Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 17, 2014

2014.03.16 “The Spirit Will Lead” – John 3:1-17

Central United Methodist Church

The Spirit Will Lead

Pastor David L. Haley

John 3: 1 –17

The 2nd Sunday in Lent

March 16th, 2014


“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, ‘Youmust be born from above.’ The windblows 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 youdo 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

Don’t tell anybody, but if we could compare the anxiety pastors and churches are feeling these days to an earthquake, it would register about an 8 on the Richter scale.

Here’s why: because we know that with regard to Church, something’s got to change. Patterns of congregational attendance, membership, giving, and participation have been declining for decades, and have done so precipitously over the last few years.  The changes occurring in our culture demand equivalent changes in how we worship, preach, and organize ourselves as church.

Why? People’s lives are busier, some might even say frantic, than a generation or two ago. “Time-saving” innovations like email have all but eliminated any sense of Sabbath, and, as a result, work knows no bounds. Similarly, youth sports and other activities that used to treat Sundays as sacred – or at least family time – have now claimed even Sundays as the best time for practice and tournaments.

In addition, the culture of obligation – of doing things because we’re supposed to, like going to church – has eroded into a culture of discretion. Given the options before us, we exercise discretion to determine what activities are rewarding, and what we will or won’t do. So the younger generations do not and will not go to church simply because their parents did, but only if that hour on Sunday meaningfully connects to the other 167 hours of the week.

What are we supposed to do?  David Lose, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, has suggested that, among other things – pastors need to move from “performative” ministry – where the pastor is responsible for doing the central tasks of the Christian life like interpreting Scripture, connecting faith and life, and sharing our faith – to “formative” ministry – where the job of the preacher is to help you – the people – become better at doing these things for yourselves.

Even for those of us pastors who know that change is needed and even welcome it, change is not easy; it’s not the world for which we were trained.  When we “old dogs” have to learn the new tricks of learning to preach and to lead congregations in different ways, it leaves us feeling anxious and fearful, as we switch from skills and practices we’ve honed over the years, to practices that are less familiar, and with which we have less confidence.

For example, I recently read recently an article about the status of our average attention span.  Due large to media, you know what the average attention span is today? About 6 minutes. That means, I got six minutes, before you start planning your lunch menu. (Thom Schultz, Lost After 6 Minutes,

Nor, of course, is it only pastors who feel this way. Many of us who have a long relationship with the church, worry about its future, and about our children and our grandchildren’s relationship to church in particular.  Concerns about attendance, paying the bills, keeping up the building, diminishing Sunday Schools and almost everything in regard to church as we have known it, are up for grabs. The resulting anxiety can be paralyzing, leaving a cloud hanging over most congregations.

As we all know, it’s not just the church.  As technology and economics change, most major institutions face paradigm-shifting change:  journalism and media, health care, and education, just to name a few. Even government seems to have become practically dysfunctional.

Personally, it may feel the same.  My guess is that almost all of us here this morning face major change in our lives, and we’re still wondering what happened to life as we knew it.  It could be the birth of a child, or a child leaving the nest.  It could be a new job, or a crisis in health.  It could be the loss of a dear friend or loved one.  With the passing of the familiar and comfortable, we face anxiety, even fear.

So it is in light of this, that today as when we hear this story about an anxious Pharisee named Nicodemus who came with his concerns to Jesus, we may have more reason to identify with him than ever before.

Because this story about Nicodemus contains some of our culture’s most popular Bible quotations – about “being born again” and John 3:16 (For God so loved the world), we often to rush through it to get to the good parts, brushing over Nicodemus’ confusion, even belittling Nicodemus and his confusion. We “get it,” even if – after all these centuries, frozen in time – Nicodemus doesn’t.

But what if we look at it from Nicodemus’ point of view?  He was a Pharisee, the dominant religious party of the Judaism of the time, and despite how they are portrayed in the New Testament, they were a good party, and good people.  For the most part, they were moral, religious, righteous, and orthodox; “our kind” of people.

But then, into the middle of their morality and religiosity and righteousness and orthodoxy, here came Jesus: a nobody, of questionable parentage, from the boondocks, a peasant with no credentials, talking like he knew everything.

And he did know something.  He knew the Scriptures.  He often spoke truth. He did amazing things. So it should not be surprising that he attracted sympathizers, even among the Pharisees, people like Nicodemus who were intrigued by Jesus, even if they could not acknowledge it in public. And so, under cover of darkness, Nicodemus comes to talk with Jesus. Unfortunately for Nicodemus and fortunately for us, it turned out to be a one-sided conversation, in which Jesus wouldn’t stop talking.

While we know Nicodemus’ story best for John 3:16, there are two other affirmations we may have missed, that speak to our contemporary anxiety in church and society. Both of them, actually, are anchored in, and expand the implications, of the love of God for us expressed in John 3:16.

First, the freedom and resulting flexibility granted to those born of the Spirit.  Like many of us, freedom and flexibility were not Nicodemus’ strong point.  So when Jesus said, “Nick, you can’t even see the Kingdom until you are born again/anew/from above – (John’s play on words), left-brained Nick only heard it one way: literally. “How can a man, when he is old, be born again?” Isn’t it ironic that Nicodemus’ misunderstanding is our best-known understanding?

While Nick is standing there bewildered, Jesus makes it worse with another play on words, this time using the word “pneuma,” which can mean either “wind” or “spirit.”

“Very truly, I tell you, Nick, that 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 say 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 (pneuma).”

Isn’t it interesting that when Nick asks for help, Jesus responds by citing two of the most mysterious, uncontrollable forces in life: birth & wind? No wonder Nick, in his confusion, says, “How can this be?” And Jesus – I think, with a knowing grin — says back to him, “Are you a Methodist preacher, Nicodemus, and yet you do not understand these things?”

Really, Jesus’ declaration that the Spirit blows where it will, and those born of the Spirit along with it, gives us tremendous freedom about how to respond to the challenges and opportunities of our time.  Once upon a time, worship lasted an hour, communion was once a month, sermons had three points, and there was an annual stewardship campaign. These weren’t just useful practices, they were reliable patterns – almost recipes – by which we “did church.” So when we are asked to give up these things up and do different things, we feel like we are off the map, sailing in uncharted waters.

So isn’t it great to know that when – like Nicodemus – we experience fear and confusion, we are not left alone! The Spirit who blows like the wind unseen, accompanies and empowers us to face a future we may not understand and right now can’t see. Because we are assured the Spirit leads us, the anxiety we may feel (there is no roadmap!), can be transformed into excitement (there is no roadmap!)   We don’t have to do things the way we’ve always done them; we can experiment, risk, fail, learn, and grow in ways we never imagined. Because the Spirit of Christ leads us in ways we never imagined.

It’s like this.  In 1979, my first church in Chicago was Hermosa-Salem UMC, near Tripp and Dickens. Whenever you see a hyphen in a church name, you know it’s a merger, and so it was.  As a small church, they spit out a pastor about every two years.  As a small church, without even a secretary, the Pastor was expected to do everything; compose and PRINT the bulletin, which I did on an old mimeograph machine using a stencil, getting ink all over everything. Every year’s biggest event was not Christmas or Easter but a Fun Fest, a fundraiser that took everybody’s time and energy for a Saturday every year.  One year when I was looking through old bulletins and came across one for the Sunday after a Fun Fest.  When you opened the bulletin all it said was, in big letters, “The Spirit will lead.”  Maybe they were on to something; maybe that should be our motto.

The second affirmation we often miss in this story, which also addresses our anxiety, is this:  It is – after all – the love of God for us that is the ultimate source of our confidence.  Coming right after the most famous verse in the Bible (John 3:16) is this: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God intends not that we should fail, God intends only good for us, in our life together and ultimately in our eternal life with God.  For this reason, whatever setbacks and failures we experience are temporary, because in and through Jesus, God intends to redeem the world.  Such knowledge also gives us a measure of freedom. We are free to experiment and struggle and succeed and fail and live and love and die, knowing some things will fail and others will succeed, but that, perhaps inevitably, in Christ God has already redeemed the whole world. In other words, redemption is God’s responsibility, not ours. As Dr. King used to say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Our part is to participate in the program, as best we can, which will letting go of the past and embracing the future, whichever fresh way the wind of the Spirit is blowing.

Meanwhile, we will suffer some losses.  I’ve served five churches, all filled with people as dedicated as you. One is gone, two are in decline, and two are holding their own. I really don’t want to have spent my life in efforts that ultimately fail. Or perhaps I should look at it the way martyred missionary Jim Elliot did.  He once said:  “I would rather fail in a cause that will ultimately triumph than to triumph in a cause that will ultimately fail.”

As for Nicodemus, the wind continued to blow, and in the end, he appears to have figured it out. According to John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ crucifixion, it was Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who loving cared for Jesus body, and placed it in the tomb.

As for us, yes, the challenges before us are great, but so also are the opportunities.  Like Nicodemus, sometimes we become preoccupied with our stories, which, while important to us, are only a part of the larger story, which we believe God will ultimately bring to a good end. God loves the whole world, including us, and our little corner of it. And so we believe that the wind of God’s Spirit will continue to blow, leading us into places we never imagined.  With the ancient prayer of the Church, we pray: “Come, Holy Spirit.”  Amen.

As so many weeks, I want to acknowledge my indebtedness in this sermon to David Lose’s commentary on this text: David Lose, “Spirit Freedom,” 3/12/2014, “Dear Working Preacher,” at Working


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