Knowing Enough PDF Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 19 August 2018
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — August 19, 2018
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Text:  Genesis 12:1-9;  John 3:1-17

So Abram left just as God said… — Genesis 12:4a [The Message]

Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”  Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you
don’t know these basics?
— John 3:9-10 [The Message]

When God first speaks to Abram in Genesis 12, we know next to nothing about this man.  He’s the son of someone from Ur named Terah.  He’s married to Sarai, and they have no children.  They live in a place called Haran because Abram’s father Terah settled there.  But that’s all we know when God suddenly tells Abram to leave his home.  So maybe that’s why we can accept he just up and goes like the Lord told him to.  Without knowing much about him, we might imagine he had few if any qualms or mental barriers about pulling up stakes and setting off on the road with Sarai and his nephew Lot for an unknown land.

Abram has been viewed as a model for faith ever since.  The writer of Hebrews lauds him for trusting God’s promises so much that he placed his life fully into God’s hands.  And surely Sarai is a model of faith as well, for she did the same.  But I’ve got to believe they both had some doubts and questions and more than a few heated conversations before setting out on their journey to live among strangers.  For you have to work through and let go of a lot of baggage—physical and mental—to step off into the unknown.

The amazing thing is that they went at all.  It makes me wonder a little what they knew inside to make such a decision.  It’s far easier to understand why they might stay—that they would either not know enough to go… or that they would know too much.  For us, such a big decision is often a time of wanting desperately to know more, to find out everything we possibly can about the way ahead before we make up our minds and commit ourselves.  I’ve been going through this for some time approaching retirement, and it’s been taking my mind back to 30 years ago when Kathy and I began making plans for seminary.  I talked to so many people in churches and seminaries.  I gathered information from all kinds of different sources.  And there was a lot of soul searching before Kathy and I actually made the decision that I’d close out my career in science and we’d pack up the family to go to seminary for three years without an income.  Looking back now, I realize that there was no way we could ever have known enough, ever have fully prepared ourselves for the kinds of challenges and joys and life changes the next three years of seminary and then 27 years as a pastor would bring for me and my family.

In such times it’s also possible for us to know too much to be able to embark on something new and different and uncertain.  We know how life has been up to now, and the way it is now is usually more comfortable than any future unknown.  We can find it hard to set aside our preconceived notions, our ways of thinking and understanding and acting, our habits of being, which have all been relatively successful for us up to this point.  Such things can get in the way of discovery and blind us to newness, so any kind of learning and change and transformation will require a kind of deliberate ignorance.  T. S. Eliot spoke of this poetically in the second of his “Four Quartets,” called “East Coker”:  “In order to arrive at what you do not know • you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.”  Philosophers and theologians speak here about the “negative way,” about letting go and unlearning, about self-emptying and kenosis.
One of my favorite authors and preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells a tale about a woman who sets out to discover the meaning of life.  She begins by reading everything she can get her hands on—history, philosophy, psychology, religion.  She learns, but nothing she reads gives her the answer she’s seeking.  She finds other smart people and questions them at length about the meaning of life.  But while the conversations are stimulating and informative, no two people ever agree on the same things.

Finally she sells all her earthly possessions and sets off on a pilgrimage, first to South America, then India.  Everywhere she goes, people tell her they don’t know the meaning of life, but they’ve heard of a man who does—except no one’s sure where he lives.  She asks everywhere, until finally, deep in the Himalayas, an old woman points her to his house—a tiny hut perched high on a mountain just at tree line.  She climbs and climbs, and when she finally reaches his hermitage she’s so cold she can barely scratch at his door.  When a kind-looking old man opens it, she’s about to die of happiness.  “I’ve traveled the entire world to ask you one question,” she gasps.  “What is the meaning of life?” 

“Please come in and have some tea,” the old hermit says.

“No,” she responds.  “I mean, no thank you.  I didn’t come all this way for tea.  I came for an answer.  Tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?”

“We shall have tea,” insists the old man, so she gives up and enters the hut.  Right off she begins to tell him about all the books she’s read, all the people she’s met, all the places she’s been.  The old man listens for there’s no way he could get a word in edgewise.  As she talks, he places a delicate teacup in her hand and begins to pour the tea.  She’s so busy talking she doesn’t notice when the tea cup is full, so the man keeps pouring until the tea is running down the sides of the cup in a steaming waterfall. 

“What are you doing?” she yells when the tea burns her hand.  “It’s full.  Can’t you see that?  Stop!  There’s no more room!”
“Just so,” the man says to her.  “You come here wanting an answer, but what am I to do?  There is no more room in your cup.  Come back when it is empty, and then we will talk.”
Somehow Abram and Sarai knew enough—not too little, not too much—just enough so they were able to trust what the Lord promised them, “Leave your country, your family, and your father’s home for a land that I will show you.  I’ll make you a great nation and bless you.”  So they are looked to as models of faith.  The author of Hebrews says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  But this is not the case for Nicodemus.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, bringing with him his vast store of knowledge and all that that entails, and it gets in his way.  “Rabbi,” he says, “we all know you’re a teacher straight from God.”  And Nicodemus is sure he knows just what that means.  He has checked out Jesus’ references, and he knows all about teachers who come from God and what to expect from them.  “No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it,” he says to Jesus.  He is so sure.

Oh yes, Nicodemus does come asking questions—just like that woman on her pilgrimage—but the answers he seeks will have to fit in with everything he already knows, connect up with all the answers he already has in great abundance.  But Jesus proceeds to fill his head to overflowing with new ideas—sort of like the woman’s teacup.  Nicodemus knows what he knows, and he knows that he knows it, and it’s too much.  It gets in the way.  Well, new birth would correct that nicely.  Start over empty as a newborn, says Jesus—a newborn from above.  But Nicodemus already knows all about birth.  “How can anyone be born who has already been born and grown up?” he asks.

Jesus continues to pour it on.  He speaks of the mysteries of the Spirit/wind—how the wind blows anywhere it chooses, whether or not you know where it comes from or where it goes—and of being born of this Spirit.  Will this Spirit/wind blow Nicodemus’ mind?  Undoubtedly what Jesus says is very confusing, for the same Greek word (and the same Hebrew word, for that matter) means both “wind” and “spirit.” 

Finally Nicodemus admits his ignorance—that he doesn’t know everything after all.  “What do you mean by this?  How does this happen?” he asks.  Often these words are seen as a sign of utter failure—poor old Nicodemus, he just doesn’t understand.  But remember:  it is impossible to learn anything new unless first you are willing to admit the limits of your knowledge, willing to set aside your ego and say, “I don’t know.”

Now, Jesus doesn’t simply leave Nicodemus there with the wind whistling through his blown mind.  If Nicodemus is to respond at all, he needs to know just enough to take the first step on a new journey.  The “enough” is contained in the beginning of that most beloved of all Bible verses, John 3:16—“This is how much God loved the world…”—the kosmos in Greek, everything there is.  It’s like a welcome and an invitation all rolled into one.  And this is enough in order to make the decision to trust in God—knowing that God loves.  I’d say that’s what Abram and Sarai knew just enough of in order for them to make their decision.  They knew that God’s promises are always rooted in God’s love.  It really is enough to know this.

But it can be so very difficult to find the balance between knowing too little and knowing too much.  At times we reject the very notion that we are loveable, let alone that we are, in fact, loved.  We may feel lost and alone and completely unloved.  At other times, faced with the radical newness of the Good News, we are tempted as Christians to take the Bible and pour over it in an attempt to fill our heads with greater and greater knowledge and so feel more certain and secure.  It’s only human to want to know everything we can about where we’re headed.  And there’s nothing wrong with knowledge and understanding… as long as certainty and security don’t become substitutes for faith, as long as all our accumulated answers and doctrines and dogmas don’t keep us from depending upon and trusting in God alone.
      A new convert to Christianity once was asked by a skeptic what he knew about Christ.  “Tell me… where and when and how was he born?”
      “I don’t know,” said the convert.
      “What did he look like?” asked the skeptic.
      “I don’t know.”
      “How many sermons did he preach?”
      “I don’t know.”
      “And how old was he when he died?”
      Again came the answer, “I don’t know.”
      “Well, you certainly know very little for someone who claims to be converted to being a follower of Christ!”
       “That is very true,” said the new convert.  “I hope to learn more about him.  But this much I do know right now:  Last year I was a drunkard.  I was deep in debt.  My family was falling to pieces.  My wife and children dreaded my return from the bars each evening.  But now I am sober; we are out of debt; and our home is a happy one.  All this God in Christ has done for me.  This much I know!”
There is a kind of knowing that leads to transformation, trust, and new creation.  If you are not experiencing rebirth and renewal in your life, perhaps it is because you don’t know enough.  Or perhaps it is because you know too much.

God so loves the world…  Know this!  It is just enough to start with.  Amen and amen.


John 3:1-17 [The Message]

1-2 There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”
3 Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”
4 “How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”
5-6 Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
7-8 “So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”
9 Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”
10-12 Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?
13-15 “No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.
16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. 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.

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