RCL - Second Sunday in Lent A – Sunday 17 February 2008
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
The Wind Blows Where It Chooses
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. - John 3:16
In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Martin Luther described a verse of the Gospel we heard today, John 3:16, as “the heart of the Gospel, the Gospel in miniature.” The Rainbow Man seemed to think that this same verse would get him on t.v. I guess they were both right. After all, if it’s on t.v. - it must be right. You remember the Rainbow man, right? He was the guy that began the craze of holding up a sign at various sporting events that read “John 3:16,” while wearing a rainbow colored wig. There are conflicting reports as to why he did this - some believe that he was only seeking attention - he has had a troubled life; others insist that he was evangelizing.
As a young man I had a great deal of exposure to this chapter of John’s Gospel. You see, for two years I was in the formation program of the Passionists, a Roman Catholic religious order of priests and brothers. The Passionists are particularly dedicated to the preaching of Christ’s Passion and were rather well-known for the mission work they did all over the country, preaching to parishes for week-long missions about the Passion, often using this chapter to illustrate the point. The Passionists wore a habit that was a black cassock with a very large ensignia over their heart shaped like a heart with a flame on top of it which read, in Latin, of course, The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. On the belt was a very long rosary and, when preaching, a large crucifix would be placed in the vest or belt which could be easily whipped out at the height of the sermon in order to get people to look upon Jesus “lifted up.” The Passionists had a particular spirituality, almost mystical in nature, that taught that this was the way to be saved: Look upon Jesus lifted up on the cross, just as the people of Israel, wandering in the desert, had to look upon the serpent which Moses lifted up, in order to be saved.
But before we get to our eternal salvation, I’d like for us to focus on Nicodemus for a little bit. As I have been thinking about this passage I have had so many different sermons in mind. It is a reading that gives a preacher any number of topics to talk about. But I have been spending a good deal of time with Nicodemus these past few weeks.
Now I just love Nicodemus. He only appears in John’s Gospel - but he shows up three times. And it is each of those appearances that give us all we know about Nicodemus. The first two verses we heard this morning, really grabbed my attention: “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;’ In this passage and in chapter 7, where he next appears, Nicodemus is a reasonable, nice guy. A kind of via media type. He sees that Jesus is a good man and refers to Jesus’ miracles saying “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” But when Jesus tells him that he must be “born from above,” Nicodemus reaction is confusion and, I imagine, a kind of “look, this is crazy - what is this guy talking about - good grief, I hope I haven’t backed a nut here.”
You see, Nicodemus was, to quote John, a “leader of the Jews.” He was a Pharisee who could appreciate the fact that Jesus was doing some good work with the folks out there. That Jesus was clearly prayerful and an all-around decent guy. If Yiddish had been invented by this point in history, Nicodemus might have said that Jesus was “a man among men.” But, Nicodemus certainly did not want any boats rocked, or to be challenged on theology, or to have, perhaps worst of all, his personal spirituality threatened. So he came to Jesus “by night,” - under the cover of darkness, to learn more, but not to be noticed or pointed out. In Christian mystical literature, of which John’s Gospel is the earliest example, the imagery of night if often used to represent questioning, confusion, danger and despair. And all of that seems readily evident in Nicodemus approach to Jesus, his questions and, ultimately, his silence.
Nicodemus is in the thick of confusion. He senses something good - maybe even great. But he is stuck with theological and practical constructs that simply do not allow for what Jesus is saying. His heart is telling him yes, but his mind is saying, yelling, no. He is lost in his own nighttime - a nighttime of questioning his own feelings, doubting what he is witnessing to be true, and telling himself not to hope, not to trust, not to love. At least, that is what his questions sound like to me: He is telling himself not to believe in this Jesus because his experience in the world of his day, a world of repressive religious doctrine and oppresive occupation by a foreign power, has taught him only about the night. When you live in the nighttime, you do not live in hope, you do not live in faith, you do not live in love.
I think Jesus must have sensed this about Nicodemus. For his response is filled with a mystical kind of love: “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.” He must have been standing there thinking to himself: What does that mean? The wind blows where it chooses! St. John’s Gospel was written in Greek. Now, the Greek word for wind is pneuma which also means breath and spirit. Did Nicodemus catch this? Did he feel the Spirit blowing into him to give him the breath of life? We will never know, but I suspect something started in that nighttime of questioning and confusion, because Nicodemus is going to make his final appearance in the Gospel in a rather dramatic way.
But that night, in that darkness, Nicodemus remains silent. Unable to articulate what he is thinking or feeling. Unable to make a total commitment to Jesus. Unable to let himself dive head first into the abyss of love. He stands there listening to Jesus say that the Son of Man must be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
I imagine Nicodemus heading home in a state of utter confusion. Trying to think it through and not quite getting it - not that night. But he must have prayed - and prayed a lot. He must have placed himself in God’s loving hands and asked for guidance. I believe he must have done this because, toward the end of John’s Gospel in chapter 19 , we read that Nicodemus has found his way to Golgotha, where, in broad daylight he will stand by Jesus as he is crucified. He will help Joseph of Arimethea take Jesus’ body down from the cross, anoint his body with myrrh and aloes, and he will help to bury Jesus. In short, he will tend to the crucified Christ. And all in broad daylight. He will do this in front of the gathered crowds, in front of the Pharisees, in front of the Roman army. I can just imagine it all coming together for Nicodemus in those long hours in which he stood at the foot of the cross.
Now, to this day, my personal piety leads me to look up at the Son of Man on the cross the way the Passionists taught me. And somehow, that form of prayer helps me to focus on how much God loves me and all his creation. And if that works for you - go for it. But if it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine too. For in either case, all we have to do is to look around us to see the Son of Man lifted up, not on a crucifix, but in our suffering neighbor.
Michelangelo's Florence Pieta
Nicodemus' face is thought to be a self-portrait of the aging artist
Museo dell'Opera, Florence - Originally uploaded by Branchini
This Lent, allow me to commend to you the example of Nicodemus. While we don’t know the details, he must have prayed, and prayed, and prayed some more. Because when that wind guided him up the hill to Golgotha, he only had to look upon the Son of Man lifted up to know that he was saved. So I encourage you, no matter how dark your particular night might be, no matter your questions, confusion, even despair. No matter how dark the night seems, pray, like Nicodemus and then pray some more. Then choose the light of day and look upon the Son of Man lifted up in the lives of the suffering, the poor, the sick, the lonely, the mourning, the victims of war. Let the wind guide you to that Golgotha known as a veterans hospital and tend to Christ crucified in the form of a wounded soldier. Let the wind guide you to that Golgotha known as a homeless shelter and tend to Christ crucified in the form of a hungry mother and child. Let the wind guide you to that Golgotha known as an elderly neighbors’ house and tend to Christ crucified in the form of a widow mourning her losses. Let the wind guide you to that Golgotha known as a prison and tend to Christ crucified in the form of a convict. Look to these sons of men and see Christ crucified. Look to them and stand by them, tend to them, like Nicodemus, and believe that God sent his Son into the world not to condemn it, but in order that the world might be saved through him.