Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church Eureka on Sunday March 8, 2020.
“The wind blows where it chooses; listen to the sound of the wind; you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” I speak in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirt. Amen.
In today’s Gospel, we witness an encounter between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus who approaches Jesus secretively at night, which is why some people like to refer to this passage cleverly as “Nick at Night.” Throughout the conversation, Jesus tries to guide and pull Nicodemus out of his literal understanding in order to hear Jesus’s words with a deeper and wider spiritual understanding.
There are many Christian preachers who insist that there is only one plain meaning to Scripture. However, the Gospel of John essentially mocks this approach to Scripture. To all of the many Bible teachers 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 continue to do on Tuesday nights.
The words of Jesus in John are jam-packed with meaning and we could spend the rest of Lent unpacking and chewing and digesting these teachings in John chapter 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 here in a more subtle and poetic way: “The wind blows where it chooses, listen to it; 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, because by doing so, we will learn about the Spirit of God. English poet William Wordsworth said, “One impulse from a vernal wood / can teach you more of man / of moral evil and of good / than all the sages can.” Wordsworth and Jesus invite us to appreciate the gift of hearing by listening to the wind.
How often do actually hear the wind? Sometimes we cannot ignore the wind, especially as it shakes and rumbles along the walls and rooftop of this building as we worship, 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 Holy 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. So 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 us 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 at all to be heard. If you take some time to practice intentional silence, you will likely find that what you initially thought was silent was actually not silent at all.
Yesterday, a group of us sauntered through a part of Sequoia Creek trail in intentional silence, listening attentively to the sound of our own footsteps and the rhythm of our own breath. Archdeacon Pam noticed the bass of dogs barking in the distance, the tenor of our footsteps, the alto of children’s laughter, and the soprano of the birds forming a chorus in the forest that we so often fail to notice simply because we do not listen.
When I used to teach Godly Play or lead worship with children, I would often begin by inviting the children to pray by simply being silent, reminding 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.” I can’t help but wonder if this is how Abram heard the voice of God calling him and blessing him. Did God speak audibly to Abram in a voice like Charlton Heston or James Earl Jones? 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 can be 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 breathing through our bodies. According to the Hebrew language, the breath that we breathe in this moment is the same reality as the wind blowing through the trees, which is the same reality 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 this week, listen to the wind, the silence and your breath because by doing so, you are listening to the Holy Spirit, who is whispering words of divine love to you every moment, saying “You are my beloved child, on you my favor rests.”