The Wind and the Spirit

John 3:1-10

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?” —John 3:9-10

What would you do differently if you could start over? What would you change if you could be born again? If I could edit my life, I would skip junior high football, wrecking my father’s car, and the last five minutes of my first date. I would stop my mother throwing away my baseball cards. I would go to Baylor again, but I would skip astronomy and take philosophy, even though I heard it was hard. I would not watch The Beverly Hillbillies. Well, I might watch one episode because that would be enough to get the main idea. I would read more Mark Twain and less Ann Landers, listen to more Louis Armstrong, and save the six dollars I spent on a Bee Gees album.

Every once in a while, we realize that our lives could be different, and we make plans to turn over a new leaf. We list everything that will not be part of our new life and everything we will start doing more of—exercising, reading great books, spending time with the people we love. Our new plan works for a while.

We also have moments when we realize that, even if we could stop doing everything wrong that we want to stop doing wrong and do everything right that we want to do right—even if we kept the rules that we make for ourselves—there would still be something missing.

Nicodemus visits Jesus because something is missing. He knows that there has to be more. Nicodemus is a good person who does not do the things you are not supposed to do; he does the things you are supposed to do. He is chair of the religion department at the university and a mover and shaker in the ministerial association. He has a column in the local paper. Being a professional expert on God is good work if you can get it. Nicodemus is adept at articulating the intricacies of religion and detecting the logical shortcomings in other people’s faith.

Most of us recognize Nicodemus. We have treated our opinions as if they were God’s. Sometimes we speak about God as if God is no harder to understand than anyone else. We have held some beliefs for so long that if they aren’t God’s, we think they ought to be. We begin to believe that if we don’t know something, then it doesn’t matter. We share Nicodemus’s ability to judge what others think on the basis of how close it is to what we think.

Nicodemus coming to see Jesus is surprising. As far as the ministerial association is concerned, Jesus is a nobody. His only status with the local clergy is as a pain in the neck. Just that week, he overturned tables during a big stewardship campaign at the temple. Nicodemus knows that he cannot explain his desire to see Jesus, so he decides that, with his own status to uphold, it might be smart to pay his visit at night. As a result of his decision, many preachers have been unable to resist the temptation to title sermons on this passage “Nic at Night.”

Jesus and the disciples are sitting in an olive grove after a busy day and a long walk. They have finished dinner—fish again—when they hear Nicodemus making his way up the hill, twigs snapping under his feet. Jesus has a puzzled look on his face.

Nicodemus is uncomfortable being there so late at night. Jesus gestures for him to go ahead. Nicodemus begins, as debaters often do, with a compliment: “Jesus, we know that you are a remarkable person with rare gifts for teaching. You do extraordinary things.” He is having trouble getting to what he wants to say. Jesus thinks it is too late for long, drawn-out analysis, so he cuts to the chase. “What the whole thing boils down to is that unless you are born from above, you might as well give up.”

Nicodemus was expecting a different response. “I came here for a serious conversation at considerable risk to my reputation, and you speak in riddles. What do you mean? How are you supposed to be born again when you’re pushing sixty-five? How can you be born from above when it’s a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning?”

Jesus explains, “The wind blows where it will, and you hear it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. That’s how it is with everyone who’s born of the Spirit.”

Jesus is playing on the word pneuma, which means both spirit and wind. God’s Spirit is as uncontrollable as the wind. The new life that Jesus has in mind is elusive, mysterious, and entirely God’s doing.

Nicodemus’s last words to Jesus make him the patron saint for all of us who are not sure how to begin anything we are not in charge of: “How can this be?”

Jesus sounds surprised. “You’re a teacher, and you don’t understand this.”

To paraphrase Frederick Buechner from Peculiar Treasures, maybe Nicodemus has multiple doctorates, a half column in Who’s Who, and the ability to theologize with the best, but if he does not understand that life is God’s gift, then he’d better start all over again. Nothing is more basic than understanding that God is a wind beyond our understanding. None of us are experts on the Almighty.

The incomprehensible wind of the Spirit blows in places we have not seen. More people know the grace of God than we recognize. We experience God’s grace in more ways than we understand.

The new life that God brings is not about knowledge or accomplishment. Being born from above is not the same thing as being a nicer person, learning more, or working harder. We cannot give ourselves a new start. If everyone in the world read the Bible, joined a church, and said hello to their neighbors, something would still be missing.

We need more than the finest blueprint we can design. We need something that transcends what we think of as starting over. We need to be open to God’s Spirit, celebrate God’s presence, and listen for God’s leading. We cannot control when we will feel God’s Spirit, but we can live with hopeful expectancy. The winds of grace will transform our values, change our perspectives, and help us see beyond the world’s standards.

We can take the dangerous path of worshiping God, following Christ, pouring ourselves out, dying to self-serving ways, and being reborn in the life of the Spirit.

The Gospel of John does not tell us what Nicodemus felt as he left Jesus that night, but after Jesus died, Nicodemus came to the cross and cared for Jesus’ body. Nicodemus did not understand God, but somehow God’s Spirit led him there. The Spirit leads us to Christ’s table. We leave our old selves and are reborn.

This post originally appeared in Time for Supper: Invitations to Christ’s Table by Brett Younger.

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