(a sermon for May 27, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17)
It has long fascinated me that sound – or more accurately, our experience of sound – is something very relative in nature.
For instance, as I was at home writing this sermon yesterday, the windows were open and I was hearing all the noise that’s fairly commonplace on Mountain Road, especially on a weekend: the steady stream of cars whizzing by (usually too fast!) or the roar of motorcycles headed up to the mountains; lawn mowers, weed whackers and the buzz of an occasional chainsaw doing yardwork off in the distance; the snatches of music and conversation emanating from throughout the neighborhood; and this is to say nothing of the constant roar of traffic that floats up from nearby I-93! It’s this ever-present droning of sound – like I say, not at all unusual, especially this time of year – but the thing is that most of the time I don’t even notice it! Quite honestly, most times it takes a siren or a clap of thunder to get me to wake up to all the rest of the noise that’s going on around me!
Actually, the thought of this takes me back to my years growing up in Maine. East Millinocket, the town where I grew up, was in those more prosperous days a huge paper mill town; and so the constant whirring and clanking of paper machines at the mill, along with the roar of all the other varied kinds of equipment used to move around pulp and paper, was a regular part of our lives 24/7… so much so that from day to day we hardly ever noticed the noise of it! In fact, every morning around 7:45 there would be three blasts of the fire horn signaling the end of the night shift (and, as it turned out, to let us kids know that school was starting in a half-hour!); but let me tell you that when I was in high school, I could sleep through that fire horn blasting with no trouble whatsoever and be late for class as a result!
Contrast this, however, to what we experienced every summer when we went “uptacamp” at the lake; when without the noise of the mill filling our ears every night, the silence those first few nights could almost be deafening! And when you woke up it wasn’t to the sound of paper machines, but rather to the sound of loons calling to one another from the far end of the pond; birds singing their songs high up in the trees behind the camp, and the first hints of a morning breeze rustling through the leaves. Or maybe it’d be the putt-putt of a little outboard engine bringing one of the old men out to Barker Rocks in hopes that the fishing might be particularly good that morning. Perhaps you’d even hear your parents out in the kitchen talking about putting on a pot of coffee, or hear a screen door slamming as one of them down to the spring for a jug of water. These were no less than the quiet, gentle sounds of life “going on,” all of that which, unbeknownst to you, had pretty much been drowned out by the clamor of school, work and the routine of daily life!
And what I remember more than anything else is that whereas I could easily sleep through the blasts of the fire horn, all those sounds at the lake were almost like an alarm clock for me. I’d hear all this from my bed and I’d want to get right up and see what was going on; to find out what the weather was going to be and get started on whatever adventure was waiting for me that day! It was a new day, a brand new season full of possibility, and as such, I was new as well; part of a time and a place in which something wonderful was going to happen that I definitely didn’t want to miss!
Actually, if you think of that as a parable of sorts it’s not all that different than that which our epistle text for this morning sets forth: what it means for you and I to live in and be led by the Spirit of God! You see, in his letter to the Roman church Paul speaks about this incredible power God has unleashed into the world in Christ’s resurrection; a Spirit of life that empowers all who call upon it in the same manner it empowered Jesus in the midst of his own suffering and death, to the extent that his glory becomes our glory as well! Paul is very specific in saying that by that same Spirit “bearing witness with our spirit,” we are “children of God,” and as such “heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” and all the good things that come with that.
Think about that with me for a moment, because that’s big! What that’s saying is that because of the Spirit and out of love, God has not simply made us his children, but views us as his children in the same way that he views Jesus himself! Do you ever remember hearing someone refer to a child born to a family very late in life as an “afterthought;” meaning that this family thought they were long since past having any more children but then there was a baby on the way who was the “afterthought?” Well, what we’re told here is that you and I are not to be thought of any sort of divine afterthought; but in fact, fully and wholly children of God and co-heirs with God’s Son Jesus. And because of this, we’ve entered into this brand new style of life that comes to us by virtue of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This is why Paul is also very quick in our reading today to make a distinction between the old time and place when we were “debtors… to the flesh,” that is, living a life wholly caught up in the ways and means of the world, as opposed to now, as we’re living the new life of the Spirit in which we are regarded as Children of God! Living in that Spirit, you see, brings us a whole new perception of life and living, in which we see and hear and experience things so much differently than we ever did before, thus changing how we live forever! Once again, I found myself smiling at how The Message words this: “This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’ God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are.” In the more traditional translation, “…you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption.” You’ve been given a spirit that is a living force dwelling within you, and it shapes who you are and what you do; and because of this, it’s a new day and a brand new life full of possibility, one that you don’t want to miss out on! Yes, it might well lead to challenge and suffering, as it did for our brother Christ, but it’s also a life that inevitably gives way to wonder, and glory, and divine purpose.
As Paul proclaims it here, it’s an amazing gift; not to mention one of the central truths of our Christian faith. But the question is… it always is… whether we’re ready and willing to embrace that gift as our own.
Our second reading for this morning is that passage that John that leads into what is arguably the most oft-quoted verses of the gospels: that “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.” But what we don’t always acknowledge is that this verse is actually the culmination of a longer (and, might I add, covert) conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus; a conversation which begins with Jesus speaking to this Pharisee about the need for being born again, not of the flesh but of the Spirit, or as our translation of scripture puts it, being “born from above.” What’s interesting is that Nicodemus, despite being a Pharisee and, as such, a knowledgeable man on matters of faith and theology, responds with questions that sound almost like riddles: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
There’s a spirited back and forth between Jesus and this Pharisee; to the point where in the end, it’s really not a lack of understanding that holds Nicodemus back (because as Jesus says it, he is a teacher of Israel; surely he understands that “what is born of the Spirit is spirit”), but rather, I suspect, the sheer reality of what it means this same Spirit – God’s Spirit – start one’s life all over again! Nicodemus, being a Pharisee and being a tireless purveyor of the Law, would have to know that such an understanding would mean following God along a new pathway; and that the things of heaven – the things relating to God’s plan, God’s kingdom, God’s love – would have to take precedence over earthly things, even some things relating to the law! It would have to mean that you might well find yourself living a new kind of life, a life in which would have to trust God’s Spirit to give you courage, and strength, and love in order to witness to that truth in the world. And make no mistake, friends, that was a daunting prospect for Nicodemus; and it continues to be for us as well.
But the good news is that we are given the kind of Spirit that empowers us to be God’s children in the here and now, even as we lay the groundwork for the kingdom to come in its fullness. As Paul also said, this time to in his 2nd letter to Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (1:7) And here’s the challenge that goes with that good news: by the power of this Spirit given us, we are to wake up to this brand new day and truly live!
Not long ago I read something very interesting about the psychology of lions; which is in truth, part folklore and part the result of years of studying prides of lions and their habits of life and survival. But what seems to be true amidst the folklore is that lion cubs, despite what we all know to be true from watching “The Lion King,” (!) basically come into the world pretty much stillborn; and that they are “awakened to life” by the roar of another lion. The legend inherent in this is the reason why lions have a roar in the first place: it is to awaken young lions who are asleep, because otherwise they can never be born, and thus live and grow and take their proper place in the pride. Lions are never able to truly fulfill their destiny unless they are awakened to the possibility of it by a roar!
It’s really not too much of a stretch think of ourselves in the same way. After all, there are so many people who come into this world, who live their lives and do their jobs and go through their days as though stillborn, without really having life as it is meant to be. Maybe there’s somebody here today who does everything they’re supposed to do in this life, and yet deep down feels as if they’re merely going through the motions; like there’s supposed to be something more to who they are and what they’re supposed to be: a deep passion, a holy rage, a joyous aggression that fulfills everything that life and living is meant to hold. But something holds that back.
Well, beloved, the good news is that once in the town of Galilee there was a lion who roared: a lion who roared to life those who were yet stillborn; children who by the sound of this mighty roar of life became sons and daughters of God, heirs of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.
That lion’s name is Jesus, and if we will only attune our ears to sound of his voice, which truly roars above the din of human anxieties and fears, he will awaken us to things we never heard, or seen, or done, or have been before. He will give to us a Spirit that dwells within us and allows us to truly live with wonder, and purpose, and incredible joy manifest in divine love.
May this be the day we’re awakened to that Spirit… and as that happens, may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry