Trinity SundayB, May 31, 2015

June 2, 2015

Our Eternal-Life Coach
John 3:1-17

3:1 Now 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.

I’ll be preaching three more sermons here after today. I spent some time last week trying to think of some way to wrap up my preaching tenure in some kind of coherent package or series of sermons. I tried, but I failed. In fact trying to come up with a comprehensive preaching plan all but put me in a fetal position. I’ve never been able to construct a series of sermons and I’m certainly not equipped to do that when you enter the additional factor of departure emotions — and I’ve got a few of those floating around in my gut.

This is not a particularly calm moment in my life. I expect to become a grandfather sometime within the next few weeks. I’ll be moving from the house I’ve been living in for the last nineteen years in about a month, and my daughter and her husband will be moving to Kansas City in about two months and I understand they will be taking our grandchild with them. And within that profound mix of emotions I’ve got some feelings for this church that I’ve been fully engaged with for the past six years.

In all honesty, I’m a mess right now. I’m not a terrible mess, but I’m emotionally all over the place! I’m feeling a lot of loss and a lot of love these days. But I’m also enjoying the status of a short term pastor – which is to feel the release of some responsibility. I haven’t been able to fix everything, but it’s basically too late – the time has come for me to distribute my current set of problems to other people. I’ll be getting a new set of problems soon, but I’m enjoying the bliss of ignorance for now.

So don’t count on a coherent series of sermons from me over the next few weeks, but I plan to be here. I’ll find something to talk about, and you can count on Jesus being here – Jesus always seems to be on hand during a crisis.

I actually feel some kinship with Nicodemus right now. Nicodemus showed up to speak to Jesus at night, and there are a number of ways in which I feel like I’m in the dark. I can’t really see what’s going on. Some people think this Nicodemus character embodied darkness – someone who chose to remain in the dark, but I have a more sympathetic reading of Nicodemus. I don’t think of him as someone who loved the darkness as much as I see him as someone who found himself in the dark and wasn’t quite sure how to get out of it.

These Jewish authorities are portrayed as pretty horrible people, and they earned that reputation, but like most people who find themselves operating in hellish systems, he didn’t set out to be an enemy of the son of God. He didn’t go in to that line of work because he wanted to be spiritually ignorant. I dare say he was well motivated to become a Pharisee – it’s probably what all the sharp-minded conscientious young people of his day wanted to become.

Nicodemus didn’t find himself within the community of people who rejected Jesus because he had decided to resist the work of God in the world. He was a man who had gotten caught up in something he didn’t fully understand. He was in the dark – he didn’t know what to do, but he didn’t feel very good about what he was doing.

I don’t feel like I’m in as dark of a place as Nicodemus was. I’m happy to say I don’t feel like I’m collaborating with people who are plotting to kill the embodiment of God on earth, but I am in the dark in some significant ways. To use the metaphor that Jesus used – maybe I’m feeling a little bit like I’m in the position of a baby who is yet to be born. It’s dark and I don’t really know what’s going on, but I feel like something is about to happen. And something needs to happen – I’m not in a position that I can remain in for much longer.

My soon to be born granddaughter and I have a lot in common. I’m between worlds. I’m not sure what the new one will look like, but as surely as nature takes it’s course, the institutional wheels are turning, and I’m about to find myself living in a whole new environment. Which isn’t all bad, but there are a lot of unknowns.

I’m feeling it, and many of you are feeling it as well. Whether it’s the transition that the church is undergoing or your own personal transition that’s taking place I don’t think it’s an uncommon feeling to be in the figurative dark. This is a hard world to navigate, and it’s not unusual to not know what is about to happen or what needs to happen. Nicodemus may not have shown up with the right set of expectations for what was needing to happen, but I give him a lot of credit for showing up to engage in a conversation with Jesus. He may have come to him in the dark of night, but he didn’t have to show up at all, and that indicates to me that he was at least trying to find his way.

I attended a clergy training event about a week ago, and as strange as this may sound I actually got something out of it. I can’t say that about all of the training events I attend, but this was a two-day event that took place at Mt. Eagle Retreat Center – which is a retreat center that sits on a bluff overlooking the headwaters of the Little Red River. I’ve said this before, but the place is misnamed. Instead of calling it Mt. Eagle, they should have named that place after the buzzards that like to soar above the bluffs that are along one border of the property. A buzzard may not be much to look at up close, but they fly beautifully and you are far more likely to see a buzzard than an eagle at Mt. Eagle. I don’t want to make too much of the biologically inappropriate name of that place, but I think it points to a problem that often plagues religious organizations – which is the aspiration to be considered awesome.

Eagles are awesome. Buzzards are common. And while there is something awesome about what Jesus had to teach, the kind of awesomeness that Jesus taught is not the kind of awesomeness that goes viral on the internet. It’s not the kind of awesomeness that the Pharisees could appreciate. They wanted to create the kind of religious organization that would impress the crowds and gain the respect of powerful people, and that’s not what Jesus was up to. Jesus didn’t want to create a new kingdom on earth — Jesus wanted to help people find their way in to the kingdom that already existed.

Jesus was more of a buzzard than an eagle. He didn’t want to impress people with his awesomeness – he wanted to be seen for who he was, and he wanted people to see through the façade of false faith. Jesus undermined the official community of God as it existed in Israel because he wanted people to understand what the kingdom of God actually looked like. And that’s why Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again. Nicodemus had been drawn in to the religious community of the Pharisees because he liked the idea of participating in God’s community, but he couldn’t see how dark that community had become. The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was strained because Nicodemus had been trained by his peers to love and to promote the wrong things.

The training event I attended introduced me to the concept of approaching ministry with the skills of a life coach. And while the language of life-coaching may sound a little first-worldly or high falootin, but the truth is that the skills we were taught are applicable on every level of human interaction. The primary skills of life coaching are the skills of listening and asking questions. The primary objective of a life coach is to elicit from another person the knowledge that they already have. A good life coach is not someone who imparts wisdom but who motivates people to lay claim to what they already know.

It strikes me that this interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus was a profound life-coaching session. Nicodemus didn’t really know what he was wanting to say to Jesus, but Jesus heard him express interest in the kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t employ the classic technique of a life coach and ask him questions that might help him understand what he was wanting, but then Jesus wasn’t a certified life-coach – Jesus was a renegade life-coach. Jesus wasn’t out to help people improve their lives on earth – Jesus wasn’t as interested in our temporal life as he was in our eternal life. He didn’t just want to help us function better on earth. Jesus wanted us to find our way in to whole new way of living – a way of living that was unbounded by earthly constraints and worldly expectations.

I love this interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus doesn’t seem to get what Jesus was saying, but it doesn’t end with Nicodemus departing in sadness because he didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. We don’t know what Nicodemus thought about his conversation with Jesus, but we do know that he had been exposed to the truth, and we have been as well.

The truth is that we all have our own forms of blindness that keep us from seeing the path to abundant life. Sometimes we are genuinely blind to the truth, but often we are unwilling to see the true path – sometimes we just don’t want to go to the place of new life. Sometimes we choose comfort and familiarity over challenge and growth.

We’ve all got some challenging days ahead, and while they might not be easy, what Jesus wants us to know is that the path to abundant life is always available. It’s always a challenge to find it and to follow it, but it’s always at hand. None of us are well trained to find it – not even those of us who wear religious credentials, but none of us are excluded. Jesus was happy to talk to Nicodemus, and his message applies to us all. We may be in the dark, but the path to new life continues to be available to us all.

And thanks be to God for that – Amen.


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