Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

John 3:1-17

Pastor Marc's sermon on Trinity Sunday (May 31, 2015) on John 3:1-17. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posted on facebook that she was in a book. Now this isn’t that surprising because she’s a pretty unique person and she’s kind of a big deal in the circles she runs in. People who’ve traveled NYC subways and gone through Union Square, know who she is and she’s appeared in magazines, books, and on tv. So when two writers approached her, asking about her story, I bet she wasn’t surprised. So my friend gave interviewed - and then she didn’t hear from these two for awhile. In fact, she didn’t hear from them again. But, flash forward a bit, and my friend finds out - that these two wrote about her. My friend is in a book, the bulk of one of its chapters, and this book was published two months ago - and no one told her. Finding her story in an unexpected place - well, that did surprise her. And what I found fascinating about the whole thing was what the book is about: the book is a scientific look on surprise. My friend was surprised by appearing in a book that’s all about being surprised. 

The title of that book - is, literally, Surprise and it’s written by two women who study the psychology of being surprised. They want to know why we get surprised, what being surprised does to our body, and how we can use that to better who we are. These two women, Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger, are on the forefront of the science of surprise. Now, we tend to think about being surprised as something big: like, that surprise birthday party, or winning the lottery or something tragic like the unexpected death of a loved on. But the truth is that we spend our lives being surprised all the time. Hearing a new idea or a eating a new kind of food or even just trying something new - inside that kind of experience is surprise. Surprise, at its core, is an event or observation that’s unexpected or misexpected. It’s an experience that doesn’t fit into our expectations and what we thought was suppose to happen. Winning the lotto might be an awesome surprise - but finding a flower on your walk to work in a sand pit is a surprise too. We experience, everyday, dozens of surprises. We’re in a world that is so interconnected, so full of new information and new experiences, that we tend to discount what we see as surprises and call these experiences something else. But life is full of surprises - and on this Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the identity of God, we’re also celebrating that we have a God who is not only full of surprises but a God who lives through our surprises too. 

In our story from the Gospel According to John today, there’s a lot of surprise. Nicodemus is a rabbi, a religious leader and teacher, and he comes to see Jesus in the middle of the night. Now there are many ways to look at this story - many ways to understand and interpret what is going on. But I was struck how this story illustrates how we experience surprise. Now, according to current research, there is a sequence to being surprised. When we are surprised, the first thing we do is freeze. We don’t shout or cry or get a big smile on our face - that happens usually a split second later. But when we’re first surprised, we get this deer in the headlights kind of look. Our brain actually hijacks itself - drawing our focus away from what we were doing and hearing and focusing everything we have on what surprised us. It’s why, when we’re surprised, we sometimes don’t say anything or have a blank look on our face. We freeze up. And then, once we’re focused, our brain tries to figure out what is going on. This is the second part of the sequence and it’s called the Find phase. We ask questions, look around, and try to find out why this is happening. And this phase can last a moment - or longer - maybe even a lifetime. When we’re surprised, “it’s only after we have answers to the majority of our questions” when we’ll finally stop, and consider this case of being surprised closed. 

So I hear in our story Nicodemus doing these two things. He’s curious but he carries with a framework, a perspective, an expectation of who this Jesus is and how this Jesus should be. If Jesus is a religious teacher, a leader, he should fit the mold of what a religious teacher says and does. But once Jesus speaks, Nicodemus’ is surprised. Nicodemus’ eloquence that we see in verse 2 vanishes. Instead, he freezes. And as Jesus words come about being born from above, Nicodemus starts trying to find an answer - an explanation - for what exactly Jesus is saying. Nicodemus is challenged by Jesus - and Nicodemus searches through his religious experience to find something, anything, that can make sense of what Jesus is saying. 

And this is where the third phase of surprise comes in. Jesus confronts Nicodemus’ perspective and his expectation. Jesus is saying things that challenge who Nicodemus is and what Nicodemus believes - so by being surprised, Nicodemus’ perspective and point of view shifts. Even though we don’t hear that in the text - we never hear Nicodemus respond to Jesus’ final words - by the very nature of being surprised, Nicodemus’ point of view is being shifted. Nicodemus experiences something unexpected - and his brain tries to fit that experience into who he is. We eventually see this shift having been accomplished near the end of the book - and not through Nicodemus’ words or his actions. Sixteen chapters from now, Nicodemus will join others in taking Jesus’ body down from the cross and burying it in a tomb. And as this shift in his perspective happens, the final phase of surprise occurs: and that’s share. When we are surprised - whether good or bad - we tend to talk about it. We tend to share this intense emotional experience with our friends, those around us, and anyone who happens to stumble onto the 1000 word essay that becomes our facebook status update. We usually can’t keep this surprising experience to ourselves. And Nicodemus can’t either. Even though the text doesn’t tell us whether Nicodemus ever shared his story - we know it was shared because we just read it - Nicodemus’ story is part of scripture and it’s been becoming part of who we are through these last two thousand years. 

Nicodemus is surprised by Jesus - and I bet Nicodemus is also surprised by where he eventually ends up. And that’s the power of surprise. Some of our strongest and best memories come from the experience of being surprised. Being surprised actually intensifies the emotions we feel. One scientists claims that our emotional intensity is 4x stronger when we’re surprised. And this is probably why we try to run away from surprises. We tend to stick with what we know, with what we’ve experience, with the point of view that we trust and that is controllable and predictable. The intense emotional experience that we have when we’re surprised - even in small surprises - ends up making us vulnerable. We end up a little unraveled, a little out of control, a little out of sorts. So we run from surprises. We pretend that we don’t get surprised very often. We tell our family and friends to never throw us a surprise party or buy us a surprised gift. We don’t meet new people because we’re fine with who we know and what we’ve got. Or we stop going to the doctor because what we don’t know, can’t hurt us. But we live our lives being surprised; being challenged; experiencing intense emotions that unravel who we are and shift us into some place new. And that’s what makes surprises so scary. They bring us, whether we know it or not, to some place new, some place we can’t control, some place where who we are might not be all we need to live through what’s coming. 

But God is all about the surprise. That’s what struck Nicodemus and that’s what strikes us every day. Because God isn’t afraid of surprises. Instead, God is all about doing the surprising thing. God became human; God lived a human life, experiencing our fears and joys and sadness through Jesus, God’s own Son - and he ends up dying on the cross. That’s surprising. And even if we hear the story over and over and over again - we know that what makes the story always new is how surprising it actually is. God’s story - God’s love for creation - God’s mercy and desire to take a chance with us - that’s surprising. And our story - our faith story - from having honest-to-God religious experiences to struggling with having any at all - or from having our prayers actually answered or realizing that through the Spirit, our prayers have done the surprising thing and changed us from who we were before - the fact that God keeps getting involved in our messes, joys, pain, and sorrow - that’s surprising. Our God - this blessed Trinity - is a God not afraid of our surprises, not afraid of walking with us when we are surprised - from the big happy experiences to the sad, unexpected, and tragic events that change who we are. Our challenge, then, is to see our surprises - to be honest when we are surprised - to know that we are always being shifted, always being transformed, always having who we are remade into something new and that we are always under God’s care. God is in, with, and under the change - shifting us from our old perspectives, our old way of doing things, our old privileged experiences - and bringing us someplace new.