Our sermons throughout Lent are on “Giving Up Your Own Way.” We’re following the Revised Common Lectionary and considering those things God calls us to give up – not just for 40 days, but for all of our days – so that we can take up the way of Jesus Christ. This week’s sermon is on “Giving Up Expectations.” Read or listen below.
As John tells it, the story of Jesus’s life is full of light. “The light shines in the darkness,” John says at the very beginning of the gospel. And the light keeps shining from there. The gospel of John is like the fluorescent bulb of the New Testament, brighter than all the rest, sometimes glaringly so, and humming with light from beginning to end.
“I am the light of the world,” Jesus proclaims in John, as the gospel goes about describing how the light of Jesus shines in a world that does not recognize it. He heals a man born blind, who is delivered from darkness into the light. “Walk in this light” Jesus later says to his followers, “and don’t let darkness overtake you.” Lazarus is raised from the darkness of death, and he walks from his tomb into the light. It’s the same light that will crest the hill early Easter morning just as Mary Magdalene arrives to the garden tomb to see that Jesus’ body is not there.
Light and darkness define the story for John. Light signifies belief, faith, transformation, and resurrection. So then, what does it tell us that in our passage today, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark of night? Nicodemus is walking in the darkness that envelops the scene. The coded language, the shadowy setting, the late hour – all of it conspires to tell us that Nicodemus is a long way from faith.
Of course, he doesn’t know that yet. Someone will have to tell him. He arrives with an air or confidence. As he speaks, he sounds terribly sure of himself. He might have a question or two in the middle of the night, but notice at first he doesn’t phrase it that way. His first words are “Rabbi, we know…”
“We know that you are a teacher from God.” Speaking with authority, as though on behalf of others, this religious leader says to Jesus, essentially, “We know who you are.”
Nicodemus might be far from faith, but notice that he’s full of knowledge. “We know.” We often say it right along with him. Nicodemus is a model for all of us who seek certainty in our lives. Information is readily accessible to us. Whether in our hometown or an unfamiliar destination, we usually know where we are and where we’re going as long as we turn on the GPS tracker. Most any curiosity can be satisfied with a search for an objective answer, as even my two oldest children know how to say, “Hey Siri…” We don’t have to remember daylight savings time. Spring forward? Fall back? Ehh, our phones and systems can take care of it for us while we sleep. A great number of us have become very used to “knowing.”
I think this shared experience, in part, explains the craze surrounding the week’s viral video. I’m sure many of you have seen it. BBC consultant, Robert E. Kelley, is giving a video interview in his home office, when he is interrupted by his children who come through his cracked office door and begin dancing on live television. Kelley is one of those trusted authorities, who imparts knowledge to the rest of us who constantly seek it from the 24-hour news. You can see how hard he’s worked for this status. He’s dedicated years to study and acquired degrees. He’s moved across the globe to South Korea, becoming a recognized global expert. Given the invitation to appear on the news, he puts on a coat and tie in his home office. He carefully positions his camera, arranges stacks of books to remind of his credentials, he speaks in measured tones in his best on-air voice, when all of this is interrupted by the reality that behind the specialist and all of this knowledge is a dancing toddler and an office door that won’t close all the way. It mocks our assumption of expertise. It barrels through the veneer of certainty.
It was an instant sensation because in some ways Dr. Robert E. Kelly, BBC specialist reporting from his home office, is all of us. And Nicodemus is all of us, too, what with his suit and tie and carefully constructed image, his impressive credentials of leadership and prominence, his books all lined up for Jesus and anyone else to see. He lives in all of us who are already convinced of what is real and what is possible, and what is not. He is in all of us who are certain of how things are.
“We know… what there is to know about you, Jesus,” Nicodemus says for us all. But what he does not yet seem to know is how perilous such assurance can be. How dangerous it can be, in fact, when your expectations are so fixed.
Author Laurence Gonzales writes of this in his book, Deep Survival, written about a group of hikers who were descending Mt. Hood in Northern Oregon. A well-known climb, these experienced hikers decided to take the quick route back to warmth, using ice axes and taking fewer precautions. But they had not accounted for the fact that the conditions had changed. The snow had become less solid, resulting in a catastrophic fall. In his book, Gonzales point out how the group’s prior experience, training, plans and expectations are what ultimately betrayed them. “It all conspired to encourage a sense of confidence… and mask cues about the changing environment.” And Gonzales writes, “A closed attitude, an attitude that says, ‘I already know,’ may cause you to miss the most important information.” That’s why survivalists and climbing instructors refer to the need for openness and humility, no matter your level of expertise.
Such humility is not the easiest of qualities for those of us accustomed to knowing. I want to hold on to what I was taught, not step out into the light of something new. I want God to fulfill my expectations right where I am right now. I know what Jesus can do, what the Bible says, what the kingdom ought to look like. I know who the Messiah is, and who I am because of it. But as the cross reminds us throughout Lent, if we are going to take up the way of Jesus, we must first give up out own way, which includes giving up the weight of expectation that we so often carry to our encounters with God.
In our Old Testament passage today, Abram thought he had figured out who God is, where he should be, what his family would look like. But in this episode so foundational to Israel’s story, God calls to Abram and asks Abram and Sarai to head out into an unknown future, without direction, or much knowledge of where they were going. They got lost along the way. They made plenty of mistakes – a whole series of misunderstandings, mishaps and abuses. But the Bible calls them “righteous.” Because they heard God’s call in the middle of their place of security and certainty, and they left the expectations of what there lives were supposed to be like and they followed this call to a land God promised to show them.
“We know,” Nicodemus says in the darkness of the scene, with the settled, secure assurance of Abram and Sarai in Haran, assuming that God doesn’t work in such a way as to defy our expectations or uproot us from one place to another. Nicodemus has God all figured out. He was like those who one preacher has said act as though they’ve “walked all the way around God and taken pictures.” (1) The problem with Nicodemus’ faith is not that it’s faulty. It’s that it’s too small. It’s fit for the middle of the night, but not yet the fullness and expanse of the light of day. It’s obscured. It’s based in an expectation far short of the possibilities that exist in the love and mercy of the God who so loves this world that God gave his only son. It’s so often true of what we think we know. Our expectations of God – and of ourselves as God’s people – always fall short.
Josh Shipp is an author and student of adolescent development, who shares how he was in and out of foster homes throughout his childhood, perfecting the art of getting kicked out. Until at the age of 14, he moved in with an older couple, Rodney and Linda. After three years, he couldn’t shake him. They hadn’t kicked him out. He was 6 months from his high school graduation and he went to the local bank, opened a checking account, then started to write bad checks, including one for car insurance, which bounced revoking his license. Shortly thereafter, he was pulled over for speeding – with no car insurance and no license – and he was taken to jail. Given his one phone call, he called his guardian, Rodney, who agreed to bail him out the next morning.
It was a long, awkward car ride home, at the end of which Rodney said in the driveway, “We need to sit down and talk.” Josh knew the moment had come, he had finally stirred up enough controversy that he would be sent packing. He didn’t blame them for it. Rodney and Linda sat down with him, and they looked in his eyes, and Rodney spoke: “Son, you can keep causing problems. You can keep pushing us away. You can keep trying to get us to throw you out of here. But what you don’t understand is that to us, you’re not who you think you are. You’re not a problem. You’re our son.”
Josh was overwhelmed with the reality that this man meant it. He didn’t see what he was, but what he could be. And Josh started to see himself that way, too. Josh says that sappy moment in the living room with Rodney and Linda – who to this day he calls Dad and Mom – was genuinely the turning point in his life. (2)
There’s a word for such a turning point in the gospel of John – when you turn from what you thought you were to what God has called you. It’s called being born again. It’s a fantastical notion, as Nicodemus reminds us straight away with his questions: “How can anyone be born after they have grown old?” This imagery disrupts the self-assured scholar. How can anyone expect to crawl back into a place of vulnerability and dependence, only to emerge and see the world anew? How can anyone expect to be re-formed and re-created to love more, forgive more, step out more? Can we actually surrender our expectations of how things ought to be and open ourselves to the Spirit that blows where we would not choose?
To be born again is in part to let go of your expectations. It’s not that we shouldn’t expect anything from God. It’s just that we can never be so certain and secure that we believe God is limited to our expectations. Or that the Bible means only what we already think and know. Or that the Messiah can only do what we have planned for a messiah to do. Or that the Kingdom will come as we believe it should. Or that Jesus can only be who we have already figured out that he is. Such assurance turns out to be as dark as a Jerusalem alley in the middle of the night.
If we are to step into the light it will mean we come to embrace a sense of openness and wonder. This is a central theme for John, whose gospel urges us to open ourselves to reconsider our relationship with God and what God is capable of doing.
10 years ago, I was at a conference where the well-known preacher, Fred Craddock, told of such a moment in his life. When he was a boy Fred lived on a farm, where he had an older neighbor who befriended him. The 6 year old boy asked the 80-something yr old man, “Mr. Will, have you ever been in a church?”
“In a church? All the time I’m in a church.”
“I mean do you go to church?”
“I go every Sunday.”
“Really,” Fred asked. “What’s it like?”
“You wouldn’t believe what it’s like. When I walk up to that golden door and touch that silver handle and open the door, well a hundred voices say ‘Welcome, Will!’ I go in, and there must be 500 in the choir. And the ceiling of that building is blue like the ceiling of heaven, with stars sprinkled throughout. And everyone is singing, including the angels. It is absolutely unbelievable. Do I go to church? Of course I go to church!”
Fred said he went to Will’s church once. Turns out it seated about 60 – an unpainted board frame building sitting up on fieldstone at the four corners, with a deep sag in the middle. It had some hand-widdled and thrown-together furniture. It was just a handful of people fanning with the funeral home fans.
“Where in the world did Will get that?” he wondered. “Was he pulling my leg? This is a big question, and look at it, a little frame building about to fall down.” Fred says he didn’t realize until much later that Will could see what he couldn’t see – that sometimes God disguises the good stuff. And you have to adjust you’re eyes and set down your expectations to see it.
He learned that a few years later, when his dear old friend, Will, passed away. And so young Fred and his family attended the funeral in that little no-account church God had disguised. But then the service started. The choir got to singing and to swaying. The congregation joined in and all of a sudden, somewhere in the midst of the singing and the swaying and the praising, Fred looked up. “And do you know? The ceiling was blue. And the stars were shining all about. And ministries of angels sang Will to his rest.” (3)
In church, we get to embody this sense of wonder and faith in the one who can do exceedingly, abundantly more than we could ever ask, imagine or expect.
That’s the awe we hear in the voice of Nicodemus. This wondrous talk of being born again prompts in Nicodemus a question, “How can this be?”
It’s a question prompted by the one who is always exceeding expectations. There are those who come to him and ask to be able to see, and he “saves” them. There are those that only want to prepare his body, when while it was still dark he rises. There are so many of us who only want to survive, and he tells us of how he has come to give us life, abundantly. How can this be?
It’s a question of faith. And the process of faith is embodied here in this passage from Nicodemus – moving from the statement “We know” to the question “How can this be?”
I hope you have made that shift in your life. If you have you are not alone.
You join all those who conceived of a God limited to their expectation, and suddenly encounter God in the person of Jesus. How can this be?
They thought they knew the word of God, but then encounter the living word in flesh. How can this be?
They had plans for what Jesus would do, then he starts to turn over the tables of their carefully arranged agenda. How can this be?
They knew how the kingdom should come, but then he proclaims that it is near to those whom they would never have guessed. How can this be?
They went running after him – left the shops, the boats, screaming “We have found the Messiah,” then he shows them the cross. How can this be?
The writer Jan Richardson has said when we hear this question – in the Bible or in our own lives – it means the Spirit is “up to something.” (4) Like Mary responding to the angel Gabriel’s invitation earlier in the story. Before she says “yes” to bearing the only Son of God, she asks, “How can this be?” We hear the question and know that God is in the midst bringing about something new, beyond what we ever could have imagined ourselves. Something is being born. Or born again.
We see how Abram responds to God’s outrageous call – “Go, leave everything you know behind, to a place I will show you, and I will bless you to be a blessing for every family of the earth.” Abram releases his expectations and goes.
We know how Mary accepts God’s wondrous invitation with incredible openness, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
What about Nicodemus? Later in the story, Jesus is teaching and one man – a religious leader, Nicodemus – stands up to defend him against his critics. Then much later, after it was all over when all was dark, as they wonder what will happen now that he is gone, Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the crucified body of Jesus for burial. In the middle of the night, Nicodemus comes and anoints the body of Jesus. And then is never heard from again. He probably thought it was all over. Final. Just as he’d expect. Just as we’d expect.
But the next day, don’t you think he was close by when, with the sun rising, Mary ran throughout the ranks of the followers that remained, “I have seen the Lord, come, quickly, I have seen the Lord.” I can imagine him – Nicodemus – stepping forward into the light that was dawning above the hill, with the words forming on his lips, “How can this be?”
We can say these words with him. We can know this wonder ourselves. But first we must give up our own way – even our best expectations – to come to know the way of Jesus.
- Quoting a Fred Craddock-ism
- Josh Shipp, “Every Teen is One Caring Adult Away…”
- Fred Craddock at Festival of Homiletics, May 2007
- In Beloved: An Online Journey Into Lent, Week 2, Day 5