Summary: Has your faith gotten dusty over the years? Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus shows how to kick the dust off our faith.
When I was a child, I used to go visit my aunt Mary. Mary lived most of her life as my spinster aunt, but in her late 50’s she consented to marry one of my second cousins. That’s not as bad as it sounds, incidentally. She was my aunt on my father’s side and married Albert Lee, one of my mother’s cousins.
Mary had a radio in her house when I visited her as a child. The radio had been a part of her childhood back in the 20’s and 30’s when it stood in my grandparents’ home. It was one of those tall floor models with one broadcast band and two shortwave bands, just in case we wanted to listen to what kind of misinformation the Russians were tossing out over the airwaves. Every now and then, we’d turn it on and listen, although the quality of the sound was less than sterling.
Another thing about my aunt Mary’s house is that it always seemed to be pretty dusty. I would almost always be seized by an attack of asthma when I went over there. My parents always thought I was too excitable, but I discovered later that I was allergic to house dust – and there was an abundance of that at Mary’s house.
Aunt Mary died back in the early 80’s. The radio ended up at my dad’s house in Mineola after that. He did some work on it, refinishing it and dressing it up a bit. When dad died in 1992, I inherited it. Some of you probably noticed it when you were over for our Christmas party.
Last week, I was looking at that radio and noticed a good bit of dust had settled onto the tubes. I also saw a metal box of other components on the inside that probably hasn’t been opened since the 1930’s. I thought to myself, I’ll bet some of the dust from Aunt Mary’s house – and possibly even from my dad’s childhood home is inside that little metal housing. It may be that’s one of the reasons that the radio doesn’t work anymore – all the dust. That radio is a beautiful piece of furniture, but it’s lost its functionality. It really is no longer a radio; it’s a conversation piece and a bit of family history and even a lampstand. And, it’s dusty on the inside.
For all the work my dad did on restoring that radio, I would have thought he’d try to get it into working condition again, but he never even tried. It was probably the only thing from his childhood he had managed to hang on to with the exception of a few photographs. But he never worried about the fact that it didn’t work. He just wanted it to be presentable to the public.
Nicodemus reminds me of that radio. On the outside, he looks pretty good. Over the course of his lifetime, he had risen through the ranks of religious leaders in his community to the point where he has a reputation for being a pretty spiritual guy. Jesus calls him “a teacher of Israel.” That’s quite a compliment. Nicodemus has his offices in Jerusalem. He’s a theological insider, an expert on spiritual things, someone who is skilled at teaching these things to others. It would be difficult to find fault with Nicodemus based on the externals.
But if you were to explore Nicodemus on the inside, I wonder what you’d find? It’s apparent that he’s interested in Jesus and wonders what’s going on with him, but it’s also apparent that Nicodemus doesn’t seem to get it when Jesus starts to talk to him about a deeper life of the Spirit. “You must be born again,” Jesus says. Nicodemus scratches his head and says, “Huh? That’s not possible. I can’t crawl back into my mother’s belly and start over just like that.” Maybe he’s being cynical. Or maybe his voice is more wistful than that: “Can human nature really be changed? Can we really start over? I don’t think so.” Either way, he doesn’t really believe what Jesus is telling him. His whole life had been not only a witness but also an example of how it’s possible to hold a religious faith that grows grimy and dusty with time and loses its ability to change a life.
That sort of faith is a pretty showpiece and will impress the socks off most folks who look at it. They’ll “ooh” and “aah” over the mastery a man like this has over the Bible and the various commentaries that have been written about it. They’ll be impressed by his ability to argue about theological trivia. Still others will be overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge and depth of insight he has into the present situation in Jerusalem. He’ll know all about the prophecies about the Messiah and will be looking forward to his arrival.