Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
February 17, 2008
John 3:1-17 Genesis 12:1-9
There’s a story about a woman who was seeking Truth—the meaning of life. She had been brought up in the
One day she heard of a wise guru—one who, she was told, was a master of the Ultimate Truth. He was definitely a source for the Meaning of Life. So she booked a plane and took several trains and ended up hitching a ride on a donkey cart, and finally she arrived at the guru’s tiny house. He greeted her at the door, and right away she could tell that this was a holy man, a wise man.
“Oh, I know you’ll be able to answer my questions!” she said.
“Tea?” he replied. “Would you like some tea?”
She was pretty eager to get to the good stuff, but she thought it would be only polite to accept his offer, so she said sure. While he busied himself preparing the tea, she started telling him of her journey and all she had learned, the people she’d met, the books she’d read, the great philosophies she’d encountered …
And as she was talking, he handed her a teacup and began pouring. And pouring. And the tea spilled over the edges of the cup and slopped off the saucer and onto her hand. “Ow!” she cried. “It’s full—no more will fit in!”
“Exactly,” the guru said. “Just so. You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no room in your cup. Come back when it is empty, and then we will talk.”
That woman is a bit like Nicodemus, who came to Jesus full of knowledge. He was one of the leaders in the temple, you know—a learned man who lived in a world of other learned people. And in their discussions they had considered this Jesus and his works and determined—given the evidence and in light of their great learning—that he must be a teacher come from God.
Nicodemus is full. Full of the best thinking of his people. He’d still like to pin this down, though, so he comes to Jesus at night—and interestingly, in John night is always a time of confusion, of seeing but not seeing. And Nicodemus starts in with what his cadre of learned men has determined: “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.”
Uh-huh, says Jesus. “No one can see the
“Say what?” says Nicodemus. That doesn’t make sense! It doesn’t fit reality as I know it.
Can’t you just see Jesus with a teapot?
I think what Jesus is saying is “Nicodemus, when you’ve got it all figured out, when everything is organized and reasoned—with careful walls built between right and wrong, between orthodoxy and heresy, between ‘God-ly’ and ‘abomination’—well, then, you don’t see God’s kingdom. You can’t really know God. Because the process of coming to know God is messy, uncomfortable, even ritually impure.
“You have to be born from above, Nicodemus. You have to come out like a baby—knowing just how much you depend on your heavenly parent, ready to love, open to learn.”
“What is born of the sarkos is sarkos,” Jesus says. The New Revised Standard Version we use translates sarkos as ‘flesh’—“What is born of the flesh is flesh.” Another translation, though, is ‘human nature,’ so we could read, “What is born of human nature is human nature.” And human nature craves order and admires rationality and reasonableness and wants to know what’s what. Human nature likes to fill itself up with knowing.
“And what is born of the pneuma is pneuma,” Jesus continues. Pneuma, that Greek word that means either ‘wind’ or ‘spirit’—both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit.’ And “the pneuma blows where it chooses.” The Spirit blows where it chooses, and though we may hear it, we cannot know its comings and goings. The Spirit surprises us.
And like birth, it can be a bit messy at times. Not reasonable. Not schedulable. Uncomfortable—even painful, right? And always—always—a blessing.
We’re like Nicodemus in a lot of ways. We want to know how. when. what. who. why. How will that troubled child turn his life around? When will my neighbor wake up and stop taking her husband for granted? Why aren’t those church committee members doing the job I think they should be doing?
I imagine the Pastor Nominating Committee is hearing a lot of these questions from
Those are not bad questions, my friends. But we have to remember that they are questions born not out of pneuma, the Spirit, but of sarkos, human nature. Questions born out of our very human need to be in control of our lives. To know the answers.
And Jesus tells us that we will never have all the answers, the ultimate answers, the kingdom-of-God answers unless we are born from above. Emptied out of some of that human striving for control, for knowing. Light enough to be blown about by the spirit.
And it’s not a one-shot deal, this being born from above. It’s not something that we can point to and say, “Oh yeah, I was born from above on April 22, 1993, once and for all.” Saying that means that we’re in control—that we know. No, being born from above happens over and over again, throughout our lives. It’s when we have big exciting conversion experiences and little ah-ha moments. It’s when we get a glimpse of the movement of the Spirit—when someone else’s faith astounds us, or when we hear about the work of Church World Service and cry a little, or when someone we had given up on comes back to church—when life doesn’t go the way it should, according to our plans, but turns out to have beauty and power that we couldn’t have imagined.
That’s what happened to Nicodemus that day. He knew how life was supposed to go. He’d talk to Jesus and get his answers and then go back to his life. But Jesus didn’t cooperate with his plans.
Sometimes we get a picture of Jesus in our heads where Jesus is a kind of wimp. Meek, long-suffering, lover of little children, turner of the other cheek. But the Jesus Nicodemus encountered was no wimp. He was confusing. Challenging. I came across a song this week, written by some folks at the Iona Community, (an ecumenical Christian group based off the coast of Scotland) that struck me as showing Jesus as someone who invites us to be born from above.
Firstborn of Mary,
Jesus inspires and disarms and confuses
Whoever he chooses to hear his voice.
Nicodemus was one whom Jesus inspired and disarmed and confused, one who heard Jesus’ voice. For John tells us that after Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial, bringing about a hundred pounds of spices to be placed between the folds of the burial cloth.
My prayer is that all of us as well will be inspired and disarmed and confused. And that each time, we will be born from above—our teacups emptied of our human answers so there’s room inside us for God’s answers. My prayer is that all of us will be blown about by the Spirit. Blown away by God.