Sermon Text: John 3: 1-17
Do you ever look back on a time in your life and think, “Why did I do that? What made me think that that was a good idea? Boy, was I dumb!” I don’t know, maybe it’s something about moving back to your home town, but I’ve been reflecting on some of those moments, especially those boneheaded years when I was 16 or 17.
OK, here’s the thing: I have a fondness for conversation and debate. My Myers-Briggs typology is an ENTP. If you’ve never heard of it, Myers-Briggs is a personality assessment tool that measures how people process the world and make decisions. Simply put: I’m extraverted; I understand the world best through intuition; I make decisions with thought and logic; and I perceive the world as it comes to me—I like to adapt and change to my situations and surroundings. Put it all together and I’m an ENTP. (If you’ve never heard of this before, Google it and take an assessment to find out what you are, it’s fascinating stuff.)
One description of my typology, my personality, says this: “ENTPs are fluent conversationalists, mentally quick, and enjoy verbal sparring with others. They love to debate issues, and may even switch sides sometimes just for the love of debate.”
As a teenager I was just figuring this out, and it created some volatile situations. I was young, with little to no filter, and I would gladly enter into debates from sports to politics, from religion to…well, anything.
When I think back on some of those debates I just cringe. I think about my own stubbornness. I think about how wedded I was to thoughts and principles that I took as absolutes. I was worst when I debated religion. I was mighty proud of my theology and mighty arrogant. Probably mighty obnoxious.
There I was with my brain working overtime. I had a fire in my belly for Lutheranism and a zealot’s conviction that my brand of thinking was absolutely correct. Basically, I was as smug as every other 16 or 17 year old.
In reality, what I took for freedom of thought was just a stumbling block. What I thought was enlightenment was simply darkness. I was holding myself back with my own knowledge.
Enter Nicodemus. It is hard to know what to make of Nicodemus. He is one of the most intriguing, yet elusive biblical characters. Nicodemus is a Jewish community leader, a Pharisee, and he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness.
From the beginning the conversation seems promising. Nicodemus is cordial. He starts by saying, “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.” Sounds good, right? We know you are a teacher from God.
But it is precisely what Nicodemus knows that becomes a stumbling block. Nicodemus’ knowledge becomes the darkness to which he clings. His knowledge obscures his ability to hear, receive, and digest the testimony of Jesus.
Then, as the conversation moves on, Nicodemus is reduced from a learned scholar to a skeptic with outbursts of disbelief and astonishment:
“How can anyone be born after having grown old? (4a)
“Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (4b)
“How can these things be?” (9)
Although Nicodemus comes under the cover of night, the deeper darkness of unbelief obscures his vision. Nicodemus struggles to free himself from the knowledge he believes to be absolute. He resists opening himself to the idea of the Holy Spirit. He is so entrenched in what he knew to be true that the whole notion of being born of Spirit is unsettling.
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sounds 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. Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Nicodemus seeks to understand what Jesus is telling him, he is sincere, but on the other hand he is limited by his perception. He is limited by his imagination. Nicodemus is enslaved by his knowledge of what is possible and what is not possible.
But Jesus offers Nicodemus freedom—freedom that is granted to those who are born of the Spirit.
You know, when I look around our pews I see a church of people who have been born anew by the Spirit. Born again. Born from above. And one of the key characteristics of life that we are all given through the Holy Spirit is the element of freedom. We are not bound by the same concerns of those who live according to the flesh because our future and fate are sealed by God’s tremendous love.
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.
God’s love, and the empowering spirit that we have been given in baptism, gives us tremendous freedom when we think about how best to respond to the challenges and opportunities for ministry.
Here’s the thing: we live in a time and age when the church universal is filled with anxiety. If we look at the statistics, and just look around at many of the churches in our region, we see the church in decline. There is anxiety over the future of the church. We are uncertain about how to best engage our communities. We are uncertain about our ability to effectively share the gospel of Christ because we haven’t had to do evangelism before. We are uncertain about how to work for justice without seeming “too political.”
Part of our anxiety is produced from the fact that we have no road in front of us. We are sailing into uncharted waters. And that can be terrifying. The unknown can be terrifying.
But the truth is that we are not alone. We are not alone! The Holy Spirit accompanies and empowers us to face a future that we may is uncertain, but our future has been secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So yes, our future is secured. And from this perspective, the anxiety we feel when we hear “there is no road map” can be transformed into excitement. There is no roadmap people! We are free. We don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done. We can experiment, risk, fail, learn, and grow in ways we’d never imagine. All because the Holy Spirit, and the spirit of Christ, will blow us in directions that were previously inconceivable.
In some way we have the choice to be Nicodemus and let our knowledge create stumbling blocks, or we can embrace the direction of the Holy Spirit and follow wherever it might lead.
We can cling to what we know, what has worked and failed in the past. Or we can free ourselves, follow the unknown course of the wind, and shape our ministry in new and creative ways. Do we dare to do something new or something that we’ve always done?
As the church, as Zion, we must repeat this question again and again to determine how we will best step into the light of Christ and spread it beyond our walls.
Remember that God so loved the world. Remember that we are free. Remember that we are aided by God’s powerful Spirit who, if we but let go, will blow us to new and exciting places. And remember that this is all made possible because God first loved us. That God loves us so extravagantly that, whatever may come, we will always have God’s promise of presence and redemption in and through Christ our Lord. AMEN