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"A Place of Mystery and the Unknown" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on March 8, 2020 by Kathy Miller

“A Place of Mystery and the Unknown”

John 3:1-17

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

March 8, 2020


Recently I saw a woman wearing a shirt that said across the front, “Indoorsy.”  And I thought, “look, someone who gets me.”  But I admit that my preference for the indoors continues to lessen each year.  Mostly because almost 15 years ago I married a man whose shirt would say “super outdoorsy” and I like to hang out with him and often, to do that, I have to go outside. So, more and more Brian has been helping me to grow a love for the outdoors, and we’ve had plenty of good outdoor experiences.


However, about 10 years ago, on one of the first really beautiful days of spring – the sun shining, it felt warm, the snow had all melted, but the ground was still wet, Brian suggested we go for a hike in a forest preserve we hadn’t ever been in, but was near my work.  I wasn’t sure I was feeling up to it, but I wanted to do something with Brian, so I agreed.  We drove there, got out and headed down a path. And then, maybe 30 minutes into the walk, it became clear we had followed a path in the woods which wasn’t really a path.  Since the ground was still muddy and there wasn’t much green yet, the trails weren’t well distinguished from the rest of the woods, and so we had wandered off and now couldn’t find any signs of any path at all.  Pretty quickly, it felt less like a beautiful spring day and more like my shoes were caked in mud, there were bugs buzzing around my head, and I was too warm because I had still worn a winter coat. A feeling of panic started to rise up in me, even as Brian remained calm.  I wanted out.  I wanted to go home.  I did not like feeling lost and having no idea how long it would take us to find our way back.  Then, we found ourselves at the edge of a river, a wide, cold, fast moving river, but a river on which the other side of we could see the road.  I sensed even then that I had slipped into an irrational place because I was very close to jumping in that river and trying to swim to the road.  Thankfully, Brian’s cooler head and general enjoyment of such predicaments (which at the time was not endearing to me), was paying enough attention to understand the road was a sign which gave him enough sense of direction to soon be able to get back on a path out of the woods. 


Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t respond that way again to being lost, but at the time, I think the literal wilderness of those woods was too much for me, because I was smack in the middle of a metaphorical wilderness.  This was the year before the biggest blessing of my life - the adoption of my daughter.  But at that moment I was, quite literally, in the middle of what felt like a terrible betrayal of my body.  Earlier that very day, I had gone through yet another fertility treatment as Brian and I tried to create a family.  And between the hormones and the stress and the worry and the unknown, my reserves for literal wilderness were at an all-time low. 


And it felt like, even with doctors and treatments and the path of adoption we’d already begun to discuss, all I could do was look into the future and see so much unknown. And it wasn’t just whether we would become parents or not, but because that one thing permeated so many other decisions about our lives, we found it hard to make many other decisions. We were in a strange “in between” place which is, of course, a hallmark feeling of any wilderness experience. 


And so, that wilderness experience showed me, once again, that while I am good at listening, praying and being with people while they go through wilderness times, when it comes to my own life, I’d prefer to know what to expect and be able to make plans and generally control as much as possible.  Funny how that works, huh?


I suspect that even if you aren’t a planner or someone who wants a lot of control, even if you enjoy not knowing certain things about how your life will turn out, that we all still have periods of unknown, of being out in the wilderness, where we’ve felt the panic start to rise and just want someone to show us the clear path out.  I think most of us have prayed prayers asking or even begging God to put an end to the unknown, to lead us out of the wilderness, to illuminate the way back.  And, it seems like in our scripture today, Nicodemus might have been doing something quite like that - looking for answers to mysteries that perhaps this man Jesus seemed to know something about. 


Here’s what we know about Nicodemus, this leader of the Jews, he’s “educated...He’s prominent. He’s successful. He’s experienced…He’s an interpreter and judicator of the Torah and the tradition. He’s one who has a significant level of control, both over his own life and the lives of other people. He has put life together in a way that has worked for him.”[1]


And yet, under cover of night, here comes Nicodemus to check in with this new rabbi on the scene, this Jesus, who he has seen perform signs and wonders and heard news that he is teaching something new, something different from the tradition on which Nicodemus has staked his life. 


And so, despite his position and status and privilege, maybe, just maybe, Nicodemus had experiences of his own where the wildernesses and the unknowns in life ate away at him.  A respected leader and teacher, maybe there were still some answers he wasn’t that confident about or questions he still had about God. So, he took a bit of a risk and came to talk to Jesus; to ask some questions and try to clear up some of these wilderness mysteries.


Retired Methodist bishop, Kenneth Carder summed up Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus this way: Basically, Jesus said in response to Nicodemus’ questions: “I’m introducing you, Nicodemus, to something that transcends your curiosity. You’ve come asking for a sign to help you control your life more, perhaps, or to validate what you already know. I want to put you in touch with a whole new world…It is a world totally out of your control.”[2]  A world full of wilderness and unknown.


Nicodemus doesn’t seem to understand, thinking Jesus is talking about a literal rebirth, a re-entering of the womb.  But Jesus was trying to show Nicodemus the way to a spiritual rebirth. He says, ““Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, they cannot enter the kingdom.” In other words, this isn’t a birth you create, just as you didn’t create your original birth either. It’s something God does, being born from above. It’s like the wind. You can’t create it. You can’t control it.”[3]


Basically, Jesus tells Nicodemus, that being a person of faith will always involve mystery and unknown, including, or especially, in our wilderness moments.  We will never be able to predict how the Spirit will move in the world, just as we can’t control every aspect, or even most aspects, of our lives, or even our own bodies.  This is what it means to be human.  This is the blessing and curse of free will – that since we are not puppets on the end of God’s strings our lives have a depth and meaning and real joy, but we must also live with the sometimes terrible unknown and find ourselves traveling through a great deal of wilderness, which is sometimes so hard we find ourselves wishing we could give up free will if it would just get us out of the wilderness.


But, since abdicating free will doesn’t seem to be an option, Jesus thankfully doesn’t stop with affirming that yes, there will be wilderness and unknown.  No, Jesus goes on to share one of the most important messages in all of scripture with Nicodemus.  His next words are his real message - the sermon, the balm, the promise. Jesus tells Nicodemus the most important thing - essence of truth about who God really is in the middle of all our wilderness and unknown, especially when it is painful or frustrating or confusing.  Who God will continue to be even when the wilderness makes us feel like God has abandoned us. 


Jesus says, “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. 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.” 


Throughout history and still today, Christians have turned the meaning of the word “believes” (as in “everyone who believes”) to mean “everyone who ascribes to a particular doctrine or theology; everyone who says just the right words about God.”


But, this “believe” is meant to be the kind of belief we have in someone we love – a belief based in the trust of someone which only comes through a deep and loving relationship.  Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God’s love is so far reaching, so absolute, so eager to save and bless us, that we can trust God to never leave us alone in the wilderness and unknown.  God’s love doesn’t waiver, even when things are hard or unclear or when we find ourselves in a wilderness and cannot see our way out.  For God so loved the world that God sent God’s son right straight into the wilderness.  For God so loved the world that God promised there would be signs of God’s love even in the deepest, darkest forest. 


So, no, we will not get all the answers to our questions in this life. The human condition comes with a big dose of wilderness and unknown, period.  Sometimes that wilderness is beautiful and exciting.  Sometimes it feels awful and unending.  And in both, God so loved the whole, wide world, God promised to be right smack there in the middle with us.


In a literal wilderness, if we know what to look for we can find a variety of signs to help us find our way out – the side of a tree where the moss grows, where the sun is in the sky, where the constellations are at night and people often leave each other signs – notches in trees or piles of rocks to let the next person know they are on the right track. 


In the metaphorical wilderness, there are signs too.  Signs from a God who is there in the thick of it with us.  Signs like someone reaching for our hand or offering a few words we need to hear; signs from scripture or what we hear when we listen well in prayer; signs that some might call coincidences but you sense there is something more there; signs found in the words of mentors or trusted friends.


Some of these signs are obvious and clear, but often, especially in the wilderness it can be hard to decipher them, especially if our own sense of panic is rising.  So, it is important for us to learn how to see the signs.  This is one of the opportunities of Lent – to spend time fine tuning our senses to recognize God’s signs.  Leaning into our practices of prayer and worship and discernment and deepening our relationship with God and each other, so we know what the signs look like.  Because when our eyes and ears and hearts get used to seeing the signs in our regular life, we are all the more likely to see them in our wildernesses, whether they are as clear as the entire night sky of stars on a cloudless night or as small like a notch in a tree.


So, if you’re in the wilderness right now, or if you can remember this when you are in your next time of wilderness, know God has promised to be there with you and seek out the signs of that promise. Think about the signs you can leave for the people who will come through that wilderness behind you.  And if you aren’t in the wilderness now, consider taking time this Lent to practice seeking out God’s signs - the people, the love, the hope God sends your way every day, so you will better recognize them.


I’ll close with a poem from the Wilderness devotional for this second week of Lent:

It’s only in the wilderness that you can see the stars.

That’s what city living has taught me.

We can shine a light on the things we want to see—

Fluorescent and bright, lighting up dark alleys.

However, it’s only in the wilderness that you can see the stars.


And it’s only in the dark of night that the questions come.

What is my purpose here? What does God have to say to me?

What does God have to say to suffering?

The sun falls and my doubt rises,

For it’s only in the dark that the questions come.


So like Nicodemus in the night,

I will throw my big questions at the sky.

And my voice will reverberate among the stars,

And my questions will echo throughout the dark.

For there in the night, my words form constellations.

And there in the wilderness, my prayers form galaxies.

So even there in the unknown, I trust that I am found.


A light shines in the darkness, friend.

So if ever you’re in the wilderness,

Look up and find the stars.[4]


[1] Carder, Kenneth L. “Seeing, Believing and the New Birth from Above.” Seeing, Believing and the New Birth from above | Faith and Leadership, 4 July 2011,


[2] Carder, Kenneth L. “Seeing, Believing and the New Birth from Above.” Seeing, Believing and the New Birth from above | Faith and Leadership, 4 July 2011,


[3] Carder, Kenneth L. “Seeing, Believing and the New Birth from Above.” Seeing, Believing and the New Birth from above | Faith and Leadership, 4 July 2011,


[4] Sarah Are, Sanctified Art Lenten devotional 2020

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