Celebrating Twenty Years
of Worship and Service
That’s Great in Theory, but How Does this Work in My Messy Life?
I am finally offering the conclusion of a previous column. That column was
part of a continuing reflection on the conversation between Jesus and
Nicodemus in John chapter 3 (vs 1-17). It expanded the reflection in the
mystery of new life to include Luther’s Explanation of the Third Article of the
Apostle’s Creed (as recorded in the “Small Catechism”).
You may or may not recall that the “theory” from part one was that the
Power of God - which blessed Jesus’ extraordinary life and raised him from
the dead - is available to Christians so that we too might live this same kind
of extraordinary life. Yet the question of how to live such a life persists.
Last time we concluded:” ‘The answer to “how does this work in my messy
in life?’ [Is] a clear answer, God does it by the power of the Spirit for those
who would be moved to turn to God for mercy and grace.”
At one level, I was completely finished. There was nothing more to say.
God does it. We don’t. End of story. At another level I had just written a
tautology that just might represent the worst self-help advice in history.
While I did answer the rhetorical question regarding how this works in
every life that God touches, the lingering question of “my messy life”
remains. Implicit in the title is the common experience that we don’t feel like
we are living the kind of life Christ lived (and very often we are not). We still
feel doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, pain and even anger. Yet these feelings are
not the real problem - Jesus also had such feelings. His life was not one of
unperturbed serenity (though we might like to think it was). The problem is
that we - unlike Jesus - let insecurity, desire, frailty, rebelliousness and
occasionally simple nastiness drive us to act in self-interest or just self-will,
rather than in the interest of God and neighbor. We retreat into our own
little world - trying to divinely manage the events of our lives and the lives of
others for our own self-protection and self-gratification. We do this
retreating, rather than advancing into the realm of God’s many gifts. In
short, we sin.
Moreover, it is that retreat into our own self-interest and self-gratification
that drives the underlying question about “my messy life.” Indeed this
retreat is specifically where we begin to transgress the two great command-
ments (love of God and love of neighbor). We transgress the first by taking
back the authority over our lives from God, and thereby we assume the role
of being the supreme authority (as the little “g” god) in our own lives. The
second we transgress by making our selves more important than others -
after all if we don’t look out for ourselves, who will? (Might I humbly
suggest that God will?) And worse yet, we find that in transgressing the
second commandment, we again have transgressed the first by assuming
that we - not God - are our sole protector.
Yet is here is where the confusion comes. It comes from the wrong
question. The assertion that the important, unresolved issue is MY messy
life is exactly the root of the problem. We want to fix our problems and
control our destiny!
I mean that most of us don’t really want to know how something works.
What we really want to know is “how do we work that thing” or even more
to the point “how do we make that thing work (for us).” We are looking for
something that puts us in the driver’s seat, if you will. We are looking for
something that gives us the power over the messiness of our lives.
Maybe you are still wondering what I mean. Nicodemus was having the
same problem with Jesus. He comes to the great teacher seeking a great
teaching to put him back in charge of his messy life. Give me the secret to
life Jesus. He comes to Jesus seeking something akin to “the answer to
the ultimate question of the life, the universe and everything.” And he is
shocked to hear that the answer is “42.” (If you don’t get the reference to
the “ultimate question” and the answer of 42, look up The Hitchhiker’s
Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. In the book the great computer
Deep Thought has computed the answer to “the answer to the ultimate
question of the life, the universe and everything.” Regrettably, no one
knows the actual question. I.e., they know that the ultimate question exists,
but no one can figure out what it is.)
Nicodemus - in effect - says to Jesus, I know that you know all the import-
ant things about following God, so tell me what I need to know to have God
be with me like he is with you. Give me the answer Jesus. And at this line
of questioning Jesus talks about the wind and about being born again.
Then Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown
old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"
(Jn 3:4) From Nicodemus’ perspective, Jesus might have well said, “The
answer is 42.” Yet it is abundantly clear that Jesus’ answer is much more
than ancient comedy or word play, it is an invitation to live in the power of
the Holy Spirit.
Then Jesus gets to express his surprise. “Jesus replies, ‘You are a teacher
of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’” (Jn 3:10) I like to
think that Jesus is saying something like, “Nico, my friend, has being at
peace with God ever changed? You know your Bible. You have read and
memorized the stories of how it has worked since God started the covenant
with Abram.” In effect Jesus tells him there is no mystery in the question,
and as a teacher of Israel, you should be well studied in it. Moreover, as a
teacher of Israel, you should be equally familiar with the answer. God does
it just as God always has: by the power of water and the Spirit.
So how does that God do that today - in our lives? Now, as always, the
Spirit seeks out those whom God calls to wait upon the Lord. I think of this
way. If you want to catch a bus, you wait at the bus stop. It may be pos-
sible to catch the bus other ways. You can try to flag it down in the middle
of the street, or chase it hoping that it stops, or even sit on another street off
the bus route and hope for a detour. It just isn’t as likely to catch the bus in
these other ways (unless God takes a detour to meet us there - as God
often does in mercy). And the spiritual bus stops have always been at the
same places: the places marked by confession and repentance, com-
munion and prayer, worship and praise, service and hospitality, and most
of all by God’s Word.
Nowhere has this ever been put more clearly than in the words of the
prophet Isaiah (clear back in that Hebrew Bible Nicodemus knew well):
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting
God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and
strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the
young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their
strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not
be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Is 40:28-31)
To have the life of Jesus, we live the life of waiting on the Lord. We go
regularly go to the bus stops marked by God’s grace given to those who
came before us and those who walk with us. We go because we know and
believe that God will be there (albeit on God’s schedule). And as we go and
wait, we discover that, little by little, we have surrendered our messy lives to
God, and God has replaced those messy lives with Jesus’ Life in the Spirit
that never ends.
Next Time: The conclusion. Active waiting