Harrowing Of Hell
June 5, 2012

Trinity Sunday

Preacher: The Reverend Kate Wesch

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

At my house, we’ve been reading a lot of Curious George books lately.  You know, the children’s series about George the monkey and his friend, the man with the yellow hat.   My one and a half year old daughter loves them.  Her current favorite is entitled, “Happy Easter, Curious George.”

The plotlines are predictable.  George and the man with the yellow hat go somewhere, experience something educational, and inevitably, George’s curiosity gets the best of him and he gets into trouble.   George is rescued from whatever predicament he finds himself in and learns something from the whole experience.

No wonder toddlers love these stories; they repeat this series of events dozens of times each day as they learn about their world.  Humans, just like little monkeys, are naturally curious about everything.  Children constantly test the limits, push the boundaries, and love to explore everything in their environment.

At this stage, kids will believe anything until they figure out the patterns and norms of the world.  A bird can fly, so surely they can fly after taking a leap off the arm of the sofa, right? Eventually, they begin to figure things out — like gravity.

A small child trusts and believes because things appear a certain way and they have no reason to doubt, until….they fall off the sofa.  Or, until they get stung by that bee.  Or, until an adult in their life disappoints them.  With each inevitable blow, a small piece of their innocence slips away and they begin to be wise to the world.

But, that innate curiosity never leaves us.  It stays with us as we age and changes focus as journey through life.  A fascination with literature may blossom into an interest in writing poetry, which may lead us to mediation and prayer.

Curiosity in health and fitness may lead us to weight lifting and running marathons or learning to garden and cook fresh, locally sourced meals.  Maybe you become a self-taught expert on CS Lewis or Thomas Merton.  Or, you throw yourself into a fascinating career or charitable work with a non-profit.  Whatever it may be, curiosity drives us throughout a lifetime.

It is that same curiosity that drives Nicodemus to ask theological questions of Jesus in the middle of the night in today’s gospel reading.  In the culture of Jesus’ day, it was believed that the best time to study was late at night when the world was dark and still – without distractions.  I think some of you would agree.  In this encounter, Jesus recognizes Nicodemus as a serious seeker and student and mentors him through this debate.

The name, Nicodemus, means “conqueror of the people” and this character represents for us a type.  He was a Pharisee, a legal scholar, a person educated and well versed in logic.    On the other hand, you have Jesus.  Jesus was also smart, but a person with a warm heart, more focused on compassion and care.  It might make sense to think of Nicodemus as representative of the left-brain   and Jesus, the right.

Nicodemus knew his way around the kingdom of the Pharisees, the kingdom of the Romans and of politicians, but not GOD’S KINGDOM.  God’s kingdom was uncharted territory for Nicodemus and in order to enter that world, he had to have a fundamental change of heart, a transformation of the soul.

I think Nicodemus was a lot like us.  Just a guy wrestling with what to believe.  He may have even called himself spiritual but not religious.  But, he couldn’t ignore his curiosity.  Something was stirring deep in his soul and demanded attention.  So, he went straight to the source – directly to Jesus.

In life, there is a big difference between believing something and believing in something.  My favorite preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way, “Someone shows you a picture of himself climbing the rock face of a mountain, tells you it can be done, and you say, “I believe you.”  You accept the proposition.  You give your intellectual assent, but it does not interfere with the way you live your life, because it is all in your head.

There is another level of belief that is much more visceral.  Instead of showing you the pictures, someone invites you to go rock climbing with him.  As he checks the knots on your harness and runs your safety line through the carabiner around his own waist, he assures you that everything will be all right.  The proper response at that point is not, “I believe you” but, “I believe in you,” because you are way past anything like intellectual assent.  You have set yourself in relationship with this person, and you are trusting him with your life.”

Nicodemus was halfway there.  Something about Jesus was compelling, causing him to seek Jesus out at night to ask questions.  Jesus tells him, “You must be born from above.”  Jesus intends for Nicodemus to experience radical transformation of his soul.  He anticipates a total change of heart, values, worldview, and orientation.

The larger issues at play in this story are power, prestige, and privilege versus compassion, servant hood, and service.  In chapter seven of John’s gospel, Nicodemus reappears where he is once again sympathetic to Jesus and interested in his teachings.

The last time Nicodemus appears, he is alongside Joseph of Arimathea – a secret disciple of Jesus – and together they bury Jesus’ body.

When Nicodemus arrives at the tomb, he carefully takes 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe, wraps the body with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews, and places the body in the tomb.

Indeed, radical transformation had taken place between their late night conversation about being born from above and Nicodemus’ loving act of extravagance reminiscent of Mary anointing Jesus with perfume only days before.

The senseless gun violence on the streets of our city in recent days makes me sad.  I wonder what has happened to the curiosity of the lost souls mired in violence as a way of life.  I’m weary as I think of the devastating toll these acts take on our community, our police force and first responders, the families and loved ones of the victims and shooters.

I wonder what it might take for our community to transform reckless power wielded from a gun into compassion, servant hood, and service towards others.

What I see in the newspaper lately is a far cry from the kingdom of heaven.  And yet, the kingdom of God is right here, right now.

Today, we think about the holy Trinity: God; father, son, and Holy Spirit.  God, the creator, the preserver, and life giver.  The trinity is relational.

The Trinity represents God.  And, God lives in God’s kingdom, where what God wants to happen always happens the way God wants it to happen.

That is most definitely not what is happening in our city today. And that is why community is so important.  Community is where the radical transformations of heart and soul takes place when we vow to support and uphold one another as we did last Sunday for the seven children being baptized.

Being religious means entering into relationship with your neighbor and opening yourself up to compassion, servant hood, and service.

I pray that we may never lose sight of this, that we may hold on to our curiosity,  that we may continue to hold one another accountable to our relationships.

I pray that we may one day see God’s kingdom where what God wants to happen always happens the way God wants it to happen.

(Taylor, Barbara Brown, “Stay for Tea, Nicodemus,” The Christian Century, 1996.)

Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3: 1-17