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From the Womb of the Wind

March 16, 2015

“From the Womb of the Wind” John 3:1-21 © 3.15.15 Lent 4B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Under cover or darkness, a lone figure stole through the quiet Jerusalem streets, trying to escape notice. He clutched his cloak about him, a shield both from the wind and the too-curious gazes of any passers-by who might be out at this late hour. No one could know where he was going or what he was doing. His reputation and that of several of his colleagues were at stake.

Why had he let the members of his faction on the Council, the Sanhedrin, talk him into this? How would it look if the wrong people found out he was going to interview a young upstart, a popular rabbi and preacher from that little hick town up north? He could hear the talk: Nicodemus must have lost confidence in himself, if he has to get answers from that maverick nobody, a mere tradesman who had managed to gather some followers. Nicodemus is a secret disciple. Nicodemus can no longer be trusted.

Here finally was the house where Jesus was staying while in the city. At the bottom of the steps that led to the roof, Nicodemus almost turned around and went home. But somehow he found the courage to start climbing.

After introducing himself to Jesus, Nicodemus started his rehearsed speech. He was making every attempt to be gracious and courteous, to include this youngster from Nazareth in the esteemed circle of holy men. But Jesus seemed to have his own agenda. He disrespectfully insisted an setting the tone of the conversation and would not let Nicodemus continue.

The prominent and well-regarded Pharisee and leader repressed his anger and tried to listen. But none of what Jesus was saying made any sense. What did he mean “you must be born again”? “The wind blows where it will, and spiritual people are like that”? What kind of talk was this? They spoke some more, tried again, but finally both of them threw up their hands in frustration at their inability to communicate. Nicodemus went away, wondering what he would say to his peers and colleagues and why he couldn’t understand what Jesus had called the basics.

It’s no surprise the Pharisee couldn’t comprehend our Lord’s meaning. Who could? John has Jesus speaking in double-talk. He uses a word that not only means “born” but also “begotten.” Then there’s another that can be “again” or “from above” or “anew.” And to begin his double-talk sentence, our Lord uses a second person plural pronoun, thus insisting that the whole nation or all the people need renewal, but Nicodemus hears only a reference to one man, himself. This kind of double meaning speech is common in John; we heard it last week when Jesus spoke of the “temple.” It seems to be designed to weed out or point out those to whom the Spirit has not revealed the truth. These are the ones John describes as walking in darkness. Nicodemus doesn’t have a clue, so he comes to Jesus “at night.” For this gospel, the literal shadows in which he made his way to our Lord stand also for his benighted heart and mind. But to his credit, Nicodemus is seeking the light.

So there are four different ways to hear Jesus in this text, not counting whether he’s talking about an entire group of people, one individual at a time or both. He might be saying “You must be born again,” as we usually hear. Or “you must be begotten again.” Then there’s “you must be born from above.” Finally, “you must be begotten from above.” We could even add “you must be born again from above.”

However the gospel writer intends us to hear Jesus, the sense is of a radical break with and from what’s gone before. The one so begotten by and/or born of God is given a new set of family ties. He or she has a new heritage, a differently coded DNA. The family is the one in which God is Father and Mother, who has begotten and birthed children of the Spirit/wind. These offspring partake individually and together of the nature of their divine Parent. They are therefore as mysterious as the wind was to the ancients. They’re different, knowledgeable about things incomprehensible and inaccessible to the one not begotten and born again from above. These children from the womb of the wind know where their Father, their Mother dwells. They discern everything, and they in turn are understood only by those who share their common heritage. No more than they can harness the wind can the unenlightened figure them out.

Such a way of describing believers and their origin is unique in all of scripture. 1 Peter has something similar, but the author uses an entirely different and unambiguous Greek word. What does John have to teach us with his singular approach to spirituality?

First, Jesus in this gospel particularly invites his followers to embrace mystery. The God whose Spirit gives us birth will not, cannot be leashed, boxed, caged or manipulated. He’s not under our control! Instead, here is a God who can be as destructive as a hurricane or bring refreshment like a cool breeze on a hot, sticky day. We can’t reduce God to a formula; there is no manual for how to be born again. We want such a book because we are fascinated in our day with technique and technology. But there is no such guide. As the old gospel hymn put it, we “know not how the Spirit moves, convincing men of sin, revealing Jesus through the Word, creating faith in him” (Daniel W. Whittle, “I Know Whom I Have Believed”). The God who dwells in the human heart as well as in an unimaginable dimension beyond space and time is free and sovereign; he does what he wants. His praise cannot be adequately sung in our hymns and anthems or any other songs, no matter how lovely or well-done. His reality is far beyond any categories we can invent. He does not belong to us. Rather, in life and in death, we belong to God!

But not only are we to embrace mystery in our musings about God, we ourselves can be people who are enigmatic, a little hard to pin down, full of surprises. In other words, interesting.

I love routine, order, doing things the same way over and over, little rituals for daily tasks that save time and energy and free me for other pursuits. And I don’t really like the wind, unless it’s a nice gentle breeze on a hot day. My fantasy is that Nicodemus and I are probably pretty similar personality types. Maybe you identify with him, too, more than the creepy, mystical, confrontational Jesus of John’s gospel. I can imagine having coffee with Nicodemus the morning after his talk with our Lord. He wonders to me when was he supposed to be creative, to think a new thought. He observes that such is a luxury of people who have nothing better to do or get paid for that sort of thing. Nicodemus complains that he’s busy trying to keep head above water being a spouse, a parent, a leader of the synagogue, not to mention making a living. When evening come, time to study the word of God, he turns time and again to the old familiar interpretations. He is just too tired and distracted to think of new ones.

Yet even I, the original stick-in-the-mud, realize that unpredictability, surprises, and different approaches keep relationships and life in general fresh and dynamic. Do we want to have the same conversation day in and day out, the same food, the same comments on the news or our friends’ activities on Facebook? Don’t we enjoy another color on the walls, a different vacation spot, a new twist on an old favorite dish? In similar fashion, what if our neighbors and friends knew that our spirituality wasn’t about the same rote-learned answers, the expected responses and behaviors, but instead was about being on a journey of discovery, never quite satisfied, as restless as the Spirit who gave us birth? What if we reclaimed the oft-repeated motto of our tradition: “Reformed, always to be Reformed?” That means that we believe God is never quite finished with us, never through revealing his will for his children in their day with its special challenges and opportunities. Wouldn’t that earn us, like the man on the beer commercial, the title of the most interesting church, the most intriguing believers in the world? If Jesus is the water of life, then as the man says, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

But if we embrace mystery, so also do we reflect our parentage. In the natural world, we look like our parents or grandparents. The color and texture of our hair or skin, the shape of our faces and bodies on the outside, our genes and chromosomes on the inside. We may imitate and adopt their way of speaking or standing. And parents try to provide a good example of behavior for their children to follow. In the spiritual realm, we have a perfect Parent, God’s Spirit. Jesus says that what is born of Spirit is spirit, and those who do what is true come to the light. We show who our Parent is by the way we act.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition has a special take on all this. In that ancient way of approaching the faith, it is said we actually become divine. As someone has written: “For them, God’s presence in us is like the fire in the Burning Bush. It gradually takes us over, so that although we remain fully ourselves, we are being made over into our true selves, the way God originally intended us to be. He is Light, and we are filled with His light—maybe even literally, as some saints were said to visibly glow. The term for this transformation is fairly scandalizing: theosis, which means being transformed into God, divinized or deified. Of course, we do not become little mini-gods with our own universes. We never lose our own identity, but we are filled with God like a sponge is filled with water.

“This is the reason Christ came. Theosis is the goal of life for every human being” (Frederica Matthews-Green, First Fruits of Prayer: xii-xiii).

Finally, not only do we embrace mystery and reflect our parentage. We stand for something if we walk the path of spirituality laid out by the Jesus of John. This gospel is full of either/or statements and black/white portraits. Above/below. This world/the kingdom of God. Light/darkness. Perish/not perish. Heavenly things/earthly things. Condemned/not condemned. John paints with such a palette and speaks in either/or terms because his church is in the midst of a battle on the one hand with Jews of his day and on the other, unfortunately, with other Christians. They split with other Jews because the latter did not consider Jesus the Messiah. But then, the community divided over how to understand the identity of Jesus.

Both John’s church and contemporary fundamentalism made and make judgments about who holds the truth. Schisms happen, but the separation from those considered unfaithful only serves further to unite the group. Not only do they share common viewpoints, now they have a common enemy. For John, the foe was first “the Jews” and then “progressive secessionists.” The villain for fundamentalists is ever-changing. While there’s a common enemy, the community remains strong and their beliefs well-defined.

The community that produced the fourth gospel and the related letters stood for something very definite. They had a peculiarly high view of Christ. He was the Word who became flesh. No humble birth stories for this gospel. Jesus is the incarnation of the pre-existent Christ, who knows all about people’s hearts and is fully in control of everything that happens to him. John’s community also focused on the need to believe and live out those beliefs in distinctive ways that could only be described as “walking in the light as he is in the light.”

I think we need to stand for something very definite and distinctive as well, and people need to know what that is. As authors Ted Foote and Alex Thornburg observe in their book Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt, ours is a minority religious voice now. Fundamentalists dominate the spiritual landscape. “Being part of a minority,” the writers say, “requires us to examine our basic beliefs, particularly as such beliefs come into conversation and even conflict with more dominant viewpoints.” It’s so important to know and say what we believe, they remind us, because we are part of a confessing church in an uncertain day. We try to affirm the historic creeds for today. “To be a confessing church is to take a stand and state what we believe. This is part of what being Presbyterian is about” (xiii-xiv).

“Taking a stand” these days usually conjures images of mean-spirited, fierce people who brook no opposition, who won’t accept any other viewpoint than their own. And indeed, that is what John’s community was like, as well as today’s fundamentalists. But staking out the moderate, thoughtful middle is taking a stand as much as screaming from the extremes as the unworthy. Our Book of Order provides a useful list of distinctives like “God alone is Lord of the conscience” and “truth is in order to goodness,” but if those don’t appeal, perhaps your stand-out quality or mine will be the mysteriousness we talked about earlier. Or a certain way of speaking in quiet, civil tones while everyone else is shouting down the opposition. Maybe it will be an insistence on personal holiness or social justice. Perhaps the demonstration in our lives that everyone is welcome and valued and loved or that imagination and creativity are not be feared but nurtured.

We embrace mystery. We reflect our parentage. We stand for the truth. Don’t you hear your Mother calling?

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