I don't need to tell you that life is a mystery. I don't need to tell you that life is full of misery; you know that as well as I do. And if you know what life is all about, you know more than I do.
But when I stop, when I let myself calm down, when I step out of the rush of the world for a while, I find, despite all the pain, despite all the apparent absurdity, despite the fear what might happen— I'm almost surprised to find… that I am somehow at peace.
I'm not talking about simply being resigned to whatever the mystery is that I find myself in. I'm talking about being at home, despite the unfathomable nature of it all.
When I was five, my mother let me hike some miles to a neighbour's farm. I remember one moment on that hot afternoon, a moment of complete silence in the dale of a back road. I could have been all alone in the world; I think a small part of me was in awe of the place— frightened even, but the other part of me was completely at home; safe, in my place, with everything in order.
I had all the naivety of a safe childhood; no comprehension of death or dangerous people; I had not even started school. And almost sixty sixty years on, I often find myself back in the dale despite some deep scars, and despite some experience of the world as a very nasty place. Not all the time, but enough of the time to be confident in the reality of it: I am at home.
One of the poets says that sometimes in our searching for life we "arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
I think I have been given— it's nothing I have achieved— I have been given… a certain rebirth.
This is what's described when Nicodemus is talking to Jesus about entering the Kingdom of Heaven; that is, really being in a living relationship with God. Jesus tells him he needs to be born… from above, born of water and spirit.
We don't get to decide when, or how, or where, we are born. Life is just given to us, both when we are first born, and when we are born again. The second time, something happens that gets us off the treadmill of trying to make a life for ourselves, and starts us on the slow path to realising we are already at home, and we always have been at home. God has given life to us, God loves us, and there is nothing to prove, and there is nothing which can take life from us.
John says we are at home because "God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that all who believed in him might not perish, but have eternal life." We have often been taught to fear God, yet God "did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." We will not perish.
These words are so familiar that it's easy to miss what they are saying.
God so loved the world. God loved the world— not just me and my friends, but the world.
A small hint, if you are not feeling much at home in the world: as someone who was also… not at home in the world, I have discovered some correlation between my accepting that God loves even the people I don't love, and who don't love me, and my feeling at home. In fact, the idea that God would punish some people while saving me, was a part of my alienation from life.
John 3:16 talks about "believing in him" thing. We have often been taught that believing in him means signing off on a certain number of doctrinal ideas. Like me, you may have noticed that the exact list tends to vary according to which church you attend. And like me, you may have noticed that no matter which list you sign off on, it doesn't really do much to help you feel at peace. Especially around the type of people who seem dedicated to telling us that our list is wrong, and that we should follow their list!
The problem we have is that the word for believing is not so much about a list of things to sign off on, it's about trusting in Jesus. We believe by trusting what he says to us. And what he says is that we have to be reborn; this finding ourselves at home is not something we do. It's given to us; we are born to it. So maybe we should simply stop trying so hard to please God, and simply start trusting that we have been born to life— it's given to us! But what does a statement like that… even mean?
An answer might be in that odd verse where Jesus says, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts-believes in him may have eternal life."
It goes back to an Old Testament story where, in the wilderness— that might be like the wilderness we experience when we wonder what on earth life's all about—
—in the wilderness, the Israelites were getting bitten by poisonous serpents and dying. So Moses had a serpent cast in bronze, and had it held up high on a pole. If you got bitten, you looked up at the brass serpent. It says, "that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live." (Numbers 21)
Now I remember the last time I nearly trod on a snake. Even without being bitten, I was off as fast as I could manage. But in the story, healing involved going back to look at the thing which was going to kill you; it involved looking at your death, or else you would not live! Not exactly intuitive.
And in Jesus' time, it was not exactly intuitive that you would go and look up at the one you had thought was the Messiah, but who had been killed on a cross. How could it be that his being lifted up, and us looking at him and his death, lead to life? It would be a most uncomfortable reminder of our own dying. Especially since Jesus had a habit of saying that if you wanted to be his follower, you needed to carry your own cross, and follow him.
When we think about our dying, and when we do things that make us vulnerable to dying, we discover something which ought to be obvious, but which we spend our lives hiding from: We do not own ourselves; we own nothing of the things we've gathered around us, and life is all rather outside our control. We are a little child in a lonely hollow out on the road completely dependent on the power behind the world looking after us. Everything… down to our latest breath, has been given to us. And we do not even choose if that latest breath will be our last.
This is the truth of our existence. And owning up to this, living with this, standing in the terror of it, is like being born at last after a long labour. Suddenly we are here, and after the first gasping breaths of shock, we are home safe, held in the hands of God.
If we have an ounce of pity and humanity— and we do; it's given to us— looking at Jesus on the cross moves us to care for people who, like us, have been bitten by life, and are dying. And when we seek to care for them, it makes us vulnerable; sometimes the people we seek to help try to harm us. The time and the effort we spend helping someone is time taken away from us. Love diminishes us. It costs us. It can be like dying. Especially when we find ourselves being called to love the unlovely.
And yet the irony of life is that when we face our death, we become free of it.
I'm sure people told me these things. But perhaps they were trying to describe the colour purple to a blind man, or to describe the music of Bach to someone who could not hear. So what I am saying to you now might all sound like meaningless words…
but here is my witness: God… life… circumstance— call it what you like—thrust me into a confrontation with my own mortality. There was no choosing this. I found myself very afraid, very alone, and completely powerless. Life also thrust me into caring for people. I'm not good at this caring stuff, but in some kind of cosmic prank, there was I having to look after folk, and not able to back out of it. It was scary.
I'd like to be saying to you that because I did not run away from this— but that wouldn't be true. Because I could not run away from this— I wanted to— but because I could not run away from this, I began to see. It was as if one day I suddenly understood, or had a glimmer for the first time, of the colour purple, or heard music and realised the beauty of Bach. I'd been born.
If you do not feel at home in the world, … start helping people.
Not helping them by doing things that make you feel good— that's helping you. But doing things that really help them— sometimes just being a friend and giving them the time of day does that! It's what Jesus did.
There's a big difference between those two kinds of helping. The second one will cost you— don't look for payment. And it may cost you far more than you intend. But, as you have heard me say: the return we get on a very little compassion far outweighs what we have given. We begin to see the world with new eyes.
And part of what you may see … is that you have lifted the Son of Man up. You have made him that symbol of God's love which, when you look upon it, lets you live. Amen.
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