The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Saturday, May 31, 2008

February 17, 2008
Lent 2A
John 3:1-17

In the name of God. Amen.

Everything that I need to know about baptism, I learned from Hurricane Andrew.

It was August 1992. I was living with my parents in Lafayette, Louisiana. I was a freshman in High School. The news reports told us of a ferocious wind that had blown through southern Florida just a few days before. Now they told us that the same wind was blowing toward us. But they didn’t need to tell us. Though it had not yet begun, we could already feel its imminence. The blue sky, striped with broadly swirling bands of white clouds, was growing overcast. The cottony white clouds began to shift to yellow. Stillness hung heavy in the air. The same way that you can feel snow just before it falls, you could feel this wind even before it began to blow.

As night fell the water and the wind came. Water fell in sheets and pooled and puddled in whatever recesses it could find – in rivers, in ditches, in driveways, in living rooms. It slapped angrily against our windows begging to go where it was driven. The wind howled as it twisted across the earth – slow and steady moans through the night, ripping trees bare, hurling debris, reclaiming its place on the cityscape that we had erected in its path.

There was no sleep that night. Only anxious laughter and occasional games meant to distract us from the tempest that engulfed us. And hour after hour of listening to water and wind.

When morning broke, the howling wind became a stiff breeze and the sheets of rain retreated into gentle showers. By that afternoon the wind and the water had parted to reveal clean blue skies and a bright sun that shone its light on the destruction of the night that had passed. It looked like death. Trees had been toppled. Streets were littered with branches and pieces of people’s homes and lives. Death rode in on wind and water.

About a month later I was riding with my mother in a car across the Atchafalaya Basin – the large expanse of swampland between Lafayette and Baton Rouge in Louisiana. The hurricane that had brushed us with such destruction in Lafayette had hit our swamp with its full force. I almost dreaded what I expected to be the flattened landscape as we approached the eighteen-mile bridge that would carry us to the other side. Instead, as we crossed, I began to notice something that surprised me. I had never seen the vegetation so dense. It glowed with the green of new life.

Later I would learn that swamps need hurricanes to remain healthy. They need, periodically, to be washed and stripped down to make room for new life – new life that is always waiting in the shadows for an opportunity to break through. They need the water and the wind so that they can be born anew in the aftermath of the storm.

In the gospel lesson this morning, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night. There is a tempest swirling in his soul. You see, he was a Pharisee – a holy man in his community who was set apart for special adherence to and knowledge of Jewish law. He was respected by his peers and by the citizens of his country for his unique relationship with the tradition. But secretly, he felt conflicted because he could see evidence of God in Jesus, and it did not reconcile with what he thought he knew about God. In what must have been exasperation, he confronted Jesus with that incongruity. He said, “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus, in his way, replies with a most curious answer. He says, “No one can see the realm of God without being born anew.”

This isn’t the image of Jesus that we tend to expect – we expect Jesus to be one who calms the storms of our lives to ensure our safe passage. This Jesus takes what is already disturbed in Nicodemus and makes his life more complicated still!

Do you ever feel that way? You’re a good and faithful Christian. Here you are at church on a Sunday morning, after all. Do you ever wonder why you aren’t rewarded with clarity? With peace? Do you ever wonder if the choking thicket in your own soul has room for the new creation that God is said to have planned?

Jesus goes on to say, “No one can enter the realm of God without being born of water and Wind. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of Wind is Wind…. ‘[You have already been born of water. Now,] you must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of Wind.”

One of the functions of Lent in the life of the Christian community is that it gives us an opportunity to face the tempests that swirl about in our lives. Too often we work to silence the Wind. In Lent we are called to let it blow.

Nicodemus probably felt that Jesus was fueling the tempest that he wished to quiet. But really, Jesus was just giving him permission to let the Winds of confusion blow.

We don’t know much of what became of Nicodemus after this interaction with Jesus. But we do know that somehow the Winds that led him to Jesus on that night left him different – there was something within his soul that was stripped down. Something new began to grow.

This isn’t the story of a man who was so radically moved by Jesus that everything he knew shifted in an instant. Nicodemus was not raised from the dead. He was not made to walk after a lifetime of paralysis. Like most of us, he was simply stirred. And in that stirring-up, something in him began to shift.

The solemnity of Lent can easily be mistaken for the somberness of a funeral – of a quiet vigil kept with those who mourn the dead. But we aren’t solemn because of death. We are solemn in anticipation of new life.

Lent is a time of regeneration. It’s a time when our introspection invites the blowing wind of the Spirit into our souls to strip away our old overgrown-ness that has been choking us. It’s a time to wash in the waters of our baptism so that they might nourish new life in us yet again.

Like Nicodemus who felt tortured by the tempest in his soul, we are invited to embrace the tempests in our own souls in the presence of Christ, that we may be made new by that water and wind.

Hurricanes don’t just destroy trees. They plant them. Waters don’t just flood and drown. They wash and nourish.

As you face your own tempests this Lent – or whenever you face them – try living into them. Let your soul stir a little. Maybe even look for ways to stir it up from time to time. It can be frightening when we see those storms rising. Our inclination is almost always to work really hard at keeping them quiet. But remember that tempestuousness and anxiety are never the final word from God. Even in the face of death God is speaking life. Like a swamp regenerating after a late summer storm, Easter always rises out of the Good Fridays of our lives. Like Nicodemus, our own tempestuous souls can be slowly churned into new growth through Christ. Amen.

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