I think all of us are familiar with the term “unconditional love.” It’s a wonderful notion: to be loved just as you are, with no preconditions or expectations. It is a concept that is central to the Christian faith. But as wonderful as it is, there’s something missing from unconditional love. It’s great to love someone unconditionally, but sometimes life requires a sense of commitment that unconditional love just doesn’t include. You might love someone unconditionally, but that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily risk anything for them or stick by them no matter what. Having a willingness to take risks for another person implies a sense of commitment that unconditional love is missing. Which is why I’m often drawn to the idea of “unconditional trust.”
Trusting someone unconditionally forces us to look to the future and to be willing to make a commitment regardless of what that future may hold. Unconditional trust is something we can take into the uncertainty of the future. Even though sometimes we’re not able to plan or calculate or anticipate what might happen, unconditional trust tells us that we can still move into the future with confidence. And that is precisely the kind of relationship that God calls us into.
Throughout the history of God’s relationship with humankind, we have been called to trust in God unconditionally. To trust in the covenant that God has made with us. But what does that really mean, and how do we do it?
Well first, I think living a life of unconditional trust in God means that we have to listen, because God speaks to each of us in a way that is right for us. For some of us, God chooses to reveal truth in a way that is clear and unmistakable. A priest I knew as a teenager told me that he was sure about his call to ordained ministry because God literally spoke to him. He heard a voice. That, of course, made my decision about ordained ministry years later more difficult since I was not so fortunate as to have this experience. But for the vast majority of us, hearing God’s voice or call is a process of listening and discerning, over and over again. Listening to what at times feels like rather ambiguous signs or messages. But there’s even a benefit to that. Because we often learn as much from the process as we do from finally getting the message. In the end, though, whether it’s through other people or by events in our lives or through a feeling in our heart, our attentiveness to God’s call is essential.
Of course, there’s always the nagging question of whether we’re hearing God’s call or our own desires and egos? We should never ignore our gut instincts. We should pay close attention to them and then reflect on them. Because often that too is a source of wisdom. Any time we pray for guidance and seek some sense of God’s wisdom at a major turning-point in our lives, or when confronting a serious decision, we are in effect listening for God’s call. We try to keep silent, set aside our lists of pros and cons, put a hold on all the confusion in our lives and just listen. In the best-case scenario, we’re granted the gift of wisdom and God’s call is made clear by our own internal sense of God’s presence. But sometimes we never hear what we think is God’s call to us. That is where the trust comes in.
Abram was a very old man before God spoke to him. And yet he remained open to hearing God’s call, even when it seemed unlikely that his life could hold much more in the way of surprises. More than anything, that is what I see in the life of Abram and Sarah. Lives lived patiently listening for God’s instructions.
Second, we live in unconditional trust with God when we stay open to the new possibilities in life. God’s radical message of opportunity in Jesus Christ calls us to a life in which we must not, in fact cannot, put barriers on what we expect the future can bring. If we really mean it when we say that we’re open to what God has in store for us, we must be ready for things to happen in our lives that we do not anticipate. For our lives to be turned upside down. Paul knew this when he wrote to the Christian community in Rome. He knew that in their case, there was a danger that people in those early communities would fall back on the law as the principle guide in their lives. The danger was not the law itself. It was that adherence to the law could become a dependence on the law. And a dependence on the law could become a barrier for people hearing God’s call.
Paul writes, “If those who adhere to the law are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.” The work of God’s Spirit in our lives cannot be confined to what we expect. That’s why when we live strictly by the rules, we shut off the opportunity for grace to enter our lives. Conversely, when we put ourselves in God’s hands — when we trust in God to guide us — we open our hearts and make room for God’s grace.
Finally, if we listen for God’s direction and open ourselves up to new possibilities, then we must inevitably be drawn to respond to God’s call, and to “set out on the journey”, so to speak, in obedience to God. This is the essence of Jesus’ challenge to Nicodemus.
In today’s Gospel reading, Nicodemus represents the best of what his society aspired to. He was probably a learned, wealthy man who was well thought of in his community. He was, I’m sure, a very fine person. And yet, he knew that something more was needed in his relationship with God. So, he sought out Jesus in the hope of a simple answer.
But what Jesus says, Nicodemus simply cannot understand. When Jesus says that “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” Nicodemus takes Jesus literally and takes this to mean that one must be born twice in one lifetime. But what Jesus is doing is challenging Nicodemus to move on in a new direction from that point in his life. Not to forget his life up to that point, but to begin living by the Spirit and being guided by the Spirit rather than by the concerns of an earthly life. Nicodemus listened for God, heard God’s call for radical change in life, but he was unsure or unwilling to take that final step of unconditional trust in God. He was unwilling to let the Spirit be his guide.
This is, in many ways, the kind of relationship that I think we need to have with God in these uncertain days that we are facing. With all the news about the spread of the coronavirus and the recommendations being made about what people should do because of it, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and constantly fearful and to recoil to a place and behavior that we think is safe. But these are precisely the times in our lives when we are reminded that through our baptisms, we have been called into a relationship of unconditional trust with God. No, it does not mean that we should just go blithely into the future, trusting that God will provide us with everything we need and protect us from every danger. But what it does mean is that if we will listen for God’s voice in our hearts, and if we then stay open to the possibilities of what God may do with our lives, then we can be empowered to move into the future trusting that no matter what befalls us, nothing will or can separate us from the love of God. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to let the challenge of this outbreak make me forget that no matter what happens, God has promised that God’s love will be with us. If I ever find that I’ve given up on that, then I’ve given up on too much.
When God’s Spirit is conferred upon us through the waters of baptism, we are freed from the bonds of a life that is limited by the concerns of this world. We are not completely freed from the concerns of this world, because we still have to live in this world. But we are freed up from having to live completely limited by the concerns of this world . . . to live with unlimited expectations, to live with the knowledge that the Kingdom of God is the ultimate goal of our lives and that, in fact, the Kingdom of God is here — today. Living with unconditional trust in God, the possibilities we open ourselves up to become the realities of our lives. We begin to live, if not without fear, then at least with a smaller measure of it. We begin to live our lives with hope and expectation, even as we grapple with the realities of danger and loss. The Spirit’s guidance is beyond human capacity to predict; but it is the reality of a life which is born from above.
Listening, staying open to new possibilities, and acting on God’s call are all part of trusting God unconditionally. For us here at Christ Church this life of unconditional trust is evident everywhere. The very existence of this parish and the beautiful little church in which we worship that has been here for almost 150 years is a testimony to lives lived based on possibilities and not on limitations. And, time and again, the changed lives we see in this community testify to the Spirit’s work in and through this place.
So, as we journey together through Lent, through the crisis of this communal infection, through the re-discovery of what it can mean to live a life that is rooted in a trust in God’s guidance, let’s remember the verse from this morning’s psalm, “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” for “The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in from this time forth for evermore.” Amen.