“God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Paul’s words to the Romans, also words to us. Words to us as we interpret the times and the texts. Words to help interpret the Gospel, and answer why Jesus corrects poor Nicodemus. Nicodemus says: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus lets Jesus know that Nicodemus has some criteria for proof of godliness and Jesus meets them. And that’s the problem: they’re Nicodemus’ criteria. The criteria limit God. Gospel of John scholar Ernst Haenchen describes faith arising from the sight of the miraculous as, “so certain of itself that it determines one’s relationship to God.” Nicodemus has terms and conditions on which he is willing to acknowledge and interact with God. And I get it. We need to be able to say, “This is not from God, that is.” But we need that; God does not.
God has no limits. God has limitless possibility. Nicodemus is limiting God to what Nicodemus thinks possible. Don’t go too hard on him don’t feel too bad for him, he’s Jesus’ dialog partner, his words are part of a scene written for our benefit, and it’s not like what he says is some egregious offense. He misses the mark. He misses the mark in a way we, too, easily do. He tries to decide what is God, when in truth the Limitless One is already God. Our texts today describe the same matter in different words. In John, Jesus uses the metaphor of being born from above—let the Limitless One be your parent. Paul, as I said, uses the more technical, “God calls into existence the things that do not exist.” The Psalm sings, “My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth”—God is the origin of all. Genesis uses the image of Abram cutting all ties and moving someplace new.
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” In other words: leave all you know. What is it Abram knows? Abram’s rich. When we read this chapter last December in a Community Conversation the group noted verse five—not part of today’s reading—which says: “Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired….” They own people. They own a lot of stuff. Abram is rich. And he’s 75. He already has what the Old Testament considers blessing: wealth, vitality, health, longevity. That’s what he’s asked to risk.
I need to say a word about blessing because it’s so important to the Abraham story. Blessing in the Bible is not magic. It’s tangible. It is good things. (That’s why the beatitudes sound so weird. Blessed are the poor? Blessed with what? They’re poor!) In the Bible the blessed one’s job is to identify the blessing (hey, I’m rich), acknowledge that it’s from God (hey, God gave me this), and pass it on. Blessings are to be shared. Like, you go pick up your free Thanksgiving turkey and they give you a twenty-six pounder. You say, “We’re gonna need some help with this, start calling folks.” That’s Abram’s job as a blessed one: share. Pass the blessings around and pass them on to the next blessed one.
This gets us to something Abram lacks: children. There is no next one. Abram can share now; there’s no one to continue the household. God promises a next one, a next multitude, a nation. “I will bless you and your descendants, your family will be a blessing, I’ll bless those who bless you, I’ll bless the whole world through you.” This sounds wonderful to us who call him “Father Abraham.” To Abram, it’s change. It’s not how he—age 75—anticipated life going. He will have the capacity to bless the world. Its going to mean not doing what he planned. That’s huge. We venerate Abram because at 75 he uprooted his whole fantastic, comfortable, life, let God bless him, and passed it on. We venerate Abram because the Limitless One said to him, “No children? No way. That’s a limit, and I don’t do limits. I can do anything.” And Abram believed, and embraced that.
Abraham’s important to us. Abraham’s been important to me, when I’ve realized I needed to listen to what the Limitless One was saying and doing. About a month before my doctoral residency ended, I became Audrey’s Dad. This was not like Abraham in that there was no reason to think I could not have a child. We found out right before the fall semester, so I was getting ready for it all year, but life changed one evening when Audrey came along. I was Audrey’s Dad. That was my name. I was a stay-at-home dad who knew nobody in town, so, at the doctor, at the grocer, at the deli, and the library, at the pizzeria, I was Audrey’s Dad. That was a hard and isolating time, but I have joyful memories of it. And God made something exist that didn’t exist: I was a dad. What business did I have being a dad? And I don’t pretend to be a good one—nearly ten years later I’m frankly still amazed at every day that goes by and we all survived—but being a Dad is crossing a limit I would have placed on things. The universe does not contain the possibility that Tim is a dad. God said, yeah it does. That was a blessing, and like Abraham, I had to pass on things. I had to share what I had with this new person. I passed on things I remembered my mom doing for me and for my younger brother. Try singing. Use this kind of voice. Be still. Read to her. Explain that this is the Stanley Cup Finals and Chicago has a chance to win for the first time since 1961 but you’ve lived in Philadelphia for the last two years. (My mom was cheering for the Flyers.)
And then, suddenly, one day, my name became Pastor Tim. I got a congregational call in Delaware and was a pastor, again. Audrey went to day care. The days of my name being Audrey’s Dad ended. I continued to be a dad but had to pass Audrey along to day care while God made another new thing, this man who pastored and wrote a dissertation. Again, not saying I was good at either. Just that this was not a thing, and then the Limitless One caused this to exist.
Blessings come, you share them, you pass them on, and occasionally God announces a new blessing whether you planned it or not. How do we embrace the Limitless One’s blessings today? How has Trinity Lutheran Church of Valparaiso embraced each blessing and shared it, in its time? If you look at booklets we made in the 1950s for anniversaries and dedications, we recognized that we had a prime location, we were excited about what we could do with our waterproof basement and our six thousand gallon fuel oil tank, and we had an entire page filled with the specifications of the Wicks Pipe Organ (which we have long since replaced). We bragged that our former pastor was now a seminary professor and that we were sending members to seminary. We had location, space, music, and a genuine interest in higher education in the service of the church.
In 1969 we mentioned that we were excited about a new Sunday School curriculum, a Lutheran Church Women group, a new newsletter, and paid youth leaders. Emphasis had moved toward women and children, and we were excited about what we could do for them. If you look at our directory from 2000 we boast of four social groups for kids k-12 plus Sunday school, sixteen committees, lots of meals, and we’ve got photos of Paul Schreiner and Larry Baas (with dark hair) lurking behind drywall, and two pages of pics of Cheryl Dieter, Janet Wade, Jeff Doebler, and our music ministry. Trinity had become a social gathering place and a socially conscious place, and one that valued music (and apparently also committee meetings).
If you look at us today, some of these blessings remain. Location, space, supporting students, expecting deep and complex faith conversations, music. Those are blessings we pass on to the next group. And some have changed. The newsletter folded a long time ago and everyone is a lot busier outside of church. And you don’t find in those old books any mention of immigrant justice, racial problems in Northwest Indiana, us being Reconciling in Christ, and you don’t see the word “Healing” which we’ve come to discern God is calling for in our community. That’s a thing that does not exist. Except it does because the Limitless One made it exist, and we already know how to do healing services and we already have connections in the community where healing is needed. God is already making this thing exist where there wasn’t a thing that existed. God gives birth from above, God sends the Son into the world, God calls Abram to go be a blessing, God makes heaven and earth, God raises the dead, and God calls people who’ve already had a good thing going for 86 years to be healing because God is limitless.