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Awakened by a Roar

(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

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Posted by on May 27, 2018 in Epistles, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Life, Maine, Paul, Sermon

 

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“The Answer, My Friend…”

106_0619(a sermon for June 15, 2014, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, based on John 3:1-17)

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

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Holy Spirit, Jesus, Life, Pentecost, Sermon

 

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