The Path of the Wind
Lectionary Texts: Genesis 12: 1-4a; John 3: 1-17
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, March 12, 2017
- Have You Been Born Again?
I’m going to begin by asking you a question that you usually do not hear from United Methodist pulpits: So, have you been born again? I used to hate that question. After all, we are good Methodists. We’re not born again; our journey is a long and painstaking one as we strive toward “going onto perfection”, as John Wesley would have put it. I remember being asked that by a friend when I was seventeen. Well, I thought, I go to church every Sunday and MYF every Sunday night and church camp at least once a year. But born again? I didn’t have the sense of that one-time “a ha” moment that would let me know that, yes, I had been born again. So, what is that? And it is clear that this Scriptures tells us that we have to be born again. So, how do we do that?
Maybe it’s the language with which, particularly in this part of the nation on probably what is on the edge of the so-called “Bible belt”, we struggle. Maybe it’s that there ARE so many people that depict that being “born again” means that you have to somehow bring it down to one moment, the moment when everything changed and your eternity was somehow wrapped up. I think that’s the problem. Being “born again”, “born of the Spirit”, or whatever you want to call it is not a moment. It is a way of life. I heard Martin Marty, who is an internationally known theologian and a Lutheran pastor, speak one time and he said that when he gets that question of whether or not he’s been born again, his answer is “yes, every day.” That’s the thing. Faith is an everyday thing.
In an essay on this passage, Nurya Parish says she thinks that “every baptism or confirmation class should include a showing of the movie Mary Poppins. Not for the suffragettes or the magic carpetbag [but for] the scene where Mary, Bert, and the children take hands and jump straight into the middle of a sidewalk chalk painting, emerging in an entirely new, much more colorful world. That’s what becoming a disciple does…you leave an old, dreary world behind and enter a world where the unexpected becomes commonplace. It’s not enough simply to say you are a disciple; you actually have to jump.”
- Put Your Hand There
That’s what Nicodemus did not get in the Gospel passage that we read. Even though he was a learned leader and, therefore, a teacher, of the Jews, He was a rabbi, a teacher of all things Scriptural and all things faith. He knew what questions to ask and we should probably give him the benefit of the doubt that he was continuing to probe and explore. Maybe he wasn’t as sure of his own certainty when it came to beliefs. Maybe he wasn’t ready to admit that to himself. He wasn’t really ready to go there yet. So he goes to Jesus in the dark of night, cloaked in mystery and secrets and probably trying to hide the fact that he was having trouble understanding it all from the rest of the community. He wanted Jesus to get rid of all the doubts that Nicodemus had. He wanted Jesus to make it all perfectly clear for him so that he could go on imparting that knowledge to the rest of the community. He wanted Jesus to give him the answers.
Part of the problem may have been semantics. After all, he did believe what Jesus had done, what Jesus had told him. He knew that Jesus had done numerous miracles. He had seen it with his own eyes. So he knew that Jesus was good, he knew that Jesus was worthy as a teacher. And yet, Jesus seemed to talk in circles. He preached that one had to be born from above. But how can one be born unless he or she re-enters the mother’s womb? He preached that one must be born in the Spirit, and yet admitted that the place from which the Spirit blew was unknown and unknowable. How can this be? And he preached that one must believe. Nicodemus believed what Jesus said. What was Jesus talking about, then?
When you read this, you do sense that Nicodemus must have been a good teacher. He was astute and knew what questions to ask. He was diligent as he studied and explored to get to the truth. But how could he believe this circular reasoning that Jesus was espousing? Part of the problem, it seemed, was that Nicodemus and Jesus had completely different understandings of what “believe” was. Nicodemus had, after all, accepted Jesus’ propositions. He had probably even taught it. But Jesus was not asking for people to believe what he did or believe what he said.
There is a difference between believing Christ and believing IN Christ. Believing IN means that you enter into relationship, that you trust with everything that you are, with everything that is your life, that you sort of jump into it. It is much more visceral than Nicodemus was really read to accept. Nicodemus wanted to understand it within the intellectual understanding of God that he had. But Jesus was telling him that there was a different way. Jesus was inviting, indeed almost daring, Nicodemus to believe in this new way, to turn his life, his doubts, his heart, and even his very learned mind over to God.
“How can this be?” Those are Nicodemus’ last words in this passage, which sort of makes him a patron saint for all of us who from time to time get stuck at the foot of the mountain, weighed down by our own understandings of who God is, without the faintest idea of how to begin to ascend. But there’s Jesus. “Watch me. Put your hand here. Now your foot. Don’t think about it so hard. Just do as I do. Just jump! Believe in me. And follow me….this way!
III. Faith vs. Certainty
Most of us tend to think that our faith journey is a quest to become certain of what we believe, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt who God is and what God expects of us. How can that be? Does that mean that when we struggle with what God is calling us to do, when we struggle with who God is or who we are supposed as disciples that we’re not true to our belief? I don’t think so.
You know, when I finished seminary, there were people that assumed that I then knew everything about faith, everything about the Bible, everything about God. Well, sadly, or I don’t think so sadly, seminary does not give you all the answers. It teaches you how to ask the questions. That’s our faith journey. The opposite of faith, the detriment to faith, is NOT doubt; it is certainty. It is the questions that leave us desiring more, the questions that will not allow us to rest on the laurels of what we have figured out God is about or what we have figured out God is calling us to do. Faith, believing IN Christ, is what reminds us that there is always something more, always something up ahead, always a faint road that God calls us to walk not so that we will know the way, but so that we will follow The Way to God.
See, we’re not called to “get our hands around it all” and hold onto it. We’re called to let it move us. Listen again: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” The wind is an interesting thing. It can be refreshing, cooling, even invigorating. As we witnessed almost a month ago, the winds of a tornado are destructive. Whatever image of wind you have, it’s not predictable, it changes you. The Hebrew word for the “Spirit of God” is ruah. Our very complicated and, yet, limited English language translates that as “wind” or “breath”, depending on the passage. But it really means more. It is the very essence of God.
So, being “born again” means putting yourself into the path of that ruah, that breath, that wind, and allowing it to move you as it will. Think of windchimes. I love windchimes. I probably have a dozen or so. There is something about them that I aspire to be. See, if you’re a post on the house, most winds will blow through and you will never notice, never move, stay stalwart in your being. But if you’re a windchime, you allow the winds to move through you and you move and reflect who they are and there’s a new song that comes to be. Being “born again” is sort of like being a windchime.
I thought of riding out Hurricane Ike several years ago in my pier and beam bungalow with my mom and my rather confused Black Lab named Magellan. What we realized was that, as opposed to a house on a slab that remains staid and unyielding, that house was built so that the hurricane-force winds swirled around it and UNDER it. It just moved with the wind. It didn’t have to bend or push. There were no straining or creeking walls. It just moved. It gave itself to the wind.
- Called to Journey
And so we read the passage of God sending Abram on a journey toward becoming who he was called to be, toward putting himself in the path of the wind. It’s only 3 ½ verses, but it’s a huge Scripture. Basically, God is saying, “GO”, leave what is familiar, leave what is holding you back, leave what is comfortable. Go forward whether or not you know the road. And Abram goes. He would become Abraham, the patriarch of three world religions. What if he had held back? What if he had held onto what was familiar and comfortable?
God told Abram, “go to the land that I will show you.” God doesn’t just throw us out there to bend and turn with the winds. God leads us to something new. God leads us to being born again, if we will only yield to the winds that blow around us. This story doesn’t mean much until it becomes ours.
- So, Have You (Been Born Again)?
So, have you been born again? Have you jumped into the chalk drawing into a brave new world? Have you imagined yourself as windchime that moves with that which is unpredictable and unplanned. Have your left what was familiar so that God can show you something new, so that God can show you what was always meant to be?
The end of this Gospel passage is the most familiar: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This is not a declaration; it is a beginning. God calls us into newness, into things we have never seen before. God calls us to put ourselves in the path of the wind, in the path of the Spirit that will show us the way home—not a way that we prescribe, but a new journey into something we don’t even know.
- Put Yourself in The Path of the Wind
See, the deal is that Jesus wants Nicodemus to see the difference between religion and faith. Religion, the laws, the rules, the righteousness, is dead without faith. To borrow an analogy from Jewish theologian Martin Buber, he wants him to see the difference between reading a menu and having dinner. Until you are born of God, you will always be an observer rather than a participant in the spiritual quest. Menus describe. They communicate information about the meal. This is what religion does. It describes what God is like (or what we think God is like). It misses the knowledge OF God that is there for our taking.
In this season of Lent, the winds of change are swirling all about. We hear the sounds, but we do not know its path. We must give ourselves to the wind, must enter the darkness, and walk, trusting that we will find ourselves in the place where we belong. We are not always called to understand, but only to know.
We are called to be “born again”. For you, that may mean a “moment”; it may mean jumping into a different way of being like Mary Poppins did; it may mean being a windchime that moves in whatever way the wind does. Whatever it means, it is an act of putting yourself into a place that you have not created, a place that may be a little uncomfortable, a place that was meant for you all along. It means putting yourself into the path of the wind.
There is a poem that I love that is based on the Gospel passage that we read. It is by Myra Scovel. It goes like this:
Where does the wind come from, Nicodemus?
Rabbi, I do not know,
Nor can you tell where it will go.
Put yourself into the path of the wind, Nicodemus.
You will be borne along
By something greater than yourself.
You are proud of your position,
Content in your security,
But you will perish in such stagnant air.
Put yourself into the path of the wind, Nicodemus.
Bright leaves will dance before you.
You will find yourself in places
You never dreamed of going;
You will be forced into situation
You have dreaded
And find them like a coming home.
You will have a power you never had before, Nicodemus.
You will be a new [person].
Put yourself into the path of the wind.[i]
[i] Myra Scovel, 1970 (From Hearing God’s Call: Ways of Discernment for Laity and Clergy, by Ben Campbell Johnson)