A young woman brings her fiancé home to meet her parents. After dinner the parents ask the couple questions about their plans for the future.
Knowing that their daughter intends to work with the poor and the marginalized and will never make much money, the parents ask the couple what their plans are.
“I’m a Biblical scholar,” the fiance replies.
“A Biblical scholar. Hmmm,” the father says. “Admirable. Now I wonder how you two plan to afford a house to live in.
“I will study,” the young man replies, “and God will provide for us.”
“And how will you afford furniture and food and clothing?” asks the father.
“I will be serving the poor, we will not need much to live on, God will provide.” said the daughter.
“And, I will concentrate on my studies,” the young man replies, “and God will provide for us.”
The conversation proceeds like this and each time the parents question them, the young ideal couple responds that “God will provide.”
After the couple leaves, the parents ponder over the seeming naiveté of the young couple.
Finally the father surmises, “They will have no income and no plans for their security, but apparently they think we are God.”
Today we heard the first of what will be four fabulous stories in the Gospel of John which appear in year A in the season of Lent. Each of these four stories will provide us with insight into just “how God provides,” by considering the nature of God’s relationship with creation. We will learn something about God’s intent to remain in relationship with human beings; regardless of how many times people break God’s heart.
Like other stories in the Bible these will require us to hear the irony within them and to approach them with a sense of humor and awe. Jesus’ tone in these readings is ironic and witty. Sometimes people interpret Jesus’ wit as judgment, and hear only a very narrow perspective, missing how profound the text really is. Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the blind man who Jesus heals, and the death and resurrection of Lazarus will challenge us to deepen our awareness of how we are living in relationship with God, with others, and even with ourselves as we journey through Lent.
The readings this morning began with the calling of Abraham and Sarah. God calls them and sends them forth, into a new land. They go, having no idea how they will survive, but assured that God will provide and they will be blessed. Leaving family behind they travel to a foreign land. The promise of children and land eludes them for a very long time. They grow old and are certain that nothing will come of the blessing God has promised. Then, when they least expect it, their life turns around. Sarah gives birth to Isaac who marries Rebekah who gives birth to Jacob and Esau. Jacob marries Rachel who gives birth to Joseph, and generations later, David is born. Jesus, a descendent of this family, is born into a tradition of people who wrestle with God, journey and struggle with their faith, but also grow in their faith and trust of God.
Abraham, Sarah, and Nicodemus model for us, each in their imperfect way, what it means to be faithful. The reading from the Gospel of John is not about literal birth, although the image of birth conveys the messy and painful challenges of journeying through dark nights of the soul. Jesus and Nicodemus are talking about discipleship and following where God leads, trusting that God helps each person.
Following God’s call involves risk and venturing into the unknown, trusting that God will provide. But this trust, this faith, is not naïve. It requires our willing and active participation. The texts today hold in tension what it means to follow God, through the darkness of the womb and be birthed, literally and figuratively, into a life that God is calling us to live. The texts hold in balance our work and God’s blessing. The text advises us to not be fooled into thinking that we are in charge of everything and that it is only by our hard work that we will acquire success.
The irony of the text pushes us to see that success and blessing may not be what we think they are. Success and blessing from God are less about material objects, and more about feeling a sense of peace and contentment with life as it is. This is very different from seeking fulfillment from the things we attain. Although financial success is a wonderful achievement and helps us live more comfortably, there is more to God’s blessing. God’s blessing is found in the beauty of the earth and our relationships with one another. God also blesses us with the ability to grow, change, be transformed, to participate in and partner with God in creation, to literally and figuratively birth new life into the world.
The real beauty of these stories in Genesis and John are their portrait of life, filled as it is with many dark moments. Life is filled with despair and grief so deep that sometimes we are certain we cannot make it through the night. I have had long dark nights of the soul. Awakened by grief or fear in the middle of the night I am forced from my bed. A cup of tea and a book are little comfort. Like Nicodemus I cry out, “How can this be?”
Who has not cried these words, “How can this be?”
And yet, it just is, because grief and darkness are a natural part of life.
I hate that fact, that life brings with it despair and darkness. I hate being reduced to a cry in the darkness and a prayer that God will fill me with enough peace that I can sleep.
I wish that God would prevent suffering. At the very least I wish God would take away fear and worry and grief, but God does not do that. Instead, God journeys with me until I am through the darkness and some kind of new life has been born. Sometimes it is only with the frailest sense of trust that I find strength and comfort. In the deepest moments of despair, I hang onto the potential for hope. I hope for hope. On the other side of these dark nights, when I am in the light again, I realize just how loved I am. God did not abandon me. God’s love provided me with the stamina to persevere, the courage to make the journey through the darkness into the light. Laboring through grief, fear, and suffering is much like giving birth.
And, there are some forms of grief and despair that never leave us. In time we may become less raw and the intensity of the feelings less piercing, but some life events will always be a tragedy. How can this be, remains our cry.
There are other occasions, however, when we can come to see darkness as Mary Oliver wrote in this poem, “Someone I once loved gave me a box full of darkness, this too has become a gift.”
God’s love is a gift that provides us with hope and the courage to journey through the darkest night into the light of God’s grace.
How can this be?
And yet, like Abraham and Sarah, and even eventually, perhaps, Nicodemus, a life of faith assures us that it is so.