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 Holy 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
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
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 comes to visit Jesus 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
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 by 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
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 fellows 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.