A sermon preached on June 3, 2012 based upon John 3:1 – 13.
There is a commercial I’ve seen on television a couple of times that evokes a strong reaction from me. It takes place in an office setting, apparently at the beginning of their work day. One woman asks another, “Do you ever wonder whether there’s more to life?”
With that, I’m immediately drawn in. Why, she seems to be asking one of the big questions, like, “What is the meaning of life?” It’s the kind of question that people don’t often discuss during the routines of life, especially in workplaces. People are too busy, and the question seems perhaps to intimate, too personal. But this woman has dared to broach the subject. (I’m impressed, my attention captured.)
And the second woman doesn’t brush the question off. No, she responds with some urgency, “Yes! How did you know?” The passion in her voice expresses growing awareness within her that although she’s doing all the things expected of her – going to work, paying her bills, building a life – there’s this emptiness inside, this deep yearning for something more: A sense of purpose, a connection to something larger than herself, indeed, a longing for the presence of God in her life.
She’s been afraid to acknowledge this emptiness, this longing – afraid that she’s the only one, afraid to try to put it into words lest the person with whom she might try to speak would look at her as though something’s wrong with her.
So what a relief it is – what a gift! — to have this woman dare to express this longing — to open up a conversation about the possibility of a deeper, more fulfilling life.
“Yes! How did you know?” I’ve been hiding this longing as best as I could. But you looked at me and saw the longing. Please, tell me, what was the giveaway?
“Yes! Yes! Yes! How did you know?”
And then the commercial sucker-punched me.
“It’s your breakfast,” she says. “It’s boring.” She goes on to make a pitch for MacDonald’s new breakfast special, with the implication being that if you simply alter your breakfast routine and take advantage of this wonder of wonders that MacDonald’s in its great benevolence has provided for you, you will be well on your way to finding that “something more” you’ve longed for in life.
And I want to throw something at the TV.
Nicodemus would have appreciated a question like, “Do you ever wonder whether there’s more to life?” He knew a longing inside for something more. He had lived the life that his peer group – the Pharisees — had prescribed, and he had lived it well. He’d spent a life time studying the 624 laws set down in the Torah, and a life time carefully keeping them. This is what God demands of us, the Pharisees believed, this is what life is all about.
Over the years Nicodemus has become a well-respected teacher of how to live the holy life God demands. Now having reached middle age, he senses he’s missing something important. There’s this emptiness, this longing that it’s hard for him to speak of, because all his friends are all totally invested in this way of life. To raise the question, “Is there more than this?” would be threatening, calling into question everything they’ve been about.
But the longing leads Nicodemus to visit this strange teacher named Jesus – this rebel – who lacks all the right credentials and comes from outside the system of thought in which he has invested his life. He is drawn because he’s seen this man do some pretty amazing things. Very sick and disabled people have been healed through him.
The majority of Nicodemus’ friends want to discredit Jesus, because his theology is so clearly wrong by their way of seeing things. They want to reject him because he’s a threat to the institution they’ve devoted their whole lives to.
And Nicodemus can understand that. But he’s a rational man, and an honest man, and the things Jesus has done are pretty indisputable, and clearly “good,” and as much as Nicodemus might want to, he realizes he can’t just write Jesus off.
He recognizes, as he says in his opening line to Jesus, that Jesus must be from God because no one can do these signs he’s done apart from the presence of God – the very thing Nicodemus senses he is lacking.
And so Nicodemus goes to see Jesus, but he does so by cover of night, because he’s not ready to throw all caution to the wind. He’s not willing to be actually seen with Jesus and risk tarnishing the reputation he’s worked so hard to build among his peers.
Jesus doesn’t talk to him about MacDonald’s new breakfast special. But the words he speaks are confusing – very hard to follow. Jesus uses words that can be understood on two levels — words taken from this world to point to a great mystery that is beyond this world – indeed, beyond words themselves. But Nicodemus is very literal-minded, and at this point this mysterious other reality that Jesus is talking about is altogether beyond his experience, and so Nicodemus is stuck on the literal meaning of the words.
Jesus talks about the necessity of being born from above. The Greek word that is translated “born from above” can also be translated “born again.” Jesus means “born from above” because he’s speaking about being born into the reality of Spirit, which is usually pictured as coming from above. But Nicodemus assumes he means “born again.” And so Nicodemus being a very literal, rational sort of guy assumes Jesus means a person must literally climb back inside his mother’s womb in order to come out again, and this, he realizes, makes no sense whatsoever.
(The King James Version inaccurately translated the Greek word used here as “born again,” the meaning Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus to be talking about. A significant portion of Christianity in recent years have has latched onto the term “born again” to define a true Christian as someone who has experienced conversion as a one-time event, and highly prescribed as to what this experience looks like and feels like. Jesus, however, was speaking of being born from above, which suggests an ongoing process.)
A large part of what is going on here is that Nicodemus is functioning out of a mindset that sees religion as primarily something we do. We’re supposed to keep the 624 laws correctly, and if we succeed in doing this God will bless us. Nicodemus assumes there must be something additional he has to do which the Pharisees have somehow overlooked, and he’s looking for Jesus to tell him what that is. “Maybe I’m not praying right, or fasting right, or giving alms properly. Tell me, Jesus, what I need to do.”
But instead, in his mind, all Nicodemus gets is confusion. Jesus isn’t making sense at all. He seems to be talking in riddles. He hears Jesus saying that he must be born of the Spirit, but Jesus seems to be refusing to tell him how to do this. Instead Jesus takes off talking about the wind and how it blows where it chooses, but what’s that got to do with anything?
But the point, of course, is that you can’t birth yourself, just like you can’t control the wind. This isn’t something we do. We’re not in charge here. There is a mystery here that can’t be figured out.
Nicodemus must have left that night’s conversation feeling a great deal of frustration. “Okay, so he said I’ve got to be born of the Spirit, but the Spirit feels like it’s a million miles away from me, and so a lot of good all this talk of the Spirit does for me!”
But that is where Nicodemus is wrong. The Spirit is already blowing in Nicodemus’ life; he just hasn’t reached the point where he can recognize this.
The Spirit is moving in his life, but in strange places – not places Nicodemus doesn’t expect to find it.
The Spirit is moving in that yearning for something more, and it’s moving in Nicodemus’ refusal to try and just cover up this longing.
The Spirit is in his confusion, because confusion is actually more fertile soil than the state of mind where we assume we have everything figured out. (Contrary to the way much of Christianity presents things.)
The Spirit is in his decision to go and see Jesus, and then in his refusal write Jesus off just because couldn’t yet understand what he was talking about.
The Pharisees were well intentioned people who worked hard to live a righteous life. Part of the reason why the winds of the Holy Spirit weren’t blowing through their lives was their determined refusal to associate with anybody who wasn’t a Pharisee. This, they thought, was how God wanted it. It never occurred to them that it would have done them a world of good to go have a few heart to hearts with people who saw the world completely differently from the way they saw the world.
The Spirit is there whenever two people who see the world in quite different ways sit down to talk to each other with openness and respect.
The Spirit is in these perplexing but powerful images – birth, the wind – which were planted inside Nicodemus during his conversation where his unconscious mind could play around with them in creative ways completely unknown to his conscious mind.
And the Spirit is moving in Nicodemus’ life in his increasing willingness to take risks – small, baby steps though they may be – in order to reach out to Jesus. And in taking these risks, learning what it means to trust the mystery that is God.
I began be telling of a commercial where a young woman is told that the answer to her deep longings is to be found in Macdonald’s breakfast menu. Here’s another story about a young working woman who had an encounter with the Holy Spirit, and it was told in a book by Scott Peck.
Having become aware of a quality of fearfulness and a lack of faith in her life, she had recently taken what for her was a risk – she had begun coming to see Peck, a pastoral counselor, to explore what where God was in her life.
She recounted an experience she had one morning as she was putting on her lipstick just before going out the door to work. A “still, small voice” inside her head said, “Go running.” She shook her head as if to shake away the voice, but it came back stronger. “That’s ridiculous,” she replied, half to herself, half to the voice. “I don’t go running in the mornings. I only run in the evenings. Besides, I’m on my way to work.”
“Nonetheless, go running now,” the voice insisted, and as she thought about it, she realized it made no difference if she got to her office at ten that morning instead of nine. So, in obedience to the voice, she undressed and got into her jogging outfit. After she had run a mile and a half in a nearby park, she began feeling quite awkward; she was not enjoying it and she didn’t even know why she was running in the first place. At that point the voice spoke again. “Close your eyes,” it commanded.
“That’s crazy,” she countered. “You don’t close your eyes when you’re running.” Finally though, she obeyed the still small voice and closed her eyes. After two strides she opened them in panic. But she was still on the path. The woods hadn’t moved and the sky hadn’t fallen. The voice told her to close her eyes again. Eventually, she was able to take up to twenty strides with her eyes closed, never running off the path or into trouble. At which point the voice said, “That’s enough for today. You can go home now.”
As she finished telling Peck the story, her eyes filled with tears. “To think,” she exclaimed with joy, “that the Creator of the whole universe would take the time out to go running with me.”
You can’t make the wind of the Spirit blow through your life. But you don’t have to. The Spirit is already in your life; you wouldn’t be alive without it.
What is required is to learn to be more attentive to signs of its presence, and in particular, to look in the places you haven’t been inclined to find it. And once you feel the sensation of the wind blowing on your cheek, to do as much as is presently in your power to follow its lead.