“Spiritual Practices: Trust”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 17, 2017
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because God has dealt bountifully with me.
For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Our Gospel passage this morning has been used a lot, over the years, as a kind of badgering reminder that if you don’t believe in Jesus, you ain’t gettin’ into heaven. It’s on a lot of t-shirts and bumper stickers; I think it’s safe to call it the unofficial motto of Christianity. Quite a few concerned, well-meaning family members and friends have used it to try to convert their loved ones – maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of this – to a very specific kind of Christianity, the kind that involves saying just the right combination of words in order to make sure you are “saved,” the kind of Christianity that often uses the fear of perishing – the fear of Hell – as motivation to believe.
In that sense John 3:16 can be a pretty potent verse, but I think something actually far more interesting is going on here. And to get at what that is, we’re going to put on our biblical Greek hats for a moment and look at a word in this passage that is often misunderstood.
I’m talking about the word “believe” – “that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This sounds a lot like a litmus test. Do you believe in Jesus? Check, you’re in. But there is a big difference between this kind of belief – intellectual assent, if you will – and the Greek word pisteuon, from which it is translated. Pisteuon is much closer in meaning to a different, much more powerful, English word – “trust.”
When you think about it, this changes things profoundly.
If, instead of saying “those who believe in Jesus,” we say “those who trust in Jesus” – suddenly we’re no longer talking about a supernatural creed, like children believing in Santa or the Tooth Fairy. We’re no longer even talking about whether we assent to the idea that Jesus is the Son of God or that he exists. No, this kind of “believe in” is more like what you tell your kid right before they go to shoot a penalty kick or what you tell your friend when she’s training for a marathon or trying to quit smoking. It means “I’m all in with you, I cast my lot with you.”
I think many of us have had the experience of feeling distant from God, of feeling from time to time that God doesn’t really care about us or our problems. Maybe we were taught as children to fear God, or to see God, who is, after all, the Creator of heaven and earth, as almighty, mysterious, remotely majestic.
Or maybe we’ve witnessed trauma or tragedy in our own lives, or in the world around us, and wondered how we could trust a God who is supposed to be in charge of it all and yet lets horrible things happen to innocent people.
Or maybe we simply recognize that we live in a world where it is becoming more and more difficult to trust. Our political leaders, the corporations who are supposed to safeguard our personal information, the systems that treat our illnesses, make our food, shape our faith, and teach our children have all given us, at times, reasons to be cynical, fearful, and distrustful.
We’re hesitant to cast our lots in anywhere, to go all in, to trust anyone. And even when we want to trust, doing so can be hard; many of us have learned through painful betrayals that trust leaves us vulnerable to getting hurt.
If this verse is really about trust instead of belief, why should we trust that God is on our side, so to speak? What could compel us to set aside our fears and trust in God?
Anglican Archbishop and theologian Rowan Williams argues in his book Tokens of Trust that Jesus came to answer this very question, to show us that despite the fact that we sometimes feel otherwise, God is indeed trustworthy, loves us deeply and has our best interests at heart. A seemingly grandiose and inaccessible God knew that having a human presence on earth with whom we could talk, from whom we could learn, who could share our joys and sorrows and tangibly demonstrate divine love would go a long way towards convincing us that God’s “agenda” for us and for the world has always been, as Williams puts it, one of reconciliation and healing.
One of my favorite ways of thinking about this is writer Philip Yancey’s image of fish in an aquarium. As the proud new owner of a saltwater aquarium, Yancey noticed that after weeks of consistent care for and feeding of the fish, and despite his loving intentions towards them, they continued to startle at the giant figure looming over them to sprinkle fish flakes or clean the glass. What if he could become a fish, he wondered, and jump into the water with them to show that he meant no harm and in fact wanted them to thrive? Yancey concludes that a majestic God who communicates through wind, earthquake, and burning bushes had the same problem with humans and realized that Jesus – as God-with-us – could help us understand how deeply beloved we are, could help us realize that God’s immense power is never used for pulling divine “gotchas” on us, but instead for bringing good out of every situation we face – even the difficult, tragic ones. “Do not fear,” Jesus says later in the Gospel of John, “but trust in God, and trust in me.”
So God loves us, unconditionally and unendingly, works toward the best for us even when the best doesn’t always happen to us, and sent Jesus to help us trust that that is true. But what does it look like to trust God in practice?
In our house we are fans of the long-running British sci-fi TV show, Dr. Who. Anyone else familiar with the show? The Doctor, the main character, is a Time Lord, an alien who looks exactly like a human except for having two hearts, being able to time travel, and regenerating after death – just a few minor differences, really. But the Doctor always works with a human companion, an enthusiastic partner who jumps aboard the Doctor’s time-traveling TARDIS to explore the universe, past, present, and future. The Doctor is addicted to adventure and saving the universe from destruction, which, you can imagine, leads to some pretty risky undertakings. Whenever a human companion begins to doubt the wisdom of, say, confronting earth-annihilating aliens with just a screwdriver or jumping into a crack in the space-time continuum, the Doctor simply replies, “Trust me. I’m the Doctor.”
Similarly, we are sometimes asked to do crazy things as followers of Jesus – to be willing to give up all we possess. To forgive and even love our enemies. To risk our social standing in befriending outcasts, to embrace hope in the face of despair, to put down our bitterness and open ourselves to healing. To work for justice even if it puts us in danger. To put God first in a world that wants us to prioritize image and security and power. Living into these adventures is an exercise not so much in willpower – pushing ourselves to trust, yet again, that when we do the seemingly crazy thing it will all turn out alright – but rather an exercise in releasing, in letting go.
For me, it is an invitation to stop, breathe out, and consciously let all the worry, fear, and control I am holding onto fall to the floor.
The sermon series that begins today is about spiritual practices, as in spiritual attitudes that we may not always get right, but that we keep practicing. Well, trust is something I have had to practice a lot in the past 6 months, as I put together my ministerial profile and began looking for the church I would next serve. Did the words I used to describe my sense of call accurately depict who I am? Did I check enough – or too many – boxes in the list of where I was willing to go geographically or what kind of church I was willing to serve? Was this a really dumb idea because after all, our lives in Atlanta were pretty great and moving is stressful and what about the cost of living increases and good Lord, the traffic here!
As I fretted over various parts of the process, my friend Matthew, a pastor in Dallas who had gone through the process a few years earlier, became my own little fish in the aquarium. “Leah,” he said, “do you really think God won’t be able to call you to where you’re supposed to be if you don’t check the right box?” God is trustworthy, he was reminding me, and can work through and around all of the obstacles we face – even the ones we put in our own way – to bring good into our lives.
Because that’s essentially what “so that you may not perish, but have eternal life” means – to avoid spiritual withering and death by embracing what is life-giving and deeply good.
Time for another biblical Greek lesson – it’ll be quick, I promise: the Greek word we usually translate as “eternal,” aiónios (ahee OH nee os), does not mean “eternal” in a linear or chronological sense, but in a qualitative sense. It doesn’t mean “endless” so much as “timeless,” something that stands the test of time instead of being of the moment. Author Rob Bell describes it this way: “Eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life now in connection to God. It’s not about a life that begins at death,” he says, but “about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.”
So despite street preachers who might have tried to convince you otherwise, the “eternal life” we receive when we trust in God is not about living forever after we die. Rather it’s about the life we live now being made up of that which lasts, a life of deep, satisfying richness, rooted in God, that sustains us for the long haul. A life made up of kindness, joy, hope, healing, compassion, and mercy. A life marked by humility, grace, openness. A life shaped by a willingness to have our hearts broken and to let new life take root in the brokenness. A life marked by love and humor, forgiveness and gratitude. A life imprinted with a fierce commitment to justice and a dazzling sense of wonder.
It’s about whether we’re willing to step into the TARDIS and go on a new adventure, unsure of how we might be challenged or changed, but trusting, despite our anxieties, that it will be for our good and the good of the world.
So today I want you to ask yourself, where do I need to trust in my life? Where do I need to let go of control, of cynicism, of fear or anxiety, and sink deep into God’s goodness made known to me in the challenging, healing, joyful love of Jesus? Who is my fish reminding me that it’s okay to trust? And how might it change my life – and the world – if I do so?