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The theme for today, Look for the Helper, reminds me of a quote by the children’s television educator and Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers that seems to pop up these days every time there is a tragedy. I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood, and for over 30 years, he was teaching young children, via television, how to be a good neighbour. He taught about honesty and kindness and acceptance – all good so-called Christian values via secular means of public television. His quote was “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” This quote was intended for children, as one of the ways to divert their attention away from distress in a situation, to finding places of safety. It was one item in a list of advice to help young children manage their worry in crisis situations.
Lent is traditionally a time to simplify our lives in some way, to clear away distractions or to set a focus of our attention, in order to give more of our time and attention to God. In this series, we are taking the time to notice, through stories of Jesus, how we can live and love more fully.
Nicodemus was someone who on the outside looked like he had it all together. He had impressive credentials – he not only was a Pharisee, but was a ruler of the Jews and also was a representative of the religious leaders. He was all that! He thinks that he understands who Jesus is and who God is. For Nicodemus, these miracles of Jesus being mysterious and of a power greater than can be understood is a problem. There must be an explanation. Nicodemus wanted something his imagination could control, an answer that would allow these miracles of Jesus to fit in a box he could wrap his head around, because uncontained things are dangerous!
Perhaps we can relate to Nicodemus’ need for control and explanations. It is easy to fall in love with control and certainty. A well ordered life with no unruly surprises can be very appealing. Otherwise we are forced to confront how very little control or certainty we actually have–forced to recognize our staggering vulnerability. If we were in control, our loved ones wouldn’t get sick – we wouldn’t have failed relationships or unexpected losses. If we were in control, everyone would behave the way we wanted them to, we would get that promotion we were going for, things would go the way we hope they will turn out.
Jesus calls Nicodemus’ understanding (or lack of understanding) into question. On a scholarly level, Nicodemus understands God, based on observation, logic and deduction. Nicodemus has followed all the rules and done everything he can do, but he knows that there is something missing. He is unable to see the revelation of God, even as Jesus is standing right in front of him. He is still looking for a tangible connection with God. So Jesus then points out to him that he must be born of the Spirit.
Unless Nicodemus allows God to change his whole way of being in the world, opening himself to experience the movement of the Spirit in his life – then he won’t be able to truly understand God at work in the world. I feel for Nicodemus here. He seems like a bit of a concrete thinker. I can relate to that – I know some of you are with me too. Those of us who tend to be more concrete thinkers might feel a little bit of compassion for Nicodemus’ confusion after Jesus says they have to be born from above. What? Enter the womb a second time? How can that be? Nicodemus lacks the spiritual perception needed to understand what Jesus means. Nicodemus tries to understand Jesus in a very literal sense, as do many of Jesus’ conversation partners in John’s gospel. It might help Nicodemus to hear that in order to know God – it is not enough to know God in your head and in your thoughts, but you also must know God in your heart and your being.
Sometimes we may find ourselves going about our business, doing things as we often do, just minding our own business. Then we are confronted with a challenge. A challenge that takes us beyond our comfort zone – beyond what we think that we might be able to manage or control on our own. And so if we are problem solvers, we start problem solving. If we respond to challenge by backing down and giving up, maybe that’s what we do. Some of us might ask for help from a trusted few, or from a professional. Some of us pray about it and open ourselves to the work of the Spirit to help in times of challenge. Some of us might do any combination of the above. I know at challenging times, when I have said ok God – help me out here – I don’t necessarily hear a voice in my head telling me what to do – but I might suddenly get an insight that I hadn’t thought of before, or that might lead me to a particular person who can help.
It reminds me of the story about the man stranded on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.
Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”
The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and God is going to save me.”
So the rowboat went on.
Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”
To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and God will save me. I have faith.”
So the motorboat went on.
Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”
To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and I know that God is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.
Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”
To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
Like Nicodemus in this story – unable to really see what was right in front of him, sometimes we struggle to see God’s revelation in our lives. We are on our rooftop waiting for a sign – and we just keep missing them – or maybe the time just is not right for us to recognize what is there.
It takes practice and it takes trust and it takes vulnerability to be open – to be born of the Spirit – allowing God in and allowing the Spirit to work in our lives.
Jesus explains that by water and the Spirit God gives us rebirth into the reign of God. Those who are reborn in this way become spiritual beings, shaped and sustained by the Spirit. As we allow God to work within us, and the Spirit to sustain us, we recognize that God goes far beyond human constraints of control or certainty. That God’s help is for the entire cosmos. At the end of the day we can’t earn our way to God’s love, or do all of the right things to gain some mysterious prize. God’s love is not just a feeling, but a powerful force that can transform our lives and help us to become the best versions of ourselves.
At the end of the day we have to recognize that all of it is made possible with God’s help and with God’s love flowing through us. And that we are called, made in the image of God, to be helpers to others as one of the ways that we embody Love in the world. We receive God’s love, we recognize God’s love and then we share that love in our lives, our communities, with our neighbours – the ones we know, and the ones we don’t yet know, and with the world – to add a little more love in this hurting world.
As Mr. Rogers said – Look for the helper – or maybe differently stated – be open to noticing the Helper – and then in response BE the helper.
Let us trust in God’s love and know that it is always with us, guiding us, and helping us to be that love in the world. And let us be open to the ways in which God is working in our lives, and being revealed through us to live fully and love fully. Thanks be to God. Amen.