A sermon preached on May 27th, 2018 based upon John 3:1-17 entitled “Confronting our Fears and Giving Room for the Winds of the Spirit to Blow.”
To be human is to know fear, and one of its most primordial forms is the fear of abandonment. It is the original fear of babies — that mom and dad whose presence represent safety and security will disappear and never return.
As time passes we learn to trust that they will return. We learn to manage our fears, in part by widening the network of attachments in which we derive our security and sense of self. We establish a sense of belonging and identity within a community, and over time it can seem as though we have largely outgrown fear by consistently focusing on being in control of as much of life as possible.
But in truth fear remains lurking out on the edge of life, requiring that we remain in safe perimeters to avoid triggering that original sense of abandonment. For instance, there is a stereotype in our culture that to be a true man is to be fearless — always in control. It is acceptable for the woman he is married to express fear but buying into the stereotype a man convinces himself that once he became a man he left fear behind.
But one day the man receives a pink slip at his job, or his wife a life threatening diagnosis, and suddenly he finds himself overwhelmed with a fear akin to that he knew when as a little child his parents first left him with a baby sitter. He realizes how dependent he is on the sense of identity he receives from his reputation as the provider of his family. He realizes how deeply dependent he is emotionally on his wife’s presence in his life. The fear of abandonment that has been hiding out beyond his consciousness overwhelms him.
In the course of my life I have read this familiar story of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus hundreds of times and preached on it at least thirty times, but this week I heard it in a new way when I realized that although the word “fear” doesn’t appear in the story, the fear of abandonment is the background out of which the story arises.
Unlike the other three Gospels, in John’s Gospel Jesus makes three trips to Jerusalem and right before Nicodemus’s visit Jesus has already driven out the money changers in the Temple. Having done so, he has awoken fear in a group of people unaccustomed to being afraid – the male religious authorities who have suddenly had their position in the power structure threatened.
Feeling threatened, they do what human beings often do: they threaten others. They tell the common folk that they must choose whether they are with them or with Jesus — there is no middle ground. If a person expresses sympathy for Jesus and his ministry, they must be rejected – cast out of their community. It is not unlike the situation we find ourselves in with the present political climate in which we are pressed to come down either on the left or the right, and if we are on the left and express sympathy for a position identified with the right we risk losing our place in the liberal community, and if we are on the right and express sympathy for a point of view thought of as liberal, we risk our place in the conservative community. Fear of abandonment pressures us to tow the line. It was like that, only worse.
In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel a lengthy story is told of a man born blind who Jesus who Jesus instructs to put mud on his eyes and heals go wash in the pool of Siloam. He does, and to his amazement he receives his eyesight. This presents a problem for the religious authorities. They are not pleased to hear that Jesus is accredited by the man as being the agent of his healing, and they pressure him to renounce Jesus as not being of God. They similarly pressure his parents to fall in line, and intimidated, his parents keep their mouths shut. When the man who has had his sight restored refuses to kowtow to the religious authorities, he is thrown out of the synagogue. Abandoned, Jesus comes once more to comfort the man.
Apparently this was the context in which John was writing his Gospel: his community of Jewish Christians were being cast out of the synagogues in which they had grown up and felt deep roots of attachment because they professed Jesus to be the messiah. To feel abandoned this way was truly a scary place to be.
In his last extended teaching of his disciples the night before he dies, Jesus spends a lot of time dealing with the fear that will come upon them, encouraging them to “Trust in God, trust also in me.” Nonetheless when all hell breaks loose and Jesus is crucified, we find the Jesus’ followers on Easter evening hiding behind locked doors for fear of the religious authorities. Jesus suddenly appears to them breathing upon them the Holy Spirit, setting them free from the paralysis of their fear.
So it is with this background that Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus by cover of night. Nicodemus is a Pharisee – in fact a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council in Jerusalem – and as such he is fully rooted in the established power structure that Jesus’ ministry is threatening. He has spent his life following the laws of the Torah, developing an impeccable reputation within his tribe. But as with all Pharisees his life has been intensely risk adverse.
There is in Nicodemus however an integrity and self-awareness that is missing in most of his peers. Although Jesus threatens the power structure in which he has found his identity, he cannot help but acknowledge that there is something of God in Jesus. He has been healing people, and such good works as these can not possibly be done apart from the presence of God. Nicodemus has witnessed Jesus as he addresses the crowds and can not help but acknowledge that there is an aliveness – a vitality and authenticity — to Jesus that is missing in himself and his peers. Jesus awakens a deep longing in Nicodemus. Jesus has something he is missing, and so he comes to visit Jesus privately to learn from him.
In doing so Nicodemus is taking a risk. If someone sees him entering Jesus’ house, his reputation could be trashed and the possibility exists that he too will experience abandonment by his tribe. But Nicodemus keeps the level of risk at a minimum by coming by cover of night when no one is likely to see him. As much as possible he remains in control.
Nicodemus begins the conversation by acknowledging that the miracles – the signs – Jesus has performed are evidence that he is of God. But then Jesus immediately throws Nicodemus for a loop by saying “Unless you are born anew (or born from above – the Greek word here can be translated both ways) you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus’ default status is to be “in control” and he had hoped that Jesus would give him some advice he could follow that will allow him to remain in control while experiencing a stronger sense of God’s presence in his life.
But getting born is something that is absolutely out of our control. We cannot birth ourselves. It is something that happens to us. Jesus goes on to speak of the mystery of the Holy Spirit. It is like the wind, he says. You hear the sound of it blowing, but you cannot control when and where it blows. It has a will of its own.
In a certain sense people enter into religion for two quite different reasons. One is to avoid mystery – to try and put God in a box. By following tightly prescribed rules this path offers a false sense of security in the assurance that one has earned God’s favor and protection in life. It is a deluded attempt at keeping our fears at bay.
The other reason to engage in religion is to do precisely the opposite: it is to approach mystery – without any illusions that we will ever do away with mystery. It realizes that God is always bigger than our power structures, our rules, our theology. It seeks the courage to confront, not avoid our fears. Jesus’ whole ministry involved the invitation to take the risk of stepping out of our comfort zones. He sent his disciples out two by two without any provisions which meant taking risks that would lead to facing their fears straight on. It was only in doing so that they would discover that the Holy Spirit was present out there in those places where we are not in control, showing up in unexpected ways to lead them into deeper a deeper sense of aliveness, trust and love.
Perhaps the most famous of New Testament verse appears at the end of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. John 3:16 can be interpreted in two ways in line with these two reasons to engage in religion: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The key is how we understand what it means to “believe in Jesus”. If it means we profess a belief in this theological claim about Jesus that in and of itself provides us with our ticket to eternal life, than we are pursuing the form of religion that is an attempt to flee from mystery and put God in a box. If, on the other hand, we understand believing in Jesus to mean a kind of fundamental trust in the great mystery that we call God – that the nature of God is the love we see revealed in the life of Jesus – then we have a faith that allows us to go into the scary space where we confront our fears.
This being Memorial Day weekend I want to try and connect this to the experience of the soldiers that our country sends into battle. To go to the frontlines of battle is to confront the worst of fears. War is hell, and yet sometimes soldiers who have experienced being in battle will say strange things. They will say that as horrible as the experience was, it was also the time when they felt most alive. Facing directly the fear that they could die life took on an extraordinary intensity. Part of that intensity had to do with the profound love they felt for their fellow soldiers – the absolute clarity they possessed that if necessary they would lay down their lives for their buddies.
When these same soldiers return to civilian life – this life in which the normal posture is to try to do all we can to manage our fears, keeping them at bay by being in control of everything – they find the quality of this life paling in comparison to the intensity of aliveness they felt on the battleground.
Now the ministry of Jesus is a witness to the truth that you don’t have to go to war to experience a similar kind of aliveness. But in order to experience the life-giving Spirit of God moving in our lives calling to us to a greater wholeness, then we have to be willing to follow Jesus as he calls us to step out of our comfort zones – to embrace vulnerability in confronting our deepest fears. As we do, in some instances we will act to remove the threats, but not always. In relation to threat posed by an enemy, for instance Jesus calls us not to remove the threat of the enemy by either fleeing from him or her or by killing them, but rather by loving them, which is risky business in deed.
In the example I mentioned before of the husband who felt as though in his maturity and competence he had left all fear behind, and suddenly find himself overwhelmed with fear with the discovery that his wife on whom he has been so emotionally dependent has a life threatening diagnosis, this kind of fear isn’t necessarily the sort of thing we gain control over. There are no assurances. But with a fear like this there are two basic choices: One is to pretend it doesn’t exist, avoiding the elephant in the living room, trying as best we can to flee from the terror evoked. If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist.
The other is to bring the fear out into the open — to talk about it directly, to face together the worse case scenarios. It’s terrifying, but it is often found that it is in facing such terror head on that the Spirit is discovered, and that deep assurance can be discovered of which the Apostle Paul spoke – whether we live or whether we die we are in the hands of God.
There are smaller ways to step into spaces where we feel out of control in a way that opens us up to the discovery of the Spirit intent on rebirthing us. Entering into relationship with people quite different from ourselves is one way. When encountering people of other races, religions or cultures leaves us feeling threatened, perhaps it’s a sign from God to turn into the threat rather than away from it.
When we live a life based on doing all we can to triggering the fears that live on the edge of our consciousness, striving constantly to be in control so as to keep the threats as far from us as possible, the fact of the matter is we block the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the very thing that gives life and gives it abundantly. Fears that are avoided tend to block the movement of the Holy Spirit, and it also severely curtails our capacity to love. In our obsession with never venturing outside our comfort zones, we will only love where there is no real risk involved — no possibility or rejection. But it is only in a love that takes such risks that the Kingdom of God is revealed.