A sermon preached on March 20th, 2011 based upon John 3:1 – 17.
There is a lot piled into this passage, but at its heart there is a very human story — not so hard to identify with.
There is this middle aged man named Nicodemus. He is a good man — truly, a good man. He goes to “church” every week. He volunteers his time to help others. He’s honest and honorable in all his dealings with other people. He is highly respected, highly knowledgeable about his religious tradition and spends a great deal of time instructing others in its nuances.
Underneath everything, however, there is a sense that something really important is missing in his life. There is this emptiness he feels – this feeling that he’s just going through the motions – just putting in his time till life is over.
Has this feeling always been there? He isn’t sure; what he knows is that as he has aged, the feeling has gotten more persistent.
Much of the time, Nicodemus succeeds in putting this emptiness out of his mind — during the day, for instance, as he keeps busy fulfilling all his many duties. But at night, when things settle down, and there’s no more work to be done, and he’s all alone lying in his bed waiting for sleep to descend — well, it’s then that this feeling of emptiness rises up within him.
Is this all there is? he wonders.
Lately, the question has taken on a certain urgency, brought on by the presence of this wandering preacher who has recently come to town — a man by the name of Jesus. Nicodemus has heard stories about this man — how he has access to a remarkable power to bring healing to peoples’ lives. Nicodemus has listened from afar as this Jesus has taught the people. He’s different — that’s for sure. He seems to be experiencing life altogether differently from the way Nicodemus – or anybody else he knows, for that matter — experiences life. This emptiness that haunts Nicodemus – it doesn’t seem to plague Jesus. There’s something so REAL about Jesus. When he speaks of God, his words seem to arise out of his own first-hand experience. There is nothing second-hand about him. There is compassion — there is joy. There is this intense quality of being alive in Jesus, which Nicodemus recognizes is sorely lacking in his own life.In some ways, it would have been easier for Nicodemus if he had never come across Jesus. The emptiness could just be accepted as the way life is – he could do his best to just ignore the feeling and put in his time till he died. Jesus’ life implies that it doesn’t have to be this way.
But Nicodemus is in something of a bind. He has lived his whole life with a remarkable commitment to the path prescribed by his religious tradition, that of the Pharisees. He’s taught others to do the same. They look up to Nicodemus as a model of a life well lived. And here’s the problem: Jesus doesn’t follow the same path. Although he, too, is a Jew, Jesus doesn’t share their single-minded focus on observing all the many details of God’s holy Law.
There’s a lightness to Jesus.
Nicodemus has an institutional obligation to condemn the path Jesus is taking.
And yet he longs to talk to Jesus – to find out more about how he came to embody such overflowing life. So Nicodemus goes to see Jesus by cover of night. Though he’s not willing yet to pay his visit in daylight when others would know that he has reached out to Jesus, there is, nonetheless, remarkable courage on Nicodemus’ part simply to go at all. He goes at night so he won’t be seen, but also, perhaps he goes at night because it is in the stillness and solitude of the night, that the deepest, most haunting questions arise within him.
So, that is the human longing behind our passage. I suspect that most of us can relate to Nicodemus on some level. Nicodemus recognizes a need for change on the inside – to move from a posture of putting in time, doing his duty – to being fully alive, like Jesus. From a barren emptiness to a joyful sense of overflowing.
He is, however, at a loss regarding how to bring about such a change.
And it is on precisely this that the conversation focuses.
From Nicodemus’ point of view, religion is primarily some-thing we human beings do. His tradition understands that there is a great holy God, and there is this unholy earth, and between the two a great chasm exists. From a vast distance, this God can be trusted over time to punish the wicked and reward the just. God has provided clear directions in regards to what God expects from human beings in the holy Law handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
So the religious path becomes one of focusing all one’s energy into conforming one’s life to this Law. It involves constant vigilance lest a person screw up and transgress the Law, coming in contact with something unclean, unholy. The only hope people have is to make this herculean effort at living a holy life, thereby acquiring God’s good favor.
For the most part, the way the Pharisees envisioned it, God doesn’t get involved directly in this unholy mess that is human life. We’re on our own. And Nicodemus can imagine it no other way.
Early on in the conversation Jesus begins to speak about the necessity of a person being born again/from above. (The Greek word has both meanings.)
This frustrates Nicodemus. He knows he needs to be reborn – to be changed on the inside. What he can’t figure out is how to do it. He is, as we said, stuck in this mentality that understands the spiritual path to be all about human effort. We’re on our own.
But of course you can’t birth yourself. There is a certain depth of change to our lives that simply can’t be brought about by dent of human effort.
At this point Jesus starts talking about the Spirit – how it’s like the Wind. Spirit and Wind are, in fact, the same work in both Hebrew and Greek.
“The wind/spirit 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.”
The Spirit is God’s active presence, right here in the midst of our lives. You can’t see it, but you know it exists because you can see its effect in changed lives. People living in bondage to addiction who enter into an enduring sobriety. People trapped in fear and hate who become loving and forgiving. People full of grief who have begun to let their love out again.
Stuff like that.
The Spirit is real, but you can’t control it. And that fact humbles us.
So Jesus challenges Nicodemus’ world view. He is saying, in essence, that this isn’t all up to you. You are right – there is a level in which you can’t change yourself. And yet the Spirit wants to move within you to bring about the change that is so desperately needed.
Calling upon the Spirit is not like calling up room service. There’s a profound mystery to it – like the wind – as to how and when the Spirit shows up in our lives.
Here it would be good to pause and ask, “What needs to be changed in me?”
When we think about the need for change in our lives, our tendency is to look at our circumstances – especially at the people with whom we deal. We can grouse about our spouse, or our boss, or the government, and maybe it would be good for all of these to change, but at some point such grousing ends up being simply a way of avoiding looking at what first needs to change: ourselves, and the way we related to life.
I want to digress a bit here. I recently read about a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry named William Miller who has been something of trail blazer in regard to the study of the brain as it relates to spiritual experience.
He said that when he went to graduate school the message was clear: Spirituality was NOT something it was okay for scientifically-minded people to talk about. It was appropriate to ask patients about their family life, sex life or pretty much any other aspect of their lives, but don’t ask about their spiritual experiences. It was taboo.
He said that a change in direction occurred for him as a result of something that occurred in his personal life. He and his wife had an adopted 14 year old daughter who had gotten stuck in this really bad place: defiant, violent rebellion and use, and they were forced to place her in this ranch designed to try and help kids stuck in such a place.
He describes travelling two and a half hours to see her, only to be told his daughter refused to see him, turning around and going home. Later that same week, she called him out of the blue. “Dad, I need to talk to you,” she said. Her voice was altogether changed.
He got back in the car and drove to see her. When he got there, he discovered that his daughter had become a different person from the one she had been. The anger was gone. She was relaxed, loving, present.
He asked her what had happened.
She said that they have this mandatory chapel service at this ranch and she was there as she always was, sitting in the last row, just waiting for it to be over. Then something just happened, she didn’t have words to describe it. Something took hold of her. She was changed. Miller says that in the fifteen years that have passed since that day the change has held. She’s not a perfect human being, but the bitterness that had sabotaged her life never returned. She remained a loving, grounded human being.
He asked himself, “If a personality can change literally overnight, and it’s permanent, shouldn’t I be interested in that as a psychologist?”
So he began seeking out people who had had profound spiritual experiences from all kinds of backgrounds and traditions, in order to learn what he could about how this kind of change takes place in a person’s life. (from Fingerprints of God, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, pp. 28 – 31)
Miller’s story of his daughter reminds me of the story of John Wesley, the man who began what became the Methodist Church. In his mid-thirties, having spent his adult life on a path similar to that of Nicodemus, Wesley ended up in a place of despair. He went, in his own words, “unwillingly” to a prayer meeting on a street called Aldersgate, where, to his great surprise he suddenly felt his “heart strangely warmed.” The mysterious spirit descended upon his life from above.
It also reminds me of the testimony of people from AA who talk about how when their drinking was taking them on a path to destruction, and that they were, in fact, powerless to stop their drinking, they came to trust in a “higher power” that could help them find the path of sobriety.
One of the problems with the Nicodemus story for many of us is that the language of “born again” has been hijacked by some Christians. The phrase has come to mean a particular experience in one moment of time without which some are made to feel excluded from Jesus’ family. But in truth, the “birth from above” doesn’t fit a cookie cutter.
In my experience, there is an ongoing process whereby I learn to live in cooperation with the Spirit. Sometimes I am more open to the Spirit than at others. A lot of the time I still prefer to go it alone.
The Spirit has been at work throughout my life in a whole host of different ways, changing me inwardly in subtle but significant ways. The most dramatic occurrence in my life of the Spirit I have spoken of many times before: It happened when as a boy of nine I was swimming in an unfamiliar setting with dark waters, and nearly drowned – would have drowned, except for some strong stranger who happened to see me going down and came to my rescue.
For months after the experience, I was plagued by a terrible sense of dread regarding the fact that I had almost died. The feelings would haunt me most painfully at night when I was alone in my bed. It was pretty awful. Mental torment can rival the worst of physical torments.
One night in the midst of thrashing about in a cold sweat, I called out to God to help me, and suddenly the anxiety and just went away. Never again did I suffer from the same kind of dread in relationship to the thought of my own death. It was, and remains, the clearest experience of my life of the wind of the Spirit flowing through me — the higher power descending upon me to bring about a permanent change to my inner life.
Now when I ask, Why did the Spirit show up so clearly at that precise moment for me? the first thing to be said is: I have no idea. As Jesus said, the Spirit is as unpredictable as the wind. We are humbled by the fact that when it comes right down to it, we have no control over the Spirit.
Nonetheless, I find myself wanting to make some sense of the timing of my experience. And this is largely speculation. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that alone in my bed with nothing to distract me, I was squarely in the dark valley of the shadow of death. Maybe the Lord can’t deliver us from the dark valley until we go ahead, for whatever reason, and truly enter it. Trying to go around it is another way of trying to go it alone, blocking the flow of the Spirit.
Another thought that occurs to me is that short term suffering can have a value. It’s suffering that goes on forever that makes no sense whatsoever, which is one reason I don’t believe in an endless hell to which God condemns sinners to suffer for all eternity.
Suffering that never ends is meaningless. But suffering for a time can open us up in ways we might not otherwise experience. Perhaps God allowed me to suffer for a time, allowing me to ponder the preciousness and fragility of life, and my need for a help from beyond myself.
To leave me in that place perpetually would have been simple cruelty, but to experience that darkness, and then discover deliverance into the light, well, the original experience has real meaning now. I think, in fact, that it was one of the formative experiences that led me on the path to becoming a pastor.
I am reminded of the verse of Amazing Grace:
Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.
It was grace that brought me into that place of fear, though I did not recognize it as grace at the time.
When we realize that we don’t have to go it alone — that only through God’s grace can we move into greater freedom, it doesn’t mean we bear no responsibility in terms of making our way forward.
A wise old Catholic priest who ministers to alcoholics puts it this way: Suppose a guy comes to him and says, “Father, I am a hopeless alcoholic. I’ve been drinking a quart of vodka, a gallon of Chablis, and a case of beer very day for the last twenty years. I’ve read a lot of the miracle stories in the Bible lately, and I know that Jesus is the master of the impossible. So pray over me and tell Jesus to set me free from bondage.”
The priest’s response would be, “I’ve got a better idea. Go to Alcoholics Anonymous, attend ninety meetings in ninety days, find yourself a sponsor, diligently work the Twelve Steps under his guidance, and read the Big Book every day. In other words, do the hard work.” (from Ruthless Trust, by Brennan Manning, p. 116)
The daily reaching out to the higher power occurs in the context of working the program.
The passage concludes with one of the great verses: “God so loved the world that he have his son, that whosoever would believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus invited Nicodemus to give up his old image of God as the harsh, judgmental remote deity, to knowing God as the one who his head over heals in love with the world. Jesus hasn’t come for judgment; he has come to reveal a love that we can entrust our lives with. The dogged determination to go it alone will eventually wear us down — our souls withering away.
But God is looking for dance partners. We don’t have to go it alone.