by Rev. Doug Gray
The 3-year-old felt secure in his father’s arms as Dad stood in the middle of the pool. But Dad, began walking slowly toward the deep end, gently chanting, “Deeper and deeper and deeper,” as the water rose higher and higher on the child. The lad’s face registered increasing degrees of panic, and he held on all the more tightly to his father. I think many of us have felt about our lives like this three-year-old: we’re going along and everything is fine, perhaps we even feel close to our heavenly Father, and then suddenly trouble or grief or hardship starts to make us feel like we are getting in over our heads. Perhaps you are in that place today—feeling like you are in over your head. It’s scary when that starts to happen, and we can feel very alone, and very powerless. “Where is God in all of this?” we may begin to wonder. Our passage for today has at least three key words for us today.
First, believe. In talking about John the Baptist, John writes in verse 7, “He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through Him [I think we should Christ] all people might believe.” Jesus came that we might all learn how to trust. In the Philippines, the driver of a carabao wagon was on his way to market when he overtook an old man carrying a heavy load. Taking compassion on him, the driver invited the old man to ride in the wagon. Gratefully the old man accepted. After a few minutes, the driver turned to see how the man was doing. To his surprise, he found the old man still straining under the heavy weight, for he had not taken the burden off his shoulders. The trouble with most of us is that we like the idea of believing in God, but we actually don’t give up any of our burdens, addictions, or troubles. Like the old man riding in the wagon, even though we may “believe” in God, we continue to strain under the load. Jesus came not only to help us carry the loads of life, but so we could learn how to trust God to be there.
Second, receive. John writes in verses 11 and 12, “He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him. Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name…” We like to think we are good at receiving, especially at Christmas time, but we’re not. We like to be in control! People say, “It’s better to give than to receive.” But when we give, we get to decide what to give and when to give it. We are in control! The fact is, when all we can do is receive, we are powerless. When I was a teen-ager, I got a really bad case of the stomach flu. It was ugly. I so sick and so weak. I remember my parents cleaning me up, and cleaning up after me. And I was so ashamed, wishing they didn’t have to see me like this! I was so powerless to do anything except receive their help, but I really needed it. I learned a lesson about how to receive in that period. In the same way, we often have messy lives. Perhaps we are not proud of everything about them. But the question is not whether our lives are messy, but whether we will receive Jesus’ help, whether we will be open to Christ.
Finally, power. John writes in verse 12, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God…” It shouldn’t work that way, but power is at its best when we feel the most powerless. Richard Rohr writes in his book, Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, “People who have moved from seeming success to seeming success seldom understand success at all, except a very limited version of their own. People who fail to do it right, by even their own definition of right, are those who often break through to enlightenment and compassion…You will not learn to actively draw upon a Larger Source until your usual resources are depleted and revealed as wanting.” When we come to the end of our rope is when we find that God is the One who supports us. In that moment when we learn to trust, because we must, all our fears turn to dust and we have God’s power to accomplish the good God wants to see done. When we are weak is when God is strongest in us!
Which brings us back to the three-year-old in the pool with his dad, as his dad continues to hold him, and walks steadily into the deeper areas of the pool. Of course, what the dad knew was that he could easily touch the bottom, even though the child could feel the water getting deeper. Had the little boy been able to think about it a little more clearly, he would have realized there was no reason for panicking. The water’s depth in any part of the pool was over his head. Even in the shallowest part, had he not been held up, he would have drowned. His safety anywhere in that pool depended on Dad. At various points in our lives, all of us feel we’re getting out of our depth—problems abound, a job is lost, someone gets sick or dies. Our temptation is to panic, for we feel we’ve lost control. Yet, as with the child in the pool, the truth is we’ve never been in control over the most valuable things of life. We’ve always been held up by the grace of God, our Father, and that has not changed. God is never out of His depth, and therefore we are just as safe when we’re “going deeper” as we have ever been. God longs for us to learn how to believe, knowing that when we receive, we will receive power, not just for ourselves, but to help others make it through their deeper, messier lives. The miracle and mystery of Christmas, is that we see that in baby Jesus, God-with-us, who trusts and receives, who offers His life and our lives are changed, and hope is given. If only we will receive.