Friday, March 14, 2014

“The Landscape of Lent: Wind” - March 16, 2014 (Lent 2)


Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a, John 3:1-17

Where were you born?  I was born at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Indiana.  I grew up in Evansville and went to school there.  My parents still live in that same house I grew up in.  I still have friends and family in town. 

Does the place where we are born matter?  Does it make a significant difference in the person that we are?  A lot of people would say yes.  The fact that they were born in Iowa – or Texas – or California – makes a lot of difference.  The fact that they were born in Ghana or China or Laos is important to understanding who they are.

This may be true.  But what if you were born in Mississippi but spent all of your formative years in Maine?  Or what if your parents were in the military and you lived in 12 different states growing up?  Where you were born may not matter so much.  I grew up in Indiana, but it has been 30 years since I lived there.  Even if you know where a person is from, that doesn’t mean you have them all figured out.

Whatever it importance today, where you were born was of far greater importance in ancient societies.  Most people would never leave their country of birth; many never traveled more than 20 miles from the place they were born.  A person’s home and network of family and friends provided support and belonging and identity and a means of earning a living.  Travel beyond one’s homeland was difficult and dangerous. 

When children left home, they generally didn’t go very far, and the eldest son usually didn’t leave at all.  He would stay and care for aging parents and for any younger unmarried siblings. 

Our text from Genesis tells of God calling Abram to leave behind the place he was born, to leave his extended family and his father’s house to go to a land that God would show him.  By the time this call comes, his father has died, one brother has died, and his other brother was married.  Presumably his mother preceded his father in death.  As the oldest son, his responsibilities to parents and siblings had been met, and along with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, the son of his deceased brother, he answers God’s call.

The place that he was born was important.  But it was not the only thing that was important.  The pull of his homeland and family ties were strong.  But so was God’s call.

Abram is told by God that his name will be great, he will be father of a great people, and that he will be a blessing.  Interestingly, he is not promised material success.  Indeed, at first it is all but guaranteed that life will be a lot more difficult and that he will be much less prosperous.  Abram and Sarai left behind their known language, their reputation and good name.  They left behind their knowledge of a place and how to survive in it.  They left behind trading partners and knowledge of how to secure the goods they needed.

These sorts of things one did not just pick up overnight.  This was an exceedingly difficult move, and Abram and Sarai did not even have a road map.  They weren’t exactly sure where they were going.  And they had hardly arrived when there came a famine and they were forced to go and live in Egypt for a time.  With a strong support network and enough grain stored up in their new land, they might have been able to withstand the famine, but they were newcomers, outsiders.

Leaving behind his country and his family made this a very difficult move.  But it also insured that he and Sarai would be fully invested in this new place that God would lead them.

Years ago, Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis would have a weekend travel special.  On Friday, you could get their special for some insanely low price – for maybe $299 you would get two round-trip air tickets and two nights lodging at a good hotel.  (That really does sound like a long time ago, doesn’t it?)  The catch was, you didn’t know where you would be going.  That was half the fun of it; it was an adventure.  You might end up in Spokane or San Diego or Memphis or Miami; you just didn’t know.  You didn’t know where you were headed; you just agreed to go.

With Northwest, however, you had a guarantee of a nice place to stay and you knew what the cost was.  You might not want to move to San Antonio, but it could be a fun place for a weekend.  You could even enjoy Cleveland if it was just for a weekend and you knew that you would be back home in a couple of days.

It wasn’t like that for Abram and Sarai.  They didn’t know where they would live, they were pretty sure they would never be back, and they did not know the cost.  They were placing their lives, their future, in God’s hands.

Where we are from, where we were born, can be important.  But it’s not the most important thing.  It’s interesting that Jesus is one of those people who were not born in their hometown.  What do we know him as?  Jesus of… Nazareth.  Not Bethlehem, where he was born, but Jesus of Nazareth.  His upbringing in Nazareth and his culture as a Galilean were important, but these were not the most important things.  Jesus talked about how a spiritual birth is far more important than one’s physical birth.

Nicodemus had come to Jesus late at night, in the cover of darkness.  He comes with a kind of hesitant curiosity.  Not unlike some of us, perhaps.  Not unlike a lot of people who maybe have an interest in Jesus but don’t want it publicized, who are maybe open to spiritual things but don’t really want their friends or co-workers to know too much about it.

Nicodemus was an important person, a member of the Pharisees, indeed a leader among the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were a tight bunch.  Pedigree mattered.  They knew who each other’s ancestors were.  Where you were from was important.

Approaching Jesus that night, Nicodemus does not initially ask a question.  Instead, he speaks favorably of Jesus.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who comes from God.”  Not all Pharisees felt this way, of course, and maybe this is part of the reason Nicodemus came at night.  It might have made it easier both for him and for Jesus.  Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ interest and curiosity by saying, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

We have heard these words before.  We generally hear the phrase as, “You must be born again.”  Jesus’ words can be translated that way, or as “You must be born anew.”  But, literally, the word means “from above.”  You must be born from above.  Of course, this necessitates that we’re going to have to be born again.

What Jesus is saying is that our identity does not come from where we were born or to whom we were born or where we grew up or where we are from.  It does not come from our social group or the organizations of which we are members or the school we attend.  Our spiritual birth, our relationship with God, surpasses all of these other matters in importance.

Now of course, when we hear talk about being born again, all sorts of things may come to mind.  I remember Jimmy Carter describing himself as a “born again Christian,” which was big news at the time.  When you hear “born again,” you may think of revival meetings and altar calls with 17 verses of “Just As I Am,” or uber-evangelistic folks who will ask, “Are you born again?”  Between the enthusiastic religion and the certain kind of mindset it brings to mind, we may tend to think that being ”born again” is not really for us.  I may have described myself as “born again” at one point in my life, and in a certain sense I still claim that, but because of the way the term is understood, it is not a label I am eager to wear.

But it’s really too bad that the phrase “born again” has taken on such meaning, because what Jesus is talking about is crucial.  He is talking about understanding our identity in a completely new and different way.  What matters is not so much that we were born in Iowa or Indiana or Puerto Rico.  Our identities are shaped by something greater than who our ancestors were or the place where we live.

We may be citizens of Iowa and citizens of the United States.  But more important, we are citizens of God’s realm.  We may be a part of a particular family, with parents and siblings and extended relatives, but more important than that, we are a part of God’s family.

This conversion from a narrow self-understanding to a dependence on God and primary identity as God’s child is what it means to be born again.  Putting our ultimate trust in Jesus rather than in those other important relationships in life is what he is talking about.  Those who want to talk about born-again Christians vs. other kinds of Christians are missing the point: to be a Christian is to be born again, born from above. 

To be honest, most of us who are relatively comfortable in life really don’t care for talk about being born again, because it speaks of change.  Why change something deep inside ourselves when our present lives and situations are just fine?

Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh argue that it is no accident that Jesus spoke here of birth.  Birth status was the all-important factor in determining a person’s honor rating in ancient society.  The honor derived from one’s status at birth was a given and usually stayed with a person for life.   Birth meant everything.  To be born again, however unthinkable that might be, would change one’s status in a fundamental way.  To be born from above, born of God’s spirit, meant a complete change in one’s status.  This was a whole new level of honor status, to be born from above. 

In a sense, being born again is what happened to Abram and Sarai.  In this new land where God would take them, their family history would not count for much.  The fact that he was Terah’s boy wouldn’t get him very far in Canaan.  God had called them to a whole new life.  He was still Terah’s son, but life had changed dramatically.  What mattered most now was his relationship with God, the God who had called him and led him.

Just as Abraham was invited on a journey, so was Nicodemus.  Nicodemus was invited by Jesus into a journey of the spirit.  It was clearly a new journey that could change his life.

Jesus says that God is about transformation, about changing lives, not about maintaining the status quo.  God is in the business not of permanence for the sake of permanence, but of change for our sake – because as we read when we continue in our passage from John, God loves us, God loves the whole world, and God’s intention is not condemnation but salvation.

We are all invited on a journey with God.  We don’t always know exactly where it will lead.  It’s like the wind: God’s Spirit blows where it will, and it’s not something we can really figure out.  We can’t control the Spirit or pin it down.  But it leads to life.  It may lead us to an entirely new place, like Abram and Sarai; or it may lead us right to where we started, but in a new way, with a new understanding, a new spirit, like Nicodemus.

I received an email this week, the kind of email I get every week, if not nearly every day.  You may get the same sort of thing.  It was an invitation to an absolutely life-changing seminar on leadership.  “In just two days you will master the practical management know-how - and the confidence - to plan, organize, coach, motivate, delegate and communicate in order to be an effective leader,” the email said.  This training would be an absolute game-changer for a person’s career and set a company on the road to vastly increased productivity and profitability.  Just sign on with this expert and you will learn the secret to success.

Now, compare this with Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.  Jesus does not speak of techniques or sure-fire strategy; he talks about wind and birth - two experiences that are absolute gifts, not savvy achievements.  Jesus speaks of this new birth as being like wind whistling in the treetops.  We can hear the wind, and see its results, but it is not something that we control. 

Nicodemus comes to Jesus looking for spiritual advice, for some spiritual how-to, and Jesus tells him it’s a gift, it’s like the wind, it’s like being born all over again.  It’s all grace.

Commenting on this passage, the writer Tom Ehrich said, “I used to think that being “born of the Spirit” was an exotic thing, accompanied by extravagant manifestations.  Speaking in tongues, perhaps, or feeling absolute certainty.  Now I see that Spirit-wind is part of life.  It is with us always.  Sometimes more powerfully than others, but like a wind across the prairie, always present, always bringing change and challenge.

In John chapter 19, Nicodemus appears again.  After Jesus’ death, Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate if he might bury Jesus’ body.  Pilate agrees, and then we read that Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial and lay him in the tomb.  At first he had come by night, but now in the light of day Nicodemus identifies with Jesus. 

Our identity does not come by virtue of our birth, but by virtue of our relationship with Christ.  What we are called to is a whole new way of living, a life of grace and freedom and wonder.  It is like living in a whole new place.  It is like being born again.  And as we continue to follow, we are born again and again and again.  Jesus continues to call us, continues to challenge us, continues to change us.

Where were you born?  Where are you from?  Those are important questions.  But maybe more important are these questions: Where are you going?  And with whom are you traveling?  Amen.

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