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It's All About Trust, Baby!

Second Sunday of Lent

John 3: 1-17 - Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can on enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 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." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 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. IF I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 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 went into labor with my son, Maddox, at 3:15 in the morning on October 30, 2009. Don’t worry – I’m not going to go into the details of that story. But there is one memory that is “approved for general audiences.” After the jolt of excitement/fear/ Ok-this-is-really-happening, one of my first thoughts was “Oh good! The baby won’t have a Halloween Birthday!” Well… Maddox had other ideas, and he decided to hold out until 1:30am, on Halloween. And as it turns out he LOVES having a Halloween birthday, so what did I know.

I was reminded of that particular late-night introduction as I pondered the story of Nicodemus this week. The story of the man who came to Jesus by night. Much has been made in the history of Christian preaching about the implications of this night-time visit – about the imputed secrecy… and self-protection… and shame. The church has, sometimes unthinkingly and sometimes not, played into associations between darkness and sinfulness in ways that have denied the beauty of blackness, as though darkness and night were not as valued a part of the created order as light.

But there is a special sacredness that comes with night. The conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, full as it is with birth language, reminded me of my own experience with late-night birth… and of my doula’s observation (based on the more than 90 births at which she has assisted) that “whatever time the labor starts, babies almost always seem to want to come at night.”

Maybe it’s the relative quiet and calm… the stilling of all the bustle of daily busy-ness… that makes night more inviting to babies. Maybe the relative darkness feels safer for the struggle into the vulnerability of life outside the womb.

Because vulnerability is so intrinsic to the experience of birth.

It’s not something we tend to talk about much. New baby stories are “supposed to be” about joy. But joy is all too frequently not the reality of wanting or carrying new life. There is pain, and fear, and loss in this very room associated with birth – and that pain deserves inclusion in this story. Birth is much harder, and more tenuous, than we like to think.

And even when everything goes well… even in all the sterile, medically-secured environment with which we surround birth, there is something so undeniably fragile… so vulnerable about a newborn baby.

And I think, perhaps, it is this call to vulnerability to which Nicodemus object. Rather than engaging Jesus’s spiritual invitation to be born from above, Nicodemus makes a logistical, argumentative response. Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?

Nicodemus is a MAN, a Pharisee, a Leader of the Jews. It is not only impossible for him to be born in this state – he doesn’t want to! He doesn’t want to lose his status, and privilege, and power.

He was attracted to Jesus BY power – by the authority Jesus demonstrated in cleansing the temple and by the miraculous signs that drew the crowds to him as told just before this story in John's gospel. Nicodemus approaches Jesus with praise for these signs.

But then Jesus tells him: Being able to recognize signs of power doesn’t mean you recognize God’s kingdom – NO! You have to get vulnerable to see that.

And when Nicodemus tries to deflect that call for vulnerability, Jesus doubles down. The vulnerability Jesus is calling for doesn’t just require Nicodemus to recognize himself as a helpless newborn… it requires Nicodemus to recognize God as an utterly uncontrollable Spirit-Wind.

When Jesus explains that he is talking about a birth of water and Spirit – he is playing on the word pneuma which can mean both spirit and wind. So, the wind that blows where is chooses, the wind that we can feel but that we can’t control, or even know where it comes from or where it’s heading – that’s God’s wild, powerful, blow-where-it-will Spirit.

This is not the God Nicodemus was looking for… but it was the God whom he SHOULD have known to expect, as a teacher of Israel, because this is the God who called Abraham and Sarah.[1] The God of Israel had called on Abraham to leave behind his source of security and identity… to “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house”… and to go “to the land that I will show you.”

God didn’t even tell him the whole plan, God just said “Go.”

Trust ME to fulfill the promises of blessing in a place where you will KNOW that blessing comes from me, because you have no one else to bless you.

And, moreover, Go to BE a blessing. When your security is utterly dependent on Me, don’t withhold your hospitality. Don’t hold on to my blessing and keep it for yourself, because I choose to bless all the families of the earth through you.

And now WE start to squirm a little, if we are paying attention. Because here is where we realize just how hard it is to open ourselves to vulnerability. It might be easy to spiritually embrace the vulnerability of babies in our comfortable lives with all our, soft and cuddly, sentimental associations with infancy.

But hearing a call to abandon security when we have no guarantees about where that road might lead? Seeing our blessings as not for our own benefit, but rather given in order to spread them out to the whole world? Practicing hospitable welcome to strangers as Abraham and Sarah did? This call is both very relevant to this point in time, and very challenging.

Which is what brings me to my sermon title: It’s All About Trust, Baby!

Maybe a bit cutesy… but the point of Christ’s call to an experience of infancy, to being born of the Spirit,... AND the point of the calling of Abraham and Sarah to Go… to be a blessing,... AND the point in Paul’s letter to the Romans[2] about the way that we, as believers, are descendants of Abraham in faith... the point of ALL of these stories is TRUST.

As Paul writes: “But to one who without works TRUSTS him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 3:5).

Jesus calls us to be born of water and Spirit, so that we can experience our total and utter dependence on God. In the waters of our baptism we are proclaimed children of God, dependent newborns of the God who blows like a wild and untamable Spirit-wind.

And Paul calls us to recognize our inheritance with Abraham as coming through faith, so that we can recognize that it is trust in God, and not in anything we do, that saves us.

And this is even the point of that most-quoted Bible verse that we heard at the end of the gospel reading: “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” (John 3:16) and it goes on “Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17).

WE don’t get to have control… not of our privilege, and not of our blessings, and not even of our own salvation. We get to have trust in God.

Trust – vulnerable, dependent, infant-like trust – is what salvation by grace, through faith means. It is at the absolute core of our faith.

In fact, we confess it every single week in worship, although we might not be fully conscious that this is what we are doing. When we confess our faith using the words of the creed, we are confessing our trust in God as our Creator, Redeemer, and the One who makes us Holy.

And in order to remind us that this is what we are really doing, for the rest of Lent we will actually be saying “I trust” at the beginning of each affirmation. I trust in God the Father… I trust in Jesus Christ… I trust in the Holy Spirit.”

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. All throughout Epiphany we talked about our call to enter God’s kingdom, here & now, in the way we live our lives of faith. And the way into that kingdom is as a helpless, trusting, infant.

Confessing this total vulnerability and dependence is completely counter-cultural for 21st Century Americans – even for faith alone Lutherans – but, there is a gift in this confession. Because if we are the helpless newborn, then God is the strong, laboring mother who reaches out loving arms to hold us.

Trust in this loving God, for you are called to be a blessing, and the only way to do that is to trust that God is the only source of security we need.

Very truly, I tell you. Amen

[1] See the first lectionary reading of the day: Genesis 12:1-4a

[2] See the second lectionary reading for the day: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17.

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