Not Fitting in the Box (Second Sunday in Lent)

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One of the problems of being in the midst of a highly charged political campaign season is that we’re encouraged, even more than we usually are, to divide people up between “us” and “them.”  And even if we don’t intend to, we put our neighbors into little boxes.  Are you a “Bernie bro”?  Are you a “Trump person”?  And we rather expect people to think and act in certain ways because of the “boxes” we’ve put them in.

The thing is, when you actually sit down and get to know people you’ve put in political boxes, you almost always find out that people are unique individuals.  Their opinions, attitudes and actions often don’t fit neatly into the little boxes in which you’ve placed them.  And sometimes, that causes psychic disconnect!  How can you be “X”, but not fit in my little box?

That’s usually the way it goes whenever we try to fit people neatly into whatever little boxes we put them in.  And it’s exactly what’s going on in today’s Gospel reading, as Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and says, basically:

“You know, Jesus, we know that you have to come from God, because nobody can do what you do apart from God.  But you know, you speak and act differently than anybody we’ve seen before.  You don’t fit into the box of “religious person.”  I don’t get it!  What’s up with that?”

Now we’re not told exactly how Nicodemus defines the “box.”  And it’s not even clear how Jesus isn’t fitting into that box.  (After all, at this point, the only “sign” John tells us that Jesus has performed is turning water into wine at the wedding feast.)  But somehow, in some ways, Jesus isn’t fitting into the box that Nicodemus, and perhaps other Pharisees, expect.

For that matter, Nicodemus doesn’t fit into the boxes we might expect him to fit into either.  We often read John’s Gospel as a Gospel which contrasts light with darkness; sin with faith; and God with the forces of evil.  And so we read the Gospel expecting that the characters who show up will fit neatly into the boxes of “good guys” and “bad guys.” 

But Nicodemus doesn’t fit in the box.  He’s a Pharisee (a group we often associate with being the “bad guys.”)  But he somehow knows that Jesus comes from God, and he defends Jesus in the Council a few chapters later. Nicodemus is never called a disciple in John’s Gospel.  And yet, Nicodemus asks questions, and seeks to understand, just like a disciple.  Nicodemus is nowhere to be found when Jesus is brought before Pilate and executed.  And yet, Nicodemus is one of only two people who show up to bury Jesus, and he brings along 100 pounds of spices – the kind of thing you do to bury a king.

So is Nicodemus a “good guy” or a “bad guy”?  He just doesn’t fit into the boxes we often want biblical characters to fit into.

And actually, that’s the case for many people who Jesus encounters in John’s Gospel.  Nicodemus, along with many others we’ll read about in the next few weeks, can’t figure Jesus out because Jesus and his actions don’t fit neatly into their boxes.  But Nicodemus, and many others, don’t fit neatly into our boxes either.

And this is a really important thing about Nicodemus and many others we’ll meet in the coming weeks:  Jesus never rejects people who don’t fit into the boxes. He never tells them that if they don’t get it – or can’t figure out how “these things can be” – that they’re too stupid, unspiritual or immoral to be part of God’s kingdom.  Instead, he invites them to keep wrestling, to keep asking questions, and to live boldly into that kingdom even when they don’t have it all figured out.

And that’s actually what Nicodemus does.  From the beginning to the end of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus is a person who continues to:

  • Wrestle with who Jesus is, and what God is doing in and through Jesus, even when it makes no sense to him; and he can do that because he knows that Jesus doesn’t reject him, even when Nicodemus can’t figure out what Jesus is talking about …
  • Ask questions – both to Jesus and to others; and even when the answers don’t make sense – or aren’t particularly enlightening – he doesn’t give up asking and seeking to understand more deeply…
  • Act boldly – because he recognizes that growing into whatever God is doing in his life requires his active engagement, not simply sitting back passively and hoping that God will make it all work out for him (even though it means taking some serious risks …)

And so Nicodemus, and others like him in John’s Gospel, are encouraging examples to us in our faith journey – especially when we feel like we’re not fitting into the boxes other people want to put us in, and when it feels to us like the way God is working in our lives isn’t fitting into the boxes we sometimes want to put God into.

It’s precisely at those moments that, just like Nicodemus, Jesus welcomes us and encourages and invites us to continue to:

  • Wrestle with what God is doing, and calling us to be part of, even and especially when it doesn’t seem to fit together nicely or fit into the boxes that we expect God to act in …
  • Ask questions – both of God, and in conversation with one another; and it’s not because there’s a perfect, magic answer.  It’s because it’s through asking questions that we grow and become more comfortable with not having all the answers …
  • Act boldly – to make the time, and take the steps, that help us search for and involve ourselves in what we perceive God is doing.  Because, in the end, as Nicodemus found out, God wasn’t just doing something in Jesus – God was doing something in Jesus that changed Nicodemus’ life and the life of the world.  And that’s what God is still intent on doing in our lives as well…

So in this season, and in all seasons, don’t put other people in little boxes.  Don’t worry when you don’t fit into a neat little box.  And definitely resist the urge to put God in a box.

Instead, even and especially when life seems most confusing and chaotic, wrestle with the question of what God is doing in your life and the world around you. Ask questions of God, yourself and others, even if the answers don’t initially make sense.  And live boldly as you feel Jesus is calling you to live, so that you become a participant, and not just a spectator, in what God is doing in your life and the life of the world around you.