicodemus is left without any way to make sense of his world, all he can do is question.  “How can these things be?”

Now, if like, Jesus, you’ve ever been on the other end of one of these conversations, where no matter how plainly you put something, no matter how loud or slowly you say it, no matter how many times you say it, you still can’t get through, you know how frustrating it can be.  It was even frustrating to Jesus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

Most of us might throw in the towel at this point.  Let the darkness take over.  “Clearly, this numbskull isn’t going to get it.  There are more productive ways to spend one’s time than arguing with idiots.”  But Jesus shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  Nicodemus just didn’t seem to get the whole birth analogy thing…  So, Jesus comes back to one of the stories of Israel – something that Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, surely could relate to.  Moses.  Now, to some, this may seem to be an obscure story, found in an obscure book – Numbers, but the stories of Moses were well known, especially to Nicodemus.  Moses was evidence that God was on his side.  Moses was Nicodemus’ story.  I suspect that’s why Jesus picked it – God has a way of making it clear how our stories intersect with God’s story.  And so, Jesus explains who he is and what God is doing with him through what Nicodemus already knows.  The Israelites grumble, complain, and regret following God.  God smites them with poisonous snakes.  Moses petitions on their behalf and God commissions Moses to make a bronze snake.  Finally, life came when the Israelites looked up to what God was doing in their very presence.

And so snakes are the key to understanding John 3:16.  You can quote me on that.  Jesus tells God’s story in Nicodemus’ language.  Then he pulls back and says again the truth hiding in plain sight from Nicodemus.  And I think Jesus was speaking very slowly, clearly, and perhaps with a raised voice here, so Nicodemus wouldn’t miss it.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”Hmm…perhaps that wasn’t slow enough, Jesus thought.  I’d better repeat myself in another way, so he continues in verse 17.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  “Nicodemus, Do you comprehend?”

Well, this passage doesn’t tell us.  That might seem like a lousy ending to the story, but I didn’t write it.  The story ends with Jesus saying in words no fool could mistake, what exactly God was up to.

2,000 years later, John 3:16 is considered by many to be the most foundational verse of the Christian faith.  I don’t think that’s a compliment to us, if you catch my drift.  That’s how loud and slow Jesus has to get so that we get it.  There’s so much noise out there, that God has to cut through, so many blinders to unveil.  And I wonder if that’s why this verse has been so successful.   Jesus words were constructed to shatter the filter we see the world through and say with simplicity what God is doing in the world.  I’m not trying to say that God is calling us a bunch of idiots, but God does seem to be speaking slowly, deliberately to make sure we get it.

It is interesting to see people use John 3:16 in exactly the same way Jesus seemed to be using it – to cut through all the noise to communicate that which is most essential.  Signs emblazoned with John 3:16 are held up at the Super Bowl, in the background of Tiger Wood’s golf swing, and behind morning news babes on the streets of Manhattan.  I have to confess, I’ve grown a little tired of those signs, myself.  It’s not fun to be on the receiving end of someone speaking slowly to you, so that you’ll understand.  [exasperated, sarcastic] Okay, John 3:16, I get it, who hasn’t heard that yet?   When Carter’s “fun day” inquiries crecendoed, I felt the need to teach him a lesson about communication.  When Christy came home that evening, I told her the story, the point of which, as I told it, was to let Carter know that saying something louder didn’t help me to understand.  “It just gets people upset, Carter.”  Saying it louder, slower doesn’t help anyone understand.  Until it does.

Carter had got his point across.  Through the increasing decibel level, eventually, I got the picture.  I had to be missing something obvious.  “Fun day” couldn’t be some obscure event at school.  It had to be something we experienced together. Why else would he be talking to me like I’m an idiot?  And so my filter dropped, I stepped out of the darkness, and it clicked.  Sweet CeCe’s double punch day.  And so we went and the darkness did not overcome us.

Jesus’s slow speech actually wasn’t the end of Nicodemus’ story.  We don’t hear much more about Nicodemus in the rest of the Bible, but we hear enough.  After Jesus was buried, we read in John 19:39, “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came [to his grave], bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”  Nicodemus was no longer coming to Jesus by night.  Something inside him had clicked.  The light shined into Nicodemus’ night and the darkness did not overcome it.


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