What does your accent say about you? Well, apparently, quite a lot. We learn about speech and speech sounds even when we are in the womb and research has found that young babies show a preference for the familiar voices and accents they heard before they were born. In studies of trustworthiness, Received Pronunciation (BBC English) has been rated as the most trustworthy accent (perhaps because it sounds the most authoritative) followed by a West Country (Devon) accent.
Face to face communication includes a lot more than accent of course. When we are in conversation, we convey all kinds of attitudes by intonation, the ups and downs of the human voice, as well as its pace and volume. And that’s before we start on body language. All these things contribute to how much we inspire trust in the person we are speaking to.
Communication and trust are two of the important themes in both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings for today.
The Old Testament is perhaps the more remarkable because Abram (not yet called Abraham) demonstrates total trust in God’s word when he is given instructions to leave his country and his people and set out for an unknown land. Abram has to put total trust in God’s promise that he will be the father of a great nation and will be a blessing to all the families on earth. And on the strength of this promise, Abram goes forth.
No wonder the Apostle Paul uses Abraham as an example of faith. What trust it must have taken to follow such radical commandments! We only have to put ourselves in Abram’s position to know what a difficult thing God is asking. Even when today’s migrants put their lives in the hands of total strangers,they have some idea of where they hope they are going. Abram simply had to trust. We do not always know what it means when God ‘speaks’ in the OT but I don’t imagine that Abram hears the kind of authoritative tones boomed out by Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
The face to face encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in our Gospel reading is rather different. This time we have a full account of the words spoken by both parties but we still do not know the manner in
which they are spoken. Even without this information, we are probably safe to make certain assumptions about Nicodemus, who is a member of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin. For one thing, he is likely to be
apprehensive because his visit to Jesus takes place at night; presumably he does not want to be discovered associating with this controversial young rabbi. But he is clearly intrigued by the signs, the miracles, that Jesus has been performing. ‘No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ I think we can assume that he sounds sincere when he utters these words.
His bewilderment too seems genuine when Jesus tells him that he must be born ‘from above’, that unless he is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is clearly puzzled: how can he be born again at his age?
If we put ourselves in Nicodemus’s shoes, he is working with quite slender evidence at this early stage in Jesus’s ministry and so we can see his nocturnal visit as an act of trust in itself. We cannot blame him for not understanding or accepting everything Jesus says. Even though we are possessors of a much fuller picture, there are some things which we still find puzzling.
Jesus’s response to Nicodemus’s incomprehension is a reproach: ‘Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ I like to imagine that Jesus’s tone is playful when he says this, almost teasing rather than sharply critical.
As John’s gospel unfolds, we meet Nicodemus again in ever more testing circumstances. In broad daylight, no longer under the cover of darkness, he defends Jesus before the Sanhedrin, saying that he should be given a hearing before being judged. And then finally when Jesus has been taken down from the cross Nicodemus supplies a huge, even an absurd, quantity of spices to embalm Jesus’s body. He is still making mistakes but each of these actions involves increasing levels of courage, even if it isn’t the blank cheque that Abraham gives God in Genesis.
So what can we take from today’s stories that will help us in our own situation? Both Abraham and Nicodemus are called upon to take a leap in the dark, to accept things on the basis of trust. Which one do you feel that you identify with? Are you an Abraham, prepared to act unquestioningly upon what you perceive as God’s commands? Or are you a Nicodemus, poking and probing at the evidence, clear that there’s something more to this mysterious person Jesus but not quite sure that you fully understand everything about him.
Well, the good news is that you don’t have to. The clue is in the last sentence of the Gospel reading: ‘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.’ Not to condemn but to save.
I used to worry when I was younger that I did not have the ‘right’ kind of faith. I used to look at others and envy the unquestioning conviction of their beliefs. And then someone said to me, ‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t’. What a good piece of advice. You cannot turn yourself into a different person, a different kind of believer. You are who you are. God made you and knows who and what you are.
What I believe we are called to do is to pray for grace to trust, to trust that God loves us, to trust that we are lovable in his eyes if not in anybody else’s!
Trust grows. The more we are prepared to trust God, the more reasons he will give us to trust him. There are lots of things going on in the world at the moment which test our trust – the terrible flooding which so many communities have experienced over the last few weeks – the fear of more flooding to come – the threat of the spread of corona virus. In all these cases it is important that we take sensible precautions to protect ourselves and our families but we nevertheless have to trust that, whatever happens to us, ultimately all will be well. I think in these circumstances we might take inspiration from the words and wisdom of fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich, who said:
‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’
‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’