"The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind," so sang Bob Dylan. That may very well be true, but the question is: Which way is the wind blowing? What we know for sure about the wind is that it’s unpredictable and uncontrollable. People living here in Lompoc know something about the wind – it seems to come up every afternoon, keeping things cool and clear. On a hot afternoon, a nice cool breeze can bring relief, but sometimes the wind comes with devastating power. Consider those Santa Ana winds that can whip up a fire, knock down trees, and turn over semis. And in other parts of the country, it could be a tornado or a hurricane that brings devastation in its wake. The winds can come with great power, and while we can try to tap into its power, we can’t control it or predict where it will go. And this is also the case with the Sprit of God.
Unless you thrive on stressful situations, you probably prefer calm normalcy to chaos. We like five year plans and complete answers to all our questions. We want to know where we’re going and when we’re going to get there. The slogan, "A place for everything and everything in its place" describes our ideal of the good life. Though I'm not the most organized person in the world, even I like a little order to my life.
Nicodemus was a religious leader, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a person of importance. I expect he liked things to be decent and in order as well. But for some reason he comes to Jesus, in the night, seeking answers to his questions. It’s a bit odd to see him there. After all, Jesus was his social and spiritual inferior. And yet Nicodemus believed that Jesus had answers to the questions that were on his heart. The only problem was, the answers that Jesus gave him didn’t make sense. They were like answers blowing in the wind.
The reason Nicodemus had a problem with Jesus’ answers was that he had put God in a box. He thought he understood the ways of God, but Jesus’ answer was a bit like the title of a JB Philips’ book: "Your God," Jesus told Nicodemus, "is too small." And when it comes to matters of the Spirit our God is often too small. Our vision is constricted, because we think we know how God should work.
I. ENTERING THE KINGDOM
The question Nicodemus posed to Jesus had to do with the kingdom of God. He wanted to know how we enter it. That seems like a simple question, except Jesus and Nicodemus weren’t on the same page. Their understandings of the kingdom were different. Nicodemus’s vision was institutional and traditional, while Jesus had a more open and dynamic understanding. In Jesus’ mind the kingdom is a bit like the wind – it goes where it wants to go. And if we’re going to experience the kingdom then we must go where the kingdom is. And to do that, we must start over from the very beginning.
John’s gospel is full of words and phrases with double meanings. These are often word plays that are evident in the Greek, but difficult to catch in English. For instance, the Greek word anothen, can be translated both as above and as again. This gives the discussion a sense of ambiguity, with Jesus using the word in one way and Nicodemus taking it in a different, more material, way. He was thinking physical birth, but Jesus was thinking of spiritual birth. Jesus says to us, if you want to experience the kingdom you have to be reborn spiritually. You have to begin to see the world from a different point of view.
Jesus’ vision is a radical one, because it turns things upside down. Nicodemus isn’t ready for that – he’s open to reform, but not revolution. He’s open to repainting the walls, but not tearing them down. But as Harvard University chaplain, Peter Gomes, puts it:
To be born again is to enter afresh into the process of spiritual growth. It is to wipe the slate clean. It is to cancel your old mortgage and start again. In other words, you don't always have to be what you have now become . . . You must be born again, is an offer you cannot afford to refuse.1
II. THE WAY OF NEW BIRTH
In verse 11 the conversation goes in a new direction. Jesus begins to talk about belief and unbelief. He says that unbelief ultimately leads to spiritual death, but belief will lead to new life and a new vision of reality. Unfortunately we often think of belief and unbelief in doctrinal terms. Accept this statement of faith, and all will be right with the world. But I don’t think that’s not what Jesus has in mind. The issue here isn’t the acceptance of a creed, but is instead a willingness to leave the old behind and take up a new course of life, one that’s empowered and led by the Spirit. It’s a willingness to let go of our destiny and commit ourselves to the leading of God’s Spirit.
The way of the kingdom is the way forward, and it comes to us as a gift from God. We can’t earn it, we can’t really even build it, we must instead receive it. This gift is a gift of love that costs God dearly. Consider these words that form the best-known piece of Scripture:
God so loved the world that he gave the only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
The way forward, the way of the kingdom is rooted in the cross. I know we’d rather not take this path, because we’d just as soon take the kingdom on our terms. We’d rather take a shortcut, but if the Kosmos is to be redeemed, then it will require the entirety of our being.
At this point in the story, Nicodemus is confused and unable to comprehend this message. But if we continue following the story, we discover that in the end Nicodemus becomes a disciple of Jesus. And that’s the way it often is. It can take time for us to figure it out. But, Nicodemus did figure it out. I believe that God wants us to put away our tiny boxes and open our hearts and minds to the winds of the Spirit.
To be a follower of Jesus is a bit like taking a ride on a hang glider. You have to let go and let the wind take you for a ride. Disciple pastor Jan Linn puts it this way:
Spiritual maturity can be described as moving from living life with clenched fists to living life with open hands.Living in fear or not letting go of old wounds or grudges are signs of spiritual immaturity.
Letting go means being able to trust that our lives are ultimately sustained by faith rather than control. It shows we have decided to live out of love rather than fear.2If we are truly born from above, then we will be ready to cast our wings into the winds of the Spirit, so that God might use us to redeem the Kosmos and bring into existence the reign of God.
1. Peter Gomes, quoted in Pulpit Resources, 27 (Jan., Feb., Mar. 1999): 38
2. Jan Linn, The Jesus Connection, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 30.
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
2nd Sunday of Lent
February 17, 2008