By The Rev. Sherry Deets
Trinity Sunday – June 3, 2012
It was a night-time meeting, a secret, private meeting away from the crowds that hovered around Jesus during the day. It was a safe place to ask a question, to ponder the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven with one who appeared to know. But when Nicodemus came to Jesus, Nicodemus did not bring a question. Instead, Nicodemus brought his own announcement of who Jesus was. Nicodemus, with his many pedigrees, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, a teacher in Israel, came to Jesus and said, “I have seen your miracles, your signs and wonders, and I know that you are from God. I know who you are.” And Jesus answered him, “No, you haven’t a clue. You saw me supply wine for the wedding feast. You saw me cleanse the temple of those who were making a business there and you think you can use this evidence to draw logical, rational conclusions. If this is your profession of faith, you know nothing of faith. Faith involves commitment and risks. Your slipping over here in the dark of night in order to tell me who I am is not faith.”
Nicodemus made a statement and Jesus gave a rebuttal. Interesting. Then Nicodemus did ask a question, “How? How can this happen? How can these things be?” And Jesus answered his “How to” questions with a birth story. Interesting conversation.
Nicodemus came to Jesus because Nicodemus knew that Jesus knew the answers. However, Nicodemus did not know the questions. Nicodemus wanted to know how to win the prize, how to achieve for himself the life that was beyond his grasp, how to place himself in the presence of God. Jesus recognized Nicodemus’ searching and answered the questions which Nicodemus did not know how to ask. Jesus told Nicodemus about being born of the wind.
Jesus knew that the “How to” questions were not the questions Nicodemus really wanted answered. The questions which had driven Nicodemus to come to Jesus by night were probably more along the lines of “Who am I? Why was I born? Where do I belong? How can I be at peace with who I am?” These are the kinds of questions which keep one up at night. However, the only questions Nicodemus knew how to ask were questions which reflected an accounting view of life; questions about balancing the ledger, questions reflecting the notion that when things add up only then can they be true. Jesus did not deal with the answers to these questions. Instead, Jesus told Nicodemus a story of a birth, a story of being born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus, however, was so focused on the “How to” questions that he was confused by Jesus’ answer to him. Nicodemus wanted to line up proofs and arguments in order to arrive at a clear conclusion and thereby become a believer. Nicodemus assumed that this was how faith is born and sustained. Consequently, Jesus’ birth story was completely incomprehensible to Nicodemus. For Jesus told Nicodemus that faith is born of the Spirit, a Spirit that blows like the wind, blows where it chooses, blows and we hear the sound of it, but we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. Jesus told Nicodemus that life in God’s kingdom cannot be earned or achieved. One is simply born into God’s kingdom and living in the Spirit cannot be controlled, charted, or calculated. All of this was very confusing to Nicodemus who only knew how to trust in the security of the rituals, doctrines, and moral instruction of the synagogue.
Turning away from Nicodemus’ “How to” questions, Jesus told Nicodemus a story of a birth. Jesus told Nicodemus that to be born of the wind would mean allowing the Spirit to propel him along the way without any sense of his old securities. To be born of the wind would mean trusting God’s love for him and for all people. Jesus never made the law easy, never lowered the passing grade, never invited permissiveness. However, all of those concerns regarding morality were not part of the birth story. Nicodemus asked how to be born anew, assuming he needed to do something in order to cause this to happen, and Jesus answered, “This is not about what you do. You do not give birth to yourself. You cannot give birth to yourself. God is the one who breathes life into you and gives you birth from above. At your birth, blood is shed but it is not your blood. The blood at your birth belongs to the one who gives birth to you, belongs to the God through whom you are born into life eternal. Nicodemus asked Jesus “How to” questions and Jesus told him about the God who gives birth to us. Jesus knew this would seem very shaky to Nicodemus except that as he trusted in the Spirit, Nicodemus would find himself living a life eternally in God’s presence.
It seems to me that we are not so different from Nicodemus. We come week after week to proclaim who God is and to ask God to make things right for us, to ask God to bring us into God’s presence and to give us eternal life. We are so much like Nicodemus. And in the midst of our struggling to figure out how to win God’s favor, God is giving us birth, laboring over us, breathing life into us, pushing us out into a life lived in God’s presence, an eternal life. We struggle for the prize not recognizing that the prize is already ours.
The accounting line is: If you believe in Jesus, you will have eternal life. The birth story is: God so loved you that God gives you life. It is not our believing which gives us birth from above. It is the Spirit of God who births us into life eternal. Nicodemus asked “How to” and Jesus told him a birth story, a story of God bringing into existence things that did not yet exist.
When Nicodemus began to allow himself to be born of the wind, things changed for him. In the chapters which follow, we read that Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus in the darkness of night, later spoke up for Jesus, publicly questioning those in authority who would judge Jesus. Then after Jesus’ death on the cross when all the disciples had fled, Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus came forward to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus was no longer intimidated or afraid. Nicodemus had come to realize that he was born from above not by his own doing but by the love of God who birthed him anew and gave him a life of boldness.
What would it mean for us to understand that we are born of the Spirit? Most of us think we know who God is, who God calls us to be, what God wants us to do. What if we were to stop telling God what we know, to recognize that God is bigger than our naming of God, and to listen for God’s Word to sweep over us without direction from us. What if we did not hold back but allowed the wind to take us to places not on our agenda? What would happen to us if we listened for God to call forth from us that which we did not recognize as being possible? Throughout my life I have had people call forth from me gifts which I did not recognize as being mine to give. I am certain my experience is not unique. Someone names a gift in you as if it existed and as you live into their expectation, you experience the reality of such a gift. God calls into existence things that do not yet exist. God calls forth life which we cannot bring about on our own. What might God be calling forth from us now? Can we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the untamed wind of God? Can we listen for what we have, until now, been unwilling to hear? Can we see in one another not something to critique or judge but rather the image of the God who has given us birth?
In the rain forest of Olympic National Park in Washington State stand groves of towering trees, the source of whose life is not visible, yet is apparent. The roots of these trees fan out like the ribs of an umbrella, seemingly embracing the air for support, for these trees were given birth by nurse logs. Nurse logs are fallen trees, left to lie on the earth until they crumble into dust. But before they disintegrate, something else transpires: A seed falls on the downed log, draws nourishment from the log even as that log decays, and creates roots that ultimately surround an empty space through which the wind blows. The snapshot of a tree with ribbed umbrella roots above ground embracing only the wind takes us behind such a picture to contemplate origins and interpret reality with new eyes, eyes that expect the unexpected, look to new truths, and come to understand the world in new ways.
The invitation to Nicodemus, the invitation to us, comes as a birth announcement. To be born of the wind is to trust our life to the God who gives birth to us. To be born of the wind is to embrace the mysterious newness of God knowing we do not have a final hold on the Holy Spirit. To be born of the wind is to live as ones born of love.
Today we baptize Ava, Zoey and Delaney into the Christian faith and life. Today we ask for God’s Spirit to lead them and guide them in their life as we also ask for renewal in our own. For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son… Thanks be to God. Amen.
(Sermon heavily based on one given by: The Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall, PCUSA
Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA)
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