John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

 MESSAGE            “Need a Lift?”                  Rev. James R. Renfrew

Need a lift?  Only once did I ever try hitchhiking.  It was during college, when I went down to Cornell from Colgate to watch a friend play in a rugby match.  After the game we decided to visit his home in North Adams, Massachusetts, the only problem being that we had no money for a bus, and no car.  So we hitchhiked.  It’s all kind of vague in my memory.  It must have taken more than a few rides to get there, because there was no direct road, and I don’t remember how we got back to Colgate; maybe his parents drove us back.  I never tried hitchhiking again, probably because by that time it became more widely know that hitchhiking could be very dangerous.  It also helped that I earned enough money the next summer to buy my own car.

That was a long time ago.  Anyone need a lift today?  Well, I’m not talking about hitchhiking this morning.  But maybe you do need a lift?  Not a ride, but some way of lifting you up if you’ve been feeling low?  As a pastor I have heard many people tell me about the low spots they have been in.

Betty called me from the lowest spot she had ever been in, because that morning she learned that all four of her children had been put in jail the night before, each one arrested in four unrelated events.  She told me that she was the worst parent ever.  Pretty low!

Pete wandered into my church to tell me that he was homeless and needed money.  I never gave out money, drugs were far too available, but Pete told me his story anyway.  He had been evicted from the unheated shed that had been his home.  His sister wouldn’t speak to him.  He had serious addictions, including the worst one that I know of glue-sniffing.  He had severe psoriasis, it was unpleasant to even look at him.  This was in the mid-1990’s, and he told me that his problems began after serving in Vietnam, twenty years before.  Pete was as low as he could go – no home, no family, no friends, no money, no way out.

Molly had a musician boyfriend who never lifted a finger to help her, though he was happy to live off of her income.  He refused to cook or wash the dishes because he didn’t want to damage his delicate guitar-playing fingers, though to my knowledge he never earned a dime for playing music.  Molly earned the money and her boyfriend spent it.  She had left her husband years before, a severe alcoholic, and just didn’t seem to have the capacity to try to make another fresh start.  She was very low, and badly stuck.

The Bible reading from John’s Gospel contains more thoughts than I could cover in a month of sermons.  I can’t cover them all today.  I could talk about Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above” and what that might mean.  I could talk about another part of Jesus’ answer concerning “water and the Spirit”, maybe deepening our understanding of baptism?  I could talk about that very memorable verse, a verse that many of you have memorized, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but gain eternal life”.  Eternal life, that could be something to talk about, particularly since a friend of mine saw me at the post office this week and asked me what I think about heaven.

Out of all of these topics this morning I’ll be talking about being lifted up.  Jesus remembers how Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert, and uses that Old Testament story to explain himself, “the Son of Man will be lifted up”.  This is a hint about the crucifixion and how Jesus was lifted up on the Cross to die, but I am especially thinking about how Jesus being lifted up on the Cross is also an expression of his motivation to lift you up, lift me up, lift all of us up.  Lift us up from the low spots in which we can find ourselves.

How does Jesus lift you up?  There is no single way to describe it.

One way is to think of Jesus reaching out his hand giving you something to grab onto as you are swirling down the drain.  Maybe he does it because of your deep faith and fervent prayers.  I have certainly seen very faithful people lifted up by Jesus Christ.  Fiona came to church one Sunday and during the prayer time told about the cancer diagnosis she had received the previous week.  She was devastated, but then there was a second exam and there was no cancer at all.  She had no doubt what had caused the cancer to disappear.  “Thank you, Jesus!” was her prayer, and I had no doubt because she was as faithful a woman as could be

But maybe Jesus reaches and grabs you simply because you are a miserable mess.  And I’ve seen that, too.  I once visited Fred in the hospital after a severe car accident.  He admitted that he’d been drinking, and while his car was totaled, he walked away from it with only a few bruises.  “The Lord was looking out for me,” was what he told me.  Hardly a splinter of faith in that man, the head of a dysfunctional household and seriously troubled children.  But, he felt lifted up … against all reason!

Or maybe being lifted up has nothing to do with something to grab onto, Jesus’ hand or a heavenly sky hook.  Maybe it’s just a word or a phrase that touches your heart and that alone lifts you up.  Maybe it’s a hopeful feeling triggered by something Jesus has said or done in one of these old Bible stories?  Maybe it doesn’t appear to be Jesus at all, when someone offers encouragement or help in your low moment; only later do you begin to think that it was Jesus after all who motivated that helping person.

Maybe it’s his hand and he gently pulls you to safety, maybe it’s his hand and you pull against him every inch of the way.  I once saw life guards in training and one exercise they have to master is rescuing someone out in the deep water who is so scared that they try to fight off the rescuer!  Now there’s an image for us to ponder!

Jesus has plenty of ways to lift you up.  One time I saw it happen like this.  Every Wednesday afternoon, children would come over to the church youth group from the school across the street.  After a long day at school they were ready to let loose, which meant from the start the whole room was totally out of control.  No one could sit or be still or be quiet or listen.  So one day I improvised.  Without having thought about it I just tried something new, hoping it might work.

Improvisation, by the way, is one of the things I’m working on in playing the mandolin and the violin, not just mastering the printed notes on the page, but taking off with my own phrasing and timing, inspired by the main melody, but also exploring something new.  Half the time I fall on my face, but I keep trying.  Sometimes improvisation works in ministry, too.  This time it did.

On that day a boy named Flip came into the room.  Flip was the kind of boy who always wanted my full attention.  In a room full of other kids he wanted 100% of my attention.  So he would disrupt everything to get that attention.  His theory was that negative attention is still attention.  In effect, he would come into the room and kick me in the shins to get it.  I spent a lot of time trying to manage his disruptive behavior.  I got tired of this, as you can imagine, so one day I tried something new.  Flip came into the room, and before he could even wind up his foot for that kick I called out to him, “There’s Flip, my favorite kid in the whole world!” Flip stopped in his tracks and smiled.  I gave him the attention he needed before he could even ask for it.  More kids came into the room, ready to raise hell, too, and I greeted them all in the same way, “There’s Sally, my favorite kid in the whole world!”  “There’s Sierra, my favorite kid in the whole world!”  Each one of them stopped and smiled.  Each one had gotten my full attention without even having to ask for it.  And not one of them asked, “Hey, how can Sally be your favorite, and me your favorite at the same time?”

Did I love those kids?  Yes!  Did they drive me totally crazy?  Yes!    Jesus tells us about being lifted up.  His being lifted up on the Cross is for the purpose of lifting each one of us up in the love, mercy, joy and peace that God intends.  He loves us, and we drive him crazy, but the heart of it is that he loves us, and that’s why he is busy to this very moment working to lift you up!

A few weeks ago my granddaughter and I were in a store in Rochester.  I looked over and to my amazement there was Pete, the homeless alcoholic that I had last seen 25 years before.  I was amazed that he was alive.  He actually remembered me.  He told me he was on his way to church that evening.  Someone had been doing some lifting!

Jesus wants to lift you up.  No matter who you are.  No matter where you have been,  No matter what you have been.  No matter how many strikes against you. No matter how many times you refused his hand before.   Thank you Betty, Pete, Molly, Fiona, Fred, Flip, Sally and Sierra for letting me tell a small part of your story!