Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Elementary #2, Wind 2020-0308

7-8 Mar 2020, Christ Mountain Top
Praying the Scripture, Psalm 121 (inserted, see below)
Children, Genesis 12.1-4 (Abram called to leave)
Message, John 3.1-17 (born again, Spirit/wind goes where it wills)
Mission Moment, Kids program at Sherman Hills

Last week we began our Lent message series, Elementary, with the theme “Word.” We heard the temptation of Jesus and the temptation of Eve and Adam. Those in the paradise garden put a higher value on what they desired than on the Word God had given. Jesus, faced with the Bible-thumpin’ devil, declared that he needed the Word more than bread, more than adoration and respect, more than power to make the world better. We discussed how important discernment is for life, and how our discernment, and our victory over temptation, is shaped by being honest with ourselves and having a mind renewed through the Word. In our worship visual center, we had a collection of Bibles.
       Today we continue this series with the theme Wind. “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). In the Greek text, the word for Spirit and the word for wind are the same word, pneuma. Father Abram is called to leave and go to “a land I will show you.” “You do not know where it comes from or where it is going.” In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes of Abraham and Christ and tells us that righteousness comes not by works but by faith, by the kind of faith that embraces uncertainty and steps out into the unknown trusting only in God. The psalm assures us that the Lord will protect your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and forever more. In our visual center today we have one hand held fan and a bunch of paper with the text of John 3.8 that you are invited to fold into accordion fans: “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.”
       Upcoming weeks will see the themes of Water, Light, Life, and Death. Then, Easter!
Years ago, in a small group that was reading through John’s gospel together, one of the young women in the group gasped as we worked on this story from John 3: This means that if I trust in Jesus a new life is possible, a life eternal, a life like God’s! Exactly! That is what it means to be “born of the Spirit.” That is what it means to “leave your land, your people, your father’s house.”
       Yet, so often, we do not believe that this is possible. We do not believe that a new life is possible. We feel trapped in cycles of abuse, poverty, crime, depression, addiction, mental health struggles, job loss, grief, loss of memory, hostility, a divided nation and culture. We feel trapped in our own lives with no way out, stuck in a prison that is partly of our own making.

Then, through a crack, we feel a breeze. It rushes past our cheek and across our neck. We shiver, involuntarily. And we have a choice: Open the crack wider or board it up to keep the Spirit out and ourselves in, in this trap partly of our own making.
       Winnie the Pooh is trying to get some honey and he is impersonating a rain cloud. “I’m just a little black rain cloud hovering over the honey tree…” Piglet is growing concerned, “I think the bees are on to you.” Pooh replies, “You can never tell with bees.”
       And that’s what we often say about that wind flowing through that crack: “You can never tell with breeze.” It could be a tornado, violent and dangerous. We could be in big trouble letting it in. So, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. But, in the case of these Bible stories, that response of escaping the wind ends up being better the devil you know than the God you don’t. That’s where faith comes in. We don’t know God fully. When God comes, God always takes us by surprise. There is some degree of uncertainty we must face when we exercise trust. Jumping into the pool for dad to catch me. If we do, if we do trust, a new life is actually possible. While this new life will not change the realities with which we have to deal – our financial crisis, our family issues, our personal baggage – this new life means that we are different. This new life means that life of God, the breath, the wind, of the Spirit, is what gives us power and direction – a power and direction that the world can neither understand nor control. A new life is possible!

Sometimes, we are called into this new life out of the ruins of the old. Everything that can go wrong did go wrong. Relationships we once treasured and trusted deteriorated into hostility. Jobs we once relied on were taken from us. Health that seemed a constant was taken from us overnight. The wind blows upon us. The Spirit of God hovers over us, creating, conceiving, and pushing us into the new world of grace. We may be afraid to leave behind “the devil we know,” but if we do we will find ourselves in the arms of a God who is faithful and true.
       Sometimes, we are called into this new life out of the glory of the old one. Nicodemus had a good thing going – wealth, respect, status, education. There was nothing wrong with his life. And, there was nothing wrong with Abram’s life. He was in a familiar and comfortable place. He lived near family and they actually loved each other. He was well off. Miroslav Volf comments on Abraham’s choice: “he would either belong to his country, his culture, and his family and remain comfortably inconsequential or, risking everything, he would depart and become great.”[1] The wind blows upon Abram. The Spirit of God hovers over him, calling, promising, leading him into the new world of grace. But he has no idea where he is going or what it will be like when he gets there. John Wesley says it this way: “By this precept he was tried whether he could trust God farther than he saw him.”[2]
       Incidentally, Volf is describing Abraham’s call to be counter-cultural. Today, there is nothing more counter-cultural than a Christian community that includes and values folks who disagree with each other on important questions. As the global United Methodist Church goes through its agonizing struggle, here at Christ Church we have developed and nurtured just such a divergent community – a treasure for which I am deeply grateful. Back to our theme …
       However the call comes, whether out of the ruins of the old or out of the glory of the old, we have to get out of our own heads. Nicodemus, “You are a teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things!?” “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). We will never have full understanding. There is something to the life of faith that we will never be able to fully grasp. We name it mystery. We name it uncertainty. Whatever we name it, we’ve got to get out of our heads, at least a little, and lean into it with our hearts.
       One of our persons here at Christ Church tells her personal faith story in these terms: “Going from rote to relationship.” She practiced her faith for years. She went to church. It was “rote,” that is, it was something she did out of obligation or habit, but not something that penetrated into her heart, not something that involved leaning into uncertainty, leaning into mystery. Seven years ago, this lifetime church-goer had a decisive encounter with Jesus that changed her life. The wind blew. The Spirit of God hovered and conceived and brought forth new life. A new life is genuinely possible!

The good news in all of this is that, though we may struggle with faith, Jesus still engages us. We don’t have to have faith for him to listen. We don’t have to have taken that risk, placed our trust in him, for him to join us in conversation and life. We don’t know when Nicodemus stepped out in faith with the wind of the Spirit at his back, but we know that he did so. At the end of John’s gospel, Nicodemus is one of those who comes to take Jesus’ body, embalm it, and bury it. You don’t do that unless you have gone from rote to relationship, unless you have entered into the new life that is only possible when the wind of the Spirit blows on you. Take hope! Ultimately, it’s not about us and our faith. Instead, it’s all about God and God’s faithfulness.
       Join me again in reading this text from Lamentations 3 that we shared on Ash Wednesday:

21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul,
"therefore I will hope in him."

[1] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1996), 38.
[2] John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible (Adobe PDF eBook from Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, from the 1754 Explanatory Notes on the New Testament and 1765 Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament), 865. In announcing our 2002 move to a church plant, I preached from Genesis 12 and included Wesley’s reflection.

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