Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “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. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
This is a hard one. More of us are probably a lot more like Nicodemus than we care to admit. I don’t think that there’s any question that he was smart, well-learned even. He was a rabbi, a teacher of all things Scriptural and all things of faith. He knew what questions to ask and we should give him the benefit of the doubt that he was continuing to probe and explore. Perhaps he wasn’t as sure anymore of his own certainty when it came to his beliefs. But he wasn’t ready to admit it even to himself. He wasn’t really ready to go there yet. So he goes to Jesus in the dark of night, cloaked in mystery and secrets. And Jesus begins to explain in the way that Jesus always does–not literally, not factually, but open-ended, inviting one not to believe what he is saying but to enter who he was.
You know, when you have a seminary degree, people often assume that you somehow spent several years of your life studying so that you will have all the answers. Well, sadly, that would not be the case. You see, not so sadly, seminary does not teach you the answers; it teaches you how to ask the questions. That’s what sort of makes up faith, don’t you think–questions that leave us desiring more, questions that will not allow us to rest on the laurels of who we have figured out God is, what we have figured out God meant (Really?) and what we have figured out God wants us to do. Faith is what reminds us that there is always something more, always something up ahead, always a faint road that God calls us to walk not so that we will know the answers but so that we will become The Way to God.
And, interestingly enough, this calling often comes when we are at our most vulnerable, cloaked in the dark of night, so to speak. The anonymous 14th century mystic described it as “the cloud of unknowing”, proposing that the only way to know God is to let go of what we know, to risk surrendering ego and mind and what we have “figured out”, and enter the cloud of the unknown, where we would truly know God. (The 4th century bishop Gregory of Nyssa contended that as we journeyed deeper into faith, we entered darker and darker places and in the darkness we could finally see what needed to be seen.) That’s where Nicodemus was–still struggling, still wandering somewhat aimlessly in the darkness, still asking “how can this be?”, but beginning to know. (Not “understand”, mind you, just know.)
Jesus tells the questing rabbi that he must be born from above (or “again”, or “anew”–the Greek anothen remains ambiguous at best.) But whatever it is, you have to let the wind blow where it chooses and just be in it. When I read that, I thought of “riding out” Hurricane Ike in my pier and beam bungalow a couple of years ago with my mom (who didn’t want me to do that by myself) and my rather confused Black Lab. What we realized was that, as opposed to a house with a slab that remains staid and unyielding. my house is built so that the hurricane-force winds swirls around it and UNDER it. It just moves with the wind. It doesn’t have to bend or push. There were no straining or creeking walls. It just moves. It gives itself to the wind. (Conversely, the tornado that grazed the slab house in which I now live convinced me in that moment that the roof was going to definitely come off! Thankfully, that did not happen–it just creaked horribly for several minutes over me and yet another confused Black Lab!)
In this Season of Lent, the winds of change are swirling all about. We hear the sounds but we do not know its path. We, too, must give ourselves to the wind, must enter the darkness, the cloud of unknowing, and walk, trusting that we will find ourselves in the place where we belong. We are not always called to understand, but only to know.
Where does the wind come from, Nicodemus? Rabbi, I do not know. Nor can you tell where it will go.
Put yourself into the path of the wind, Nicodemus. You will be borne along by something greater than yourself. You are proud of your position, content in your security, but you will perish in such stagnant air.
Put yourself into the path of the wind, Nicodemus. Bring leaves will dance before you. You will find yourself in places you never dreamed of going; you will be forced into situation you have dreaded and find them like a coming home.
You will have power you never had before, Nicodemus. You will be a new man.
Put yourself into the path of the wind.
(Myra Scovel, “The Wind of the Spirit”, 1970, in Hearing God’s Call, by Ben Campbell Johnson)
In this Season of Changing Winds, what things that you have “figured out” do you need to release? What will it take for you to let go of needing to understand? What will it mean for you to know?
Grace and Peace,