‘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.’ Jn 3:16
Before the arrival of our children Narek and Nora, I received a good deal of unsolicited advice about parenting. “God gives us children to remind us that we are not in control,” a priest friend told me. “Wait till you have children,” Dr. George said; as often as he could, in every context. It was the way he said it, however, that stuck with me; not with a smile so much, as an ironic chuckle. This was a warning that challenges lay ahead, of which I had no idea.
And in many ways he was right. Though the arrival of both our children have brought amazing experiences of delight and love into our home, they have also been a major disruption to life as we knew it. It turns out that after 13 months Nora still likes to sit up and yell several times a night for her mother. It turns out that whatever Anna or I want to do for ourselves has totally taken a backseat to what has to be done. Sure, there have been glimpses of our pre-parent days in the midst of the changes: a visit from friends in Armenia, or the rare day when we wake up naturally before Narek cannonballs into bed. For the most part, however, the last five years have been a huge learning curve in accepting the greatest blessings we’ve known-that at the same time-have disrupted life as we knew it before their arrival.
Luckily, our Gospels, and today’s reading in particular, remind us that this is how life works. Great blessings seem to take place simultaneously with some of life’s more disorienting moments. Perhaps the disorientation itself is an act of God’s mercy and grace. This all comes out in in today’s reading from the Gospel of John. In it we read of the famous middle of the night conversation between Jesus and a very disoriented man named Nicodemus. A man, who like, earnestly seeks God’s blessings, but also like us, is not at all fond of the disruption which accompanies it.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus acknowledging the grace which pours from our Lord, and wants in on this blessing himself; ‘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.’ Nicodemus’ question is straight-forward, while Jesus’ answers are anything but; “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Jesus is not trying to accommodate Nicodemus; he is trying to unsettle him. How specifically does Jesus shake Nicodemus’ foundations? Well first he takes aim at Nicodemus’s sense of entitlement of being on God’s side, that being born of the chosen people into priesthood is no guarantee of entrance into God’s kingdom. He challenges Nicodemus to be born again, not just intellectually or spiritually, but essentially asking Nicodemus to risk his life. Remember that Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of those who are seeking Jesus’ life. “You must be born again,” says Jesus, that is, break off from your privilege and all you know to join the persecuted minority that turns the world order upside down, where humility, weakness and death are redeemed through God’s love.
Nicodemus must have been knocked off his balance by Jesus’ words. Both of his replies to Jesus express the heart of a man straining to keep up: “How can these things be?” But his disorientation is also the beginning of his conversion—one that eventually leads Nicodemus to speak out for Jesus among his peers (John 7) and to minister to Jesus at the tomb (John 19). Nicodemus does not know it at the time, but as he stumbles through this conversation, he is being reoriented and taking the first steps down the path of abundant life. Jesus is after such disruption and the reorientation it leads to. He wants Nicodemus—and us—to leave behind one set of bearings and to take on an entirely new set. And as today’s Gospel reading and Jesus’ own life remind us, God didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. ‘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.’ Even for God, the greatest blessing of Easter, came with the greatest disruption of the cross.
Nicodemus’ question is our question. Do we seek God, and are we open to what we find? If God’s grace comes with disruption and change, will we receive this new gift or desperately try to retain the status quo? Perhaps in moments of weariness we may join with Nicodemus—or a tired mom or tired priest—and ask, “How can this be?” “”How is it that this blessing of a newborn, of a marriage, of a job, can be at the same time so difficult and disorienting?” When we do find ourselves anxious or overwhelmed by disorienting times in our lives, we might do well to remember that all of God’s great blessings are simultaneously times of great disruption. And we can take hope knowing that it pleases God to reveal himself at precisely the times in which we are keenly aware of our lack of control—even and especially when such moments occur in the middle of a long sleepless night.
-Parts of this sermon adapted from ‘Living by the Word’ by Chris Blumhofer May 22, 2012