Part 2 of the series: “Lent and Easter with Game of Thrones”
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
March 16, 2014
Genesis 1:1-4a; John 3:1-17
Genesis 12:1–4a • The LORD said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of earth will be blessed because of you.” Abram left just as the LORD told him, and Lot went with him.
John 3:1–17 • There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He 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 do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?” Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
“You know nuthin’, Jon Snow.”
Fans of Game of Thrones definitely know that line. It’s delivered repeatedly by the character Ygritte, a wildling woman from the frozen North. She’s what the Romans would call a barbarian—an outsider. A threat to the realm. And over and over again, she tells the always out-of-place Jon Snow that he knows nothing. It’s a great line, but it’s not quite as badass as some of the other lines we’re working with this Lent. It’s not the motto of a Great House, nor a reflection on the realities of death and darkness. What it does touch on, though, is the idea of knowing and not knowing. And our texts for tonight, particularly from the gospel of John, are all about knowing and not knowing.
If you’ve grown up in Christian circles—or, for that matter, if you’ve ever watched a professional football game—you probably know at least something about the gospel passage we read tonight. For people like me who grew up in the church, this is a favorite Sunday School passage. It has great dramatic flair. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, sneaks in under the cover of darkness because he is afraid he’ll be attacked for associating with Jesus. And Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God, he has to be born again.
The phrase “born again” is actually a bit tricky to translate into English—it could also be “born from above” or “born anew”—but you wouldn’t know that by the certainty with which the word is used in U.S. Christianity. For those Christians who identify as born again, certainty is important. One needs to be certain of one’s salvation, and certain of exactly when it happened. And those who don’t identify as born again seem just as certain about what the phrase means—that it must mean intolerance and narrow-mindedness.
And then, of course, there’s John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” A verse that is so famous, and supposedly so self-evident, that one only needs to hold up a sign at a sporting event and people will read it and become Christians. Everyone seems so certain they know what the verse means. The verse is ubiquitous. It’s on Forever 21 bags. Professional wrestlers refer to it. Everybody knows John 3:16.
Which is fascinating, because the passage seems to me to have as much to do with unknowing as with knowing. With uncertainty as with certainty.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. There’s an obvious narrative reason for this: Nicodemus is scared he’ll get caught. But in John’s gospel, there’s more to the imagery. Night and darkness in John’s gospel are associated with alienation from God.[i] So Nicodemus shows up in darkness, in confusion. And he makes a statement of what he thinks he knows: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”
And Jesus, as he does in the gospel of John, launches into a long non-sequitur, seemingly unrelated to what Nicodemus has said. Nicodemus can barely get a word in edgewise, except to ask a few baffled questions. And who can blame him for being confused? Jesus rather snarkily tells him that a teacher of Israel should understand all of these things already. But honestly it’s a pretty complicated discourse. Just try reading it sometime without any preconceived theological framework and see if you can make sense of it.
So Nicodemus, who came in darkness thinking he knew at least one thing, leaves totally confused. Actually, we don’t even really know when Nicodemus leaves. At the end of this passage translators aren’t sure where Jesus stops talking and the narrator of the gospel of John picks up. Since there are no quotation marks in the original Greek text, some translators think that John 3:16-21 is spoken by Jesus, while others think it’s the gospel writer. And Nicodemus is nowhere to be found—the next scene starts with no more details. The scene, and Jesus’ speech, and the narration, all overlap, which is common in John’s gospel.[ii]
Incidentally, it’s common in the Game of Thrones TV series as well. A scene will fade with one character talking, and their monologue will become narration over the beginning of another scene, without the first scene really resolving. It’s a great way to build dramatic tension.
So the scene switches, and Nicodemus disappears, as far as we know just as he appeared: in the dark.
Only to show up again four chapters later, in the midst of a conflict in Jerusalem over who Jesus is. The people are split over whether Jesus is a prophet, a messiah, or a criminal.
Nicodemus doesn’t really defend Jesus. He certainly doesn’t declare his belief in the divinity or messianic nature of Jesus. He just gives a noncommittal “Let’s hear the guy out statement,” and then the scene ends.
Nicodemus disappears again.
And then he shows up again, a third and final time.
Major gospel of John spoiler alert here: Jesus dies.
I know. You didn’t see that coming, right? What kind of author would create a beloved character, convince you that they are the key to the future of the narrative, and then just kill them off?
I hate you, George R.R. Martin.
Jesus, just like—well, I don’t know, pick any of your favorite characters from the series—is brutally executed, perhaps because he can’t quite seem to figure out how to play the game of thrones. The disciples, who just the night before had claimed to finally be certain about who Jesus is, have scattered, or gone into hiding behind locked doors.
All is lost.
And Nicodemus shows up, with a rich man named Joseph. They gently take Jesus’ broken body down from the cross. And they ensure that this executed, betrayed man has a decent Jewish burial.
Now the John 3 passage that we heard this evening is often understood to have baptismal imagery.[iii] John’s gospel is rich with sacramental imagery, imagery of water and bread and wine, of body and of blood. And so I can’t help but think that Nicodemus holding Christ’s broken body is a public act of communion. One taken while the disciples hide in the room where just a short time before they had shared in their last, private conversation with Jesus.
And that’s it. That’s the last we ever hear of Nicodemus. We don’t know whether he thinks Jesus is Messiah or God or Divine or….well, anything other than maybe a teacher. We just know that he cares for that broken body while the disciples cower in a locked room. We just know that, in the only way he knows how, he tries to offer some kind of dignity and respect in the midst of degradation and fear and shame. Tries to offer some kind of peace.
Nicodemus doesn’t seem to know anything in particular about Jesus. But in that moment, the confusion, the uncertainty, the unknowing of Nicodemus is more faithful than the seeming certainty of the disciples.
The disciples know, and flee. Nicodemus knows nothing, and shows up.
So maybe “knowing nothing” is a good place to start if we are really interested in being faithful to Jesus. That sounds a bit odd because we are so used to hearing faith talked about in terms of certainty. We believe x, y, and z, and that means we have faith. But what if unknowing is really the key to faith?
Consider this. Many people know John 3:16 by heart in the old King James Version:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” But that word “believeth” is the translation of a Greek word that might better be interpreted as “faith,” “faithfulness,” or “to entrust.” That’s not really about intellectual assent to certain statements about Jesus, not a list of checked boxes and assertions. It’s more like showing up, over and over again, where one is needed. In places of confusion and pain and death. And offering some kind of peace.
We don’t know what Nicodemus believes, but he sure seems pretty faithful.
Now in Game of Thrones, Ygritte is right about Jon Snow. He knows nothing. Jon Snow is a perpetual outsider. An outsider in his father’s house, an outsider in the Night’s Watch, and an outsider to the North of the Wall. He is always in a state of dislocation and confusion. Like Abram, leaving his father’s house for some distant country, Jon Snow is a stranger in a strange land.
But here’s the thing. Although the HBO series is called Game of Thrones, that’s actually only the name of the first of George R.R. Martin’s books. The series of books is called A Song of Ice and Fire. And Jon Snow in the frozen North and Daenerys Targaryan in the distant East, along with their companions in exile, are the characters who most understand the impending realities of ice and fire. While nobles and soldiers in the Seven Kingdoms kill each other over lands and titles and thrones, Jon and Dani—strangers in strange lands—know that ancient magic has been unlocked, that terrifying and dangerous creatures of ice and fire walk—and fly—the world for the first time in centuries. They know that something has radically changed.
In fact, confusion and strangeness make it easier for Jon Snow and Daenerys Taergaryan to recognize that the world is truly different than what others assume it to be. Their status as perpetual outsiders makes them able to see the flaws and the injustices in each new situation they’re thrown into. Jon Snow might know nothing. But in his unknowing, he seems to grasp what really matters. Dislocation and displacement make critique possible.
And so it is with us. Certainty makes us complacent with systems of violence. Certainty leads us to fight over who’s in charge, who is in or out, who is saved or unsaved. Certainty leads us to base our lives on seemingly solid foundations that turn out to be very fragile when one brick is pulled, causing us to collapse…or worse. Sarah Omar gave me permission to share her reactions to John 3:16:
“In my experience, John 3:16 has been a message of hate, not of love, even though people may intend it with love. “I’m trying to save you!” Well, thank you. Telling me I’m going to hell is so loving. The only verse many non-Christians know in the bible is John 3:16 because it has been shoved in our faces. Because throwing a bible at us is going to make us believe? No, it hurts. I hate John 3:16. It has been said to me as someone spit in my face. And they think they are loving.”[iv]
Whether you’ve had Sarah’s experiences with that particular verse or not, I think many of us can think of times when we’ve seen dogmatic certainty do real damage and lead to spiritual and even physical violence.
Compare that with the merciful possibilities of knowing nothing. Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer shares the story of a conversation he had with a woman who had struggled with depression her whole life. At the end of the conversation, she looked at him and asked why some people somehow learn how to live with depression, while others don’t make it, overcome with suicidal thoughts or overdose. He tried to come up with a good answer, on that would offer her some hope. But all he could come up with was: “I have no idea. I really have no idea.”
Palmer left the conversation feeling like a failure, but a few days later he got a thank you letter from the woman. In his words, admitting he didn’t know “had given her an alternative to the cruel ‘Christian explanations’ common in the church to which she belonged—that people who take their lives lack faith or good works or some other redeeming virtue that might move God to rescue them. My not knowing had freed her to stop judging herself for being depressed and to stop believing that God was judging her.”[v]
These stories remind me that while uncertainty can be faithful, certainty can be fatal.
And so I think that if we are more interested in being faithful than in being right, that we are we are called, like Abram, like Jon Snow, to be strangers in a strange land. I think that we are called, like Nicodemus, to let the faithfulness of our uncertainty walk the paths that the illusory commitments of certainty dare not tread.
If you haven’t already given up something for Lent or taken on something for Lent, why not try giving up knowing and taking up not knowing. Giving up certainty and taking up uncertainty. Even about those beliefs you hold most dear. Maybe even about Jesus. Maybe even about God.
For some of us, that’s going to be really easy, because we already dwell in places of uncertainty and doubt. If that’s true of you, I want you to claim it. Not as a stage or phase of faith that you have to work through, but as a core requirement of faithfulness—to admit to and to live in the tension of one’s unknowing. For others of us, that’s going to be really hard, because it often feels like the certainty of our beliefs is the only thing holding us together in a world of shifting sands and chaotic events. If that’s true of you, I just want you to try it on for a little while. Try questioning, try doubting, and let a whole community of know-nothings help hold you together.
This might feel a bit like walking away from faith, like walking away from God. But if we try to walk in this path, together, we just might be surprised to find a God who, in the words of Psalm 121, watches over our going out as well as our coming in. I think we just might be surprised to find out that St. Patrick is right, that Christ is not a destination for us to reach but rather a reality that is all around us. I think we just might be surprised to find ourselves, like Nicodemus, like Jon Snow, gently cradling those crushed by the violence of the illusory game of thrones. Staring in the face of that which has made us more confused than we have ever been in our lives. And saying to ourselves:
“What if this was love?”
[i] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol IX, edited by Leander E. Keck, et. al., (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 548.
[ii] Ibid., 548.
[iii] See, for example, the UMC statement on baptism titled “Of Water and the Spirit,” in reference to John 3:5. The document is available online: http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/by-water-and-the-spirit-a-united-methodist-understanding-of-baptism
[iv] Personal email, 8 March 2014, used with permission, edited for length.
[v] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000), 59.