Sermon by Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian
June 10, 2018
The Difference Between Can’t and Won’t
John 3: 1-17
We almost never get encouragement to say, “I can’t”. Remember one of the earliest tales we are told, The Little Engine that Could? The story about the small, blue train that believed she could make it up a hill to steep for much bigger trains, and did? In the power of positive thinking, we believe. But, I am not convinced submitting too the reality of “I can’t” does not at times take more faith than not. When is this the case? When the words “I can’t” reflect, not defeat, but honest recognition of how much we need the God we do not control. Let us pray.
O Christ, that which is impossible with human beings is possible with God. So help us to let go of our need to orchestrate the birthing of a kingdom in which we are sovereign. Let go, so that you might place in our open hands the new life you have for us. Let go so that we might let your breath caress our faces, the wind that is your Spirit refresh our souls. Amen.
Ever known anyone who orchestrated her own birth? Ever known someone who so likes to be in control that she acts as if she had orchestrated her own birth? That’s the one. That’s the expert on life and the Lord of it who came to Jesus ready to invite him to join the club of the set apart. The group of the god-like. The haven of the holy. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing council. You know, the ones who know from whence we came. And, where we are going. The ones clear on the difference between right and wrong. The kind preferring to take charge to being taken charge of. People willing to train to acquire skills enabling them to flourish. People with limited time for those who can’t contribute, but only because they are too busy contributing themselves – making a difference themselves. People, in other words, a lot like us.
I imagine Jesus, and all of us who share Nicodemus’ needs, if not his name, sitting in the womb that is life on earth. Sitting there discussing how people move from that narrow birthing place into the wide open, broad space that is life in God’s Kingdom. Nicodemus – we – say to Jesus, we caught a drift that you have great wisdom. Well, we’re great learners. Impressed, eh? That we were sharp enough to notice what you’ve got to offer? Your power is attractive. With it, we might get to be more like the God who clearly works through you. How might we persuade you to stick around? If you would, assuming we’re the type of people with whom you like to hang, we could use some of your strength. We need a boost up in terms of our personal projects. Those things we’ve designed to help you as we help ourselves. A win, win situation. You dig? What d’ya say? Then we sit back, content with our insight, our initiative, our willingness to partner with the wisest of the wise. Waiting for the pat on the back. The kudos we deserve for figuring our how to harness heaven for the sake of the earth.
Justifiably then, it seems, we are more than taken aback when we get our comfortable set up turned on its head. Seems we’ve been off track from the beginning. Listen, Jesus says, you might be really good at learning the ins and outs of how things work down here. Maybe you’ve blown through all the challenges the gatekeepers set up to separate the wheat from the chaff, however that gets defined down in this place. But, here’s the thing. When you first started toddling around your Mom and Dad’s house, you were thrilled with all the cool things you were discovering day by day. That kept you busy. You didn’t need or want more than my grace put in front of you. Thus, your own designs weren’t always getting in the way of the new world I was showing you.
With that background, then, let me offer another take on what you’re so sure you’re after. First, You’ve really not much idea about what your learning is for. You’ve focused your sharpness just enough to recognize what I have to offer you as it relates to your pursuits. Maybe you’d be better off dwelling on the gift you received when our Father, yours and mine, the One I call Abba, chose to bet his life on the possibility that you had something to offer with respect to God’s pursuits. Consider for a moment. Could it be that the problems you have are not the result of the fact that you can’t figure out how to get me to stick around on your behalf? Maybe your biggest problems crop up because you categorically refuse to stick around on mine.
There we have it. The human won’t.
God’s power is attractive all right. It is the only thing that can free us from our crippling obsession with ourselves. Our strength is often directed toward our attempts to be God-like using our own power. Power that, by definition, only dominates. God’s strength is directed toward being truly human-like by trusting in God’s power. Power that, by definition, only liberates. God has designed eternal projects. God has plans for bringing us into that place we so want to be. Close to all the fruits of God’s Spirit. Things like joy, peace, patience, kindness, love, and self-control. The new life into which he’s longing to birth us. The real win, win situation. But, we’re far gone. Always thinking in terms of our purposes. Thinking that we’ll let God power our little blue trains, as long as we get to choose where we are headed. Thinking that traps us in the darkness; the same darkness, it is no accident they met at night, in which Nicodemus first encountered Jesus.
See, God is all too aware of where we are headed on our own. Straight up a very steep hill down which we will surely roll right back to where we came from. All that striving. All that struggling. All those good intentions born of our wants and desires. We are, as human beings, apt settle for being born from the earth, for the earth. We are all vulnerable to settling for the objectives of the flesh. But flesh is weak. Its grand plans lead to death and destruction. Perhaps not suddenly, like those of the Las Vegas gunman, to name just one, set off horrific fireworks that cost his own life and those of way too many of our brothers and sisters gathered outdoors for a concert. But just as surely. Striving after the wrong things. To escape chasing after unworthy things, things that lead to death, rather than life? Jesus tells all of us who walk in the shoes of Nicodemus — you’ve got to be born from above.
I’d like to tell you that Nicodemus’ answer makes us proud. That his answer preserves for us some of the initiative for right understanding and right practice. Marginally perhaps? See what you think.
Jesus lets us know, along with our brother Nicodemus, that. Like our deliverance from the water that protected us in our mothers’ wombs, this birth from above is not something we do mostly on our own, with a nudge from him to help us over the top. Birth works the same way the first time it does the second. Birth is something that happens to us. And both times, its initiator is the Spirit of God.
This is very good news. If we were responsible for orchestrating new, improved life for ourselves, we’d very likely do just what Nicodemus did. Keep right on thinking on our own terms. Nicodemus hears what he wants to hear. He hears that while first birth might be a sheer gift, orchestrated by God through the bodies of our parents, being born again is something we decide for. Kind of like we decide to order a pizza. Nicodemus understands the Greek words Jesus uses to describe the process of receiving new life from God to be saying, “you must be born again.” Again, as in “try again”, and better luck next time!
Again is something the Greek word can mean. It is even translated that way in some translations. But, I would argue, not in this context! In this context, the most logical translation of the original text is not “born again,” but “born from above.” The initiative to save us from the prisons we make for ourselves is all God’s. The faith that is the response to this gift, too, is a gift of the Spirit of God, a Spirit that blows where it will. A Spirit that cannot be domesticated by human beings. A Spirit that cannot be dressed up like a team mascot and made to parade around the sidelines of our battles on our behalf. A Spirit that cannot be co-opted by our denial that it is our own unwillingness to live on God’s side, and not someone else’s, that often causes our distress.
So what’s our role in this salvation drama? To sit and wait for God to do everything for us? No. In Jesus Christ, God sent God’s only Son to us. Not to condemn us to darkness, but so that we, along with our world, might be saved from that darkness by him. But, our role starts with the telling of the truth about our own inability to save ourselves. Our admission that, “we can’t.” We can’t stop the hurting, stop the fighting, always be the people we want to be. We can’t and don’t always say the right thing, do the right thing, think the right thing. We make mistakes. We hurt the people we love. We rationalize our right to hurt those we don’t. We are in desperate need of the God who sent his only Son to save us. The words “I can’t”, those two little words, recognize the real limits of our goodness, our intentions and our abilities. In so doing, they actually serve to draw us closer to the God who wants us for her own as much as we need to be hers.
The words “we can’t” turn our eyes, our ears, and our hearts toward the God who has promised to save us. The words “we can’t” clears a space in our hearts for others like us, made in God’s image, who need forgiveness as much as we do. And who long for the freedom to receive life from God, a freedom that is born of humility and not pride. The words, “I can’t” are the birth pangs of the saving compassion for ourselves and others that is born of God in Christ. The words “I can’t” lead us to the foot of the cross. And so they do, in conjunction with the realization that God can, draw us close, in our weakness, to the God for whom weakness is strength. And in whom defeat becomes victory.
In the name of the Creator, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.