Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 17, 2008

2008.02.17 “A Conversation with a Spiritual Seeker”

 

Sermons from Rev. David Haley – February 17, 2008 – 2nd Sunday in Lent – John 3: 1 – 17

“A Conversation with a Spiritual Seeker”
“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “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. “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.” – John 3: 1 – 17, The New Revised Standard Version

A young American was traveling in India, looking for the meaning of existence. He was told that way up on one of the most inaccessible peaks of the Himalayas, there was a holy man who was supposed to know the answer. The young man spent many weeks wandering, enduring great hardship, and finally reached the place where the holy man resided. There he was, sitting immobile, his eyes fixed on the distant peak of Mount Everest.

“My name is John P. Shulze,” said the young American. “I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, and I’m looking for the meaning of existence. I’m told that you know. Can you tell me?” The holy man, without moving his gaze from the distant peak, intoned solemnly, “Life is like the lotus flower.”

The young American said nothing, pondering this profound saying. There was a long silence. Then a slight frown crossed the holy man’s brow. He looked away from the distant mountain, and, in a worried tone, said to the young American, “Do you have any other suggestions?” (Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience, by Peter L. Berger, 1997)

This story humorously illuminates one of the great challenges of life, our inability to fully or finally understand it.

Just when you think you got it all figured out, something always comes along to challenge you, to shake you, to make you realize how unknowable life can be.

For example, I know today we’re all shaken by the shooting in DeKalb. It’s one thing when it’s far away in Virginia; another when it’s so close to home. If we could only find some motive, some reason that might make any sense of such a senseless tragedy. Surely our hearts go out to the families now in grief.

But it is not just tragedy that perplexes us. Most fundamentally, what is important is to learn and grow from new information and experiences — emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually — throughout all of our lives, even when growth means admitting our ignorance.

We are — and must be — as long as we live — life long seekers of truth. Reverting constantly — as necessary — to spiritual naivete. To his credit, such a man was Nicodemus, the man with whom Jesus converses in today’s Gospel.

Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews, a scholar, a Pharisee. Now as much as we might align them, of all the factions of Judaism in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were the good guys. They were moral, Biblical, devotedlyreligious, our kind of people.

Whether because of this or in spite of this, somehow for Nicodemus, it wasn’t enough. When he heard the kinds of things Jesus was doing and saying, even though they contradicted his understandings as a Pharisee,Nicodemus was intrigued. And so, by night, under cover of darkness, Nicodemus came to talk with Jesus. In John’s Gospel, one never knows, perhaps even the darkness speaks symbolically of Nicodemus’ cloud of unknowing.

His opening is impressive. “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.”

But Jesus’ response must have set him back. Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, Nicodemus, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Yes, you heard that correctly. “Born from above.” John here makes a play on words. The Greek word used here, (anothen), could be translated either “again” or “from above.” But most commonly it means “from above,” literally, “from top to bottom.” It is the same word used in Matthew 27:51, when, at Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple split (anothen) “from top to bottom.” “Nicodemus,” said Jesus, “you’ve got to be born from above, from top to bottom.”

But Nicodemus misunderstood. He heard “born again.” So he said, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Don’t you find it ironic that Nicodemus’ misunderstanding is our best known understanding? That all that talk about “born again” Christians — while we know what they’re getting at — is Nicodemus’ misunderstanding? As a pastor, my most common experience in the church is that there are those that are “born again,” and then there are those that are “born against.”

To Nicodemus’ bewilderment, Jesus answers, again making a play on words, this time with the word “pneuma”, which can mean “wind” or “spirit.”

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (pneuma) What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind (pneuma) 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.”

Do you find it interesting that when Nicodemus asked “how” Jesus responded by citing two of the most mysterious, uncontrollable forces in life? Birth? (Moms, tell me, how controllable was that?) Wind? (Ever flown a kite, been through a tornado or hurricane?) If it were a matter of how — a technique, a method — Jesus couldn’t have brought up worse examples than birth or wind.

No wonder Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can these things be?” I think – with a knowing grin — Jesus said back to him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

Through the years, I’ve known, talked, and argued with so many people like Nicodemus. Sometimes, I’ve even been one myself.

There are just some people — genuine spiritual seekers — who want the spiritual life to be like math. Everything has to be right and wrong, black and white, with no coloring between the lines. Give me a formula, a method, four spiritual laws, ten steps, help me understand.

There are others — as Jesus seems to be here — for whom the spiritual life is less like math and more like music. It flows, there are melodies and harmonies, crescendos and pauses. It’s like birth, or wind, and we are swept away. The only Absolute is that there are no Absolutes.

As St. Augustine once said, “Before experiencing God you thought you could talk about God; when you begin to experience God you realize that what you are experiencing you cannot put into words.”

He might as well have added, “It’s like birth, or wind.” Neither of them forces we can really control.

Jesus might as well have added, “It’s a gift, Nicodemus, just receive it.”

And, in fact, that’s pretty much what he said. From this point on, who’s saying what gets murky. In John’s Gospel, conversations are used as stepping stones to discourses. Remember I said it’s like a stream in which a child can wade and an elephant could drown?

From this point on, if you have a red letter Bible, it’s in red, indicating Jesus is speaking. In fact, we don’t know for sure if it’s Jesus speaking or John teaching, but what he said is one of the most famous verses in the Bible, that sign that people hold up at ballgames, John 3:16 (say it with me):

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.”

In other words, “It’s a gift, Nicodemus, don’t spend a lot of timetrying to figure it out. Just receive it!”

And that’s the way life is, that the way the spiritual life is. It’s a mystery — like birth or wind — that we can never quite fully or finally comprehend.

So keep yourself open. Be like Nicodemus, a spiritual seeker, for new information to change your mind, and new experiences to change your life, for things you can’t understand, for whatever might come next.

And so, on any given Sunday, like Nicodemus in the night, we come to worship to talk about God.

I come with my sermon, all wrapped up and worded nicely, summing up God in 25 words or less, give or take a few. I admit there are Sundays where I feel good about it, think I’ve got a great sermon, if I may say so, and it falls flat.

There are other Sundays where (I admit it) I come in on a wing and a prayer, a few thoughts patched together, looking forward to the benediction. As my first senior pastor in Memphis, George Comes once said, there are Sundays, where, when the sermon is over, you’d just as soon find a hole and hide in it.

The mysterious thing is that sometimes it is on those Sundays where, at the door, somewhere says, “Thank you, Pastor, for that sermon. It was really what I needed to hear today.” Or Pastor, you must read my mind today; I felt like you were preaching directly to me. God really spoke.”

Or any given Sunday, you come, Bible and Hymnal in hand, ready to take notes, get your three points and a poem, homework for the week on racism or sexism, better living with God in your pocket. And suddenly, mysteriously, the wind of the Spirit blows, and a new birth occurs — like wind, like birth, and new life is born.

How can these things be?

Such is the spiritual life. You don’t have to climb a mountain to find it; seek out holy men to explain it. Like birth, like wind, it’s omnipresent. Don’t try to understand it, analyze it, quantify it. It’s a gift given by God; just receive it.

George Herbert, who lived from 1593 to 1633, was an English mystical poet and priest. He is best remembered as a writer of poems and hymns such as “Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life” and “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” both of which are in our hymnal.

But my favorite George Herbert poem is one called Love (III), which describes a conversation much like the one Nicodemus had with Jesus.

“Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.”

Amen

 
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