Good News for Offensive, Manipulative, Hypocritical, Conservative, Orthodox, Religious People

Religious Instruction 1978Night

Last week we talked about how God’s “no show” in our time of need has driven many moderns to believe there is no God. Elie Wiesel’s classic Night talks about how the prisoners of the Nazi death camps came to conclusions that either God had abandoned them or there was no god given their circumstance. In this story, just giving up on God meant that Akiba Drumer, a rabbi from a small town in Poland gave himself over to death.

He was old and bent, his lips constantly trembling. He was always praying, in the block, at work, in the ranks. He recited entire pages from the Talmud, arguing with himself, asking and answering himself endless questions. One day, he said to me:

“It’s over. God is no longer with us.”

And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in his broken voice, “ I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God’s mercy? Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?”

Poor Akiba Drumer, if only he could have kept his faith in God, if only he could have considered this suffering a divine test, he would not have been swept away by the selection. But as soon as he felt the first chinks in his faith, he lost all incentive to fight and opened the door to death.

When the selection came, he was doomed from the start, offering his neck to the executioner, as it were. All he asked of us was:

“In three days, I’ll be gone … Say Kaddish for me.”

We promised: in three days, when we would see the smoke rising from the chimney, we would think of him. We would gather ten men and hold a special service. All his friends would say Kaddish.

Wiesel, Elie (2012-02-07). Night (pp. 76-77). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Yhwh the Avenger

We long to have God act like Mr. Incredible. While there are Psalms where God’s people suffer, there is also Psalm 18. 

Psalm 18:6–20 (NET)

6In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried out to my God. From his heavenly temple he heard my voice; he listened to my cry for help.

7The earth heaved and shook; the roots of the mountains trembled; they heaved because he was angry.

8Smoke ascended from his nose; fire devoured as it came from his mouth; he hurled down fiery coals.

9He made the sky sink as he descended; a thick cloud was under his feet.

10He mounted a winged angel and flew; he glided on the wings of the wind.

11He shrouded himself in darkness, in thick rain clouds.

12From the brightness in front of him came hail and fiery coals.

13The Lord thundered in the sky; the sovereign One shouted.

14He shot his arrows and scattered them, many lightning bolts and routed them.

15The depths of the sea were exposed; the inner regions of the world were uncovered by your battle cry, Lord, by the powerful breath from your nose.

16He reached down from above and took hold of me; he pulled me from the surging water.

17He rescued me from my strong enemy, from those who hate me, for they were too strong for me.

18They confronted me in my day of calamity, but the Lord helped me.

19He brought me out into a wide open place; he delivered me because he was pleased with me.

20The Lord repaid me for my godly deeds; he rewarded my blameless behavior.

This is the god we long for. We plead that God be reliable like this and come when we call him.

When the Jesus meets the devil in the wilderness to be tested this is the kind of Son of God Satan wants to see Jesus become, and Jesus demures. Jesus refused to satisfy his natural and common need with divine power by turning stones into bread. He refuses to ride an angel down from the pinnacle of the temple as his Messianic coming out party. He refuses to cut a deal with Satan for political and military power. He resists the devil not with long argumentation but by humbling quoting the Old Testament.

Messiah or Miracle Max?

What happens next is enormously confusing for us and everyone who witnessed Jesus ministry. Jesus starts doing miracles. He turns water into wine. He multiplies loaves and fishes. He makes the lame to walk, the deaf to hear and the blind to see. Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing Satan wanted Jesus to do? Hasn’t he now become Miracle Max?

Jesus is acting like Mr. Incredible sweeping in out of the sky to rescue common people out of their calamities. He also understands, like Mr. Incredible that for all of this rescuing the people won’t “stay saved”.

No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for… for ten minutes! The Incredibles

Jesus will in fact sweep in out of the sky to save them, but everyone watching will be utterly blind to what he is doing. In fact his enemies will be fully convinced in that exact moment that this is Jesus’ final destruction. In other words, Jesus will save, but the form of this salvation will be utterly unintelligible even as he affects it.

This dynamic actually creates an enormous problem for Jesus. Jesus’ miraculous acts of salvation on behalf of individuals bring him attention to captivate and distract his audience. They completely misunderstand what we need to be saved from and how God actually saves us from it. We continue to imagine that with more knowledge and power we will be able to rescue ourselves from our mess, the same thought that possessed Adam and Eve to take the path they did. When we see Jesus then, we begin to imagine that he is the relational ticket to the knowledge and power that will be the answer to our problems.

Jesus knows this and sees it playing out around him. 

John 2:23–25 (NRSV)

23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

Here’s God’s problem. When he shows up to rescue us from ourselves with power, we approach our relationship with him as a tool to gain power in order to continue to take the world from him and turn it towards ourselves, usually at the expense of our neighbors and enemies. This is what we do in our rebellion even when we think we are doing good. This is what is at the heart of religion. We attempt to appropriate God’s power in order to accomplish what we imagine to be good.

Groping in the Dark

Jesus’ display of power has caught the attention of wealthy and poor, weak and powerful, outcasts and the well connected. Nicodemus was a powerful, well-connected conservative religious leader in Jerusalem honest enough to get beyond some of the petty reasons others were finding fault with Jesus, but not bold enough to approach or associate himself with Jesus publicly. Perhaps Jesus could be reasoned with and this obvious divine power could be channeled along the sort of lines that Nicodemus thought would be more orthodox, practical or reasonable.

John 3:1–2 (NET)

1 Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council,2 came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

So Nicodemus sees the power, has the intellectual honesty to accept that God is working through him but sees Jesus as a “teacher”. He doesn’t see Jesus as someone to be worshiped. Jesus is perhaps a tool that can be appropriated to the agenda and religion to which Nicodemus already subscribes. Jesus and his power can be useful. Nicodemus will feel him out, see if there is some room for negotiation and hopefully appropriation.

Riddles in the Dark

Jesus knows exactly what Nicodemus is doing and why. Jesus could have rightly simply dismissed him and reasonably said “If you suspect the power displayed in me is utterly unique, shouldn’t you also completely follow me laying down your own agenda? Do you seriously think you can somehow relationally appropriate me and make me your tool?”

Why doesn’t Jesus say this? Because it does no good. We’ve been instinctively doing this ever since we were introduced to the idea of God. We learned it from our parents all the way back to our first parents.

What does Jesus need to do? He needs to bring this man who is full of himself, full of confidence in his own systems and his own learning into a space where he is small, open, and available, like a child.

Jesus will tell Nicodemus “unless one is born anothen you cannot see the kingdom of God”. “anothen” has two meanings in Greek, it can mean “again” or “from above”. Nicodemus will express his incredulity by embracing “again” but Jesus clearly means “from above” which is from where Jesus claims to have come. We will see Jesus enter into this kind of ambiguities with people repeatedly in the Gospel of John.

Nicodemus, full of himself scoffs.

John 3:4 (NET)

4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?”

Jesus responds

John 3:5–8 (NET)

5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above.’8 The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus draws Nicodemus into a space that reveals the inability of Nicodemus to adequately SEE Jesus. He then follows up with the idea that not only is Nicodemus unable to SEE Jesus, who Jesus really is, he is also completely unable to rescue himself. He needs this kind of Psalm 18 rescue, but in ways and at levels that Nicodemus is completely unprepared to receive.

The Trinity

While Luke used the books of Luke and Acts to express the revelation of Jesus, John puts it all into this one book. As we’ll see this week and next Jesus keeps pointing to the Holy Spirit. What Jesus says here is that the swooping in is God’s work through the Holy Spirit and that God is free to do with what he chooses. This is a devastating message for us because the premise of seeking out Jesus either boldly in the full light of day or timidly under the cover of night is that we are in control. Jesus says it simply isn’t the case.


Nicodemus isn’t buying. He may see the power that Jesus has, but we aren’t bought off so cheep. Unless we can appropriate the power for ourselves, we hold back, wait for other options, try to make things on our own.

John 3:9 (NET)

9 Nicodemus replied, “How can these things be?”

Jesus then begins a long discourse that contains one of the most famous verses in the Bible.

John 3:10–15 (NET)

10 Jesus answered, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things?

Jesus begins by addressing Nicodemus as someone who should know better than he is doing. None of this should be confusing for him because Jesus asserts that this has in fact all been revealed in the Old Testament through Israel’s history. Both the rescue and the suffering have been Israel’s mission.

Now Jesus starts to change the “person” of the speech. What began as Jesus “I” speaking to Nicodemus (2nd person singular) becomes “We” speaking to “Israel”.

11 I tell you the solemn truth, we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony.12 If I have told you people about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man.14 Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

At this point Nicodemus should do one of the following:

  1. Storm out of the room considering himself an idiot to have been duped by this insane person. But how could he have done the signs if he were insane?
  2. Try to kill Jesus with his bare hands or get some other God-fearing Jews to help stone him because what he just said was absolute blasphemy if not true
  3. Hit the floor and worship Jesus

Nicodemus does none of it. He’s scared, confused, trying to keep a grip on his religious system.

The Son of Man Comes!

Things are getting difficult for Nicodemus indeed. Not only has Jesus insulted him by tell him he can’t even see the Kingdom of God unless he is born from above, by the Holy Spirit, and not only is Jesus disappointed that of all people he doesn’t have any understanding of himself or of what Jesus is doing. Now Jesus will slip into the 3rd person plural and start talking about the “Son of Man” character who is a figure Nicodemus is well familiar with found in Daniel 7.

Nicodemus, again is hoping for a divine power that he can call, that he and his group anticipate and can appropriate to their vision of how the world should be saved which will follow the predictable pattern of “my rescue into well-being at the expense of my enemies”. Jesus now brings into the conversation the rescuer envisioned by Daniel in pagan exile who defeats the imperial monsters.

Daniel 7:13–14 (NET)

13 I was watching in the night visions, “And with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. 14 To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him. His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed.

Jesus is saying to Nicodemus “you sneak in here at night full of yourself, worried about your reputation among your friends and enemies in Jerusalem and you come here to me to try to feel me out and co-opt me to your petty agenda? You of all people should know who and what you are groping towards in the dark but you don’t.”

Then Jesus basically reveals his entire mission to Nicodemus in language he of all people should be able to understand but simply can’t. 

This Son of Man that Nicodemus is groping towards and cannot see will in fact be lifted up like the bronze serpent in the desert to save Israel from her own disobedience and all it will take for Israel’s rescue will be to look upon that Son of Man being lifted up and believe.

And the Good News

John 3:16–21 (NET)

16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.

19 Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. 21 But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God.

For Whom is This Story Told?

So far I’ve been mostly locating this story in the context of a conversation in Jerusalem in the dark 2000 years ago. I think there is ample reason that the author of this book tells us this story for far broader reasons. As I mentioned before John is doing in one book what Luke tried to do in two. Next week we will address the outsiders but this week’s lesson is for conservative, Bible believing, religious people like many of us. We have invested our time, our money, our efforts, our hearts into the grand project of acquiring power through trying to relate to God so that we may procure him for our benefit. When God finally does show up, we approach him in the dark to hide from him (like Adam and Eve in the garden), to not be seen by our religious friends and enemies, in the hopes of striking a deal with him. This is incredibly offensive and indicative of the ignorance of our minds and corruption of our hearts.

Religious people are users of people because we are users of God and it takes us nowhere.

When God fails to show up as we believe our religious dues paying requires of him we throw up our hands, seeing that what we wanted to portray as loyalty was actually just manipulation in an attempt to manipulate the un-manipulatable.

Nicodemus sneaks out to Jesus in the darkness and Jesus notes that he remains in darkness, unable to see Jesus. The project that he wished to construct to see God was just a religious version of the Tower of Babel. It collapses in the kind of divisive confusion of religion that mirrors the confusion of language at the temple. Jesus calls us on the project.

No, we cannot construct a religious Tower of Babel not matter how truthful the building blocks, even of the Old Testament. We must be born from above. It all comes from God. We don’t build it from the ground up. Our religious projects are utterly futile and useless.

Good New Even for Offensive Religious People

After Jesus calls Nicodemus, and us, on our manipulative way of approaching God he gives us the good news.

To those subjugated by empire, lost in the darkness of the world, the mighty one has heard our cry and he does mount up on angels and fly from heaven for our rescue. It does not take the shape and form our evil hearts assume, making him part of our petty wars between each other. The darkness is from us. We are the hiders hoping we can appropriate divine wrath to target our enemies.

God’s champion, the Son of Man comes. Although he has creator, authorial power over history, he comes as a man of sorrows to be lifted up, to join the sufferers of this world.

We approach the Son of Man, seeing his power hoping we can appropriate him. When we learn of his mission to be handed over and killed, we like Peter reiterate the temptation of Satan.

Jesus lays waste to all of our religiosity. All that is needed is need. The Son of Man, the champion who alone can destroy monstrous empires of the world willingly is sacrificed by them and in that death and resurrection destroys their power.

Followers of the Son of Man follow in his footsteps. They too now are filled with his kind of cruciform and resurrection power if they believe him, not to turn stones into bread, but to suffer, die and be raised with him.

Nicodemus Again

What is strange about this story is that it is left undone by John. We begin with the Nicodemus story and when Jesus breaks out into sermon, showing us to be how we really are the story is completely dropped. Look at the next verse.

John 3:22 (NET)

22 After this, Jesus and his disciples came into Judean territory, and there he spent time with them and was baptizing.

We want to know, “what did Nicodemus do?!”

The point of the story is not what Nicodemus did but what we will do with what Jesus had to say. We will find Nicodemus far later in the story publicly asking for Jesus’ dead body, and expending his reputation and treasure for the body of the slain Son of Man, but that is not for this moment. This moment is for us.

Jesus Exposes Even the Orthodox as Religious Manipulators

Have you been working your religion to try to make God your own personal superhero, your Mr. Incredible that will respond to your own beck and call when you are in a pinch or when history isn’t turning out like you think God should make it happen? Then you, like me (for even my job is religion) may be sneaking to Jesus at night hoping you can turn him to our agenda. Do we really the stupidity of this? How offensive this is to one who would make a thing such as this universe? Can any other pride be so offensive and sinful? This is us.

He is Gracious Even to the Prideful Like Ourselves

Jesus reminds us, like he did to Nicodemus that we have no coin that God recognizes to try to bribe Him. We can’t even recognize God’s work among us unless we are supernaturally born from above. This offends us deeply. We claim and demand that we are smart enough, well informed enough to make judgments about right and wrong, good and bad, helpful and unhelpful. We demand God MUST recognize our judgments. God patiently ignores our ignorance.

God’s mission towards us is not based on our demands, it is based solely on his mercy and our need. He engineers it according to his will, not our desires or expectations. The Spirit blows where it will, not where we will it too.

Are you religious? Do you find that your efforts, desires and prayers never work out as if God were a machine or a faithful servant of yours? Do you find that religious people of all stripes are constantly in disagreement over just about everything? Has every system that is suppose to tame God failed? Should we expect anything less? We are all radical recipients, not in a position to command anything. Won’t we release our expectations of God just a little bit?

The Son of Man Comes out of God’s Love for this World

Look to the Son of Man and place your trust in him. Don’t trust your own religious systems and the ways you want to manipulate God.

The best definition of a “saved” person is someone who trusts in Jesus more than they trust in him or herself. That is all you need.

That is the beginning of the walk that passes through suffering and into the life of the age to come.

Poor Akiba Drumer

Poor Akiba Drumer, if only he could have kept his faith in God, if only he could have considered this suffering a divine test, he would not have been swept away by the selection. But as soon as he felt the first chinks in his faith, he lost all incentive to fight and opened the door to death.

Wiesel’s Night is eerily prophetic. Again and again on one hand he declares God dead and in the next sentence he expresses faith. Religion is the ultimate addiction.

Even the Nazi death camps were simply sped up expressions of the age of decay. We all have everything taken away from us, family, goods, aspirations, longings. The age of decay strips us bare, leaves us naked, alone and dead.

Jesus enters the age of decay to walk through it with us and for us. Not trusting him really doesn’t give you anything. You will not beat it. Understand how he saves even as he dies because he rises. Trust him more than you trust yourself and you will be able to walk through any fire.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Good News for Offensive, Manipulative, Hypocritical, Conservative, Orthodox, Religious People

  1. Pingback: Lent 2014 |

  2. Pingback: Living Water in the Age of Decay |

  3. Pingback: Seeing Through Suffering Into Light |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s