The gospel last Sunday was the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night in order to ask some questions. Here’s what I said.
Questions. Today’s gospel is about questions. Or rather, it’s about someone seeking answers but not really knowing the right questions to ask.
Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers. So said the great French philosopher Voltaire.
But how do we know what the right questions are? Some of history’s greatest thinkers have pondered: What are the questions we should be asking? And they’ve come up with some interesting answers to that question. They’ve come up with questions like these – posed by in my opinion probably the greatest ever winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature:
How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?
Or how many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand?
Or how many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?
What are the answers to those questions? Well, some of you will have recognized those words, so you will know:
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
For those of you who don’t know, those are questions posed by Bob Dylan in his song of 1962 – one of the most famous songs to come out of the 60s. And for which, along with other songs, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. And as Dylan sang, sometimes there simply aren’t answers to the questions we want to ask – hence the famous last line to each verse: The answer is blowin’ in the wind. As he himself explained:
There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind – and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind …
Questions – and answers. There is an old Chinese proverb: He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.
Nicodemus was someone who knew one thing for certain – he didn’t know all the answers. And Nicodemus found that Jesus left him with questions. So Nicodemus went to visit Jesus ready to be a fool for five minutes, to see if he could get some answers. And he gets from Jesus the famous but somewhat puzzling, for him, response that no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above – or born again as it is often translated. And when he questions Jesus about this baffling statement Jesus says to him:
Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 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 who is born of the Spirit.
The answer, said Jesus to Nicodemus, is blowin’ in the wind.
Nicodemus was a sincere man. He believed the doctrines and practiced the customs of his religion. But he was puzzled because God was obviously working through Jesus, who was unorthodox by any standards. How could God use a person like that? Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees lived by the religious rule book. They wanted to help people keep the Old Testament law and so stay right with God. And having rules was a neat system. It made religion easy, because you never had to think about it – you just kept the rules. And there were lots of them – a later 3rd century tradition established that there were 613 commandments in the Law of Moses. There was no real embrace of God, just an acknowledgement that he existed and required people to obey certain rules – rules that were often, of course, not set by God at all but by the religious leaders.
Jesus, by contrast, had come along talking about faith being a personal relationship with God, embracing him, as a child with a parent. And he taught that relationship with God was not about rules but about love. A relationship based on rules alone is more slavery than personal rapport. How you live should not be about following the rule book but a response to knowing God in your life – and then living how God wants you to as a response because you wouldn’t want to do anything else. Nicodemus’ could see that, but faced the problem of how to move from belief in the head to trust in the heart – how to move from following a set of rules to abandonment to the leading of God in your life. Scary, if you’re used to keeping to a rule book. And in response to Nicodemus’ questioning, Jesus gives his famous teaching about being “born from above”. Jesus meant that everyone needs a new start. Not the sort that’s just turning over a new leaf, or trying harder to do our duty – that was the way of the Pharisees. He meant something more like the story of Abraham who simply surrendered himself to God’s will. Abraham left home when God told him to, not knowing where he was going, yet believing God’s promises. That was true faith – embracing God in a personal, trusting way and being prepared to step out into the unknown. And when we do that, it’s as if God becomes part of us.
Saint Paul, in our New Testament reading, points out that what was important in Abraham’s relationship with God was not what he did but what he believed. He was justified – that is, he was made right with God, forgiven, his sins set aside – not because of his works, his good deeds, his way of life, keeping a list of rules – but because he believed, because he had faith, because he was prepared to surrender control of his life and let God in to take charge. And this is a hugely important point that churchgoers today so often find hard to grasp – hugely important because it concerns your eternal relationship with Jesus. It’s not what you do that matters – it’s what you believe! Essentially – in today’s terms – it doesn’t matter how many times you go to church on a Sunday, it doesn’t matter how many jobs you do in the church, it doesn’t matter how much money you give to charity, it doesn’t matter how important you think you are in the scheme of things. What matters is this: Do you believe in Jesus Christ? And will you submit your whole life to him no matter what that may mean! Will you follow him to the ends of the earth? Will you take the risk that Abraham was prepared to take? Will you give up everything for him?
That is what being “born from above” is about – allowing Jesus to come and dwell in us, to fully embrace us, and allowing ourselves to fully embrace him. Not just to know him or know about him, but to be at one with him. Trusting him no matter what the future may hold, no matter what he may want of us. Making him the most important thing in life – more important than family, than fiends, than your work, than your ambition! Being a follower of Jesus is not about keeping rules like Nicodemus and the Pharisees but about exercising faith like Abraham and simply allowing yourself to be blown along by the wind of the Holy Spirit no matter where that may take you. Trust.
An easy way to remember what faith is, is to remember that the letters of the word ‘faith’ stand for ‘Forsaking all I trust him.’ Have you done that yet? Have you forsaken all and trusted in Jesus first and foremost?
Because that’s the new start Nicodemus needed to embrace – a new start where as the old saying goes he learned to ‘let go and let God,’ he learned to forsake all and trust in God. And like many of us he found it hard, because he wanted to keep control. We like being in control of our own life, our own destiny. It’s safer that way. Nicodemus had to let go of his natural desire to remain in control and let God take over his life. And so do we.
Jesus said: Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 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 who is born of the Spirit.
Naturally we find ourselves asking questions about the Christian life – especially during this Lenten season of spiritual reflection as we prepare ourselves to journey with Jesus through the cross and on to the risen life.
- What does it mean to follow Jesus?
- What does it mean to live a Christian life?
- How do we know what Jesus wants?
The answer Jesus gives is clear. Allow yourself to be blown along by the wind of the Holy Spirit. Allow the Holy Spirit to control your life. You do not know where the wind comes from or where it goes to – it blows where it chooses. You do not know where the Holy Spirit will lead you, for the Holy Spirit will take and guide those who are born from above where he chooses. The only answer to life’s questions is to believe in Jesus and all the Spirit of God to lead you where he will.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.