By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
June 13, 2021
Mark 4:26–34 (ESV)
26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” 30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
What is the Kingdom of God like? This is something we each deal with, we deal with it in our communities, in our Meetings, and in the Church. The reason we struggle with the idea of kingdom is because of our misunderstanding of the word. When we think of kingdom our minds begin to think of nations and governmental entities. Throughout history this has been our understanding. A king is a ruler within a monarchy, and this king presides over the government. The first image that our mind develops in this passage is this concept of government or nations.
Jesus begins this passage with the word kingdom. Everyone has an idea of what a king is. It can mean one who possesses the land. When Israel first came into the land of promise, they did not have a king. God was the one that possessed the land, and God gave that land to the people. But Israel began to demand a human king. This is a change in perspective. God is no longer seen as being the one that possesses the land, but the people. We own it and we need a human government. This perspective again changes when Israel lost the land because they yet saw themselves as a nation. Even though the concept of nationhood in those ancient times was couple with geography and the power of a nation’s god was also attached to the land, Israel did not loose sight of their God. God is no longer attached to geography. God dwells with the people.
Another look at kingdom has nothing to do with nations, but influence. The influence a person has over others represents their dominion. Though the United Kingdom is a relatively small island nation they have influence that stretches far beyond their boarders. Though Israel is in some places mere miles in width their influence over the people of the world far exceeds the geography they possess. How can this be? Nationhood is a construct of man. Governments are compiled by human minds and we as humanity submit to governmental influence. If a political construct can maintain phycological or physical control over a population they maintain their influence. But there are times where this influence wanes. When people stop trusting their political entities, when they stop believing that they have their best interest in mind that political entity loses phycological influence and their nation weakens. And this political entity must make a choice, do we exercise force or do we change directions to regain influence?
Jesus arrived on the historical scene during a time of political uncertainty. The Roman government was stretched. Its span in this era of history encompassed most of Europe and the areas that bordered the great sea. Israel was on the frontier of the empire. It was on the borderlands between the remnants of the late Persian empire and the lands connected to Rome. We do not always understand the instability of this small province because we live in a stable culture ourselves. When Jesus was born Herod was a puppet king of Rome. He expanded Roman influence by force and if he remained loyal to Rome, they allowed him autonomy. When the Magi from the east entered the land seeking the one born king of the Jews, this caused distress in the nation. Officials from Persia came into Roman territory to recognize an individual other than Herod as a possessor of influence over the people.
What is the kingdom like? Is it an empire like Rome or Persia? Is it dynasties like that of Egypt or a Hellenistic Republic? What is this sphere of influence that is to be ushered in by the messiah?
Jesus ask how he can describe the kingdom of God. Imagine all the ideas and concepts going through the minds of those listening to him. The Pharisees may have been promoting a theocracy because they were teaching the people that if only, they were more righteous then Messiah would come. Some may have been influenced by the Hellenistic philosophies. The Herodians took on the name of their political identity, they wanted the restoration of the dynasty of Herod, even though his rule was filled with marvels and wickedness. We can think of many concepts of what we think the kingdom should be, but Jesus does not describe anything that resembles the kingdoms of men. The kingdom is like a farmer that scatters seed on the earth. This farmer goes to bed n8ght and day, and the seed sprouts, grows, develops, and fills seeds, and then when the time is right harvest comes. This process occurs year after year, the farmer dedicates his life to this mystery yet he does not fully understand.
Even today we do not fully understand every aspect of plant life. What causes the seed to germinate? Is it the soil, heat, moisture, or a combination between them all? Why do the roots grow down? What causes the sunflower to track the light through the day? These are questions we continually ask and will until the end of time.
If we were to plant a seed on a hillside will the roots grow at an angle or straight? The roots grow at an angle, which suggests that gravity is what tells the seed how to react. But what if we remove gravity? This is why the research done in space is so important. When we can remove a factor that is common on earth, we can begin to see things from a different perspective. Scientist have taken plants into space and watched them grow. And by taking them into space they noticed some interesting things. Gravity does play a role but not completely. The roots of plants in space grow very similarly to those grown on a hillside. The plant can sense micro gravity within space and will grow accordingly. Meaning the roots will always slant toward the earth while the leaves will always grow toward the heat and light source. There are other factors at play, gravity and light are important but the soil is also important. Every plant needs some growth medium. This varies with the plant. Orchids do not need dirt, but they do need some sort of growth medium. Plants in space also need a growth medium to begin to.
The kingdom of God is like a farmer scattering seeds.
We do not know exactly how our lives will affect those around us. I want us to think back through our journey of faith. Who walked with you along that journey? If we are honest with ourselves, the sermons the pastor gave did not make the difference. I say this even though I hope that the words I speak will mean something. What really makes a difference in people’s lives is each one of us living our lives of faith authentically around others.
Salvation is a mystery. Seeds are scattered, words are spoken, various actions in response to the Spirit’s leading are performed for those around us. And all the various factors are combined and through it all we are moved from denying Christ to trusting him with every aspect of our lives. In each of our lives there is a story. A story that can be traced back through countless lives all the way back to the apostles. We might not know the complete linage, and that does not really matter. What matters is that seeds were planted and took root in our lives and we became part of the Lord’s harvest.
Consider the history of your story. You might not think much of your life. You might think you are unremarkable. The truth is you are a miracle. You, being in this place currently is a mystery and a story worth hearing. Sure, you might seem ordinary but you have overcome obstacles, you have faced trials that those around you know nothing about. You have found a source of strength that has helped you face life’s difficulties. The things that could have broken you completely, the scheme of the powers of evil were somehow foiled, and instead of you sitting helpless and hopeless you are sitting here. Does this mean you are perfect; no, we continue to struggle but the mystery of the kingdom of God is flowing through our veins what was sent to destroy us is not taking root because we have faith. We have faith that the same Spirit and power that rose Christ from the grave is active in our lives and though we stumble, He will lift us up to glory.
How did we get here? For some of us we were born into a family that had faith and we just grew into it. For some of us we did not have family that encouraged us yet some one scattered seeds and they took root. Some of us have face abuse and neglect that would make even the strongest among us stagger. Yet each of us in our own way moved into a life and lifestyle that is not defined by what we were but who we are in Christ. We made that move gradually like the mystery of a growing plant.
The story does not stop there. Something took root in us; the life of faith began to grow and as it grows, we take on a form dictated by the center of who we are. This is our heart. We are warned to guard our heart, not because our heart is filled with passions that we should not reveal, but we guard it because our heart is where the essence of who we are resides. Our hopes and our dreams spring forth from our heart because this is the place the Spirit of God resides in each of us.
I want us to again consider our lives. Do we realize how much influence we have? Jesus continues to teach us, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” I want us to stop and consider the mustard seed. It is a small seed, granted it is not the smallest of all seeds. I am not saying that Jesus is wrong, but we need to consider who he is talking to. We do not gather seeds unless we intend to use those seeds for a purpose. In ancient times, due to the amount of labor involved in obtaining seeds they did not take the time gathering seeds for things that would not be used to feed their families. What Jesus is meaning is that it is the smallest seed that the people in this agriculturally based community are going to gather for personal or commercial use. Today because our economy and lifestyle has moved beyond subsistence, we can take the time and energy to harvest other seeds. We can even use land that in ancient times would be used to grow either food or herbs for growing things of less nutritional value. We have lawns that and landscapes, we have people that make a living growing plants that in agriculture might be considered weeds. And we purchase these things. Often in agriculture the smaller the seed is, it is most likely a weed. I say this because we have spent countless generations selectively breeding plants so that the fruit of those plants will provide what we or our livestock need to live healthy lives. This usually includes larger seeds because it makes gathering the seeds especially from a dirt floor easier to collect.
The mustard seed is a small seed. Jesus uses this seed as an example because it seems small and insignificant. We can often think of ourselves in this way too. You may not have the flashiest testimony. You might not sense a calling to vocal ministry, and because of this you do not see yourself as having a major role within the church. I want us to stop thinking that way.
While I was in school, I took a class that focus on the life of prayer. One of the exercises that we did in this class was to write a spiritual autobiography and a timeline of significant events in our lives. If you have never attempted this, I strongly encourage you do, because it will reveal amazing things to you. It will show you that during the most stressful times of your life God was doing the greatest work in your spiritual development. But it will also reveal other profound things, those people who encouraged you the most. While I considered my spiritual autobiography, I found that the most important people that encouraged my faith were not the pastors in my church, but my grandfather, my great uncle, and an elderly man within my home church that was not related at all. As I grew different people took prominence in my spiritual development. In all my years I have had many exceptionally good pastors, but when I look at the most influential people in my life only one of the pastors made a significant mark.
Outside of my hometown not one of those people would be regarded as heroes of faith, but each of them was important to me. My great uncle spoke out of the silence every meeting for worship, and he said the exact same thing. “I thank God for what he has done for me.” At first is though what has God done for you? My great uncle never married. He lived and died as a poor Kansas farmer, but one day he told me his story, while I was reading the instructions of a game I bought. He told me about his life in the amphibious army during the second world war and how he was saved certain death through God’s providential hand. My grandfather showed me simple faith. In all my years I never saw my grandpa worried. This sounds strange, because there was a great deal happening through my childhood that caused many farmers to worry. The 1980’s were not favorable for the farmers of Kansas, there were several years that it was more profitable to till the crop under than to take the time to harvest it. Yet in my grandfather all I saw was joy. He would whistle while he worked and would break out in the strangest songs I had ever heard. And the only Sundays, I did not see him in church were the Sundays that he was visiting my aunt out of state.
Seemingly insignificant individuals encouraged my life just like a seemingly insignificant seed represents the kingdom of God in Jesus’s teaching. Jesus goes on to say of the mustard seed, “yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” This is the most significant aspect of this parable. Why did these people influence my life to such a degree? The reason is because their example of faith became a refuge to me. When I was anxious, I longed for my grandpa’s songs because they seemed to take away my troubles. When I wondered if God cared, I listened to my great uncle’s testimony. If I heard him praise God for what he had done for him, I had confidence because if this man that I assumed had nothing could praise God I figured I could continue to trust God too. These small seeds grew around me and provided the haven for the seedling of faith to take root in my own life.
But what does this say about the kingdom? It tells us that what is important to God is not what humanity regards as important. We are worried about the policies our elected officials are enacting and Jesus is talking about seeds. This tells us a great deal. The most important thing for us to do is live our lives loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. The kingdom of God does not revolve around the election cycle, but it revolves around ever interaction we have with the people that intersect our lives every day. Those we vote is less important than the conversation we have with the people sitting in this room. The kingdom of God is not connected with geography or politics it is focused on the encouragement we as people of faith give to those people around us that might at this moment be struggling and trying to find a reason to continue to live. You are important, because you bear the image of God, and are loved so much that God himself came to live, die, and raise again to give us hope.
If you would like to help support the continued Ministry of Willow Creek Friends Church please consider donating online:
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
June 6, 2021
Mark 3:20–35 (ESV)
20 Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” 23 And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house. 28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” 31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
A couple of weeks ago we celebrated Pentecost. That day is often regarded as the beginning or the birth of the church. And for two thousand years , we have celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit of God on that day. I think when we celebrate Pentecost and regard it as the day the Spirit came we fail to see the fullness of the Spirit. The Spirit has always existed just as Jesus has always existed with the Father. There has not been a moment where God has not been in God’s fullness. With that being said our interaction with God has changed.
If we go to the beginning of our interaction with God, scripture tells us that God created the heavens and the earth, and the Spirit hovered over the void or the waters. The Spirit of God has always existed. The Spirit is the power of creation. We also see the Spirit in the plagues of Egypt. It was the Spirit that passed through that nation removing life’s breath from the first born not protected by the blood of the lamb. The Spirit has the power to create life, to bring something out of nothing and can take that life away. We are also show in the Book of Acts that the Spirit took the life of two disciples that lied. This aspect of God is a wild power. We cannot control or even approach it without caution. Yet on Pentecost the Spirit that created the universe, the Spirit that took the live of the first of Egypt and the life of the lying disciples, the Spirit that restored life to Christ was give to the disciples. It descended upon them like tongues of fire.
I want us to reflect on the creative and destructive power of the Spirit of God. There is a reason Old Testament regarded the Spirit with fear. This creative force could cause death. But there were case where the Spirit dwelled with individuals, king David is said to have had the Spirit with him, the Spirit gave Solomon great wisdom, and inspired the prophets. The Spirit gave these men great power and influence over those around them, but they did not control the Spirit.
The Spirit is a wild chaotic force from the human perspective. We cannot control it. A few months ago I listened to a lecture on particle physics. It described the quest within science to find the singular particles that are used to make all matter. The way they search for these particles is to break down larger particles, in a particle collider. Science is a tool we use to explore, but when exploring these particles some people are afraid of what we will find. When an atom is split, a massive amount of energy is released. This release of energy has been used to prove military might over nations, so as we explore these particles some fear we will release something even worse than the atomic bomb that will destroy the world. This is just a glimpse into the chaotic creative power of the Spirit, if the discovery of the Spirit’s blocks can release that amount of energy. I do not claim that I understand anything about particle physics, but I can understand why there is a draw of the researchers and the fear.
The Spirit is a wild power and we must approach the Spirit with caution. C.S. Lewis, in his children’s classic series The Chronicles of Narnia, illustrates Jesus as being the lion Aslan. When the children ask Mr. and Mrs. Beaver if it is a tame lion they laugh and say no but he is good. I have always loved that series and have read or listened to it often. But I do struggle with the image of Jesus as an untamed wild lion. I understand the reason behind it, but children did not fear Jesus. Lewis fans might consider me a heretic but I think the lion image portrays the Spirit more accurately than Jesus.
The Spirit is this creative and deadly force, wild and untamed, and yet it dwells with us. The theology of the Spirit is that through Christ the Spirit is tamed. Through Jesus the power of the Spirit is harnessed and directed. Jesus tames the Spirit and on Pentecost those with Christ have access to this amazing power that rose Jesus from the grave.
I say all of this in introduction because I want us to be aware of who we are interacting with. We can get the idea that we can control God. No we do not control God. We think we understand God, but we do not even understand or even know the smallest particle God used to create all matter. This is how I want us to approach today’s passage.
Jesus goes home, and the crowd is so great that they cannot even eat. Imagine that scene for a moment. I have been to some pretty big gatherings, and in those gatherings eating has never been a struggle. What this means is that the room was so full of people that they could not eat in their traditional manner. It was standing room only and so busy Jesus and the disciples were too distracted to eat.
Jesus’s family was also in attendance at this gathering. The family looked at the crowd and decided to seize Jesus, saying, “He is out of his mind.” I want us to stop for a moment here. Jesus’s family questioned his sanity. Maybe they were meaning that it was unwise to attend a gathering of that size, or maybe they questioned his mental state. We are not fully told what is meant by this statement, but the one thing we can glean from the passage they were concerned about his well being.
What Jesus was doing was beyond the capacity or understanding of his family. They were simple people from the hills of Nazareth. They were not accustomed to large crowds, and they were not accustomed to one of their own members being at the center of attention within such a crowd. We have all been in this sort of situation. When I first announced to my mother that I sensed a call to the ministry, she told me I could not do it. She feared for my safety and well being because she knew who I was and who I am. Her statement was, “you can’t preach because you can’t talk.” She knew me. She knew my personality. She knew that in my own power I could not stand before people, because it was not in my nature. She thought I was out of my mind. She was right…and wrong. Jesus’s actions were not the norm, so his family worried.
We can have concern for those around us, but we should be careful with that concern. We may know them well but even those we are closest to are not fully known to us. We only know what they reveal to us. If we act without seeking clarity, we run the risk of making assumptions that may not be true. Jesus’s family thought he was out of his mind, when the reality of the situation was that he was right where he needed to be. They knew him but they did not know everything. They did not fully understand the deepness of his call.
Then we have the religious leaders. They knew God, at least that is what they thought. When Jesus came onto the scene, he did not do things the expected way. He was not educated in their systems of education, and they did not understand how he was able to do the things that he was doing. Because they did not understand they fell back onto what they thought they knew and made assumptions as well. The God of their understanding would not or could not do the things he was doing in that manner, so he must be getting his power from somewhere else.
Jesus’s family said he was out of his mind, the religious leaders said he was possessed by Beelzebul, and the house is so crowded Jesus cannot even eat. This is not exactly the best day in Jesus’s life, but Jesus does not throw the people out of the house. Even while facing absurd accusations, Jesus continues to offer grace and truth.
“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.”
This has been deep in my mind over this past week. At first glance we see this as being a statement about the absurdity of the accusation, and it is about that, but there is more to the parable than what is on the surface. Jesus is speaking about division, unity, and grace. He is speaking about the wild Spirt of God and our assumption that we can tame, understand, and control God.
The past few years there have been great turmoil among churches across our nation. We are not immune from these struggles. There are people within and outside the church that want to make claims and these claims are dividing the church. These divisions come in many forms, and we could probably make a list of where these divisions and factures are being made. We each have our own opinions as to which statement is right and which is wrong, and we will debate and argue our position. Where is God amid those discussions? Where is God when we divide over political issues that do not even belong in the church? Where is God when we allow human understanding to guide us?
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
This is a haunting passage, because what is an eternal sin and are we in danger of committing it? This is a humbling thought. And I hope that it sobers our minds a bit. We do not tame the Holy Spirit because the Spirit comes from God through Jesus to us, and we can either follow or not. We cannot and do not control God. And every time we fail to follow the Spirit’s urgings we sin. There is forgiveness for that. There is even forgiveness for blasphemies we utter, and we probably utter a few of those daily. But there is a point God draws a line.
The Holy Spirit, this fire that descended on the disciples on Pentecost, this Spirit that hovered over the waters of creation to bring forth life, this Spirit that gives us strength and direction can be offended to such a degree that forgiveness is no longer available. Jesus does not speak of this sin with the woman that was caught in the very act of adultery. He does not mention it to the woman at the well, who had multiple husbands and was not married to the man she was with at that time. This sin is not alluded to when Jesus speaks to the tax collector, or even when Jesus speaks to Pilate during his trial. This sin is discussed when Jesus converses with the religious leaders. Like I said, haunting.
As I thought about this, I was reminded of the vision Peter while he was on the tanner’s roof in Joppa. In this vision a sheet descends from heaven and on this sheet is every type of animal imagined and God speaks to Peter and tells him to rise, kill, and eat. Peter in his righteousness tells God that he has never eaten anything unclean and does not plan to start now. This happens two more times and after each rejection God scolds Peter and says, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This vision was given to Peter to teach him that even the Gentiles were accepted into the Church because God through Christ had made them clean and has adopted them into the promise of Abraham.
Peter was perplexed by this vision and rightfully so. Everything he thought he knew was overturned, and he did not understand why. The God that gave them the law and commanded them to avoid eating these unclean substances was seemingly changing his mind. This is like what was happening to the scribes. They did not understand, and in their lack of understanding they were speaking for God. They were assuming they knew more than God. They were attempting to control the untamed Spirit.
This is a danger we all face. The whole meme WWJD, what would Jesus do, is almost in this place. It encourages us to speak for God, and do we really know what Jesus would do. Scripture gives us a wide scope of possible reactions that Jesus might give in any given situation, from spitting on the ground to make mud to spread on someone’s face to throwing tables across the temple courts. We must be careful, because the Spirit of God is a wild force that we cannot control. We cannot put words in the mouth of God, but we can think of something else, how can I honor God in this.
How can I honor God through the situation that I face? How can I glorify God even through my lack of understanding? How can I encourage those around me to consider God even though they may reject my understanding how God wants us to live?
God’s Spirit will do what God wants to do, with or without our input. The Spirit of God will do things that will purposefully do things that will cause us to pause and consider. This is not because God wants to trick us or even test us, but it is draw us deeper into the mystery of who he is. The spirit of God may bless us, heal our afflictions, give us worldly success, or the Spirit may lead us into a place that seems dark and shadowed. What do we do in that situation? How can we continue to glorify God? This is what Jesus explained to Nicodemus in last week’s passage. The wind blows and you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. If we are walking through the land of shadows, remember where the wild wind of the spirit has been in your life. Hold tight to that as you continue to walk in faith. And when the spirit leads us to seasons of plenty praise him. And when we are in the clouds of unknowing let us not put words into the mouth of God, but instead let us seek Him more fully. Asking what God could be showing us in this place among these people. How is God revealing himself through this, and how can I embrace him more fully?
We live among many distractions and divisions. We live in a time of history where people long for something to believe. We see it all around us and we are tempted to speak. Let us be careful with our words as we live our lives of faith. Sin can be forgiven, and even blasphemes will not be held against us, but when we speak for God and reject what the Spirit doing, we are playing with fire. As we enter this time of Holy Expectancy, let us embrace the Spirit in all its amazing raw wild power. And let us chase after that wild wind and live the love of Christ with others.
If you would like to help support the continued Ministry of Willow Creek Friends Church please consider donating online:
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friend Church
May 30, 2021
John 3:1–17 (ESV)
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
We read this portion of scripture often in a year because it is one of the most important passages in scripture. This passage gives us a glimpse into the complete human condition.
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. I have spoken about Nicodemus often. I like the man. He is like so many people we know. He is a leader, well respected. Looking at the man Nicodemus we would not be able to see any fault in him. If he were to be running a campaign to be elected in our contemporary culture, we would most likely support him. I say this because everything we know about the man and his actions is that he was a good person.
He is a good man and I say this passage gives us a glimpse into the human condition. We all see ourselves as good people. If you were to go out around the community and interview the population, most if not all people would say that they are a good person. This man, Nicodemus, came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
This statement is interesting. How many of us have looked at the people around us and thought that we could see goodness in them? We look at their lives and their lifestyles and we believe that they are being led by the hand of God. We do this, we do this without even thinking. Children look at role models in sports, when they go out at recess they act as if they are that individual, why because they seem to embody everything they desire to be. But this does not stop at childhood, even adults can be trapped in the cult of personality. Even as adults we can read into the actions of others that may speak to our condition. We can be drawn into supporting individuals and causes. Every two years we see this happening in our nation. Every two years people begin campaigns hoping to gain support so that they can have a job. They speak, they make promises, they say all the right words and we are drawn into the belief that they are a good person. We might even believe that they are a person that is appointed by God because they have said the right words concerning our personal belief systems.
Like Nicodemus we might approach those individuals and affirm their status and say to them you have been chosen by God, for no one can say what you say without God being with them. I, myself, have been drawn into these sorts of activities. I, myself, have place hope in a person. I have hoped that one person would change the courses of history. I have had such a strong desire to be on the right side of history in my own mind that I have overlooked the negative aspects of policies because I want them to be good.
Do you see this in the statement of Nicodemus? Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, is looking at Jesus and he is projecting his desires into and onto him. You are a teacher come from God, and I hope you will make our dreams come true. Nicodemus said these words as a ruler of the Jews, he announced his desire to believe and support Jesus. He expressed support and even expresses the support of all those that see him as a leader in Jesus, but there is a condition that is unspoken. He wants Jesus to say the right words. We are not told what those words are. We are not told what Nicodemus sees as being the definition of good.
Jesus answers Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” With this answer we are given a glimpse into the unexpressed desire of Nicodemus. He has a desire for the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus is taken aback by Jesus’s statement, and rightfully so because Jesus answered a question that was not asked, at least not verbally. Will you usher in the kingdom?
We each have a strong desire to see our visions of utopia. We want the world around us to operate in a manner that we think is desirable. We want the kingdom of God in our image. But Jesus’s answer turns that around on us. When Jesus said unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God, What does it mean to be born again?
We have all heard this our entire lives, because this is the motto of the Evangelical movement. If we call ourselves Evangelicals we have made some sort of response to this statement. We have some idea as to what this means in our minds. It is a decision of some sort, a turning of will and direction of life. This is not far from the truth. The concept of being born is easy enough to consider. It is the idea of begetting, bearing, or conception, but it can also represent the relation between teacher and disciple or master and servant. The idea within the birth analogy is to become. Often we consider this as being a concept that originated in Jesus, but was already and expression common to Rabbinical teaching in regard to the conversion of those to Jewish faith. The idea is that the individual is being reformed, remade, or born into true humanity. According to these rabbinical teachings a true man is one that is faithful to God according to the Rabbinical teachings. Before a man is converted or possesses the proper teachings, they are not living spiritual beings, but mere creatures without the breath of life.
If this idea of the birth of a true man was common to Jewish teaching in reference to the conversion of those born apart from the linage of Israel, why does Nicodemus struggle with the imagery? It could be that as a leader within the nation of Israel, he had not considered the process of conversion for himself personally. He is, according to his understanding, already alive and has been since birth. He is a child of Israel.
Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that he like those outside of his nation are equal. All of humankind exists without the breath of life, all of humankind is but a creature. We assume Nicodemus struggles with the idea of being born again. What he is struggling with is equality within the Kingdom. How can he a Jewish man be converted, how can he who has always been a member of God’s people be joined into what was his birth right?
We all like to think of ourselves as good. In our own minds we are good. Our actions and the decisions we make are based on ideals we hold as being right and true. In our minds, we live as if we are true humanity and all that oppose our ideas are outside the realm of the living. When we hold this idea in our head, every action we undertake is a mission from God. We must convert those unlike us to submit to our way of life. We are good they are not.
This way of life has justified many tragic episodes in history. This is an attitude both inside and outside religious thought. It is the way of the flesh and of mankind the creature. The idea of goodness of our path is the kingdoms of men. When Jesus is approached by Nicodemus that evening, Jesus opens his eyes to the reality of his own prejudices. This is not what Nicodemus expected when he approached the camp of the disciples.
“[U]nless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” I want us to think of this deeply. Jesus speaks not of a division between the flesh and the spirit but of creation and divine. Those that truly live are joined with the divine Spirit. And Jesus is challenging Nicodemus’s understanding of how this communion occurs.
“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
How does a person enter into communion with God? The wind blows where it wishes. By saying this Jesus is saying that God cannot be controlled. We cannot honestly say how or who will enter the kingdom because we cannot control the wind. But there is something interesting about the wind., it can peak curiosity.
How many of us have walked outside and smelled the aroma of barbecue on the air? How many times have we watch a child chase bubbles or dandelion dust? How many autumns have we enjoyed hearing the rustling of the leaves? The wind carries curiosity, it inspires imagination and adventure. The wind carried the explorers across the oceans. And cause mankind to dream of flying. The wind inspires. But we cannot control the wind. We can only join it.
Nicodemus came to Jesus with the hopes that this man from God would join their cause, instead Jesus challenges him. He challenges his way of thinking and understanding of God. What made Abraham righteous? What blessed the kingdom of David?
Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness, is what the writer of Hebrews tells us. He believed. He trusted. He listened to the spirit rustling the leaves and he followed. Abraham lived in the cradle of civilization during his era of history. As far as the kingdoms of men were concerned they had all the world could offer, yet when the voice of God came to Abraham he left it all for something different. Abraham followed the wind.
When David was a mere child taking food to his brothers stationed in battle he heard the voice of the giant, and he saw the men of his nation trembling in fear. David did not fear and he face the taunting voice of the adversary. A boy facing a giant. David put his faith in God.
It did not make sense in the minds of men for these actions to occur. Just as it did not make sense in the mind of Nicodemus that Jesus would challenge the teachings of the Pharisees. The wind blows, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. What do you do at that point?
The interesting thing is we know the direction of the wind. We do know where the wind comes from. We may not know the thermal dynamic theories that cause wind to occur. But I do not think this is what Jesus is saying. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound. It is an invitation. Early Friends would have called this a day of visitation. A moment where we must make some sort of decision, do we explore or do we walk away? If we turn our face into the wind and explore where it has been we will see the great history of all those saints of old who embraced a life with God. Their lives added fragrant aromas to the air that whips past, and as we explore those lives we can find comfort and peace. If we were to turn the direction there is something different.
In the spring the maple trees release seeds that are an amazing design. They have a fin that will cause the seed to spin and fly along the currents of the air while gravity pulls it down to the earth. How many of us a child played with these seeds? Gathered up as many as we could and thrown them in the air just to watch the twirl back down? This is where the wind is going. This is the call of Abraham to go to the land promised. It is the call to trust God with our future. We can draw comfort from the past but we cannot stay there, we must eventually follow the wind forward. And God is inviting us to join Him in that adventure.
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound. The invitation has been made, we can explore history to see where it has been, we can embrace the adventure of the future, or we can take a third path. We can just let the wind blow. This is the challenge Jesus is giving to Nicodemus, and all of us that are religious.
God is calling us to embrace that wind and move with it. Those that are born again are those that accept that invitation to walk with God. Those that stand still have allow the breath of God that gives life to pass away from them and they remain in the kingdoms of men and lose the opportunity of God’s glory. Everyone is given this opportunity and must make a choice on their own. Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” and we ask this with him as well. Nicodemus is listening to this teacher, a teacher he said is from God tell him that Israel is not embracing the life and lifestyle they teach and because of this they will be excluded from the kingdom. They are worried about laws and rules, they are focused on their rights and their identity. They have their minds so involved with the kingdoms of men that they no longer even notice that the wind is blowing. They are distracted and no longer focused on what is most important. “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” is Jesus’s response to Nicodemus.
I want those words to resonate with us today. Jesus is asking us if our words and actions meet. Are we following God or are we good in the eyes of men? Are we distracted or are we embracing the wind? Are we born again?
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