“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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8
You might have missed it in this crazy news week, but James Lipton died on Monday at the age of 93. (He retired only two years ago, which is pretty amazing.) Lipton was best known for his interviews on the show Inside the Actors’ Studio. His combination of careful listening and thoughtful questions could get actors and comedians and other performers to open up in all kinds of ways. On that stage famous folks would admit their insecurities and their fears, the secrets to their success, their deepest longings. It was almost always something to see.
James Lipton famously ended his interviews with the same ten questions[i]:
- What is your favorite word?
- What is your least favorite word?
- What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
- What turns you off?
- What is your favorite curse word?
- What sound or noise do you love?
- What sound or noise do you hate?
- What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
- What profession would you not like to do?
- If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
I’ve been thinking about my own answers all week. And now I’m a little worried you’ll be thinking about yours instead of listening to the rest of the sermon.
Lipton, who identified as an atheist, once handed his questions over to Will Ferrell and agreed to answer the questions himself. [ii] What did he reveal that he wanted God to say to him upon arriving at the pearly gates? He hoped God would say: “You see, Jim? You were wrong. I exist. But you may come in anyway.”
Questions are important. They invite us to reveal something about ourselves. One of the ways I know that I’m really connecting with someone I’ve just met is when we move beyond the usual questions – Where are you from? What do you do? – into more interesting territory. What fills you with purpose? What made you decide to do that? What would you like to tell your middle school self?
Asking questions shows that we are open to learning something new. Ask anyone who lives with a toddler and has to answer the question “Why?” about 4000 times a day. Or maybe those who live with a teenager, in which case the question is “Why can’t I?” Both of those questions reveal that the person is growing in important ways – trying to understand the world, looking for more independence.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus with some questions in the middle of the night. The night is both practical and symbolic. Darkness in the Gospel of John represents a lack of understanding. The people who are in darkness don’t yet understand who Jesus is or why he matters. The fact that Nicodemus comes at night also suggests that this isn’t just a social call.
Some background might help here. Remember that Jesus was Jewish, his first followers were Jewish, and the first audience of John’s gospel was Jewish. The Gospel of John was the last of the four Gospels to be written down (probably around the year 90 or so). By that time there were conflicts within the Jewish community. Those who believed in Jesus as the Son of God were at odds with those who did not. We hear a lot of references to “the Jews” in the Gospel of John – some of them quite accusatory.
Most of those references to “the Jews” might better be translated “the Jewish leaders” – those fellow teachers with whom Jesus is often in conversation – and sometimes conflict. And it’s important to remember that we’re looking at here is essentially a family fight – certainly not justification for anti-Semitism, as has often happened historically.
It’s possible that Nicodemus, himself a Jewish leader, may not have wanted to be seen conversing with Jesus. It might have gotten him into trouble with his own family or with his colleagues. But there he is, knocking on Jesus’ door in the middle of the night. He doesn’t seem to bother with any chitchat. Nicodemus just dives right in: “”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.” He acknowledges Jesus as a teacher. He even calls Jesus “Rabbi.” And he knows that Jesus has been doing “signs” – this gospel’s words for miracles. He knows those signs have something to do with the power of God.
As the conversation unfolds, I feel for Nicodemus. Because Jesus doesn’t give many straightforward answers. Jesus speaks in metaphors – about being born from above, about the wind going where it wants to go. On top of that confusing imagery, Jesus gives Nicodemus a hard time for not getting it. There must have been times when Nicodemus was thinking, “I got up in the middle of that night for THIS?”
But Nicodemus doesn’t leave. He stays. He asks questions. How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? How can these things be? He wants to get it.
Jesus ultimately tells Nicodemus this: “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.”
In some Christian traditions this passage has been used to mean that each of us must have one singular moment in which we have accepted Jesus into our hearts and thus have been “born again.”
This passage has also been used to exclude, to define a narrow path toward what it means to believe in Jesus. Anyone who strays from that path puts their soul at risk. Even though it says that God did not send the Son to condemn the world, humans have done an excellent job of doing just that.
The problem with both of those approaches is that they depend on us – what we choose, what we decide, who we leave in, who we leave out. But the thing about being born is that we don’t have much say in it. It just happens. We don’t decide it. It’s about God’s time, God’s creation, God’s purposes, God’s power.
Same thing with the wind. It can be gentle or powerful, but we sure don’t control it. I can’t just wave my arms and make the wind blow in here.
Those images point to the truth that faith might not be about having the right answers to the right questions. Faith does not rest on what we do or decide. It rests on what God has already done. For us as Christians, it rests on what God has done by giving us Jesus.
It’s that word “believe” that trips us up. It’s the believing that keeps us from perishing, Jesus says. We tend to think of believing as an act of the mind. Diana Butler Bass reminds us that in other languages belief is not primarily cognitive.[iii] In Latin, for example, the word for believe in a religious sense was credo, meaning “I set my heart upon” or “I give my loyalty to.” In Middle English the word credo came to be translated as “believe,” which was related to a German word belieben. That German word has to do with finding joy and delight in something, to treasure it. The root of that word is the German word for love.
So belief is not exclusively an intellectual endeavor. It’s not just signing on to a bunch of doctrines. Belief is relational more than intellectual. In a life of faith to believe means trusting in One whom we love and who loves us and being in that relationship over time. Yes, our lives and our decisions will be shaped by that relationship in every way. When we believe in someone, we invest in that relationship completely – with heart, mind, soul, and strength. It changes us. But our salvation does not rest on one decision moment in which we’d better get the answer right or else.
We don’t know a lot about what happened to Nicodemus after this night. We don’t have any evidence that his life was totally transformed in that one night of conversation. He appears only two more times in John. In Chapter 7 there’s an argument going on among several Jewish leaders about whether Jesus should be arrested. Nicodemus tries to speak up, saying: ‘Our law doesn’t judge people without first giving them a hearing.” But his colleagues shut him down, and Nicodemus goes silent.
The last time we hear from Nicodemus is when Jesus dies, and Nicodemus shows up with a hundred pounds of spices to anoint the body of Jesus – an amount both extravagant and expensive. That’s what you do when you care about the person who has died. Whatever happened to Nicodemus did not happen all at once. It took time. It took relationship. It took a conversation in the middle of the night that I like to imagine eventually kept going in the daylight.
Jesus trusts that Nicodemus does not need easy, simplistic answers. He trusts that Nicodemus can and will continue to wrestle with what it means to be held by God’s spirit – to be born again and again and again as Nicodemus realizes over and over how much God loves him.
Jesus trusts us in that way too. He knows that we have questions, doubts, struggles, fears. He knows that these questions are not easily resolved, that it takes a lifetime to grow in faith.
There’s a blue piece of paper in your bulletin. I hope you’ll find it now and write down a question or two that you have for God. What do you most want to ask God when you wake up in the middle of the night staring at the ceiling? What do you wonder – about life, about faith, about the world we live in? Talking to God, whether during the night or during the day, takes practice. So let’s practice. Write down your questions. You don’t have to put your name on that page unless you want to. Please drop it in the basket at the door on your way out.
I can’t promise easy answers to all of our questions. I can promise that they will shape our walk together in faith.
And I can promise that God welcomes each and every one of these questions as signs that our faith is alive and growing. For that we give thanks. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[iii] Thank you to Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus for reminding me of Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity After Religion. This discussion of language can be found on pp. 116-17 of that book (Chapter 4).
“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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:7-8
There are a lot of bad analogies for the Trinity. Whenever people take a stab at explaining how God could be three persons – Father, Son, Spirit – and yet still be one God, it seldom goes well. Here’s a sampling of the attempts: God is like water that exists in three states – solid, liquid, gas. Or like an egg – the shell, the egg white, and the yoke. Three parts, one egg. Or a three-leaf clover. Or a tree – roots, trunk, branches. You get the idea.[i]
This morning I’m not going to get tangled up in knots trying to explain the Holy Trinity. That’s probably more work than one sermon can do anyway. But I’d like to zoom in on one part of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. Many of us are more comfortable thinking about God as Creator – or perhaps God as Parent. We can maybe wrap our minds around God becoming human in the person of Jesus. But the Holy Spirit? We’re not sure about that one.
The biblical images for the Holy Spirit usually come in three varieties: fire, a dove, or wind (sometimes breath or other kinds of air). At our New Jersey Synod Assembly a couple of weeks ago, we were all set to use several of those images. My friends on the worship planning committee hauled altar candles and a paschal candle to the site. (The paschal candle is that big candle beside the font that we light during baptisms and on other special Sundays.) And on the night of our dinner, someone had filled big balloons in the shape of white doves and tied them to many of the chairs around the room so they were floating in the air over us.
But we ran into some problems. For starters, the hotel wouldn’t allow any open flames. So we couldn’t actually light the candles, and having all those candles up there without flames just seemed too depressing, so we tucked the candles away in a corner. And then, throughout the dinner and the next morning, I watched as, one by one, the white Spirit balloons met a sad fate. A few lost their helium and started to drift drunkenly toward the ground. One was pulled down to a lower level and tied securely to the back of a chair so it couldn’t float any more. Still another balloon was stuffed under a table.
I have no idea why people felt so hostile toward the balloons, but the whole thing felt pretty close to how we usually respond to the Spirit. We don’t want that Spirit roaming wildly around the place. We want to tether it, control it, nail it down. We can’t stand the thought of a Spirit that is moving, a Spirit that is on fire. That kind of Spirit is too dangerous. That kind of Spirit might spread from one place to another without our permission.
Whatever brings Nicodemus to Jesus in the middle of the night, he ends up having some questions about the Spirit. Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be born from above. Another way to translate that phrase is to be “born again.” Nicodemus is understandably confused and presses the point. You can’t return to your mother’s body and be born again, can you? What Jesus says doesn’t clarify the matter very much: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Jesus goes on to say that “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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus seems to understand how much we’d like to control the Holy Spirit. He knows we like life to be predictable. He knows we don’t like to take risks, certainly not the risks that come with speaking and living our faith. But Jesus doesn’t really give us an option. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” That’s us, born again in baptism. Born of water and Spirit. So it is, Jesus says. So it is. That we are born again to a new life – that part is certain. But where it leads? We do not know. The wind blows where it chooses. We have no idea where and when it might shake us up.
On Thursday night I sat in one of the top rows in the balcony of a church in Washington, DC that was filled to overflowing. We were listening to an impressive line-up of preachers, including Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, whom you may have heard recently give the wedding homily for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Hanging from the ceiling of the church right in front of me were long red ribbons. I assumed they were left there from the congregation’s celebration of the Pentecost last Sunday.
Bishop Curry was laying it out for us. “Love your neighbor,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.” He went on, getting louder and louder and challenging us with the truth that loving our neighbor is not just a sentimental feeling. He said: “Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino, your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor. That’s why we’re here.”
As Bishop Curry became increasingly impassioned, I watched the air move through those red ribbons. They started swaying more and more. Something is happening, I thought. The Spirit is moving.
And then this happened. A bird appeared out of nowhere and perched on a beam near the ceiling of the church. It startled me at first. I watched it flit around for a while and realized that it, too, embodied the Holy Spirit. We couldn’t control where that bird came from or where it was headed. But there it was, moving freely and surprising all of us.
Think for a moment about what unsettles you right now. It might be something in your own life – an unresolved relationship, a new professional opportunity, a concern for a friend. What might the Spirit be moving you to do in that situation? It might feel risky, but so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
What unsettles you about our world right now? What most fires you up when you think about it? More school shootings? People who are hungry in a world with plenty of food? Immigrant children separated from their families? An opioid drug crisis ensnaring people in addiction? What might the Spirit be moving you to do? It might feel daunting, but so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
We might very well ask the question that Nicodemus does: “How can these things be?” When we live a life of faith that question is going to come up a lot. How can these things be?
But as people of faith, we don’t just ask “How can these things be?” We ask, “How can we respond?” How can we follow God’s ways of justice and mercy? The Spirit blows in and around us not just to unsettle us but to inspire us. Inspire us to help in the ways that we can. To change systems that keep people hungry and poor and afraid. To pray with our hands and our feet.
May we live and love as the Spirit moves us to do – even when it surprises us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ