We’ve a Story to Tell – Night Hike!

(Lantern in hand) Night hikes without nightlights are tough. For scouts, for campers, for fishers lookin’ for the bay, for Pharisees in Jesus’ day. I fondly remember my chaplaincy at Broad Creek Scout Reservation. And the light I carried on the trails between camps on my nightly rounds. (‘A good scout, I was prepared.) But one night, in a coming storm my light went out. ‘Not far from the next appointed stop, I stumbled on, ‘best I could, drawn by the voices of the next safe haven in the woods. To me they kept calling, “This way, this way to salvation.” Unfortunately, I wandered unknowing from the beaten path. In the dark, the tree in front of me never said a thing. It just stood its ground. The crash, as we say, was a religious experience! It was my most powerful encounter with the peril of a night hike without nightlight. It taught me spiritual lessons that scripture helps me put in words. Especially today’s scripture, John’s famous 3rd chapter.  Actually, a fellow preacher’s put these lessons even better than I. [Thomas “Buzz” Oliver, 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can’t Because He Needs the Job)]   “The road to salvation depends upon who’s standing in the road. And just as important, what’s standing between that person and God.”

When you’re in the dark, which way to go depends on who’s standin’ in the road and where they’re standin’. Jesus is always nearby, and always clearly calling, “This way, this way to salvation.” But how you come to Jesus, and at last to God, depends on who you are and where you’re starting from. God in Christ knows this. What about you? What about me? Sometimes it’s the thing that makes it hardest to get headed in the right direction. If you feel like you’re wanderin’ in the dark, stand still long enough to figure out who and where you’re gettin’ started. 

Old Nicodemus is a good example. He’s a holy person. Truly. ‘Wants to be with all his heart. He’s wealthy. He has power and influence. But he believes he can work out his own salvation, earn his way into heaven. How? First, know the Law (actually all 613 do’s and don’ts from heaven, plus two more holy how-to books, the Mishnah and the Talmud). Second, do the Law. Nick was on a spiritual night hike without a nightlight. He didn’t get it. ‘Didn’t see that self-righteousness always makes us depend on ourselves more than God. Jesus says to Nick, “Get it that you gotta lean on God and God alone. Lean on me…And then you’ll be headed in the right direction. Why, you’ll be born again, born from above. You get a do-over. (Remember those from our childhood days?) You’ll be cleaned-up, and lifted up from here to hereafter. (Born by water and the Spirit.)” Nick’s a tough case, still left wondering awhile. 

Like us, that old disciple of the night wants to know what he has to do. We do too. The back-to-mama option’s out. We know that. So can Jesus help us better see our own starting place? It’ll set us in the right direction. Lots of us need to do what Nicodemus does. Trust more, try less, truly give God charge over us. But there are other starting places. Jesus lifts them. Remember the wealthy young ruler who came to Jesus? What must I do he asks. I mean, he’s in good shape. McMansion with a manageable mortgage. Recession-proof job security. His mother-in-law owns a gas station and his portfolio’s perpetually profitable. (Cf. Davidsonville diversion.)  Even his dog’s a golden retriever. Well Jesus knows the problem here: you can’t serve two masters, God and Mammon. Jesus’ describes born again differently to this brother, “Go and give all you have to the poor.” Another comes to Jesus. What can I do? Jesus knows his starting place. ‘Trouble with his neighbors, literally. Or maybe just a heart that’s out-for-itself with little thought for others. Or a “church” member or scout who looks down on those with whom he has “issues”. From here, says Jesus, the direction of salvation lies this way, [All] “You gotta love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as your self.” Some are smug in their sin, large or small. One thief on the cross will never confess. But confession is exactly the place to be born-again when beginning here. So when the second fellow does just that, and lays his heart at Jesus’ feet on the cross, the promise comes from Christ: for you and me today… paradise!

You know, if in the Broad Creek dark, I’d known where I was starting from… off the beaten path… that tree and I would never have met. Knowing where you’re starting from makes all the difference on the way to salvation. Jesus has a way of helping us to see where we are. Then he can get us to where we’re called to go. So if you’re in the dark in your daily life or your spirit walk, listen for Jesus. Let him be the nightlight on your night hike, and he’ll head you in the right direction. 

One more thing. Identify what’s standing between you and God out there in the dark. Likely, it won’t be an oak tree. (That’s good news!) But it might be just as hard, just as seemingly immovable. You too might just need to be the one who changes course! Trust Jesus as your light and he’ll direct you. Even through the dark nights of our soul. If it’s your stuff you love too well, even more than God,  it’s gotta go. If work is your idol (how may hours for you each week), you gotta step around it and let God work on your spirit. Some folks are just too full of themselves. (None of us, of course.) Well, even Jesus knew the old proverb was right, “Pride goeth before a fall.” Now it’s one thing, and a bad enough thing, to let pride ruin a friendship in scouts or church or family or life. It’s worse to let your pretensions about what-hot-stuff-you-are cause you to fall from the grace of heaven. Oh, there are lots of trees in the woods to crack your mellon and flatten your forehead and turn you from the way to salvation in Christ. Especially if you’re wandering in the dark. The sadness of the news of Heath Ledger, the spectacle of Brittany make the national news. But the youngster who took his life this week at a local high school barely makes a ripple. The twisted  soul of a young father who flings his child from a bridge, or the son who slays his family both end up on the altars of our sister United Methodist Churches. Tragedies like these remind us that darkness knows no lower age limit. And that whatever stands between us and God through Jesus Christ is to be identified in his light and avoided, even overcome… by his Word.  

If you want a light that won’t go out in the dark, today’s lesson’s got the spark you need. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Today’s example is Nicodemus. He comes in the dark, but leaves in the light. Jesus helps him know where he’s starting from. And what stands between him and heaven. May we stand in the same light. And as we have need, ‘follow by the way that leads us to the same forever-life-with-God.

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