Monday, March 17, 2014

Like It Or Not

John 3:1-17
March 16, 2014

One of my favorite books growing up was A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle.  The heroine of the story is 14-year-old Meg Murray.  She is awkward and feels out-of-place and somewhat of a misfit in her family; all exceptionally gifted and talented.  Meg feels, at the best, ordinary.  She, along with everyone else in her family worries constantly about her father.  Mr. Murray, an exceptional and gifted scientist, has been missing for a year.

One night Meg meets a strange woman named Mrs. Whatsit -- a traveler from another planet -- and this is where her adventure begins.  Meg, her younger, sensitive and brilliant brother, Charles Wallace, and Meg's friend Calvin O'Keefe, take a strange journey through time and space to rescue Meg's father from an unknown, terrifying force.  As they travel they see this force.  It is like an ominous dark cloud.  As it moves across the universe it swallows planets and stars, completely overshadowing them in darkness.

The planet where Mr. Murray is being held is called Camazotz.  It is controlled by IT; which seems to be something like a large, disembodied brain.  It controls everything and everyone with a rhythmic pulse.  That pulse forces everything to move in synchronized rhythm.  As Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin walk down the street, they see children outside of their houses, bouncing balls.  But each child bounces the ball at exactly the same time, in the same way, in perfect rhythm.  Like robots.  When one child accidentally drops his ball, breaking rhythm with the rest of the children, his frightened mother appears in the doorway and frantically calls him inside.  

The three children find Mr. Murray and manage to free him from IT.  But Charles Wallace tries to engage and defeat IT with his intelligence and is overwhelmed by IT.  Mr. Murray is able to pull Meg and Calvin away and the three of them tesseract, which is how this time travel is accomplished, to a peaceful planet where they are cared for and healed.  But Charles Wallace is left behind.  

Meg, with her special connection to Charles Wallace, is the only one who can save him.  She returns to Camazotz alone and finds Charles Wallace.  The Charles Wallace who loved and comforted and understood Meg better than anyone else in their family is gone.  In his place is a boy who looks like Charles Wallace but seems to only be the mouthpiece for IT.  IT speaks through him.

Meg tries to fight IT.  At first she uses her hate for IT.  But the more she hates IT, the stronger and more powerful IT becomes.  Finally, she realizes that the one thing IT cannot understand is love.  It is her love for Charles Wallace, her family, her friends, the creatures that she's met on this bizarre journey that make her different from IT.  It is her love that sets her apart.  It is love that has kept Earth from being overtaken completely by the dark shadow threatening the universe.  Love.

Meg concentrates on her love for Charles Wallace.  She screams the words, "I love you Charles Wallace" over and over again.  IT becomes confused.  The more Meg focuses on love, the less control IT has, and Charles Wallace is pulled free.  Meg saves her brother from the darkness of IT through love.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night, in darkness, and Jesus responds to him with love.  Certainly it seems that the easiest way to approach this passage would be to focus only on verse 16.  It is probably the best known verse of the Bible.  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life."  The King James Version, the version I learned this verse in as a child.

For God so loved the world.  The problem is that skipping to verse 16, taking it out of context from the rest of the story, doesn't do verse 16 or the story justice.  Because it begins with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who comes to Jesus in the night, in the darkness.

Nicodemus tells Jesus that he knows him.  He addresses Jesus as "Rabbi," and he knows that Jesus is a teacher sent from God.  He knows this because of the many signs Jesus performs; they could only be performed by One sent from God.

And Jesus responds with probably the most confusing, and I suspect, the most misunderstood sentence in all of the gospels.

"Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
Another way that "from above is translated is "born again."  No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.  Being "born again" has become the central issue of faith for many of our more evangelical brothers and sisters.  Being saved means being born again.  It is the moment when you accept Jesus into your heart, accept him as your Lord and Savior, and therefore you are saved.  You are born again.

With all due respect to the other members of our Christian family, I struggle with the concept of being born again.  I always have.  Jesus' response confuses Nicodemus as well.  You have to be born again, born from above?  Nicodemus takes Jesus literally.  How can you go back into your mother's womb and be reborn?

But Jesus isn't referring to a literal birth.  It seems that Jesus is speaking of being created and formed by God through the Holy Spirit.  If we are to see the kingdom of God, experience it, than that happens as we are born anew.  Here's the thing.  Looking back over the course of my life, I can identify many times when I have been born anew, reborn through the movement and power of the Holy Spirit.  It hasn't been just one moment, but many moments.  I suspect those moments will continue, at least I hope they will.  Because for me it's not about being born again, one time, that's it.  It is about growing, growing up, in faith.  Yes, I am being born from above.  We all are.  We are continuously being formed and created and shaped in our faith.  That formation comes in dramatic moments, true, but it also happens in the same daily, ordinary moments of living and maturing in our faith.

I think it happens every time we recognize that we are loved by God.  That's really the answer Jesus gives to Nicodemus.  Salvation and the kingdom of God come to the world through the Son because of love.  God loves the world so much, so unconditionally, so completely that God will do whatever it takes to show the world that love.  God loves the world, the whole world, like it or not.

But why wouldn't we like it?  Why wouldn't we choose the light that comes to us through God's love rather than stay in the darkness?  I think it is because being born and being born again is scary and messy, both literally and figuratively.  Growing up in our faith can be painful.  Growing up in faith, being formed in faith challenges us to be mindful, to think about the ways we show God's love -- or don't.  Being formed in faith, from above, calls us to trust God.  We have to trust God, not ourselves, not our own wisdom, God.  That's hard to do.  Being born again from above is challenging, but through it all we are loved.  

That's what God wants us to know, I think.  God loves us, like it or not.  We can't bargain or negotiate with this kind of love.  It isn't conditional on what we do or don't do.  God loves us, like it or not.  God loves this world so much that God is willing to become one of us if that' what it takes for us to finally get it, to finally understand the depth and height and breadth of God's love.
Like it or not, God loves us.  But that forces a decision.  Will we turn to God, to light to love?  Will we follow his Son?  Or will we turn to darkness?  God's love for the world has been made flesh and blood in Jesus?  But will we follow?

I read a wonderful short story called The Geese and the Snowstorm.  It tells the story of a man who didn't believe in God; he wanted nothing to do with God.   He thought the idea of God becoming human was a ridiculous notion.  No true God would ever become a human.  It just didn't make sense.  Yet his wife believed, and she raised her children in faith.  One Sunday, when the rest of his family were at church, it began to snow.  The man settled in by the warm fire, when he heard a thump and a thud against the house.  He went outside and saw a flock of geese that had gotten caught in the snowstorm.  They seemed confused and unsure about what to do or where to go.  The man realized without help they wouldn't survive.  He didn't want them to suffer, so he opened his barn doors and tried to shoo them inside to its safety.  But every move he made toward them sent them scattering in fear.  He was desperate; he kept trying to think of some way that he could entice them to follow him.  Finally he cried out, "Oh, if only I could become like them.  Then they wouldn't be scared of me.  Then they would follow me into the barn where they would be safe."

If only I could become like them, then they would follow me.  The man realized what he's said.  Suddenly God becoming like us didn't sound ridiculous at all.  The story ends with him dropping to his knees in the snow and praying.

I realize that's a pretty dramatic moment, and I'm sure some would consider the man born again.  I guess in some ways he was, because it was a moment of acceptance.  But maybe being born again isn't so much one moment of acceptance, but many moments -- both dramatic and ordinary -- when we see and feel and comprehend God's love. We have those moments when we understand, we get it, that we are loved by God unconditionally, like it or not.  And in those moments we choose and re-choose to follow.  We are born again and again and again because God loves us, loves the world, like it or not.  And in God's unconditional, sacrificial love, we find our hope, we make our way, we are born again.  Let all God's children say, "Amen." 

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