“7 Words for Pastors” – Second Word: Seekers

oldest fragment of John

oldest fragment of John

II. SEEKERS    John 3:3

 In reading John for the purpose of preaching it to others, it preached to me over and over.  John has many things to say about being a pastor.  It has become my favorite church growth book.

There is much said about “seekers”.  John 3 tells us about Nicodemus, a “seeker” if there ever was one.

The problem with “seekers” is that they are different from us.  They do not belong to the tribe we call “church goers”.  There is a cultural divide between the church-goer tribe and the seeker tribe.  Our language and our customs are far apart from theirs.  What they expect to see on a stage is not like what we want to see on a platform.  What they expect to hear from a motivational speaker is not what we hear from a pastor.  How they talk around the water cooler or at the soccer game is not how we talk in church.

Nicodemus was a prominent man, a member of the ruling council that had retained some jurisdiction even under Roman rule.  He was a Pharisee, which meant he was well-educated in the tradition of the scriptures and their detailed application to life.  He was just the kind of man who was not likely to be found in Jesus’ inner circle.

Jesus’ inner circle was mostly working class. With the exceptions of Judas and Matthew, they worked with their hands, and came from a very provincial backwater to the north.  How would Jesus speak to such a man as Nicodemus?

 First, Nicodemus must have been watching and listening from a distance.  He was very aware of Jesus’ work and his reputation.  He had concluded that Jesus was some kind of prophet.

It is interesting that Jesus went out to speak to the people, but he did not go out to find Nicodemus.  He could have found the right words and images from Nicodemus’ world and approached him in the kind of forum or debate that was common to such men.  Instead we see Jesus who usually spoke a much more common language.  He spoke about the things of the common man and woman.  He used sheep, seeds, yeast, birds, flowers, coins and families to illustrate his talks.  He used crooked judges and crooked servants as well.  It was all quite commonplace to a man like Nicodemus.

Even so Nicodemus saw and heard this strange talk and recognized it as being from God.  “Rabbi,” he said, “we know you are a teacher who has come from God.”

I wonder if we should work, as we are told we should, to make ourselves sound familiar to the people in our target audience. I wonder if they might not ignore us because what we say is like what they hear all the time.

The thing that needs to be heard is what causes them to say, “Yes, this teaching must be from God.”

Second, Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus question was challenging, confusing and blunt.

Nicodemus really did not ask a question.  He stated that Jesus must be from God.  Jesus replied to what Nicodemus wanted to ask.

“I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.”  John 3:3 (This is the second word for pastors.)

The answer was a challenge.  No one, even a sophisticated man of the world, can see God’s Kingdom as he is.  If he can’t see it, he certainly can not enter it.  He must be born again.

Jesus gave the altar call before he preached the message.  He did evangelism before he did the “necessary” pre-evangelism and before he had studied his audience.

Maybe when we try to make people comfortable, and try to establish trust, and develop a relationship, and then deliver the truth we are being less direct and honest than Jesus.  The message is more important than the messenger.

The answer was confusing.  This breaks all the rules of seeker sensitivity.  Our answers to seekers are supposed to be readily understood.  We should use familiar terms.  We should use their words.  Jesus broke these rules.

Jesus took about 17 verses to explain to Nicodemus this one verse.  He had to explain how a man can be born again. He had to explain the difference between physical life and spiritual re-birth.  Even his explanations were confusing as he got into the theology of the Holy Spirit and the theology of the Cross.  He used images such as wind, serpents, and light. Each of which needed its own explanation.

Jesus’ answer was blunt.  He started by telling Nicodemus that he was in need of a life-change that he called being born again.  He continued by saying, “You are Israel’s teacher and you do not understand these things?  I tell you the truth….but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”

Nicodemus had to know that he was being accused of stupidity.  Jesus did not mean that Nicodemus was lacking in grey cells, but that he was not using them.  He was not using them because he lacked something.

“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

We say that if we use good methodology we can attract people to the Gospel.  This is the church-of-the-world view, and over the centuries only the methodology has changed.   The disciples wanted miracles and crowds, but Jesus chose preaching in Mark 1.  He refused a temple in Matthew 17.  The Pagans had ceremonies and temples with priests and fancy word-formulas – so the church developed all of those and out-paganized the pagans.  Gutenberg’s Press and the Mimeo machine as well as TV, Radio, Movies, Videos, the Telephone and the Internet have all been hailed as the tool to break through to the people.  Sociology tells us about group size and dynamics.  Psychology tells us how to make people feel better.  Business tells us how to get some money and then to organize to get more.  Management consultants tell us how to dismantle old institutions and rebuild the old raw material into new ones.

Jesus said that no one in the world can even see the Kingdom of God.   If you can’t even see it, how can you enter it?

Jesus spoke of the Spirit, because the Holy Spirit has to give life to the words and He has to move invisibly in human hearts.  Jesus spoke of the Cross, because we have to come to the Cross to enter the Kingdom.  He spoke of the truth, because our only tool is the telling of the truth.  The truth which is testified to by the Spirit and by the evidence of God’s blessing on our ministry.

That is Jesus’ formula for reaching “seekers.”

One of my favorite ironies is the name of our church.  Bethany Evangelical Free Church.  I like to say that we became seeker sensitive in 1926 when we changed it from the Norwegian (Betania Ev. Fri Kirke) to the English.  If any community would be resistant to a church with “evangelical” in the title, it would be central Madison.  This neighborhood voted for Ralph Nader for president, recycles religiously, rides bicycles to work, mocks Republican suburbanites, and detests “Evangelicals” as closed minded bumpkins.  To be an evangelical pastor is to walk around with a scarlet “E” around my neck.

My best conversations come when people ask me what Evangelical means.  I tell them that it means we are committed to the authority of Scripture.

I gave that answer recently at a school outing, later the questioner asked me a much deeper question about the scriptures.  This “agnostic” had been reading the scripture and had a question that no one could answer.  “How could God have laws supporting slavery in the chapters after the giving of the 10 Commandments?”

God was opening her eyes, and the term “evangelical” was the doorway to our conversation.

How Far Would You Go? Magi vs Scribes

For fun I Google mapped the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.  It was about 5 miles – though Google Maps could not trip route it.  Then I Googled Babylon (Iraq) to Jerusalem, and it was about 500 miles (as the crow flies), but again Google could not trip route that distance.

The Magi travelled, most likely from Babylon (in current day Iraq) by the roads of the Fertile Crescent – well over 500 miles.  That is because of a Star and the memory of a prophecy of a King.  The Scribes did not bother to go from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, though they had the text in front of them, and some interesting travelling companions – it was only 5 miles.

How far are you willing to go to find wisdom?

Fresh Reading – John 4

For those of us who have read the Bible a lot, it is hard to avoid following old thought patterns.  a good example is the Woman at the Well in John 4.  You know that one, even Peter, Paul and Mary had a song about her!  (“Jesus met the woman at the well…”)

Anyway, it is interesting for two things – “Living water” is water that is freely flowing in a stream or from a spring.  “Fresh Read” is about living not stagnant reading.

Also, I had always heard that the woman was at the well in mid day out of being ostracized by her community (but does it say that?).  I had heard that she brought up the issue of the temple to divert Jesus from a personal conversation about her life.

But is that necessarily so?  sure, in the middle of an uncomfortable conversation about your life, try bring up politics (“Do you prefer Obama or Clinton?”) or sports (“Will the Cubs choke again?) and you are most likely saved from probing questions.

but what if the woman only know of a spirituality that came through buildings, such as the temple in Jerusalem or the one the Samaritans had in Mt. Gerazim.  Then maybe her question shows that she was perceiving that Jesus was talking about something other than well water, but about an authentic spirituality.  Is it possible that she was seeking, as best she could?

It would seem she does progress from missing the point about the water, to bringing out her (supposedly estranged) neighbors to meet Jesus.

What do you think?