Sermon For March 16, 2014

“Seeking Spiritual Rebirth”

John 3:1-8, 13-17

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog:

To watch a video of this sermon, go online to:

WillowBlowingClearly, the wind, the Spirit of God, often noted by the word “ruach” in Hebrew or “pneuma” in Greek, is a sweeping, dynamic, unpredictable, even unruly force.  Sometimes the Spirit is used by God for that which we all could agree upon as good and sacred and noble, and sometimes God uses it for purposes at which we can only scratch our heads and wonder.  Sometimes the Spirit indicates the willfulness of humanity in opposition to the Divine, and sometimes it is the very thing which enables us to reach our greatest potential, our moments of most profound faith.


Visit of Nicodemus to Christ 1880 John La Farge oil on canvas Smithsonian American Art Museum

Visit of Nicodemus to Christ
John La Farge
oil on canvas
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Today’s scripture lesson offers us an essential lesson in the ways of God’s Spirit blowing through our lives. It introduces us to the person of Nicodemus, who we will meet two other times in the Gospels, both at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.  I believe in the confusion that Nicodemus experiences talking with Jesus about what it means to be born again, or born from above, an additional, often overlooked instruction is given.


In the story, Nicodemus, obviously seeking to understand Jesus better in order to follow him more closely, hangs on his every word. Thus, when Jesus almost off-handedly says “one must be born again,” Nicodemus, jumps upon the phrase. Literally, the words might be translated either “born again,” which is the way Nicodemus sees it, coming out of the womb a second time, and is thus totally confused, or “born from above,” which is how Jesus further clarifies it, which doesn’t clarify a thing!


But snuck into this odd exchange of differing interrogations, interpretations, and illuminations, is a phrase which opens up all the heavens for me.  Jesus says, “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.”


This is a clarion call for us to resist taking the words of the Bible word-for-word, legalistically, and literally. Throughout scripture, in as chaotic and confusing a way as the birth of creation itself, God is constantly reminding us that the moment we think we’ve got God’s Word and God’s Will nailed down, the Spirit blows “where it will.”  Even Jesus, when scripture was quoted to him, responded time and time again, “You have heard it said… but I say to you,” thus effectively reinterpreting scripture for the situation at hand.


IAngryFundamentalist recognize, painfully, that this is very different from what we hear from the radio, television, and internet preachers. Almost everyone out there is shouting at the top of their lungs, “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.” Jesus responds, “The wind blows where it chooses.”  God’s Spirit is never, ever to be contained, formulated, solidified, packaged, or perhaps even fully understood.  Why not? Because the moment we human beings have something – even or especially something sacred – figured out, we want to control it.  And the forces of biblical literalism are also the forces of biblical legalism: both imply human control.


Anyone who tells you unequivocally, without a doubt, that they have God and God’s Word “figured out,” should take a lesson from Nick at Night.  He left the conversation even more confused than he entered it – and that was Nicodemus’ salvation! Coming to Jesus trying to have everything in order, all sewed up, in the bag, done and over with is precisely what Jesus warns us about.  Jesus didn’t have a grievance again Sadducees, Pharisees, and Scribes because of who they were or their roles in society… it’s just that they tended to be the very people who pretended they had God figured out, just like the politicians, preachers, and church-growth gurus of our day.


I may have never noticed this almost hidden lesson in the text, except that last week, when looking at the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, it was pointed out to me by several commentators, that Satan plays the part of biblical literalist, an attempt at which Jesus laughs. Not once, not twice, but three times Satan quotes perfectly legitimate scriptural passages to Jesus, and Jesus reinterprets them appropriate to the moment.  It is from last week’s scripture lesson that we get the phrase “even the devil can quote scripture.”


But really, what’s important to Nicodemus, and is important to us, is that it is in our confusion, it is in our questioning, it is in the ambiguity of life that our salvation is found.  God cannot work in a mind already made up.


200275206-001There is a beautiful ancient story about a young Chinese woman who was terribly unhappy in life, and she went to a wise elder in her village to ask her what she should do to be happy. The elderly woman greeted the young woman at the door, and from the time she arrived she talked non-stop, explaining in intricate detail all that was wrong with her life and all the bad advice others had given her.  Unable to get a word in edgewise, the elder prepared tea and then, handed the young woman, who was still talking, a teacup.  The older woman began pouring and even when the small cup was full, she did not stop. The tea poured over the edge of the cup, and began to spill onto the younger woman’s lap.  She leapt up and cried out, “What are you doing?” Finally, a moment of silence provided the older woman a chance to speak.  “My dear, you came to me for help.  If there is no room for anything new in your cup, how do you expect to learn?”


Not knowing is okay, because it provides fertile ground for God’s Spirit to work in our lives.  Not having this “faith” thing all figured out is actually a gifted state of being, since God doesn’t need us to know it all, but, rather, to be eagerly seeking divine wisdom.  Struggling with the ambiguities and grey-areas of life means you are a prime candidate for God’s Spirit to blow through you.


God never meant for scripture to be the sum total of all the faith, no matter what the finest preachers nor bumper-stickers of the land tell you.  The Word was always, always, meant to be lived out in real-time.  Nicodemus subsequently realized, I trust, that the winds of God’s Spirit are far more important blowing where they will than figuring out what the words mean. The Spirit will lead us to God’s new day!

cloud-question-mark-original-370x229I will end with the beautiful words of the German poet Ranier Maria Rilke:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions”


Ah… To live the questions.  That is the essence of being born of the Spirit!