Sunday, November 02, 2003

Friend Day:
Be All You Can Be
John 3:1-17

(shared with the people and friends of Friendship Church, November 2, 2003)

Ben Carson’s life could have gone just the way many of his classmates’ and neighbors’ lives had gone in inner city Detroit where he grew up. An African-American with what his teachers thought was a learning disability, Ben and his brother were raised alone by their mom after their father had run off with another woman to who-knows-where. Many of the kids Ben went to school with thought that learning and education were for other people and taunted any classmate who tried to perform well in school.

But Ben had something going for him. In spite of her experiences and surroundings, Ben’s mother was a joyful follower of Jesus Christ. Jesus was her best friend and she made certain that she introduced her children to Him. She knew that, no matter what the world might say, her boys had great God-given potential. She knew that Jesus Christ could help them become all that they were meant to be.

She worked long hours. But when she came home from work each night, she required her sons to give an accounting of all their home work for that day. And, once a week, the boys each had to present her with a written book report, which she would then sit down and discuss with them before tucking them in for the night. It was only years later that Ben learned that one reason his mother had the boys discuss the book reports was that she herself didn’t know how to read. By that time, Ben Carson had become a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon working on the staff of Johns Hopkins University Hospital. You’ve probably seen Dr. Ben Carson on network TV, being interviewed following his latest trail-blazing surgical procedure or read one of his best-selling books.

Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, wants to be our best friend. He wants to help us, just as he helped Ben Carson, to become all that God made us to be, in this life and in the next!

I once worked with a woman, I’ll call her Rosa. When I first met Rosa, she was fifty-six, and lived with her parents, as did her older brother. Neither of them had ever dated. Rosa had never learned to drive. She had never even considered exploring life outside her parents’ home in a wealthy Columbus suburb. Her world consisted of the bus line that took her to and from work each day.

Some days, a childlike grin would cross Rosa’s face as she admitted to me, “I’m so excited. I feel like something wonderful is going to happen today. I feel like I did when I was a little girl just before Christmas.” But the next day, Rosa climbed back onto the same bus-line she’d ridden for over thirty years, wearing the same rain bonnet and the same blank expression she wore most days. I remember thinking that those days must have been excruciating for Rosa, days when she came face-to-face with the hard reality of her life: that she was little more than a mass of unmet potential. She’d never loved as she might have loved, never lived as she might have lived. She never felt good about herself, never failed while trying to do something bigger than herself, never achieved more than she was capable of achieving.

There are lots of Rosa’s in the world. A man named Nicodemus, a first-century Judean, was one of them. A prominent religious teacher, Nicodemus still hadn’t found what he was looking for. His religion was all about rules and rites and “thou shalt nots,” to which he strictly adhered. But there was a restlessness in his soul. He knew that his life was not what it could be and he seems to have almost given up hope of finding the meaning of his life until he first heard and observed Jesus. Although Jesus was so unpopular among the leading classes of which Nicodemus was a part that eventually, they would arrange for Jesus to be murdered, Nicodemus found himself drawn to Jesus.

One night, Nicodemus went to visit Jesus. He wanted to warn Jesus that powerful men were trying to find ways to kill Jesus. But Jesus saw into Nicodemus’ soul. He could see that while Nicodemus may have had great wealth and power and been kept busy by seemingly important work, there was an ache in Nicodemus. Like Rosa, he knew that there must be something more to life than simply being a mass of unmet God-given potential. He’d tried all the things that his society said would give life meaning– power, wealth, religious propriety, rubbing shoulders with other prominent people–and none of it took away his ache!

Not long into their conversation, recorded in our Bible lesson for this morning, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You must be born anew.” Nicodemus was at first puzzled by Jesus’ statement. We can find it puzzling ourselves.

But when you consider it, it makes perfect sense. Back when I was in elementary school and doing long division, I found that I often got the answer wrong. Whenever my father or grandfather would tell me that my answer was incorrect, my first impulse was to simply erase the figure and put down some shot-in-the-dark guess. What I finally learned though, is that when the answers we come up with are wrong, it’s best to go back to the beginning.

That’s what being born anew, or born again, is all about. It’s going back to the beginning, to the Source of life and hope. Being born again means leaving behind all the wrong answers and the wrong paths we’ve followed in order to let God empower us in becoming all that we can be. It means letting God scoop us up in His great Father’s arms and assure us that no matter what wrong turns we may have taken in our lives, no matter what our sins, no matter what our personal deficiencies, we do matter...we are loved...that when we live with Jesus Christ as our guide, there is always a light in the darkness for us, a light that can’t even be extinguished by death.

During the reign of Queen Victoria in England, a London doctor visited a seventy-two year old woman named Maria Vincent. Her husband had abandoned her many years before. She was poor and she lived in wretched surroundings. Although it was late in the fall of the year, this undernourished woman had neither warm clothes or wood for a fire. The doctor couldn’t believe that this woman’s friends would let her live like this. He asked her if she didn’t have friends who could help, Maria Vincent at first said no. But a moment later, she told him, “There might be one. But, sir, [I’m sure that] she has forgotten” The doctor pressed Maria as to the identity of her friend. He was surprised to hear her say that it was the queen herself, Victoria. The two had been childhood friends, Maria said.

The doctor was skeptical about Maria’s story, to say the least. But back at home, he decided to write a letter to the Queen. A few days later, a letter arrived from Balmoral, the Queen’s residence. The story Maria told to the doctor turned out to be absolutely true. The Queen had not forgotten her old friend. From that moment for the rest of her life, Maria had warm clothes, wood for a fire, and adequate medical care. Someone great and powerful cared enough about Maria to befriend her and to help her life take a positive turn.

Listen: Someone infinitely greater and more powerful than all the rulers and presidents, celebrities and athletic superstars, wants to befriend you and me. He wants to give us fresh starts. Old mistakes and sins can be forgiven and we’ll be given new power to find new answers in our lives. We’ll also be given the power to live with unanswered questions, knowing that Someone is bigger than all the questions and all the answers! He specializes in giving us second chances, third chances...however many it requires for us to get on the right track.

And His friendship for us won’t end at the grave. Jesus, the God of the fresh start, will even meet all who follow Him at their graves and give us the sinless eternity He gained for us by His death on a cross and His resurrection from the dead and give us the power to fulfill the potential for goodness and greatness and joy that God has implanted in every one of us!

We can go back to the beginning. We can have a fresh start. We can be born anew. How does that happen? You can find the answer in the stands of virtually every NFL stadium where a football game will be held this afternoon. There, you’re likely to find a banner that cites the words from John 3:16 that Jesus speaks to Nicodemus–and to us–this morning:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son [Jesus], so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Our lives begin when we trust Jesus Christ as our best friend. That’s when we start to become all that we were made to be. And in Jesus, the exciting thing is that the becoming never ends!