This sermon was preached at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer on Sunday March 12, 2017.
In today’s Gospel, we witness an encounter between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus who approaches Jesus rather clandestinely at night. Throughout the conversation, Jesus tries to guide and pull Nicodemus out of his narrow worldview in order to hear Jesus’s words with a more deep and expansive understanding. Jesus is essentially trying to lead Nicodemus out of a literalistic understanding into a more spiritual understanding.
There are many Christians who insist that there is only one plain meaning of Scripture. According to the Gospel of John, however, this way of understanding and hearing Scripture as literal, plain, straightforward and univocal is actually exposed as myopic, obtuse and ridiculous. To all of the many Bible teachers out there who assert that their interpretation is the most straightforward, literal and plain and the “only proper” interpretation, Jesus asks, “How can you be a teacher and not understand these things? How can you be a teacher of Scripture and not understand that there are many deeper meanings?”
Please understand that whenever I preach and offer an interpretation of Scripture and the teachings of Christ, I am never insisting that my interpretation is the only one. The more I read and pray and study, the more I am pushed to be open to a deeper and wider expanse of interpretation. There are certainly boundaries to interpretation, but there is enormous depth and breadth and height within those boundaries. This is why I enjoy hearing how the Scriptures speak to you in your own particular life and context, as I hope we can do later this morning.
The words of Jesus in John are multi-vocal, which means they are jam-packed with meaning and we could spend the rest of Lent unpacking and chewing and digesting these teachings in John 3. However, as I read these teachings today, there is one particular verse that resonates most deeply with me and that is verse 8: “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 born of the Spirit.”
In these words, I hear Jesus inviting Nicodemus and us into a deeper kind of listening. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus often says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” In John, Jesus is saying the same thing in a more subtle and poetic way: “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 born of the Spirit.” With these words, Jesus invites Nicodemus and us to listen, to be still and quiet enough to actually listen to the wind.
How often do actually hear the wind? Sometimes the wind makes itself very apparent, as it did on the first Sunday of Epiphany when Justin and I were here early and felt a mighty wind shake the entire building. Or maybe you’ve had an experience while camping when the night winds seem to violently howl the very name of God (“Yahweh!”) and toss you and your tent to and fro, as was my experience at Zion National Park several years ago. Or maybe you’ve experienced heavy windstorms or tornadoes or hurricanes.
But often the wind is making a soft and gentle noise that we generally do not hear. And it is by stopping and listening to the wind that we are actually being attentive to the Spirit. The Hebrew word for “Spirit” is ruach, which is the same word for wind. The Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma, which is also the same word for wind. According to the Hebrew and Greek languages (the languages of the Bible), when we are listening to the wind, we are listening to the Spirit. So I invite you this week to take some time to simply listen to the wind.
In order to do this, we first need to be still and silent. And by being still and silent we can actually listen to the wind even when there seems like there is no wind to be heard. If you take some time to simply sit in silence, you will likely find that what you initially thought was silent was not silent at all.
Whenever I teach Godly Play or lead worship with children, I begin by inviting them to pray by simply being silent. I remind them that prayer is not just us talking to God but also listening to the God who wants to speak to us. And all the great mystics agree that “God’s first language is silence. Everything else is a poor translation.” (And remember what Rabbi Gamliel said: “I have been raised on the talk of sages, but have found nothing more true than silence”). I often wonder if this is how Abram heard the voice of God call him and bless him. Did God speak audibly to Abram in the voice of Charlton Heston? Or was Abram consistently attentive to the Spirit, listening to the windy silences of the vast Arabian deserts?
Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room.” Many of us are very uncomfortable with silence, but we will be divinely blessed, not unlike Abram, if we spend time listening to what the poet Rainer Marie Rilke called the “ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence.” And what is that ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence? It is what Catholic priest and contemplative Henri Nouwen called the inner voice of Love. Nouwen wrote,
Have you ever tried to spend a whole hour doing nothing but listening to the voice that dwells deep in your heart? … It is not easy to enter into the silence and reach beyond the many boisterous and demanding voices of our world and to discover there the small intimate voice saying: “You are my Beloved Child, on you my favor rests.” Still, if we dare to embrace our solitude and befriend our silence, we will come to know that voice.”
By listening to silence, we can come to know more intimately that wonderful love of a Father who gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life; the love that does not seek to condemn but rather seeks to save.
I invite us this week to listen to the wind, to listen to the silence and also to listen to the sound of our own very breath. The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach, which means “wind” and it also means “breath.” So if you think there is no wind to be heard at all, there is always the life-giving wind blowing through our bodies. According to the Hebrew language, the breath that we breathe in this moment is the same as the wind blowing through the trees, which is the same as the Spirit that hovered over the primordial waters in Genesis and who dances with the Father and the Son in the Holy Trinity. So listen to the wind, the silence and your breath because by doing so, you are listening to the Holy Spirit. Listen.
 Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroads, 2002), excerpt from the Inward/Outward daily meditation