Poolesville Presbyterian Church
03.12.2017; Rev. Dr. David Williams
Scripture Lesson: John 3:1-17
Y’all know I like new things.
I like the latest and shiniest, the cutting edge, the most sparkling and exciting, the objects that most radiate that new car smell. Particularly if they are actually a new car. Every new technological gadget, packed with doodads and gizmos and gimcrackery? They’re like catnip to the seven year old boy who still dwells within this much, much older body.
And so, as a lifelong player of video games, who earned his spurs playing Space Invaders and Pitfall on a well-used Atari 2600, I’d prepared myself to throw in with the latest innovation in gaming: Virtual Reality. I’d sampled the headsets, and marveled at how radically this new tech changed the experience of gaming. No longer were you staring at a screen. Instead, you were in the game, as a perfectly rendered three-dimensional virtual world took shape around you. You could be actually in the cockpit of a starfighter, at the helm of a futuristic battle-tank, or in the driver’s seat of a Group B Rally car.
You can say, I am Batman, and looking around at what appears to be Arkham Asylum, it will seem to be true.
I tried it, and it was amazing, and I was bedazzled and certain: this is the next wave. This is unlike any other experience I’ve had before. I blogged about it, and wrote an excited article about it for a radical Mennonite magazine in Manitoba. Because what’s more new and cutting edge than writing an article about VR gaming for a radical Mennonite magazine in Manitoba?
For Christmakkah in my household, I was surely going to get myself a set of VR goggles and controllers for my Playstation, settling into my basement, ready to encounter a new era of gaming.
Only, well, when they came out, they were the new and the latest and the greatest, and were snapped up immediately. I'd missed my chance, and I didn’t feel like paying twice the price to an opportunistic gaming scalper. So I waited. This was a good thing.
Because reviews started coming in, and something peculiar began to surface, something I’d noticed when I played. The sense of immersion is so real that your visual cortex and your inner ear are telling your brain two entirely different things. You’re sitting on a comfy sofa, says your inner ear. You’re performing a reverse Immelman in a P-38 Lightning, say your eyes. These two things do not line up, and this does not end well. This new reality makes you nauseous. Meaning, actually nauseous. In a recent review of DIRT, one of my favorite driving games, at the International Gamers Network site, six out of seven reviewers felt sick after playing for fifteen minutes. If I want to feel carsick, I don’t need to spend five hundred dollars for the privilege.
New things, really new things, can often feel just as unsettling. They don’t jibe with what we know, and rattle our sense of self, and leave us feeling dizzy and off balance.
Like poor, struggling Nicodemus.
We read his story, and there’s a tendency to go clucking and shaking our heads at him. You get to meet Jesus, we might say, and yet you still don’t get it? How do you not get it? He must be thickheaded. He must be easily confused, as he fumbles and stumbles about trying to grasp the message of this strange man from Nazareth.
We listen to him as he struggles to find his footing, bobbing about like he’s lost his equilibrium. C’mon, Nick. Get it together.
But standing at our point of imagined comfort with the message of Jesus, we may not grasp how deeply unsettling this encounter is, this encounter with the new.
What Nicodemus is experiencing is existential nausea, the yawning chasm between what he knew to be true and a reality that jarred and twisted against what he was certain was real.
What he would have known was the fundamental goodness of his tradition, of an ancient covenant with God that went back
Like him, we so easily get confused around change. What are the changes that matter? What do they even look like? How do we find our balance, that place where we still know who we are relative to a different way of being?
Nicodemus struggles with this, as the strange man he’d heard of demanded his attention. He wants to talk with him, but can’t do so in public without destroying his reputation.
There, in the night, the discussion they have is a remarkably rich conversation, as the baffled Pharisee asks question after question of Jesus, and Jesus responds. None of it makes sense to him, and yet it does, and yet it doesn’t.
How can you be born if you’ve already been born? How is that even possible? What does it mean that we should be born "from above," or born "from heaven." And if we are to be "born of water and the Spirit,” what does that mean? The words are familiar from the ritual and tradition of Judaism, but they seem to point to something else. Jesus talks, and the more he talks, the more his furtive night visitor becomes even dizzier.
These words conveyed in John’s Gospel have a specific theological meaning, one that resonates with all of Christ's other teachings about the change he is bringing us. The birth that Christ describes has to do with what is "above," which in the context of John's Gospel indicates a connection with something of God. It is a reality that has not yet happened, a state of being that is not yet a part of the world we inhabit. Yet it is a reality that has happened, that is happening, right now in the moment.
This should be existentially unsettling, if we’re listening to it carefully. It is meant to sound simple, to be composed of simple words that seem to make sense but then also don’t.
That, I think, is the key to Nicodemus's struggle. He is desperately trying to imagine the story as being a repetition, a reiteration of the things that he already knows. Jesus, on the other hand, is trying to kick him loose from that understanding. God’s spirit shakes us loose from those old patterns of being, it is...when we encounter it...genuinely unsettling.
Being born from above means being born into a reality...a sense of your own self...that you have not yet inhabited. You don’t yet know what that is. You’ve not ever experienced it.
The challenge we face is that we expect...with Nicodemus...that we will be able to just truck along as we have before as we stand in encounter with the Gospel. We do not bring with us the same set of expectations. But we have our own traditions...our love of wealth, our infatuation with power, our idolizing of self-interest. We have our own traditions...the deep old lie of race, the strange violence of nation...which are unsettled by Jesus just as surely as those of any Pharisee.
When we hear the message of Jesus, a grace that is deep and simple and confounding, it should have that effect...not physically, but on the whole of our self-understanding.
Until that moment, we have not yet really begun to be born from above, from that reality that represents the Reign of God that Jesus calls us towards.
Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.