March 15, 2015 - John 3.1-21

“Curiosity Saved That Cat”

John 3:1-21

March 15, 2015

 

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“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. 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. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 

I imagine that some of you are cat people.   So please do not be offended when I tell you that I am not a big cat fan.  I like dogs.  My dog loves me, protects my family, serves as a wireless security system for the parsonage, is loyal, obeys me, is the best judge of character that I know and she is a true companion.  Most cats that I have met seem to be convinced of their own superiority, as if the whole world is just a place for their inevitable victory in the species class struggle.  They are effete, picky, narcissistic snobs.  Not a big fan of felines.

But I have to admit that they are cute sometimes, especially kittens.  Especially when they are being curious.  Throw them a ball of yarn and a cat will redeem himself briefly in my eyes.  So I don’t really understand the phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat.”  I imagine it is a proverb about getting yourself into trouble.  But I find curious cats to be invariably more likeable and tolerant that cats that aren’t.  It seems to me that the only cats that are actually alive are the curious ones.  They explore, play, and earn their keep by keeping you company.  The bored ones just take up space and fill the litter box.  The bored ones sit around, not playing fetch, not guarding your home, and not doing anything except plotting to take over the world.  If you have seen the kids movie Cats and Dogs, you know what I mean.

Cats are at their best when they are curious.  They are the most alive when they are curious.  You might say the same for people. 

 

I think you know this story.  In our text today, we see a “cat” very much alive.  This cat’s name is Nicodemus, and his curiosity about this man Jesus will not kill him, but will save him.

He has heard rumors.  He has heard the talk.  Nick is a member of the Sanhedrin, kind of like the smartest of the smart religious ruling council.  He was a powerful man, and well known.  We find him sneaking through the night, hiding in the shadows, coming to Jesus in secret.  He didn’t want anyone to see him.

What is exactly going on with this man Nicodemus?  Why is he coming to see Jesus at night?  Because going to Jesus was a scandalous thing for this man.  He was breaking the rules of his fraternity.  He was after all, a Pharisee, and a member of the ruling council.  We can tell that he is worried by how Nicodemus approaches Jesus.  He comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, moving from shadow to shadow.  He did this so he would remain unseen.  The Pharisees always presented a unified front to the public, so to see just one of them going to visit this…this carpenter, why it would be scandalous!  It was risky.  It was dangerous. If anyone found out what Nicodemus was doing, he would have some serious explaining to do. In order for Nicodemus to have made such a clandestine and precarious visit, something really must have being eating at him.

He and Jesus have a conversation, and Jesus really boggles Nick’s mind with statements like “you have to be born again.”  Then, as if trying to provide Nicodemus with a handle to understand him Jesus says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”  Nicodemus understood the reference that Jesus was making, but he was much more familiar than I am with the book of Numbers, so I had to look it up.

In Numbers 21:4-9, the people of Israel were making their way through the wilderness, but they were none too happy about it.  They were complaining and griping and just being basically hard to put up with.  So God sent some snakes to bite them, and kill them.  (It’s in the book; I’m not making this up, really.  It was to teach them a lesson.)  The bite from the snakes was deadly poison.  God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent, and place it on top of this pole, and mount it in the middle of the Israelites camp.  God instructed Moses to tell the people, “When you are bitten, all you need to do is look up to the bronze snake that God has provided, believe in your God, and you will be saved.”  And they were.

Nicodemus knew the story.  This is the simile that Jesus uses to explain his own crucifixion.  Like the serpent lifted up on the pole, Jesus is likewise lifted up on the cross.  We can all be saved, just by looking to Christ in the same way that the children of Israel looked to that snake as they lay there, slowly dying.  God sent a bronze snake to lead the Israelites to him, and be saved from their snakebites.  Likewise, God sent a human, his son Jesus, to save the world from its own humanity – from our sin.  If only we found our sin to be as serious as a snakebite.

If we ask people today, “Are you saved?” often the reply is “Saved from what?”  People don’t know they need to be saved.  If sins were snakebites, you’d better believe people would be seeking out Christ urgently.  People somehow treat Jesus as if he is optional, as if he is just another choice for the religious consumer to purchase or to pass up.  It is painful to see how Jesus is treated by modern folk, labeled as a “great teacher” or a “philosopher”.  People don’t seem to pay attention to what Jesus said.

Many people insist on keeping a nominal relationship with the church and understand Jesus strictly in terms of his teachings and his reputation.  But these folks have an incomplete picture of Jesus.  They don’t see Jesus as the gospel of John presents him: the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Jesus makes the radical statement that he is not simply a rabbi with God’s approval but he is the One that has descended from God’s very presence.  He says that he must be lifted up so that everyone can have eternal life.  The only thing that saved the Israelites was looking up and believing, and the only thing that can save us is looking to the uplifted Christ and believing.

C.S. Lewis wrote concerning the modern treatment of Jesus in the 1940’s.  Much like Nicodemus, many people were ready to think of Jesus in terms of a great teacher, but not as something outside of their realm of expectation:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.”  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic – on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.[1] 

 

In his book, The Road Less Traveled, Christian psychotherapist M. Scott Peck implies that SOME people in our sick society are sick, not because of some childhood trauma, not because of some inner psychic distress, not due to a chemical imbalance, but because they are lazy.  When confronted by life’s crisis, they dig in or keep their accustomed habits and routine, or keep working at what once worked for them.  They don’t take the trouble to investigate, the risk to think, the trouble at being curious.[2]  That sickness eventually kills them, sometimes long before they die.  Maybe that’s part of the difference between life, and eternal life or abundant life.

People like to keep Jesus at a comfortable distance, keeping their relationship to him, and their involvement in his church, at a “convenient level.”  People can be killed by their lack of curiosity, by their laziness to try to really understand what it means to be born again.  It is not just a one-time event, it is a constant state of being born in Christ by his lifting up on the cross.  It is about personal change as much as it is about the One that changes us.  You aren’t born again to just die from inactivity, you are born again to live life – the eternal life.

The cross was not the end of Christ, but the beginning of our salvation.  You’d expect a dead, crucified man to stay that way, but you’d be wrong.  Instead, we are surprised to find that death is now dead, and God’s glory is finally fully revealed.  It really is finished.  The uplifted Christ is not a symbol of pain, suffering and death.  It is a symbol of love, hope and salvation.  It is a symbol that the best is yet to come. 

Nicodemus kept asking the question, “How can this be?”  Notice that he was not saved right away.  This text does not give us an answer to that question.  But we do see him when Jesus is getting buried.  He is there then, out in the open, out of the shadows.  His curiosity saved him.  Are you curious about Jesus?  You ought to be, even if you think you already know him.  There is more to him than any of us know.  So I ask you again, are you curious about Jesus?

As I said at the beginning, I think you know this story. Maybe you know this story because it is a story you are living out in your own life right now. Into whatever darkness you dwell, light has dawned. The Son of God has been lifted up before you, lifted up on a cross. There you see hanging in mortal agony the best person who has ever lived. How could one like him end up on a horrible cross? How could his cross be the solution to the problems between us and God?

Such questions are beyond explanation. Perhaps we are not to attempt to explain the use of mysterious images of our salvation. Rather, we are to look upon the cross, to allow this searing image to have its way with us, to penetrate deep into our souls, and thereby to be drawn to Christ, drawn near to God, that we should not perish but have eternal life.
     You know this story.

 

[1] Lewis, C.S.; Mere Christianity, (Scribner, New York, 1943), p.41.

[2] Willimon, William, Pulpit Resource, p.56.

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