The History of Leith

June 12, 2009


This was the sermon given at Leith St Andrew Church on the 7th June 2009 by the Rev George Whyte.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

These are confusing and difficult times for the Church of Scotland in general. For Leith – the place and the churches – these are days of change and challenge. So at this Leith Festival Service on this Trinity Sunday and with such a stormy background I want to do what preachers should always do – say something about the God who loves us but who is so elusive that he has three names and as many faces as there are people on the planet.
However, it’s not going to be a lecture in theology. I’d like to you to meet the character at the centre of our Gospel reading. He was called Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, the story tells us, was a man of the Pharisees. In Jesus time, the Pharisees were a group of lay people – that is they weren’t priests – who went to great lengths to know their bible and to practice the kind of life which they felt it commended. As in other times too, they were not the only people who took such an interest in the scripture and as in other times the other people sometimes took a different meaning from the same written words. Just let’s say that these are people who are pretty convinced that their grasp on God’s will was firm. They had quarried for themselves some certainties and these certainties were the bedrock of their life. Even given the bad press that they receive in the Gospels as detractors of Jesus, I don’t think there is any reason to assume that they were anything other than decent people whose only fault lay in seeing things in black and white rather than in colours and shades.

Nicodemus was that kind of guy – a man of certainties, of fixed knowledge, of solid convictions, of unwavering principle. At least in public.

It is one of my fondest hopes when I look on people of fixed knowledge, solid convictions, and unwavering principle that hidden from view behind the bright eyes there are some niggling doubts. Nicodemus encourages me in those hopes when he comes to Jesus at night – concealed from the public, unseen by the other Pharisees.

What you get first is the bluster and the manners. “Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher come from God.” After his years of study and application it would have nearly have killed Nicodemus to call this village joiner “Rabbi” but it had to be done. It was polite – but more than that it started the conversation on the right foot. This was a discussion to be held on the ground that Nicodemus understood. He hopes to ensure that Jesus and he will talk in the terms which he knows. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God.” But if that was all there was to it why come at night? Why creep in? What has been eating away at Nicodemus’ finely honed religion? What has he heard Jesus say at some other time that has pulled a little brick out from his wall of certainty? How has the village joiner blurred some of the black and white so that Nicodemus has glimpsed the shade card? Has he come to have the lines redrawn or has he actually been brought to see the limitations of total certainty? We don’t know. We can only guess. Maybe those of you who are certain about many things know the private disquiet of doubt. And those of us who are happier with the blur of confusion know the siren call of facts and rules.

Either way, what follows for Nicodemus is a most uncomfortable conversation where, in the flickering light of a candle, he chases the shadows of Jesus’ teaching. The talk is of spirit rather than the written text – a spirit which is like the wind which blows where it chooses constantly challenging the sailor. Jesus then changes the metaphor and speaks of rebirth. Nicodemus tries to get out of figures of speech and retreat into the reason and plain speaking which is his area of expertise. He is like the drunk man who searches for the keys he has dropped not where he dropped them but under the street lamp because it is brighter there. The conversation quickly gets beyond Nicodemus’ control. Everything swirls around. Everything shifts. He who knew everything when he chapped on the door knows nothing once he is inside. He is all at sea. He is lost.

Nicodemus came to Jesus with what he knew. On the doorstep, he says, “I know”. He ended with questions about what he did not know. He arrived fairly confident that he had a good grasp on who Jesus was; “Rabbi, you are a teacher come from God.” He left confounded by the mysterious God in the flesh. When Nicodemus was where light and dark flicker and change, when was stripped of his self-reliant clarity and certainty, Jesus could talk to him about new beginnings.

Somebody said that Nicodemus is the patron saint of those who wonder what is going on. He is the man fumbling in the dark with that which is beyond his ken. He is the one who has the courage to put himself in the place where his ignorance is exposed and his black and white facts do not make sense. He is the patron saint of those who wonder what is going on.

We live in a confusing and fast changing world. Politics, finance, technology, medicine, climate and church. Perhaps even some of our private lives.

One answer to that flux is to seek absolute certainties. Fundamentalism, whether it’s Christian or Islamic or atheistic, is a flight from the world of constantly varying shades and hues into the isolated world of black and white.

A second choice is another form of escape – it is despair – nothing is solid, nothing lasts so stop even looking for the eternal. Instead seek comfort and meaning in that which you control – shopping, eating, drinking, dominating, – tangible signs that you matter which take away the pain of knowing that you don’t.
Nicodemus, the patron saint of those who wonder what is going on, offers an alternative to those ultimately futile escape routes.
I hope he has something to say to the Church community of Leith as parishes are grouped together and the character of the old port changes and develops.

Church should be a place where people are encouraged to wonder what is going on – in their relationships, in their birling circles of family and friendship, in the world which they cannot comprehend.

For the answers to their questions, or maybe just a place to leave their questions, or even a place where they pick up other questions there should be in the Christian Church paths to the same Jesus Christ whom Nicodemus approached all those years ago.

His human story says that Christ is open to those who wonder what is going on. He may not respond as you imagine, he might answer your question with a better question, he might leave you to work out more of the answer before he says anything at all. In his spoken words, by his recorded actions, in the company of imperfect saints, in the signs of water, bread and wine he can be approached by those who wonder what is going on.

If knowing everything beckons to you remember Nicodemus in the dark saying that he knew and knowing that he didn’t.
If giving up on the search for meaning seems the only sensible choice then remember Nicodemus the Pharisee who would at the end be a faithful disciple.

Remember the conversation by candlelight, how Jesus wouldn’t leave Nicodemus complacent in his certainty or hopeless in his despair.

Come to Jesus when, like Nicodemus, you wonder what is going on. He has a fulfilling life for confused people to live in an ever changing world.”

Rev George Whyte

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