Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Wet, Windblown Witnesses

This is the message I shared with God's people at Bethel Lutheran Church, Portville, NY. It is based on John 3:1-17. God bless you.

I don’t know about you, but I can identify with Nicodemus. Like him, I have had ideas about the way things are and how God works. But then God decides to do something that is completely outside the box I had put him in. Nicodemus represents each of us who are seeking God and want to do what’s right. 

Ironically, the first words out of Nicodemus’ mouth were “…we know…” Nicodemus came to Jesus with a set of convictions about what was real and what was possible. He heard and perhaps had witnessed the wondrous signs Jesus had done, but Nicodemus didn’t know as much as he thought he did. Here was a man who was devout and learned in the Old Testament scriptures. He was a leader and teacher about God. But even his extensive knowledge of God’s law and the miraculous wasn’t enough to ensure that he understood the workings of God.

Nicodemus knew of Jesus’ mighty deeds, but he stumbled through the night of his own preconceptions about how God should work. All he could do was ask, "How one can be born again?" and "What do these things mean?” The deeper darkness of unbelief obscured the vision of Nicodemus. 

Nicodemus had physical eyes, but he was unable to see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus was alive, but he could not enter the kingdom of God. We get to overhear Jesus telling a religious leader that abundant and eternal life is a gift of God’s grace, not attained by achievement, claim or proof. 

Our English language cannot entirely convey the point Jesus was making regarding being “born from above.” This phrase can also be translated “born anew” or “born again.” The Greek word speaks of a time of birth—“again” and the place from which this new birth comes “from above.” Jesus is telling Nicodemus he needs to be born in a new time and in a new place to see and understand God’s reign. What Jesus is saying is that Nicodemus must have a spiritual birth. To become a part of that kingdom of God, takes a birth from water and the spirit. 

We know the rest of the story about Nicodemus’ reaction. He was so tuned into the physical side of life that he could not wrap his mind and understanding around the concept of a spiritual rebirth. When Jesus says that we must all be born anew, Nicodemus is confused, taking his metaphor literally. Jesus contrasts physical life flesh versus life in the Spirit. One of the key elements of Spirit life is freedom to not be bound by the same concerns as those who live in the physical life. Our future and fate are sealed by God’s tremendous love (David Lose).

Nicodemus is also representative of the unchurched people of our world today who describe themselves as “spiritual,” but unaffiliated with any church. They believe there is a God. They may not know much about him, but they are sure God is around somewhere, somehow. Like Nicodemus, they are curious and wonder about God.

A recent study found that about half of Americans read the Bible on their own, and four in five people who read it as part of their personal lives open it at least once a month. The number one reason they pick up Scripture is for personal prayer and devotion. One of the lead researchers of the study concluded that people have spiritual questions and are looking for meaning in their life (The Association of Religious Data Archives, http://blogs.thearda.com/trend/featured/the-lord-is-their-shepherd-new-study-reveals-who-reads-the-bible-–-and-why/).

In order to find such meaning, we have to get wet with the waters of baptism. Just as a physical baby emerges from the waters of the birth canal, so we are spiritually born of water and the Spirit in holy baptism, being transformed by God into his children. 

In baptism, the Holy Spirit blows into our lives. If we allow God’s Spirit to blow where it wills and lead us, we become windblown by the Holy Spirit. Simply put, God will lead us to places and have us do things beyond our wildest expectations. Led by the Holy Spirit, we become witnesses to all God’s work in our lives. 
So what is a wet, windblown witness of God supposed to do in this wild and weary world? It begins with prayer to understand how God is leading. Earlier this week while working on Holy Week worship, I came across these words:
... consider these questions: "Is the desire to welcome and receive new Christians listed among the prayer concerns of your parish? Do the weekly prayers of the people at worship include petitions for new men, women, and children to become a part of your community of faith? Is the receiving and welcoming of new Christians a part of the regular opening and closing prayers of the evangelism leadership team and the parish council?" (Faith Forming Faith, 97). (from Sundays and Seasons, http://members.sundaysandseasons.com/rtf_download.php?id=35108&file=PreparThreeDaysYear.rtf.

I hate to admit it, but if we honestly answer these questions, we fall flat on our face as a congregation. I too am guilty as charged when it comes to praying for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ and for God to grow our church with those who are new in the faith. 

Wel need to listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading regarding the spiritual condition of a neighbor or friend or a stranger we just happen to strike up a conversation with. We will experience setbacks as we live out the windblown life of God’s Spirit directing us. All the bumps along the road we experience are temporary because God is redeeming the world in and through our Lord Jesus. We are free to experiment and struggle and succeed and fail and live and love and die … all knowing that in Christ God has already worked to redeem the whole world. Redemption is God’s responsibility, not ours. Our job is to identify and share where we see hints of that redemption already. However, sometimes our independent ways of thinking and our preconceptions about life in general bleed over into our understanding of God’s ways.

Jesus teaches about the kind of faith that is a commitment to the One whose death reveals the things of heaven. It creates an openness to the uncontrollable wind of God and an embracing of the mysterious newness of God.

Just as Jesus upended Nicodemus’ understanding of spiritual things, let Him turn our worlds upside down. Get ready and hold on to your hat because the Spirit of change is blowing. Open yourself up to where it will take you. Amen.
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