The Wind Blows Where It Chooses

Sermon – January 26, 2014
St. Bartholomew Church – Hanover, PA
Matt. 4:12-23

 

“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.” Is it any wonder that Nicodemus responded, “How can these things be?” Nicodemus came to Jesus for answers and instead was left in a state of confusion.

Now, the howling wind – like what we heard last night – can cause confusion to anyone who is out in it. You can’t see straight, especially if accompanied by snow. Everything looks different. There’s an element of fear. You wonder what’s going to happen next. The wind has a mind of its own and it indeed “blows where it chooses.” Nicodemus was looking for some straight answers that day, but instead he was caught in a whirlwind of confusion.

Nicodemus – a well-respected religious leader – saw the miracles (or signs as the gospel writer John calls them) that Jesus performed and knew Jesus must be a teacher who came from God. Nicodemus believed Jesus was sent by God because of what he saw with his eyes, and he wanted to know more. He wanted to know more about who Jesus was and how He was able to do the many signs that he performed. He was looking to gain knowledge and understanding. Nicodemus wanted Jesus to take away his confusion. He wanted answers to all his questions. Instead Jesus speaks in riddles and says “You must be born from above or another way to interpret it is born again.” It made no sense to Nicodemus and it makes little sense to us today, especially if taken literally.

Why didn’t Jesus just give Nicodemus a straight answer? Why the strange analogy to the wind? After all, here was someone who was in need of help. Nicodemus couldn’t ask the other Pharisees these questions. They already had suspicions about Jesus. So Nicodemus comes at night to talk to Jesus without anyone seeing him. Nicodemus wants to know more, but he doesn’t want to lose his reputation as a leader by associating with Jesus. Yet his late night undercover trip to see Jesus only makes him feel worse because Jesus isn’t taking away his questions. He’s giving him more. Nicodemus must be exasperated. What he thought he saw and understood makes less sense now than it did before. “The wind blows where it will.” Really? That’s what Nicodemus gets as an answer? He was in less control of the situation now than before.

It reminds me of a time I lost control right before a Sunday service on my internship in North Dakota – a part of the country where the wind always “blows as it chooses.” Right before the service began it happened! I had just finished creating a pinwheel out of colored construction paper to use in the children’s sermon to demonstrate the wind of the Holy Spirit. The one I had made the night before out of plain white paper worked great. It spun around magnificently as I blew on it. But Sunday morning I thought it would look so much nicer in color. So I went over to the church early and quickly made one out of construction paper, pinned it on the wooden dowel I had, and tried it out. I failed to realize the construction paper would be too heavy for it to move freely. I blew on it to give it a try and…..nothing. It didn’t budge. I blew really hard and …it barely moved. Now, my brilliant idea was going to be a total flop, but it was too late to turn back. I put the pinwheel in the bag for the children’s sermon and quickly got ready for the worship service, dreading how I was going to explain this when the time came. My sense of control, like that of Nicodemus as he questioned Jesus, was gone.

At one point or another while talking to Jesus in prayer, haven’t we found ourselves more confused than before? We want to understand why a certain situation is the way it is. We see the signs, yet nothing makes any sense. We wonder how a certain problem is going to work out when it looks hopeless. Am I ever going to get out of this situation? Is this sickness going to last forever? When will things turn around? Like Nicodemus we ask, “How can these things be?” We look at the news and the signs are all bad. There is so much evil happening in the world. Why isn’t God doing something about this? Is God listening? Jesus says, “the wind blows where it chooses” but why isn’t the wind of the Spirit choosing to blow restoration and resurrection instead of confusion? We bring our prayers to God and so often it feels as though we too are answered with riddles that we can’t understand. We need answers, resolution, and control. At least that’s what we think. What we really need is new eyes.

And that is what Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus. Jesus wanted Nicodemus and us to understand that God is in control and not us. The Spirit of God, which is breath and wind, blows where God chooses not where we choose. And like the wind it cannot be contained, understood, or harnessed. And that is a little scary, especially when we want to be in control. To say we must be born from above means that we must allow God to be in charge. It is the Spirit of God that breathed life into the first humans and that same Spirit of God will breathe new life into us today if we stop trying to control our lives and let the Spirit work in and through us. It will surprise us in new and creative ways that we never could imagine on our own – just like my pinwheel illustration that Sunday morning.

When it was time for the children’s sermon I explained about the power of the Holy Spirit as it blew through the room where the disciples were that first Pentecost. Each child tried to make the pinwheel move, but nothing happened until……I found myself asking them all to blow on it together with me. And there we were blowing like crazy on that pinwheel and it flew like a bird! The Holy Spirit showed up that morning and people in the congregation wondered how I came up with such a great example, but I had to admit that I could take no credit for that great demonstration. I know it was the Holy Spirit at work. Nothing I could have come up with on my own that day could have been better!

I learned a lot that morning and it impacted everyone including myself. It was a great example of how not to put all our trust in ourselves. How often in our lives do we think things have to go the way we plan it? We as individuals or even congregations often spend a lot of time trying to figure out what our mission is rather than asking what is God’s mission for us. It’s really a matter of stewardship, because it’s a reminder that nothing really belongs to us. God is in control.

Sometimes it’s what we think are our failures that turn out to be our biggest lessons in growth. The Holy Spirit can and does work through those mistakes in our lives to show forth God’s glory. As a community of believers we have to allow ourselves to be molded, shaped, and changed by God for the good of the whole Church. And we need to expect the unexpected!

It’s important to remember that we’re all in this together. One person couldn’t make the pinwheel move, but together it flew! We need each other. And like the colors of the construction paper there’s a vitality and brilliance that happens in diversity. Our differences add to the work of bringing forth God’s kingdom.

And the pinwheel experience showed me that we need to have a sense of humor and laugh more. There is a lot of pain and suffering in this world, but aren’t we called to bring God’s word of hope, light, and love to those in darkness? And like Nicodemus coming out of the darkness needs to begin with us. What better way to start than with a little laughter!

God’s gift of grace is something to be passionate about! If God’s Spirit can move through a simple construction paper pinwheel just think what that Spirit can do through the body of Christ! God’s Spirit has delivered us by becoming enfleshed in Jesus Christ. God so loved this messy, broken world, that “he gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That same Spirit wants to work to deliver others through our flesh! If God’s Spirit can move through the little things like water, bread, and wine, just think what that Spirit can do as it works within us! The breath of the Spirit blows where it chooses bringing new life to places that seemed unreachable. There is no place that the wind of the Spirit cannot penetrate. The wind of the Spirit can breathe new life into broken hearts and shattered lives. The wind of the Spirit blows where it chooses and it chooses to bring us out of the darkness into the light of hope. It chooses to bring us forgiveness. It chooses to bring us courage. It chooses to bring us peace. It is not a sound to be feared, but a grace to be breathed in.

Nicodemus may have gone to see Jesus during the night so as not to be discovered by the other religious leaders, but later in John’s gospel Nicodemus will defend Jesus before the religious leaders before his crucifixion and at Jesus’ death, Nicodemus will claim his body along with Joseph of Arimathea and anoint him with oil. Nicodemus’ eyes and heart would gradually be opened by the wind of the Holy Spirit. That same wind will open our eyes and hearts today if we stop trying to control our lives and let the “wind blow where it chooses.” It is a breath filled with promise. It is a breath filled with hope. It is the breath of eternal life. Amen. 

 

 

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Out of the Depths

Sermon – January 12, 2014
Concordia Lutheran Church – Concord, NH
Matt. 3:13-17

 

John the Baptizer was performing the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This strange man who dressed in odd clothes and ate bizarre food had developed quite a following. He preached a message of repentance for all to prepare themselves for the powerful One who would soon come. He told the crowds present that he was baptizing with water but One greater than he would soon come and baptize with the Holy Spirit. And that One – that One was so great – that John wasn’t even worthy enough to untie His sandals. John was preparing the way for this powerful One, yet little did he know that on that day the One he was preparing for had arrived.

One by one John baptized the people who came to him in the banks of the Jordan River. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.” John tried to stop him as he said to Jesus, “You’ve got this all wrong. I need to be baptized by you. Why are you coming to me?” It’s a good question and one that many people still debate today. Why did Jesus go down to the Jordan River that day to be baptized by John? He was the sinless Son of God. He didn’t need His sins washed away. John knew that and yet despite John’s protests, Jesus said it was necessary. Jesus would insist.

It was so necessary that Jesus came down from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized. He came a long way. The Jordan River is a long winding river. It’s less than 100 miles long if you measured it straight, but because it is such a meandering zigzag it measures almost 200 miles long. When John spoke about making the crooked places straight, I’m sure he was thinking not only of the land, but that very river. The name Jordan means descender and the river descends from 1000 feet above sea level from its beginning in the north at Galilee near Mt. Harmon to 1300 feet below sea level into the Dead Sea. It’s a long way down.

And the further down the river travels the muddier it gets. The Jordan River is mention in so many songs and artists depictions as beautiful and pristine, but the truth is that the Jordan River , except for the very beginning in the north, is often a dirty and muddy river. Maybe the people of Boston aren’t the only ones who can lay claim to the song Dirty Water! And since the construction of a dam by Israel in 1964, the river has gotten even dirtier. It’s listed as one of the top 100 most endanged ecological sites in the world. It’s that polluted. And it’s hardly a place anyone would want to walk in never mind be submerged in. Yet that’s exactly what Jesus did. He went down from Galilee (where it was pretty clean) to the Jordan – the dirty, muddy Jordan – where you couldn’t even see the bottom, surrounded by a crowd of people. How did this happen?

That’s the question that was on the minds of millions of people back in 1987 including myself when a small 18 month old little girl named Jessica McClure fell into a dirty well in Midland, Texas. We were all glued to the television for almost three days as rescue workers tried everything to get her out, but it wasn’t easy. They tried looking down the well shaft, but they couldn’t even see her. They tried a backhoe, but it wasn’t strong enough. A small rig used to put in telephone poles was brought in, but even that wasn’t enough. Eventually they drilled a hole parallel to the well and began to dig a tunnel beneath the two wells – two feet below where baby Jessica was trapped. The entire world was frightened as we watched CNN’s live telecast of the attempted rescue. They piped in oxygen, but would it be enough and would they rescue her in time? Periodically they would hear her crying, or moaning, or talking, but sometimes there was utter silence for almost an hour. Silence is sometimes far from reasurring.

Silence can almost break a person if it goes on for too long especially if like Jessica, we find ourselves alone and afraid in a dark place. Maybe we haven’t fallen into a well, but we’ve all fallen into situations in our lives that cause us pain. It might be suffering through a terrible illness, or standing helplessly by as someone we love suffers through it. We might find ourselves struggling in the waters of financial oppression, or the waters of discrimination, or the depths of despair. Sometimes the waters can get pretty murky and we don’t see an end to the suffering. We wonder if it will go on forever. We wonder if God even hears our prayers. The words of the psalmist (130) cries, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice.” Like Baby Jessica, we wonder if help will reach us in time or if we will remain trapped too deep to rescue. The rescue workers kept on trying to free Baby Jessica as I and millions of people prayed for her deliverance.

God is in the business of deliverance and often it’s a messy job. But God doesn’t mind getting down in the dirt. From the beginning of creation, we read in Genesis that God goes down into the earth to form humans. We are made from the earth. Yet through sin we messed creation up and God attempted to rescue us. He sent prophets like Moses and Isaiah, but that wasn’t enough. And finally God sent Jesus into the messiness of this world. God came down – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And this Jesus – whom we celebrated His birth – has come down again into the Jordan to be baptized – not to wipe away His sins, but to wipe away ours. When Jesus went down into the muddy waters of the Jordan, He was going down for us. Jesus’ baptism revealed who He was, “This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ identity as Messiah, as Savior of the World, was revealed. Jesus’ baptism initiated His mission – to deliver God’s people once and for all.

Our baptism initiates our ministry too, for in our baptism we are claimed as God’s children. Baptism reminds us that birth and death are inseparable. Jesus willingly descended into the Jordan river to be baptized not because He needed His sins washed away – for He was sinless – but in obedience to His calling to fulfill God’s covenant promise of salvation for all people. Jesus plunged into flesh to transform our flesh. Jesus plunged into darkness to transform the darkness into light. Jesus plunged into death to transform it to life – a life that is filled with power through the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism.
Through baptism our connection with God is sealed. We become children of God. And just as the Spirit of the Living God descended on Jesus like a dove, through baptism we are forever sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Just as Jesus heard the words, “This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God speaks to us and pours grace upon us in the waters of baptism. We are strengthened just like Jesus for the task of public ministry and like Jesus’ ministry, it won’t be easy. Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. It didn’t suggest or guide Him; it drove Him – compelled Him – into the wilderness to face temptations. The first temptation to overcome, however, was to not go through with His baptism, which would begin His mission of salvation. Jesus descended into earth, Jesus descended into the Jordan, Jesus continues to descend with us into the places we find ourselves trapped. There is nowhere that God will not go to rescue us!

The rescue workers continued to work day and night to rescue Baby Jessica. At times they could hear her actually sing nursery rhymes to calm herself. We, like Martin Luther, can yell out “I am baptized!” to bring us peace during our difficult times. When we find ourselves shaken to the core, I am baptized! In the face of financial oppression – I am baptized!. In the pain of illness – I am baptized! In the face of ridicule – I am baptized! In the face of doubt – I am baptized! In the face of mistreatment – I am baptized! In the face of depression – I am baptized! In the face of loneliness – I am baptized! In the face of heartache – I am baptized! In whatever situation we find ourselves in – there is no place that the waters of baptism cannot restore and transform us. There is no place that we find ourselves in that God is not right there with us.

After almost three days, Baby Jessica was finally rescued from the depths of that dark well. Her family said it was like a “second birth.” She was cradled in the arms of the paramedic. Through our baptism, we too are given a second birth – united with Christ, a part of God’s family, and the community of faith. We have a new identity and are never alone. We are cradled in the arms of grace.

And once renewed and transformed we are compelled to share this Good News to the entire world – in our schools and in our jobs, our neighborhoods, prisons, the grocery stores, the banks, the movie theatres, the laundry mats, the local pub. Every day there is someone we meet that needs to hear that God has come to set them free. The voice from heaven is waiting to speak to others through us. It’s about responding with a word of kindness and love when someone says they hate us. It’s speaking a word of forgiveness when we have been wounded. It’s speaking a word of hope to someone who questions the value of their own life. It’s speaking a word of compassion to someone who has made a mistake knowing that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It’s speaking a word of grace when someone is speaking evil of another person. It’s speaking a word of love when someone is speaking a word of violence. We are baptized and we must descend on the world like a dove and be instruments of God’s peace and love – a love goes down into the depths of the darkest places and reveals God’s glory and light, a love that plunges into the depths of humanity with a light that cannot be stopped, a hope that cannot be extinguished and a fire that cannot be put out. Amen.