A middle-aged man stands in a glass-skinned office tower. It’s all sharp angles and sheen. In his memory Jack sees his father squatted down, working in the garden picking bug-eaten leaves out of greens. He sees his younger self approach his father who nods in welcome. Jack remembers his father’s words: “I wanted to be loved because I was great, a big man. I’m nothing.” His father’s voice continues, “Look at the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.” Jack’s father wanted to be a musician and when that failed to happen he turned his focus to engineering. None of his ideas caught on. He lost his job. He had told his sons that if you wanted to make something of yourself you had to do it by force of will and discipline.
This is a scene from Terrance Malick’s film The Tree of Life. The scene is sobering, maybe even wrenching, but not because it’s graphic at all. It is powerful simply because it hits so close to home for many of us. Anyone who has ever wanted to be a great woman or man, who has wanted to say to the next generation, “this is how it’s done, this is how you achieve something,” if you’ve had big ambitions and then failed—you would recognize this father’s shame as one of the little traumas that make up our lives.
The Tree of Life came out in 2011. It is one of those ambitious films that you either love or hate. It’s abstract and ambitious. If you don’t like it, it’s pretentious. The film begins with lines from the book of Job, something like this: “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth . . . when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy.” Then it proceeds through a series of nonlinear memories from Jack’s childhood in Texas. Jack and he’s the oldest of three sons.
Jack’s mother is a model of grace. She’s gentle, kind, forgiving and playful. One day she wakes up the boys by putting ice down their backs. But Jack takes after his father. He is the embodiment of nature. He is hard-edged, strong, clear and demanding. The father wakes up his sons in the morning by pulling back the curtains and gruffly yanking off their blankets. The film explores the interaction of these two things: grace and nature. “No one who ever loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end,” says Jack’s mother. Maybe that’s true, but the film speaks to those of us who aren’t convinced.
As much as Malick tries to tell a story of nature and grace in the rub of life, he also tries to show it through images. Part way through the film Jack’s memories are interrupted by a long series of natural images: scenes from the origins of the cosmos and the beginning of life. The big bang itself, the origins of stars and the Milky Way galaxy. Lava meeting the ocean’s waves. Steam rises in the hazy mystery that can only be life itself. A flock of birds, thousands of them, fly above a city skyline. They swoop and soar. Nature and grace together. Malick, led by God’s response to Job, gives no direct answer to why our lives unfold exactly as they do. He only puts it in context: exploding stars and dashing meteors, children running through the outflow of a garden hose and curtains dancing with the wind.
It’s against the backdrop of such questions and images that I think we best reflect on the story of Nicodemus and Jesus. When we hear this story from John’s gospel, there are the familiar ideas: the wind blowing where it chooses, God’s love for the world, the Son coming not to condemn but to save. The story takes us there and presses this question: do we believe that looking to Jesus somehow and someway saves? Part of the challenge of Jesus and part of the challenge of the gospels that tell his story is that they push us for a response: do we believe or do we not?
In the gospels we do not primarily encounter an object that we can take up or not. We do not primarily encounter a theory that we can argue with or submit to our political agendas. No, mostly we encounter a person who invites us to follow him through life’s honors and humiliations, through grief and elation.
Here is how that unfolds in these verses from John 3. The story of Nicodemus is a simple story, but I think one of the most alluring in all the gospels.
Things begin with an evening meeting. If you have been a lay leader in a congregation, this or any other one, you will know that things happen in evening meetings. At our congregation they begin at 7:30 and usually end at 10:00. At 10:00 everyone goes home, decompresses in some way and then stumbles in to work the next morning. “Too much to drink,” I imagine a committee-member’s colleague asking the day after an evening meeting. “No,” is the reply, “too much church.”
The entirety of our gospel reading takes place during an evening meeting that has implications, not only for Nicodemus’s next day, but for the rest of his life. It begins with Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and Jewish leader, approaching Jesus after dark. One of the important things about the way John tells this story, is how he leaves space within in it. John doesn’t tell us why Nicodemus came at night. We can’t help but wonder about it though. What if we had been sitting with Jesus on the rooftop patio in the evening coolness when the knock came? What would we have thought when we saw it was Nicodemus? Was he afraid of being seen? Did he want to assess Jesus in private? Was he more ready to believe Jesus’ message than the other Pharisees or does the shrouding of his visit in darkness signify his ignorance?
As we listen to the two of them talk we learn that Nicodemus was drawn to the signs of Jesus’ ministry. It was probably the miracles, the healing and the authority of Jesus’ teaching that got his attention. Nicodemus is a man who relies on the evidence, and here in the ministry of Jesus the evidence says something extraordinary is going on. So the religious leader has come to ask questions.
You listen closely to the two as they talk. You notice that the exchange is uneven the whole way through. Nicodemus says the signs he’s seen could only be done through the presence of God. Jesus responds by saying that one can’t even ‘see the kingdom of God without being born from heaven.’ Nicodemus comes from the realm of nature. This is the hard-edged world. The world of physical cause and effect. This is the world of measurements and quantification. It is the world of strategies and programs. Jesus speaks of the kingdom—the realm of grace. Here there is kindness and gentleness. This is the world of mystery beyond our analytical tools. The world of genuine encounter, not judgment. Two people, two points of origin and one question pressed: do you believe?
You lean back against the patio wall, “How,” Nicodemus asks. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Now here is a crucial point: Jesus doesn’t answer the ‘how’. There is no method or formula for being born anew.
Maybe you’ve had one of those situations where you’ve found yourself at some train station or airport that isn’t your final destination. You know where you need to go, so you approach the clerk and ask for a ticket.
You even point to the place on the map, “I need to go here. This is where I’m headed.” The clerk shrugs, “You can’t get there from here. It just won’t work.” This is the way of God’s kingdom and the way of grace. There’s no way to make it happen. You hear Jesus say, “The wind blows where it chooses.”
Again, Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” He doesn’t seem to understand the fact that what Jesus is talking about is something more than a set of steps for self-improvement. It’s more than simply embracing a political program. It’s more than trying harder. Jesus responds by making the same point he did earlier. He says that if Nicodemus can’t understand earthly things, he can’t possibly grasp heavenly things. Nicodemus resides in the realm of nature. If he can’t understand the signs that show up in this world, there is no way the realm of grace will make any sense.
You keep listening in on the conversation, but your eyes are drawn to the stars that have begun to emerge from the part of the sky where black is absorbing the blue. Surely Nicodemus believed that God had intervened in the past, at some point. He would have believed that the Torah was a special, gracious gift from God. And he would have believed that God had acted to save Israel from oppression. What the moment demanded, though, was that Nicodemus realize God was acting again. What he couldn’t see was the coming together of lava and ocean waves right before him. Nature and a special act of grace. God intervening in the world.
God loves the world. You could see that from the warmth of the sunlight and the rain that soaked the fields of Judea. So you can’t help but think Jesus treats Nicodemus a little harshly. Jesus is almost dismissive. Maybe, you catch yourself thinking, Jesus had caught something in Nicodemus’s tone, something that told him the Pharisee wasn’t sincere. Or maybe not, maybe this was Jesus pushing the question: do you believe? In speaking of heavenly things and the blowing of the Spirit, all this stuff beyond human control, his point might be that what is required is simple belief.
You lean in to listen as Jesus shifts into a different mode. He says that what’s required is simply to look at the Son of Man lifted up and say ‘yes, that is where my hope lies.’ Jesus says that God sent him into the world for just this reason, to save it. God did not send the Son into the world just to condemn it for not living up to its potential. God sent the Son to save the world, to save the people of Judea, the people of Texas and the people in the office towers.
You shift a little as you realize that Jesus isn’t just speaking to Nicodemus. He has your ears in mind too. The question is there for you. It isn’t a question that can be met with analysis or with hedging. It isn’t a question you can avoid answering. It is here in Jesus. Do you believe it’s true? Do you believe that this flesh and blood speaker somehow, in some way represents an interruption in the natural order? Do you believe that somehow all of life, from the first living organism to the first fleck of self-consciousness points to this person answering questions with questions in the gathering dusk? Do you believe this indeed is an act of God’s grace? Do you believe it’s not an accident of history or the dross of social forces, but an act of a living God? Do you believe?
At the end of her memoir of conversion Lauren Winner relates a short story from the Talmud. It goes something like this:
One day a Rabbi met the prophet Elijah and asked him when the Messiah would come. Elijah told the Rabbi to go ask the Messiah himself.
‘But where is he?’ asked the Rabbi.
‘He is at the gate of Rome,’ replied Elijah.
‘How will I recognize him?’
‘He sits with the suffering. He helps to treat their sores. You will know him because the others who help will take off everyone’s old bandages and then put new ones on. The Messiah works with one person at a time. He thinks he may be summoned at any moment.’
So the Rabbi went and found the Messiah as Elijah had said. He greeted him in peace and then asked, ‘Master, when is are you coming?’
‘I’m coming today,’ the Messiah said.
Satisfied, the Rabbi left. Later returned to Elijah, who asked him what the Messiah said.
The Rabbi replied, ‘He lied to me. He said he would come today, and he has not come.’
Elijah paused then replied quietly, ‘He meant, today, if you would only listen to his
Lord, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen