God Does the Changing
I believe people can change, do you? But, the Bible is quite pessimistic about the ability of people to change. Most of us know that we can't change other people. The sweet, young bride who thinks she can change her new husband of his bad habits is in for a rude awakening! In addition, the Bible is also sure that few of us can change ourselves. Bookstores are full of self-help books, indicating that people do want to change. But, even with self-help books, few of us can change ourselves. Why? Because of sin. Sin was defined last week based on the story of Adam and Eve, Everyman and Everywoman. Sin is the distorted, broken relationship we humans have with God. Sin is disobeying God. Sin is hiding from God—cover-up. Sin is the refusal to take responsibility, blaming others. Sin is self-centeredness.
Last week, I wondered where we got the idea that the woman and man ate an apple. The Bible says “fruit” After church, a visitor told me that the Latin words for apple and evil are very similar; in fact are identical in the plural. So, the Roman church began identifying the fruit as an apple. Later, Renaissance painters, using Greek mythology, used an apple in their Garden of Eden paintings.
When faced with the reality and depths of sin, we can see why it is so difficult to change. But, the Gospel lesson this morning gives us hope because God does the changing. We are not left to our own devices. God does the changing, and the change that God makes is so profound that it is like being born all over again.
A woman set out to discover the meaning of life. She read everything she could get her hands on-- history, philosophy, psychology, religion. While she became a very smart person, nothing she read gave her the answer she was looking for. She found other smart people and asked them about the meaning of life, but while their discussions were long and lively, no two of them agreed on the same thing and still she had no answer.
Finally, she put all her belongings in storage and set off in search of the meaning of life. She went to South America. She went to India. Eventually, she learned of a wise man who could tell her the meaning of life. Deep in the Himalayas, someone told her how to reach his house-- a tiny little hut perched on the side of a mountain just below the tree line.
She climbed and climbed. When she finally got there, with knuckles so cold they hardly worked, she knocked.
"Yes?" said the kind-looking old man who opened the door. She thought she would die of happiness.
Gasping for breath, she said, "I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question. What is the meaning of life?"
"Please come in and have some tea," the old man said.
"No," she said. "I mean, no thank you. I didn’t come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won’t you tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?"
"We shall have tea," the old man said, so she gave up and went inside. While he was brewing the tea she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened (which was just as well, since his visitor did not leave any room for him to reply), and as she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea.
She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall.
When the tea burned her hand, she yelled, "What are you doing?! It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop! There’s no more room!"
"Just so," the old man said. "You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. There is no room in your life. Come back when you are empty and then we will talk."
A leader of the Jews named Nicodemus (shall we call him Nick?) came to see Jesus in the dark. There is probably significance in John telling us it was night time. Nick not only did not want to be seen, but he was in the dark as well. Nick came to Jesus looking for answers. Jesus told him “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” born of the spirit, and the wind blows where it wants to! That was Jesus, clear as mud, talking about birth, spirit, and wind. What Jesus was doing was pouring tea all over Nick’s hand, telling Nick that he already had gallons of answers. What he needed was one drop of experience-- one moment of new birth-- and he could leave all his questions lying in puddles on the floor.
But, poor Nick didn’t get it. He was too literal. "How can anyone enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born again?" "No, no," said Jesus. Not born again, but born from above, born of the Spirit. You’ve had a physical birth. You were born of water (the water broke when you were born). Now, you need a spiritual birth. No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit.
I suspect that there are many church members who also don't get it. They don't know what Jesus is talking about. Many believe they are living good lives. They feel they have no need of a conversion experience. But, Jesus said, “Unless you are born from above you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” That is a strong statement. It is one thing to belong to a church, to work on committees, and enjoy church dinners, but if that is all there is, there is something missing.
Being born, not over again physically, but being born of the Spirit is of mystery and wonder. It’s like the wind, Jesus said. Can you see the wind? Do you know where it comes from, or where it goes? No, the wind blows where it chooses, beyond our comprehension and understanding. So it is with God’s Spirit. You can’t bottle up God’s Spirit and put it in a denomination or a church or a doctrine or a method, and say, "Aha, now I’ve got you." There is no formula. When you talk to some people about how to become a Christian, they will pull out a card of steps or spiritual laws. You take those steps and you will be a Christian, they say. Well, perhaps that method works for some people, but not all. You can’t control God’s Spirit, as you can’t control the wind.
Poor Nick didn’t get it. He tried to understand Jesus, which was his first mistake! He tried to put what Jesus was saying within his own frame of reference, and what Jesus was saying didn’t fit. Oh, the mystery and wonder is that God is far bigger than our pictures, far bigger than our ideas, far bigger than formulas, far bigger than our neat theological treatises, far bigger than our interpretation of the Bible, far bigger than our church or any church, far bigger than Christianity.
Jesus told Nick to believe. John 3.16, “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.” Eternal life (which is synonymous with the kingdom of God in John’s Gospel) is a gift from God, not necessarily to be understood, but experienced. Believe is an experience. Empty your cup. Turn your cup upside down. Empty yourself. Empty yourself of sin. Empty yourself of your preconceived notions. Empty yourself of your neat little package of beliefs. Believing in Christ is not an intellectual exercise. Believing in Christ is emptying your cup, and receiving the Spirit. Turn your cup upside down. Pour out your problems and troubles Pour out your doubts and worries. Turn your mind inside out. Step into the air. Ride the wind. Be born anew. Be born from above, from top to bottom, inside out.
Martin Luther believed and experienced faith. He wrote,
Faith is a free surrender and a joyous wager on the unseen, untried and unknown goodness of God. Faith unites the soul with the invisible, ineffable, unutterable, eternal, unthinkable word of God. Faith alone is able, under trial, to hear the deep, secret "Yes" of God. That most sweet stirring of the heart, faith is a living fountain springing up into life everlasting.
Nick’s last recorded words to Jesus in this passage were, "How can these things be?" Did Nick believe? Did Nick experience being born anew, from above? Did Nick turn his cup upside down? How about you? Will you do it now?
© 2008 Douglas I. Norris