When I was in college a few of us started talking one night about going skydiving. Central Ohio was perfect for skydiving and a group of us got into a discussion about whether or not we could actually jump out of an airplane. Well as you might imagine, our macho selves got the better of us and before we knew it, we were signed up for the following weekend.
When that Saturday arrived we spent our morning in training, learning how to put on our chutes, how to jump from the plane, pull the ripcord, cut away if the chute failed to open, deploy our reserve chute and land. They made us sign scores of papers relieving the company of any liability and as I was literally signing my life away I looked at the old beat up planes spread around the field and thought, “you are an idiot to even fly in one of these things much less jump out of it.” I can still remember our training – “Arch, look, reach pull! One thousand two thousand three thousand! Look up! Is the chute open? If not then- cut away, pull your reserve and punch it free.” We were idiots, but we were idiots who were too proud not to go through with our dare.
I remember being in this little airplane with all of us crammed together as they opened the doors at 8,000 feet. The wind rushed in like a freight train and the jumpmaster instructed me to take my position. For this particular airplane “the position” didn’t mean sitting in the door, it meant climbing out below the wing with my feet on one of the wheels and both hands holding onto the strut. How I actually got there, I will never know but I can still see the grinning look of our jumpmaster’s face as he gave me the thumbs up. At that point, I was clear to kick off with my feet and then let go with my hands. I remember looking back at him with his thumb sticking up in the air as if he were an idiot and thinking – “You actually want me to let go of this airplane.” But I knew he would not let me back in. They had instructed us that it was far too dangerous to try to climb back in the plane once you were out. Once you were holding onto the strut if you didn’t let go, they would kick you off. So, after two more smiling “thumbs up” from the jumpmaster, I let go. It was terrifying. I don’t remember going through my instructions, I only remember falling for what seemed like an eternity. Then, my chute opened and I was jerked back into a seated position. It opened perfectly and I was safe. I floated down to earth surrounded by the most incredible silence I have ever known. I couldn’t hear anything except my heart pounding in my ears. After hitting the ground I remember getting to my feet and thinking – “You are a big fat idiot. I can’t believe you did that. But God, was it fun.”
What I remember most about that day is that I gave up control. Perhaps stupidly, inappropriately, unnecessarily, but I gave up control. I put my faith in the expertise of a bunch of people I did not know. I let go, dependent only on a single piece of very flimsy nylon to save my life. Perhaps that was a crazy thing to do, but truth be told, I think control is over rated. In fact, I think control is actually the biggest lie of all. If you think about it, we really have very little control in this life. Things happen all the time for which we are not prepared, for which we had not planned. Anyone who has gotten that horrible phone call in the middle of the night, or found themselves rushing off to the emergency room or had their spouse simply walk out on them one day knows this truth. Life can reach out and smack us when we least expect it. However, most of the time we live in a world of make believe, a world of denial where we make our beds, straighten our homes, dress our kids and go off to work thinking that everything is just as it ought to be, just as we planned it. And then something rips apart our illusions about life and reminds us that our sense of security is completely illusory. We have no control about when we come into this world and very little say about when we leave it and everything else in-between is only fleetingly ours to control. We fool ourselves into believing that we are the masters of our destiny and God’s role in our lives is to simply confirm our already good decisions.
There is an old saying – “If you want to make God laugh just tell him your plans.” I think Abraham new this truth. His plans were probably far different than the plans God had in store for him. I can imagine Abraham living on his ranch in Haran with his large herds and his servants. In those days, he was known as Abram and at seventy-five he probably figured he was pretty settled in life. He had no children but Abram and his wife Sarah, then Sarai, loved each other greatly. Everyone must have thought he was crazy to pick up and leave home. They must have thought he was nuts to walk away from his established life, his secure living and his good reputation only to follow some God into the wilderness based on nothing but a promise. His neighbors must have whispered among themselves that at 75 Abram was a lunatic not to hold onto everything he already had. But I think the greatness of Abram stems from the fact that he realized the true nature of his life. He realized that all he had – all of his possessions and all of his security were not really his to hold onto but they were gifts from God and if God wanted something different for his life then who was he to hold onto what wasn’t even his. And so, Abram left home dragging his wife and his nephew Lot and all his possessions on some crazy journey into the dessert. He left on faith because what else did he have. Everything in his life was God’s to give and God’s to take away. Why hold onto what you can’t control, he must of thought. Let’s just follow the giver of the gifts. To the world Abram was a fool to give up so much, to people of faith he is the father of a great people because he placed his faith in God and in God alone.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we hear from one of my favorite figures in all of scripture – good old Nicodemus. Good old Nicodemus the scholar, the Pharisee the community leader and a protector of the Jewish faith – brilliant, pious Nicodemus who had spent a lifetime figuring out the rules of religion and a lifetime mastering those rules. Nicodemus is the epitome of someone in control. He was not only in control of his own life but he was responsible for helping others keep control of theirs as well. Just follow the rules, just keep track of the law, just do as your told and everything will be fine. For Nicodemus everything he needed to know was written down in the law and if he stuck to the law then life could be kept predictable, his fate was his to control. And yet, I think Nicodemus knew something was amiss. He had heard Jesus and witnessed his powers of teaching and healing. He knew that in this man there was a reflection of God. However, Nicodemus could not admit this openly, because as a Pharisee to do so would be to risk losing everything he had gained. And so he goes to see Jesus by night, in secret to have it out, to argue his points, perhaps even hoping to have Jesus validate his beliefs about the world and his role in it. But Nicodemus was not prepared for the message of Christ. He was not prepared to be told that he needed to be born from above by water and spirit. So confused was Nicodemus that he took Jesus literally and wondered out loud how he could return to his mother’s womb once having been born.
Good old Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He is trapped in the idea that salvation is dependent on how well you complete your religious “to do list.” Jesus wants him to know that salvation isn’t about following the rules its about letting God be in charge of your life, giving your life to God, letting go of the illusion of control. What Nicodemus doesn’t understand is that salvation is a gift from God given to us through faith. And all one needs to do when receiving a gift is to say – thank you. What Nicodemus doesn’t understand is that being born from above means dying to self and finding your new life in God.
The truth of the matter is, you and I are not in control, we never have been and we never will be. Abraham understood this, Nicodemus didn’t. But when the crisis hits the illusion of control is always stripped away. The larger truth is that everything we have in this world is gift. Love, family, health – everything that really matters is gift. We can be here today and gone tomorrow and so can our jobs, our fortunes and our reputations. We aren’t ultimately in command of any of it. And no matter how tightly we hold on, it can all still slip through our fingers. The trick is to let go and live in faith. We can’t make it on our own we have to follow God, we have to follow the giver. The trick is to wake up each morning and go to bed each day with a thank you on our lips and the knowledge in our hearts that every day, every moment, everything, is gift from God. Amen