Sermon Title “I Hear You” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! This is the second Sunday of Lent, and we are continuing our reflections on the theme “Open Our Eyes.” If you were here or able to tune in on the livestream of last Sunday’s service, you heard Angi Harney’s Children Story, where she challenged the kids to open their eyes — it was a great way to illustrate that looking is not necessarily the same as seeing. In a few weeks will hear a story about a blind man who saw more clearly than the religious leaders of the day. Today we’re going to consider what it means to hear without listening.
I am betting that the passage from John chapter 3 which Stephen read for us is one that you’ve heard before. John 3:16 is probably the best-known and best-loved verse in the New Testament. For me, and I’m guessing for many of you, it was the first Bible verse I memorized. Can you say it — whatever version of it you learned — with me? “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” It is a gift to a preacher to have that verse show up every third year in the lectionary cycle. March 16 — 3.16 — is coming up in about 10 days, and that’s always a good time to review this foundational statement about salvation in Christ.
If you have your Bible with you, I invite you to turn to John chapter 3. Verses 3-21 record Jesus’ entire conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus. This is the first and last record of a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus — although we hear more about Nicodemus after Jesus’ death — and Nicodemus appears only in John’s gospel. If you have watched or are currently watching the video series The Chosen it may be hard to get the image of that Nicodemus out of your head. Jan and Ron Nicodemus are in Florida this week — they aren’t the Nicodemus’ we’re talking about, either.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a Jewish leader, and he comes to Jesus by night. A lot has been made of this nighttime choice — was Nicodemus afraid of being seen with Jesus? Was this a pre-arranged meeting? Was Nicodemus a skeptic or a person who wanted to believe? We don’t know Nicodemus’ intentions, or his state of mind before or at the end of this conversation. All we have is this text — and there aren’t even any emojis for clues. What we do know is that there is some subtle stuff going on with the language, especially in verses 3-8. Nicodemus greets Jesus respectfully, as a fellow Rabbi, and acknowledges the signs Jesus has been performing. Jesus says “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Now, depending on what English-language version of the Bible you are looking at, that verse might also say “being born again.” That is because in Greek, the original language of the New Testament, the word John uses means both ‘from above’ or ‘again.’ In other words, Jesus is making a pun, which isn’t quite the same in translation. Nicodemus is either not listening or deliberately mis-understands, and asks who anyone be born again after growing old. In verse 8, Jesus talks about wind and spirit and Nicodemus replies, How can these things be? Jesus uses the same word to describe both wind and spirit, because in Greek they are the same word. He in effect is saying, The Spirit blows where it chooses, and so it is with everyone who is born of the wind. No wonder Nicodemus says he’s having a hard time tracking all of this.
Jesus is not very sympathetic. In verses 10-12, Jesus responds (and I’m paraphrasing) “You’re a teacher of the law and you don’t understand this? I’m telling you about things I know and have seen, and you can’t hear it? If I’m telling you about earthly things and you don’t believe me, how will you ever believe about heavenly things?” John does not record a response from Nicodemus, either at this point or at the end of the conversation in verse 21. In fact, the last thing we hear from Nicodemus is when he says, “How can these things be?”
Talking at cross-purposes can happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s an inability to hear. You’ve probably seen the cartoons with three people outside on a breezy day, and the first one says “It’s windy today!” And the second says, “Wednesday, I thought it was Thursday.” And the third one replies, “I’m thirsty, too. Let’s get something to drink.” The old game of Telephone where you whisper something along a line of people and see how mangled the message is when it gets to the last person is a game which has serious consequence when we intentionally pass along or amplify mis-information. Another version of this is when we ignore or dismiss testimony that doesn’t fit with our assumptions about how things are, or we ignore or dismiss people who challenge us or make us uncomfortable. It takes courage to listen — really listen, without thinking about how we can knock it down as soon as its our chance to speak — to stories or testimony which don’t fit with our view of how things are or ought to be. As I mentioned earlier the biblical record doesn’t tell us how Nicodemus responded to this conversation with Jesus. Certainly, there was a power difference between them: Nicodemus was a leader, a respected member of his culture, and an educated teacher of the law in the capital city of Jerusalem. Jesus came from a poor family in a backwater town. That was the earthly balance of power — of course the heavenly balance of power was entirely in Jesus’ favor. But as Jesus said, “If you won’t believe the earthly things, how can you believe the heavenly things?”
It is to Nicodemus’ credit that he was willing to come to see Jesus, address him with respect and listen to him. We have every reason to think that Nicodemus became a believer, although he may have kept that a secret. After Jesus’ death, we’re told in John 19:39 that Nicodemus brought 100 lbs. of spices, again at night, which were used to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. This would have been a generous tribute to the teacher he may have only spoken to once.
John 3 is an example of how listening to someone’s testimony can change your perspective and transform your life. Of course, Nicodemus had the privilege of listening to Jesus, God’s Son — but he could have missed it. He could have chosen not to go visit Jesus; he could have chosen to go only so he could tell his Pharisee colleagues that Jesus’ teaching was unbelievable; he could have used his status and position to discredit Jesus’ teaching. We don’t know exactly what changed Nicodemus into a believer, or when that happened, only that he found a way to honor the teacher who had challenged him by telling the truth.
Brothers and sisters, there are stories out there that we may not want to even hear, let alone believe. But if we want to understand and undo some of the damage which has been done by racism — whether we were the ones who did the damage or not — we are going to have to hear some things that will probably make us squirm in our seats. Those stories might make us angry, or make us feel like we are being unfairly accused of something. Like Nicodemus, our reaction may be How can these things be? What I am hoping we can do is to listen. You don’t even have to agree or advocate, just listen without being defensive or dismissive. If you have ever had to do this in an inter-personal or professional or pastoral relationship, you know it is not simple. Especially if you feel someone is being unreasonable or unjust or belligerent, it is a human response to counter that aggressively. If I am in a one-up position as a work superior or a pastor or a teacher, I may feel entitled to put that person “in their place” or to dismiss their concerns entirely. But if someone trusts you enough or has been wounded deeply enough to share their pain with you, that is a conversation to treat with respect. As a friend of mine used to say, “If someone invites you into their heart, be kind enough to take off your shoes.” If you have the opportunity to listen to a story like that, here are two things you can say to help pave the path for healing: I’m sorry. I’m listening.
If our lives are built on the example and teaching of Jesus Christ, the One who told us that he came so that the world might be saved through him, we can listen to other people with confidence — not the confidence that we are right and they are wrong, or that we’re justified and they are sinners. We have the confidence that Jesus’ love and salvation is for everyone. We don’t have to defend or justify ourselves — Jesus has done that for us. We demonstrate Jesus’ love when we are willing to listen to one another’s stories and hold one another’s pain — even if that causes us pain. Especially when it causes us pain. This is what Jesus did for us; this is what Jesus calls us to do for one another. This is how Jesus opens our eyes and teaches us to listen and leads us in love to those around us. Thank you for listening. Amen.