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.
But it’s all just so much dust being stirred up, isn’t it? Because, when push comes to shove, Nicodemus seems to be a good religious man, but he doesn’t seem to have the capacity to receive what Jesus is telling him. He doesn’t seem to connect with the possibility that things in his life really CAN be any different. He’s been held hostage all his life by a view that values tradition over transformation; that values convention over conversion; that views any change in the system as a threat to his position and personal security. He latches on to the dust and detritus of his unproductive faith with a deathgrip because he knows if he lets go he’ll need to change on the inside. And that’s something he’s not quite so sure about.
Kicking the dust off our faith doesn’t mean that we have to change every now and then. Rather, change is a fundamental and ongoing characteristic of those who live their lives under the leadership of Jesus. You might even say that a follower of Jesus is someone who is undergoing continuous conversion or change. Unfortunately, he doesn’t give us the option of following him without letting him change us.
There’s something extremely sad about Nicodemus. He has so much knowledge and so much potential, but his faith is dusty. Is he religious? Most assuredly. Does he know the Bible? No question. Nicodemus is not a rascal or a degenerate. He’s probably never committed adultery or stolen anything in his life. He signifies the very best that we as humans have to offer. But there’s a tragedy in this because his life and his faith are inadequate to the demand that Jesus places upon them.
Kicking the dust off his faith involves more than renewed resolve or attempting to live a better life. It takes an act of God. Like us, Nicodemus has to be born from above. The wind of the Spirit will have to come and blow the dust off all of us. The water of the Spirit will have to come and wash the dust off us. All the determination and willpower in the world can’t remove the dust from my faith. Only God can bring about that kind of change. The wind blows where it wants to. We don’t make the wind and we can’t move the Spirit. Rather, the Spirit must move us if we are to become whole again and have the grime and dust of a decayed faith driven out of us.
Over my years in church life, I’ve encountered more people who were concerned about dust in the church building than they were about the dust that has settled on their faith. They walk through their lives with a white glove, checking for dust on the externals, making sure that all the I’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed in a proper way; always there to make sure that everything is clean and spotless by their way of thinking. Nicodemus lived his entire life making certain of the same things: am I keeping the rules? Am I true to my heritage? Is my church faithful to the old ways? And while they’re busy dusting the shelves and the pews a powdery grit settles in on their faith and piles up, deepening over the years, eventually packing in on top of itself and hardening to a thick crust that’s hard to get through. Focusing on the externals is much easier than what Jesus asks of us. It’s something we can control and fix – or at least we think so. Walking by the kind of faith that Jesus demands of us is much more difficult.
Nicodemus was comfortable. He was entrenched in his career and locked into the status quo. He had invested his whole life in this system, so much so that he has to come to Jesus in the dark in a clandestine setting so nobody will see him. He’s afraid of the consequences of actually being seen with Jesus. There’s a link here, incidentally, between our receptivity to Jesus and how much we’ve invested in the way things are – the degree to which we’ve settled into a system that provides us with comfort and stability. Perhaps that’s one reason why the statistics demonstrate that as a person grows older the possibility of genuine conversion tends to decrease. The dust has settled and we’ve become comfortable.
I read a story this past week about Gary Burge, a professor at Wheaton College. Burge was leading a tour through the Holy Land. On one occasion, he happened to get to know one of the local guides, a Jewish man named Moshe who was extremely conversant in the religious history of his country. While they were at Capernaum, Moshe gave a 500-year history of the site. He could recite every story Jesus ever told in that lakeside village. Finally, Burge asked him, “Since you know more about Jesus than most Christians, what do you think about the truth of his words?” Burge figured it wasn’t the first time Moshe had been asked that question. His Jewish guide looked at him quietly and replied, “Jesus words are interesting, but I’m a Jew and that’s where I’m comfortable.”
Nicodemus might have said those same words that night. “Jesus, I hear what you’re saying and it’s very interesting, but I’m comfortable where I am.” “I’m dusty, Jesus, and I intend to stay that way.”
In the contemporary movie, “Keeping the Faith,” Jake and Brian are hip clergymen who wear black leather jackets and shoot hoops in the park, where they’re known as "God Squad." In their respective pulpits, they are charismatic showmen with mikes, playing to adoring congregations with lively, non-dogmatic sermons. To galvanize his flock into impassioned involvement, Jake even brings in a gospel choir to give their traditional Hebrew prayers an entirely new flavor. The elders of both congregations are, of course, appalled by a good bit of what these two rogue clergy do. But Brian makes it clear in his narration that all he wants to do is get them to “kick the dust off their faith.”
I love the antique radio in my house. It’s a beautiful piece of my family heritage – one of the few I have. But, as I’ve said, it doesn’t work and when I want to listen to music I have to have something newer than that. I don’t own a prettier radio than that one, but I also don’t own a more useless one in many ways. There’s too much dust for it to work. How about your soul this morning? Does it make music? Or is it overloaded with dust? I can push buttons on that radio all day long, but nothing will happen. It needs a complete overhaul from the inside out. Jesus says, “So do we.”