Gospel: John 3:1-17
1st Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a
2nd Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Now there was a life-long Lutheran, active in the community. He prayed daily and went to church every week, but he had an inkling there might be something more to life. He had a very vivid dream in which he snuck out to talk to Jesus in person when he was sure he wouldn’t be seen by anyone. He asked Jesus, “Is there more to life than this? Are you really who you say you are? Can you perform a miracle in my life?” And Jesus said to him, “Yes, I want a new life for you and for everyone. A new start is possible, but if you are too invested in your comfortable life, you won’t want a new start and the miracle of a changed and fulfilling life may be difficult for you.” The Lutheran said, “I don’t think I can make a new start. I’m getting older. This is the trajectory of my life and I can’t help it.” Jesus said, “A new start is available to any who want it, who have the faith to start on this new journey. All of life is a risk. You really don’t know that the life you have now will be there tomorrow anyway. It could all be swept away. But you have a pull inside you that tells you there is something more in this life than being a teacher and being wise and rich and comfortable. Go in search of that something more and you will find God with you. You will experience the miracle of God’s blessing. You will find fulfillment and connections and you will be a blessing to those around you.” The Lutheran said, “I don’t understand what you are talking about.” Jesus said, “You are a wise teacher, but you don’t get it. That’s ok, I will walk with you on this journey. If you want to get it, you will need to look in a new direction, you will need to put your faith in God and try some things you’ve never tried before. In fact God is inviting you to look in a new direction and go in a new direction, to start over completely and put your welfare in God’s hands. God loves you and the entire universe so much that God came to be a part of you and your neighbors and your enemies and the plants and animals the moon and the stars. God came to be a part of all this, not to show us how bad you are and punish you and make things worse for you, but to give abundant life to all living things, so that balance would be restored and all would know God’s love. Will you accept this invitation of new life, a new beginning for you and for all?”
Now we’re left with a cliff hanger. We have to assume that Nicodemus and the Lutheran retreated back into the darkness they came from, because nothing more is said about them for a long time. But Abram gets the same invitation to a new beginning in the first reading for today, and we know what happens next for him.
Abram has been looking up at the stars and dreaming, wondering if this is all there is to life. He pays attention to his dissatisfaction. He is praying and God answers. God tells him that there is more to life. God tells him that he’s going to have to leave all he knows and go someplace unknown. But God also tells him, promises him, that if he goes, he will have a life of blessing, not only for himself, but for all the families on earth. And the amazing miracle is that Abram goes.
The reading ends there, but I had to laugh when I read the next sentence. “Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.” You’re never too old for a changed life, for a new start, to begin a life of blessing. When we’re young, we think it will be easier to change life later, in retirement, after the kids have left the house. When we’re older, we think it is up to the younger generation to change the world. We get senioritis, short-timers syndrome and the temptation is to coast.
I think of so many faithful people here, having heard the call of God to go from their place of comfort to be a blessing to others, who said, “Ok God” and went. Some may not have thought they had a choice, but there is always the choice to give up and slink away or to stand up and move forward.
I think of widows and widowers who could have given up at the death of a spouse and given in to grief and depression, who stood up and moved forward, eyes open for God’s hand working in this and through this, honest about their pain, not hiding it, but looking for blessing and finding and giving it through the life of grace they were leading.
I think of Judith and others in the congregation, facing cancer or other illnesses, finding their way in illness and receiving blessing and being a blessing until the day they died.
I think of many who sold their homes, gave away most of their possessions to live a simpler life in a retirement community and those who gave up cars and have to learn to ask for help getting from place to place. It isn’t easy to start a whole new life, but God invites us to it and is with us in it.
The first step is to become aware of what isn’t working. This goes against the grain. We’re supposed to be positive. We’re supposed to push away those feelings of dissatisfaction, loneliness, helplessness, disconnection, and depression and pretend we don’t feel that way. But those feelings are a clue that we’re not tied into the Spirit that gives us life that Jesus is talking about in the Gospel. There is something holy about our dissatisfaction. That’s part of the reason we talked about these during our Lenten worship on Wednesday night. We all have pain in our lives, and yes, there is always somebody who has it worse, but those feelings are a part of who we are and they are telling us something important about ourselves and the world we live in. We’re a mess! We’re off track! And that isn’t bad news, because God loves this mess and claims this mess and can do something with this mess. It is when we pretend to be all put together that God can’t get through to us. When we’re a mess, we are more ready to look to God for help and put our faith in God rather than ourselves. We’re more ready to start on the journey that God wants us to take in order to find new abundant life, balance, and hope and healing. Until we face what a mess we are, we can’t get on with the good news of new life that God is offering. That’s why we have the confession each week in Lent. It isn’t to make us feel bad, but so that having opened our eyes to our own mess, we can look beyond it to God and what is next for us, which is a bit of wandering, perhaps, and finally God promises there will be blessing for us and others.
God says to Abram, “I will make of you a great nation.” In another chapter God says that he will have offspring as numerous as the stars. With all the reading I’ve been doing, there is a big question in my mind about whether humankind will be able to survive the climate crisis, and I am not the only one by a long shot. It isn’t just that I’d like Sterling and his friends to survive, but I’d like them to know the beauty of birdsong, to be able to grow tomatoes and eat them warm and fresh from the plant, to be able to go play in the snow. I want him to survive and I want him to have life abundant, like I’ve had, and maybe even more than I have, because I have not had a balanced life. I have taken more than I have given back.
I am trying to face my pain and brokenness and disconnection and be realistic about it, even as I love life and enjoy good health and much satisfaction and comfort. But in the middle of the night, I come to Jesus and I tell him my fears and hopes and wonder if I can change, if I want to, if it will even matter whether I do or not. I know you do, too. And he invites us to new life, to make different choices and follow a different course than before. There is no map to show us how to get there. There is no brochure describing our destination. There is only the promise of new life, if we can let go of the old and move forward in hope, trusting God to take us someplace new and more life-giving for all creation, more balanced, more of a blessing to all the families of the earth, whether they be human, animal, plant, insect, or bacteria, near or far, like us or so very different.
God more than invites us, God tells us to get going! Go from this life that is cursed and broken, although it is the cursed and broken one you know, and get a whole new start in abundant life. It is scary, but it is good and full of blessing, and we won’t be alone.
We’ve been left with our cliffhanger regarding Nicodemus. The next time he appears in the Gospel is after Jesus has given his life on the cross. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimithea come together to take down his body from the cross, wash, anoint, and wrap it for burial, and then lay it in the tomb in the garden. In the time between this morning’s gospel and Jesus’ death, something happened in Nicodemus’ life. Who knows how many nights he relived that conversation with Jesus, how the feeling of dissatisfaction had to grow in him, how the journey started for him and what twists and turns it took? Somehow, he had started out on that journey of new life, despite now knowing his route or destination, and found himself a disciple ministering to Jesus’ body and performing the death rituals for him, mourning his Savior. He must have been very sad and afraid. I don’t know if he regretted this journey or questioned his faith. I don’t know what he experienced during that journey that kept him going even in the face of such suffering. Yet, God’s promise held strong through all that darkness, because Jesus is risen, so that everyone could have abundant life and have the chance to be blessed. Nicodemus admitted his own brokenness, took it to Jesus, and after mulling it over, took that leap of faith and started the new life of water and Spirit that Jesus described to him, the life of blessing for all the families of the earth.
For God so loved the world, that God gave the only son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.