Topic: God's Invitation Scripture: Isaiah 6:1–6:8, 1 John 3:16–3:17
Prepare our hearts, O God, to accept your Word. Silence in us any voices but your own, so that we may hear your Word and also do it; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
In his autobiography, actor Alec Guinness tells a story that might keep every pastor and church school teacher awake at night. He was a teenager and it was the morning of his confirmation. The classes were finished. The students' heads had been filled full of Bible stories and theological doctrines. Guinness says Holy Trinity Church in Eastbourne was crammed with confirmation candidates, their parents, friends, schoolteachers, and sponsors.
At the appropriate moment, he remembers, "The girls, mostly in grey uniforms, filed up to kneel at the Bishop's left hand and the boys, in blue serge, to his right. I remember white episcopal hands and shaggy black eyebrows. A pale, greenish light filtered through the window-panes, giving a subaqueous hue to the perspiring congregation." Then he adds, "At the age of sixteen, one early summer day, I arose from under the hands of the Bishop of Lewes a confirmed atheist . . . With a flash I realized I had never really believed what I had been taught."
When I first read this, I was troubled by this story. But as I thought about it, I was encouraged by this man’s experience. It brings to mind my own faith journey, which, if you will indulge me, I would like to share with you. I grew up going to church and to Sunday School. I was confirmed at the age of 13. I was the president of my church youth group during high school. And although I don’t think I could have articulated it, something was always missing.
Rather than a mountaintop experience that instantly transformed me into a disciple who served God without hesitation, I felt “troubled”. I grew up in the 1960s during the civil rights era. I was deeply impacted by the treatment of African Americans and I felt a pull to work for racial justice. My family, however, did not share my convictions and wanted to keep me safe - so I was forbidden to join the movement. I was a compliant teenager - so I pushed down that feeling I had of being called.
I pushed those feelings so far down that I actually stopped attending church for several years after high school graduation. What brought me back was again that feeling of being pulled toward something and away from what my life had become. My sons were toddlers, and I wanted them to have a church background. It felt like I was back home.
I wish I could say that I instantly knew where I belonged in God’s kingdom and have spent the time since answering God’s call. But the truth is that I spent the next years searching. I became a youth leader at St. Luke Union Church and came to believe that I was being called to ministry. I tried as hard as I could to push that down as well, but eventually gave in and went to seminary. And here I am – still learning about my faith and God’s call to me. The difference is that I now value the process of learning and listening and discovering what God wants from me – how I can make the world around me a better place. I believe in my very core that this is what faith is – it is a lifelong process.
There is something else that bothers me about that story, and that is - that it sounds surprisingly familiar. On this special Sunday morning, it is easy to affirm what we believe. As the familiar verse we've heard today puts it, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life." Here in this beautiful sanctuary with its stained glass, I can believe it. But late at night, after the lights are dimmed, sometimes I have my doubts, my questions, my lapses of belief.
I have also come to believe that, at least for me, it was the belief that being in the church and being a faithful Christian meant that I would have all the answers. I believed that if I had doubts, there was something missing in me. Perhaps I'm not the only one. William Muehl, who taught at Yale Divinity School for many years, once noted that we can learn much when we realize how many of the men and women in the pews almost did not come to church that morning. "In all probability," he writes, "most of them feel that they are there under false pretenses, that everyone around them feels more confidently Christian, less restlessly rebellious than they do themselves.
The gospel lesson for this morning is from John 3 – we read two of the most familiar verses from that passage earlier. I would like to read a little more of the passage: 1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “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. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The story of Nicodemus is the story of someone who struggles to believe. If you met him on the street during the day, you probably wouldn't have recognized his struggle. Nicodemus was a Jew. He had a story of faith that stretched back to Father Abraham, who packed up a U-Haul and drove it across Mesopotamia because God told him to do so. Nicodemus was also a teacher of Israel, someone under obligation to tell the story of faith to others. And he was a leader of the Jews, a guiding force for the local synagogue, an influential person in the downtown Temple. What's more, he was a Pharisee, which meant he had gone through all the classes, learned all the Bible stories, and sat through all the ceremonies. Most importantly, Nicodemus knew the secret of the Gospel of John, that Jesus has come from God, that God's very presence dwells in him.
Yet even with all of his knowledge, something was missing. The writer says, "He came to Jesus by night." I don't know if we should take that literally or not. Certainly, it was safer for Nicodemus the Pharisee to approach this controversial man after the sun went down. No one would see him lurking in the shadows. Few people would be awake to listen in on their conversation. Yet it seems clear that when the writer says Nicodemus came "by night" he's not merely talking about the time of day. He is talking about a condition.
According to the Gospels, "night" is more than a time of day. It is the condition of those who want to believe, yet, for one reason or another, cannot believe. I think that we often have the belief that if we just read the right books and listen to good sermons, we will believe without question. Yet today's story reminds us that Christian faith is never so simple as that. For one thing, Nicodemus is taking the initiative. He comes to Jesus as an act of faith. He is drawn from the dark to meet the One who is the Light of the world. Yet when he gets there, this Light casts a shadow on his life. The deeper the conversation gets the more resistant old Nicodemus becomes.
Have you ever noticed how that is? Sometimes we really want to believe that God reigns over all of human life, that God's love embraces everybody, that God's kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Then we discover what that would mean, and we’re not so sure. Say, for instance, like Nicodemus we take the initiative. Suppose we would have the opportunity to ask Jesus, “What is God like?" Our scripture gives us the answer: "God gives eternal life to everyone who believes in the Son". "Wow!" we reply. "That's good news. I've got eternal life; you've got eternal life. Thank you, Lord, we have all received eternal life." Jesus clears his throat and says, "I mean, to everyone who believes." "Wait a minute, Lord. What about Adolph Hitler and the Nazis; what about mass murderers, and what about cult leaders, and terrorists? What if, after all their evil deeds, they suddenly believe?" To which Jesus responds, "Then it's eternal life for them, too." Wait a minute – we’re not so sure about that!
As the Gospel of John puts it, "This is the fundamental crisis of the world: that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light". What does that mean? It means that, like Nicodemus, if we take the initiative, if we move closer to Jesus, if we move closer toward the light, we may also find that our doubts come to light.
And when all is said and done, the life Jesus comes to bring does not depend on our initiative. The life of Christ within us does not depend on the quality of our faltering faith but on the wild, mysterious grace of God. Remember, Jesus said, told Nicodemus that he must be born anew”. Nicodemus, somewhat skeptical, asked Jesus how that was possible. "Jesus insisted, "Nicodemus, you must be born again." The confused Pharisee said, "How can that be? Can somebody enter Mommy's womb a second time?" "Nicodemus," Jesus clarified, "you must be born from above."
Still in the dark, we might imagine old Nick responding, "How can that be? I never asked to be born in the first place." Jesus responded by saying, in effect, "Birth is a gift. Eternal life is a gift. Your ability to see the kingdom of God, why, that's a gift! That is to say, faith is a gift, a new kind of birth from the womb of our Mother who art in heaven. So it is, with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
In his reaching for faith, Nicodemus wants to know how this can be. He is grabbing for what can only be received as a gift of grace. The good news is that all of his questions, all of his doubts, all of his pursuits of faith, are caught up in the Wind, covered by the sound of a fierce, holy breeze howling in the dark.
My journey of faith has been a lifelong journey of questioning, of doubting, of discovery. Like Nicodemus, I have spent a lot of time in the dark – and while I don’t like being in the dark, it is there that I have made the greatest discoveries about myself, about God, about my place in the world. Sir Alec Guiness speaks his journey: A confirmed atheist at the age of 16, Guinness returned to the church at the age of 41. He does not have much to say about the years in between. Once in a while he read a religious book, or visited a worship service, or spent the weekend in a monastery. Other than that, he saw merely a few glimpses of light in the midst of darkness. Then one day he went back to the church as a quiet believer, 41 years old, and with a newly born faith. Of that return, he writes: "There had been no emotional upheaval, no great insight, certainly no proper grasp of theological issues; just a sense of history and the fittingness of things. Something impossible to explain.
Out in a dark world, if we listen, we can hear the Wind of God's Spirit groaning with the sound of grace, blowing wild and free. If we look, really look, sometimes we can notice that wherever the Spirit blows, one by one, God's would-be believers are brought to life. The church in our time needs daughters and sons who search until they envision a different world. The world has so many problems right now. We are divided and intolerant of one another. Climate change is a real problem, and we cannot agree on what is our responsibility to our planet. There are so many issues that keep us from being all that we are called to be.
God’s call to each and every one of us is that the world needs our energy, our way of looking at the world. Each of us is called by God in a unique way – the world needs each of us to answer that call. If Pentecost means anything, it means that Christ’s church is called to be a place of compassion, a place that is inclusive, and a place where as John Robinson said “more truths are to break forth from our holy scriptures”.
The prophet Joel said that the Spirit will pour out on all flesh. He didn’t qualify the Spirit’s work to some select group of humanity. All flesh. The world needs us. And not sometime in the future – but right here and right now. And so, I believe that each and every day, each one of us must ask “What is God calling me to this very day?” And then be willing to wait, sometimes in the dark, for the answer. Imagine what this world could be!
Please pray with me: God of grace, lead us into your truth, your ways. Help us, each and everyone, in all walks of life, to hold before us a vision of your love. Help us, all, to love as you love, generously, all. Give us your eyes, your heart, help us to be your hands, help us to mend the broken places. Amen.