For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been something of a fanatic about the weather. I admit it: the Weather Channel is one of my go-to places on television; I do have a couple of very cool weather “apps” on my phone, complete with real-time storm-tracking radar; and yes, despite my wife’s insistence that “the weather’s gonna be what it’s gonna be,” I really do have a hard time going to bed at night before I’ve had a chance to see the forecast for tomorrow!
It’s more than that, though; there’s just something supremely fascinating to me about watching the lightning of a summer thunderstorm will move across the horizon, and counting the beats between the flashes and a rumble of thunder; for that matter, how you can hear a winter wind howling through the trees and know that very soon there will be snow piling up outside the door. Moreover, there’s some amazing technology out there in the field of meteorology and storm tracking; and I don’t know about you, but I actually find it kind of fun to watch the experts in this field – the TV weather people and such – get all excited when they start talking about the “next big system” that’s coming in the forecast… even when it’s not!
That’s the thing, you see; and part of what makes the weather so interesting. Because for all their training, and all the sophisticated equipment and technology they have at their disposal, these people can’t really tell you with any absolute certainty what the weather’s actually going to be! They can track a storm and make their predictions – basically, they can guess (!) – and they do their best with the skills they have; but ultimately, these meteorologists cannot direct the path of a hurricane, nor can they wholly and accurately predict where a tornado might touch down, if at all. And so, sometimes they’re right, many times they’re wrong… and, well, “the weather’s gonna be what it’s gonna be!”
You see, most of our weather is carried by “upper level air currents” – the wind – and ultimately, the wind is unpredictable; it’s mysterious and uncontrollable. Wind has a wonderful duality about it: it has the power to destroy, but also to cleanse. It can be cold and relentless, chilling you to the bone; but it can also be delightfully refreshing, as on a hot, humid summer day. We can’t predict its coming (many times I have been in a sailboat on a glassy lake waiting in vain for a puff of breeze!), nor can we control where it begins and ends; but we know it’s there: we hear it, we sense it, smell and taste it. We’re gripped by its mystery and its power, and it fills us with awe and wonder.
Such is the wind. And so it is, says Jesus, with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Consider one of the youth I had in a Confirmation class about twenty years ago who proclaimed to me that he was an atheist and over the next several months proceeded to challenge me on just about every single truth of faith you can name (!); and yet today is a dedicated Christian husband and father, and an active church leader (this after having spent a number of years in the mission field, most prominently with Habitat for Humanity). And when I asked him about it when I saw him a few years ago, he said simply, “God does work in mysterious ways!”
Or consider another man I once knew who spent many years on the fast-track to a lucrative career in corporate law: Magna Cum Laude in college; top of his class in law school; offers from several prestigious law firms – the world was quite literally his oyster – but who left it all because he felt somehow moved to teach a class of children with severe behavioral issues in a tiny inner city school that could barely provide him with a minimal salary. “Right now, that’s where I need to be,” he told me.
And then there’s the retiree who used to show up at the church I served in Maine: a man who’d worked hard his entire life so that he could have an easy, laid-back retirement, living in an RV in a campground just off the beach; but who had this uneasy feeling that he was being called to something more, and ended up joining a mission effort with a group of Christian doctors and nurses bringing (smuggling, if you want to know the truth) needed medical supplies to those in need amidst the violence in the Sudan. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to someone so utterly amazed that he’d ever be a part of something like that!
One thing is for sure: like the wind, we may not be able to predict from whence it comes or where it might go; but all around us are examples of the Spirit of God moving in unexpected places and in unlikely people. It’s there when someone begins to work in the service of others for no other motive than that of caring; it’s in those situations when, against all worldly prejudice and logic, love becomes more contagious than hatred; and forgiveness and mercy takes root in the soil that ordinarily grows vengeance.
We see such things, and like Nicodemus in our gospel text this morning, we are apt to shake our heads, sigh in utter amazement and ask the question, “How can these things be?” And after we try to add up all the socio-economic ramifications, political correctness and the current conventional wisdom as to what happened and why, we turn to Jesus, who tells us, with all love, that the answer, my friend, truly is “blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
As John tells the story, Nicodemus was compelled to seek out Jesus in the middle of the night, for fear that his own feelings of wonder, curiosity and yes, perhaps even rebirth would not be considered proper amongst his fellow Pharisees. But Nicodemus had seen the signs; he’d witnessed these miracles that had come from Jesus, and he wanted to understand. Nicodemus, you see, knew in his heart of hearts that no one could do such things apart from the presence of God, and truth be told, he wanted was what all the Pharisees wanted: he wanted a law; a formula; some kind of process by which one could predict, embrace and even perhaps control these incredible acts of power he’d experienced.
You remember the line in the song about holding time in a bottle? I suspect that Nicodemus wanted to hold divine wonder in a bottle, but of course, you can’t… because it was a gift of grace, freely given, a gift unearned and unmerited. Or, as Frederick Beuchner has put it, there’s no way you can bring grace about “any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream, or earn good looks, or bring about your own birth!”
But Nicodemus still wanted to know “how to do it,” how to be part of the kingdom of God; so under the cover of darkness, he went to Jesus to find out. And Jesus gave him an answer, alright, but it was an answer that he neither expected nor understood: he said that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above;” or in the Greek, anothen, which means “from top to bottom.” To be born from above, or from top to bottom; immediately Nicodemus assumed Jesus was talking about a literal, physical rebirth that had to take place. But Jesus was speaking of spiritual rebirth; talking about God blowing into the whole of one’s life and living, just as the wind will come down out of the mountains and blow the rain out of the valley. Jesus was talking about something way beyond our capacity to order, or direct, or command: this wind, this spirit (ruah in Hebrew) blows from God, it moves by God and it goes where God leads it. This wind, says Jesus, “blows where it chooses.”
Well… you can just imagine the look of astonishment of Nicodemus’ face; and even after Jesus tells him not to look so surprised, all the man can manage to do is to ask, “How can these things be?” What’s interesting here is that Jesus actually, if gently, kind of chides Nicodemus for his lack of understanding (“You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know the basics? Come on!”); but the truth is that Nicodemus ends up kind of speaking for all of here: because we really don’t know how or why God acts as God does; nor do we understand why the power of love and forgiveness is so profoundly extended to people who barely recognize it for what it is, much less receive and embrace it!
Fortunately, what Nicodemus finds out, and what we need to know, friends, is that the basis of our relationship with God, the motive for this spiritual cleansing is dependent upon God rather than us. God’s Spirit breathes upon us, offers us grace, gives us what we need, and those of us who would reach out to catch it are redeemed.
It’s God’s doing, you see; It’s God who chooses us, not the other way around! It is no coincidental, casual phrasing that tells us that “God so loved the world” that he gave… gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. God is deliberate and persistent; always working to save those He loves from aimlessness and sin. Who knows why, who knows how, who knows who the wind of the Spirit will touch next. That wind, after all, will blow where it will. And it does indeed blow… in an amazingly graceful way.
You know, there are Sundays in which our worship together and our study of scripture centers on the need to reawaken us to our call to Christian living with all its many characteristics; and, indeed each one of us here ought to be about the spiritual work of faith and commitment as it applies to our lives and that of the world around us. But then there are days, like today for instance, when the message of the gospel really ought to compel us to stop… stop long enough to pause in perfect wonder at what God has done and what God is doing in our lives and in the world! Truly, beloved, it is an act of faith and devotion for us to simply stop what it is we’re doing; shake our heads, heave a sigh (too deep for words) and then ask, “How can these things be?” And then, of course, give thanks that by grace they are that way!
For the fact is that given the chance to reflect upon it, each one of us here can name can name a time, or a place, or a situation when the wind began to blow – maybe for you it was some kind of storm that had to rage in order for the air to clear at last; or perhaps it was a moment in the solemn stillness when it seemed all the world as though the breath of God had just brushed against your cheek – you didn’t know where it came from, or how, or why; but when it happened you knew your life would never be the same, nor should it be.
I ask you, beloved; where is the wind of God’s redeeming forgiveness, healing human sorrow as it blows in and through our struggles? Where is that sacred breeze dispersing the germs of hatred in the world, in the same manner an open window can let the wind clear out a sickroom? Where is the ruah at work building perseverance in those places where despair abounds? How is it that God can see you and see me, though we are sinners, as saints? And why is it that a spiritual reality – the power of love – a gift unmerited by human effort, is even now blowing its way through our souls, yours and mine, and into the world?
How can these things be?
The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.
Praise and thanks be to God that the wind is blowing still.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry