Asking the Right Questions – June 11, 2006
Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17
When I’m planning something, or when I’m working out some kind of problem, I often say “It’s not the answers I haven’t gotten yet that scare me the most. It’s the questions I didn’t even know I should have asked!”
Do you ever feel that way? Maybe you’re doing a project, or getting ready for some event, and it seems like you’re leaving out some part of it, but you’re not sure what. Isn’t that a scary feeling? You wish you knew the right question to ask.
Of course, there are other times you go sailing merrily along, not knowing that you’re forgetting something. You don’t even have an inkling – till the end of the project. Then you find out. I hate it when that happens!
I think we can think in those terms about life in general. We learn by asking questions, don’t we? I heard it said that most of human learning takes place between the ages of 4 and 17. Because at age 4 you have all the questions. And at age 17 you have all the answers! But I heard someone say once that getting the right answers is not nearly as important as asking the right questions. And I think that’s true. Because it is in asking the right questions that we get the most information.
Sometimes people in this life describe themselves as “searching,” but they’re really not. They say they’re “looking for answers,” but many times they’re really only looking for the answers to the questions they’re interested in asking. They’re only looking for the answers to life as they choose to see it. That’s not real learning, though. Real learning only comes when we’re willing to drop the pretense, and ask the right questions.
Today we have the story of Nicodemus. He was one of the Pharisees – one of the Jewish leaders. And in our story, he came by night to talk to Jesus. And I think that Nicodemus came asking the right questions. As John often does in his Gospel, he gives us this lengthy dialogue between the two men. He fills in some of the thoughts and feelings. This is also another one of those stories only John tells, and none of the other Gospel writers even mention.
As I said, Nicodemus asks the right questions. His colleagues asked Jesus questions, too. But they asked loaded questions. They questioned Jesus in front of the people, to try to trip him up. They wanted to get him to discredit himself. They asked things like, “What is the greatest commandment?” “Who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind? “’If a man had six brothers, but married and died without children, and his brothers each married his widow and then died, one after the other…” (I personally like that one! It’s so silly!) ” And the big one, the one they thought they had him on, “Should we pay taxes to Caesars or no?” Nicodemus wasn’t like that. He came asking questions because he wanted to know who Jesus was.
A lot has been said about Nicodemus over the years. Some have suggested that he came to Jesus at night because that was the time when men would traditionally gather to talk philosophy and religion. And of course, others have said that he came there in secrecy, because he was afraid of what his colleagues would think. I think that’s more likely. We know from the Gospel accounts that Jesus had secret followers on the religious counsel. And we would find out later in the story that Nicodemus was one of them. And he didn’t come that night asking loaded questions, designed to smoke out Jesus’ religious errors.
I think there’s a lot of questioning of Jesus in our world. And again, there are two ways we think about that word. One is based on skepticism and doubt. It is an approach that actually comes from disapproval of the person. If you “question” someone in that way, you are doubting whether a person is fit for a certain task, or you are doubting their validity. That’s how a lot of the world is questioning of Jesus these days.
Then there’s the more positive use of the word “question.” It has to do with the idea of serious inquiry. It is the kind of questioning that people use when they wish to learn and to grow. And I believe Nicodemus was doing that. He asked Jesus further questions based on what he told him. He asked Jesus, “How can a man be born again.” And through that kind of questioning, Jesus led him to real knowledge about himself. It could happen because Nicodemus was open to learning about Jesus.
That’s what we need to do, too. We need to seek to learn more about Jesus. We need to be sure it’s our intention to learn, not just to question. We need to be asking the right questions so we can grown in our understanding. And we need to ask the right questions so that we can be better equipped to answer the skeptical “questioning” about Jesus in our world. We need to be able to answer a world that’s getting it’s information about Jesus only from books and movies. Remember, we may be the only Christian source of information that some people will ever have!
Nicodemus came to Jesus and he asked. Actually, he started by simply stating his perspective. He said what he believed about Jesus, based on the evidence, and based on discussions about Jesus that he had already had. And he gives this good solid conclusion based on that evidence. “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God. We know that because no one can do these things you do unless God is with him.” (His colleagues concluded that the miracles he did were by the devil’s power. But, no one denied the power!)
Now, some have said that Jesus’ next statement about being born again, had nothing to do with Nicodemus’ first statement – as though he hadn’t heard him. But I don’t think so. I think Nicodemus started by giving Jesus his greatest understanding. It was logical. It showed sound thinking. It showed openness to learning. And I think Jesus rewarded him by telling him the greatest message of truth that he had to tell.
After wading through this metaphor about rebirth, which was confusing, Jesus focused in on the essence of this truth. If you are going to see the kingdom of God, you must have the perspective of the kingdom of God – in this life – here and now! You must have a spiritual perspective on this life – not some time down the road – not when the next life starts. Now. Isn’t that one of the most important things people need to hear in the Church today? Sometimes the Church only focuses on the next life. Jesus would tell us otherwise!
He told Nicodemus, that what is part of the flesh is flesh. In other words, whoever is part of the worldly perspective takes on that worldliness as the basis of their lives. Whoever has the spiritual perspective takes on true spirituality. There are too many Christians in this world who are living the worldly perspective. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, we are to be in the world, but not of the world. And that’s not just a suggestion. That’s a requirement of faith. Because, as Jesus would say, what has worldliness as its foundation is worldly. This is one of the most important things about our faith. And it is said so many times in the New Testament! Yet too many of God’s people ignore it. They neglect making God’s kingdom the foundation for their lives, they forsake and forget the spiritual perspective. Then they wonder why their faith is meaningless and shallow and doesn’t “work.”
We are not just given new life in Christ. We are given a new perspective, the perspective of the Spirit. And as Jesus told Nicodemus, you can’t control the spirit! You can hear the wind, but you can’t control it. The worldly perspective is largely about being in control. The spiritual perspective is looking to God for direction. It is taking on the foundation of spirituality. And it’s no mistake that Jesus used the metaphor of “rebirth.” It’s that momentous a change. We must be “Born Again.”
Now, let me say a few things about that. Many people have talked about being “Born Again.” Many have used it as a description of certain kinds of Christians. They might ask, “Are you a “Born Again Christian,” Friends, I believe “Born Again Christian” is a redundancy. By definition, all Christians are “born again.” “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation.” It’s not, “if anyone is in Christ and they conduct their faith in a certain way, or if they subscribe to Christianity in the way of certain groups they are a new creation.” We are all new creations.
The problem is that there are those for whom Christianity doesn’t make any difference. They have not made the jump to thinking and living from the foundation of Spirituality. They don’t do anything with the fact that they are new creations. And there are even some who choose to believe that the new creation is no different than the old. We are new. We are “born again,” because we have this spiritual perspective. And we are all called to have that perspective. And if we don’t, then we should question whether we have really decided to follow this rabbi Jesus.
My wife has a great way of describing this. She talks about the spiritual rebirth in her live as a time that she “Reframed the Universe with God in it.” Isn’t that great? Has our faith had that much impact on our lives that we have “reframed our universe?” Or do we just let God into a universe we keep framed in the same old worldly perspective. Think about it.
Jesus hit Nicodemus with this statement right away. It is the most important thing we can ever ask ourselves about our faith. It is the right question! And it is the question we need to ask all the time! What is the foundation of your life? Is your perspective that of the spirit? Do you take seriously the call of Paul in Romans 12 to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind?” Do you seek to change even the way you think to the spiritual way of thinking?
That’s so important here! Notice I haven’t said anything about the 16th verse! We often think that’s the focus of this chapter. But I’m not so sure. Granted, it is important. Don’t get me wrong. But this changing of perspective of life is even more important! Everlasting life doesn’t start when we die! We don’t switch to the spiritual perspective, the heavenly perspective, when we change our location to the spiritual and heavenly! That’s what Jesus was saying. If we have the everlasting life he talked about, it’s this life now, lived with a whole new perspective. It’s spiritual living and spiritual thinking. We can’t continue to live or think the way we used to. That’s how we’re “Born Again.” And it’s not an option. It’s the heart of the Christian message. How else can we have a living relationship with God? The answer is that we can’t.
So think of your life in terms of this question. What is your perspective? Is it worldly? Or is it spiritual? No long explanations? No clarifications or caveats. Just that. Is your life’s perspective, is your foundation, worldly or spiritual? That’s a question that’s so important we need to ask it every single day! Be sure of it – right now.
Eternal God, we thank you that you have given us the new perspective of your kingdom. Help us to do these things we’ve talked about today. Help us to keep that perspective even in the midst of the demands this world places on us. Help us each day to look to your kingdom, and to rejoice in your presence in our lives. For we pray these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.