Trinity B

May 29, 2018

Catching the Spirit

John 3:1-17


1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “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. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.


It turns out that this passage of scripture contains what I consider to be my favorite Bible verse. I had never really thought about this until I was asked to provide my favorite verse for a little handout they’re creating for the Retirement Ceremony at Annual Conference. And the verse that came to mind comes out of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, but it’s not that most famous verse in the world, John 3:16. My favorite verse is John 3:8,


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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.


As I say, I wasn’t really conscious of my fondness for this verse until I was asked to name my favorite verse, but this is it. And I think it goes back to a sermon I heard on the night of my ordination as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. The ordination system has changed in the UMC, and I won’t burden you with those technicalities, but in that ceremony that took place in Conway in June of 1987. The guest preacher at Annual Conference that summer was Rev. Will Willimon. This is a man who has become quite famous as a preacher and a writer. I guess even then he was a highly acclaimed preacher, but it was not his fame that spoke to me that night. It was an image he provided that has stayed with me through the years.


Now what you need to know is that I can hardly ever remember what I talked about a week ago. I can remember the date of our wedding, and I know the birthdays of my immediate family, but I don’t have a great memory. I’m sure I’ve heard some great sermons from other people over the years, but I don’t remember them. I do, however, remember hearing something that stuck with me from that sermon in 1987.


Rev. Willimon talked about being from South Carolina, and how hot it gets there. Air conditioning was starting to become standard in homes when he was growing up, but he described the way in which the previous inhabitants had sought relief from the heat – which was to build their farmhouses on the little hills that you would find every now and then on the open land.


He said the native Americans had a word for those little rises that would dot the wide open places – they called them hiwasses. And it was under a shade tree on top of one of those small hills that you were the most likely to catch a breeze on a hot summer afternoon. And a breeze in some shade in August in South Carolina was like gold.


I can’t remember how he explained all of that. In fact I may have been daydreaming when he was preaching and imagined that this is what he was talking about, but the point I give him full credit for making was that while we aren’t in control of the Holy Spirit or of anything that God is doing in this world, there are things we can do to place ourselves in the best possible situation to receive the blessings of the Spirit. Just as there’s no guarantee that you’ll catch a cool breeze if you build your house on the highest spot on the land, but it’s more likely to happen there than it would be on the lowest dip in the field.


And so it is with our spiritual lives. We can’t will ourselves to be born anew. We can’t make the church explode with new life. But there are some things we can do to make such things more likely.


As I say, I don’t remember exactly what Rev. Willimon said in that sermon, but whatever it was he said was both comforting and inspiring to me. He acknowledged that this business of following Jesus and seeking to do the work of God in this world is essentially mysterious. This is not something that we fully understand and we certainly don’t control it, but we are participants. We aren’t in charge, but we aren’t just puppets who have no control over what we do or where we go. We are people who are invited to engage in a dynamic relationship with God, and it’s an exciting opportunity.


Some people might like the idea of the Holy Spirit being an unavoidable force in the world – a force sort of like gravity that is going to impose it’s will upon us whether we like it or not. I do believe that the Holy Spirit is a little bit like gravity. I think it invisibly surrounds us and that it’s a relentlessly powerful force, but I don’t believe we have to respond to it. I don’t think God ever lets any of us go, but I don’t believe God makes us do anything. Some people choose to live their lives free of the Spirit. I’m not in any position to say who those people are, but I assume this is a possibility, because I believe this relationship we have with God involves some choice.


We don’t control the spirit – it’s profoundly free, and so are we, but when you combine our willingness with God’s creative power you’ve got gold. It’s like a cool breeze in the shade on a hot summer day.


I don’t want to overstate the power that this sermon had on the shape of my ministry over the years. I spent three years listening to lectures and writing papers on church history and theology and Biblical studies, and many more years listening to others and pondering these things. But I think that sermon confirmed my basic assumption, which is that we believers in the revelation of God through the life of Jesus Christ are the recipients of a great gift. We didn’t receive this great gift because we knew what we were doing and made all the right decisions. This spiritual gold isn’t something we earned.


It’s probably more accurate to say that we obtained this treasure by being born of the right parents. And then we made all the right mistakes or fell in to the right ditches – because it’s usually our need to recover from our various failures and disappointments that enables us to be born again. It’s a good thing to grow up in the church – at least in a church that portrays Jesus in a relatively accurate way. This is one way of building your house on a high spot, but few people who are passionate about their love for Jesus acquired that in Sunday School. Most people who feel that their life was transformed by the love of Jesus Christ came to that understanding when they found themselves in need of something more than what they learned in Sunday School or heard in a sermon. It’s something that came to them on a dark night when they didn’t know how they could go on.


You might say Nicodemus was a man who grew up in the church. Of course the church wasn’t around when he was growing up. He grew up in the synagogue. He was well trained in the religious tradition of his day. He knew the teachings of Moses as well as anyone, and he knew enough about his spiritual tradition to be curious about Jesus, but he wasn’t so familiar with the ways of God’s Spirit. They hadn’t taught him the actual truth about our untamable God. It’s one thing to memorize the various teachings of a religious tradition – it’s a whole other thing to encounter the living presence of God, and that’s what happened to Nicodemus. His extensive religious training had not prepared him for an encounter with the son of the living God.


And that’s the case for us all. None of us are prepared to live in relationship with God, but none of us have been excluded either. It comes to us as a gift, and then we have to figure out what to do with it.


This story of Nicodemus is a good one for us church people to hear. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the value of being a responsible member of the established institution. Nicodemus doesn’t come across as an astute spiritual giant. His good standing among his religious peers was actually more of an impediment to his transformation than something that positioned him to embrace the savior of the world, but it’s important to note that this story doesn’t end with Nicodemus slinking off in to the darkness and never to be heard from again.


Nicodemus reappears two more times in the Gospel of John. On one occasion he stands up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish court, arguing that he shouldn’t be arrested without being given a fair hearing. This was not an insignificant act. Standing up for a despised character in a powerful institution is a hard thing to do. This is not something he would have done if he had not been touched by the presence of Jesus. He was moving in the right direction, and I consider that to be a beautiful thing. Moving in the right direction is a whole lot better than staying stuck in a bad place.


And at the end of the Gospel it’s Nicodemus that brings spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Once again, this isn’t exactly the act of a spiritual hero, but it is the act of a person who had been touched by the life-altering spirit of God and who was placing himself in a better position to encounter that spirit again.


Some people have been blinded by what they’ve been trained to think that God’s spirit is supposed to look like. Some people have never been exposed to anything other than mind-numbing and soul-squashing people and media platforms. All of us have developed our own forms of resistance to the life-giving presence of the living God, but God’s spirit blows where it wills, and it knows how to break through any barrier.


It doesn’t tear in to our hearts, but it touches us in ways that gets our attention and turns us in new directions. And once it gets our attention we are challenged to find ways to reposition ourselves in order to become more open to the guidance of the Spirit. It’s an endless dance to which we’ve been invited – to live in relationship to the movement of the Spirit.


I’m comforted by the knowledge that this relationship isn’t within our control. I’m happy not to be responsible for the work of the Holy Spirit, but we have some work to do. Our work is to place ourselves in those situations that create the best opportunities to encounter the loving presence of God in this world and to share it with others.


As surely as none of us chose to be born in to this world, we don’t have the power to give ourselves new lives in the kingdom of God, but by the grace of God it happens. This mysterious presence of the living God is blowing in our midst, and to catch it – is spiritual gold!


Thanks be to God.








One Response to “Trinity B”

  1. Jack Williams Says:

    Good sermon

    Sent from my iPhone


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