March 5, 2023

"Our Nicodemus Moment aka Living the Questions”

Rev. Scott Landis

John 3:1-17

It happens to every one of us at some point in our lives. But it’s currently happening at such an alarming rate that it’s running shock waves through church denominational offices. Pollsters are beginning to predict that Christianity as we know it will be radically different within the next 10-25 years since we are losing members in droves and churches are closing their doors much faster than new ones are being planted.  But I think that’s only the canary in the coal mine – the issue is more complex than dwindling numbers. 

There is a sense of unrest and struggle that folks are dealing with – and too often silently.  Believers have always had existential faith crises in their lives. At times of loss, or substantive change, or when life feels completely out of control – and we have all periodically questioned whether God sees or knows or cares about our lives. These have and will always be part of the human condition. What concerns me is the seeming inability of churches to accommodate these struggles – to welcome the questions – and to accept the honest doubt in believers’ lives — forcing many to deal with their issues alone. Couple that with the more pervasive notion many hold that the church has lost its relevance in our world today and we’ve got ourselves a problem. 

It was a phenomenon that was occurring long before the pandemic but was catalyzed during and after this dramatic period in our lifetime. Shuttering in place was essential to help contain the virus but doing so transformed most main line churches – and those who attend them in unexpected ways. Attendance patterns changed with the availability of livestreaming. Giving patterns changed with fewer folks in the pews to the point that we are now in a struggle for survival as we rapidly try to analyze what is happening and provide a fix before we go out of existence. 

This is a problem to which all churches need to pay close attention. We will get to that in a few moments, but I want to focus our attention today on those who make up the church – people like you and me and the faith crises – the doubts – the anger – the apathy – and the disbelief that affects us all from time to time. [Pause]

I was discussing my thoughts on this passage with Randy the other day to get his take on why we are where we are at this moment in Christian history – and at this time in our church’s story. I explained that over the next few weeks, church leadership will be bringing a sobering message to our members regarding the current state of our congregation and the possible impact for the future. I coupled all of that with today’s gospel lesson – a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus – a learned scholar, a prominent Jewish leader, a Pharisee. 

The interesting thing about this vignette is that it takes place under the cloak of darkness – “late at night.” It’s clear Nicodemus did not want his struggle — his doubts — to be seen by fellow Jews let alone his Pharisaic colleagues. To be seen with Jesus could be misconstrued as somehow breaking ranks with the status quo. A risk Nicodemus was unwilling to take. Nevertheless, his struggle was real – an inner conflict he needed to resolve to maintain his integrity.

You see, all that he had learned – and believed – and supported – worked very well up to this point in his life. The law, the prophets, even the rabbinic Mishna (their interpretation of the law) made perfect sense to him … that is, until it didn’t. He now had questions – resultant of his observations – that prompted his conversation with Jesus. Questions so important he was willing to risk everything in order to come to some resolution. [Pause]

Nicodemus wanted to reconcile all that he had been taught with this new and compelling revelation of God’s love. You’ll notice, through their conversation, Jesus offered many beautiful one-liners that unpacked an incredible message of God’s love (culminating in John 3:16, the verse many of us have committed to memory). While Nicodemus was quite taken by Jesus’ wisdom the story simply ends with Nicodemus’ questions unresolved. [Pause]

It was about then that Randy piped up and identified our current situation as a “Nicodemus Moment,” something we all encounter at various points in our lives. I rather liked that idea and began to think about how universal that is for all of us as persons of faith as questions are asked based on life experience and current circumstances – questions that frequently go unanswered. The issue is whether such uncertainty— dare I say doubt of any sort — is permitted in church or must we hide them and act as if they do not exist? [Pause]

Several years ago, while in ministry in another setting, I taught a course entitled “Living the Questions.” The course was based on the notion that we all face critical questions at crisis points in our lives – questions that often have no good answers. The learning, we eventually discovered, was not in the answers, but in the questions themselves. IF we have faithful companions who we can trust. Those who can truly listen to our questions without judgment — without the need to offer a particular solution or an answer. If so, we may discover the ability to “lean into” or “live the questions” with little expectation or need to resolve. The gift was in realizing there are companions on our journey – others who truly understand our struggle because they have faced similar struggles of their own. It was our being in relationship with these fellow pilgrims that made all the difference. [Pause]

As I mentioned earlier, it is clear we are at a pivotal moment in the life of the church – more generally and right here at Keawala’i as folks vote with their feet regarding their commitment to what has been a mainstay for hundreds of years. Demographers and statisticians have been following the trends and have numerous theories for why this is happening, but no one knows for sure how this will all turn out. 

Whether or not this questioning or struggle is happening to you individually – the Christian church IS in the midst of a “Nicodemus Moment” as we wonder collectively as Nicodemus did individually, “what is going on?” “How can this be?” [Pause]

This is the stuff that keeps me up at night. Having given my entire career to cultivating and caring for the church in very different settings – I see it rapidly becoming grayer, weaker, and less financially stable by the year. I’ve sat through appreciative inquiry sessions, strategic planning processes, mission-vision-values analyses, and attempted goal-setting strategies all of which seemed great initially, but ultimately did not seem to address the fundamental problem. And so, I wonder with Nicodemus – “What is going on, God? How can this be?” 

BUT! Before you all decide to fall on your swords or run as fast as you can from what appears as imminent failure – I actually want to invite you to walk with me into this “Nicodemus Moment,” to lean-into or live the questions that are right in front of us – a reality we cannot and should not avoid. Let’s do so by listening carefully to Jesus’ words, “This is how much God loved the world. So much so that God gave his Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; but by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. 

Now, I realize that that verse does not solve the problem of rapidly shrinking budgets, salaries, building and maintenance needs, and dwindling membership – but maybe it helps us gain perspective on what’s really important as we live-into and through this critical moment. 

Even Nicodemus finally had to let go of his questions. There was nothing wrong with them, but they were not his real concern. What he needed was a genuine relationship with Jesus and reassurance through his powerful words. Listen as Jesus continued: “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” 

That’s going to require faith on our part – a whole lot of faith.  It’s going to require belief that God is still active in our world today! And it’s going to require us to actively participate in the solution God provides – which can only be done if we work together – bearing one another’s burdens – supporting one another in the struggle. [Pause]

In the gospel of John belief is never a noun — it’s always a verb. So, we engage our faith – our belief – in an active, dynamic process. It is never static. And it is rarely easy. Not only does it involve our questions, in fact our faith cannot mature or evolve without them. Not only does it involve our heartache and our struggle, in fact it cannot grow until we let go, surrendering our will that thine may be done.  [Pause]

I think this story is perfect for where we are today. But it is time to come out of the dark of night and join in the conversation in the light of day. Coming up with solutions will not be easy and it will involve a lot of work, but I believe God is inviting us to do this work together – carefully analyzing the problem in the light of day on order to seek a solution — one which may be very different than anything we can currently see or even imagine. 

I invite you to be in prayer for our church leaders – current and future, for our church’s mission and ministry, and for yourselves to  discern God’s nudging in your life regarding how you might contribute to the solution. What an opportunity we have to really be the church in a whole new phase of its life! 

Amen! Amen! Amen!

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