Questions and answers! But what’s the question?
Apologies for being a bit late this week! But here it is – my sermon for Trinity Sunday.
Last Monday, perhaps the greatest ever winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature – at least in my opinion – celebrated a special birthday. In case you missed the news, it was Robert Zimmerman’s 80th birthday. Better known, of course, as Bob Dylan.
Today’s gospel reading is about questions. Or rather, it’s about someone seeking answers but not really knowing the right questions to ask. And it so happens that one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs is full of questions – questions that nobody before Bob Dylan had ever thought of asking, and questions to which Bob Dylan’s just doesn’t give a simple answer. Rather like the answer Jesus gives to the questions posed by Nicodemus when he visits Jesus in our gospel reading.
I’m sure many of you know the questions!
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, those of you who have recognized those words will, I am sure, know that:
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Bob Dylan’s point was that sometimes there simply aren’t answers to the questions we want to ask – hence that famous last line to each verse: The answer is blowin’ in the wind. He was once asked what he meant by that, so he 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 …
Which makes it all clear!
Questions – and answers. Life is full of questions. No-one likes to look silly and to ask what might seem like a ridiculous question to which there is an answer that everyone else knows. 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.
But what questions to ask? Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers. So said the great French philosopher Voltaire.
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.
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. How you live, Jesus taught, 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 abandoning yourself 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.
Because, Jesus said, it’s not about what you do, it’s about being born of the Holy Spirit. And allowing the Holy Spirit to control your life. As Jesus put it to Nicodemus: 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.
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, 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: Will you allow the Holy Spirit, the Spirit sent by Jesus from the Father, to fill you and lead you?
Because that what being “born from above” is about – allowing Jesus through the God’s Holy Spirit to come and dwell in us, to fully embrace us, and allowing ourselves to fully embrace Jesus. Not just to know him or know about him, but to be at one with him. Trusting Jesus no matter what the future may hold, no matter what he may want of us. Making Jesus the most important thing in life – more important than family, than friends, than your work, than your ambition! Being a follower of Jesus is not about keeping rules like Nicodemus and the Pharisees but about simply allowing yourself to be blown along by the wind of the Holy Spirit no matter where that may take you. Having faith.
The Rector of the church to which God called me after my conversion, and who prepared me for baptism and confirmation, liked to regularly remind people what faith meant. An easy way to remember what faith is, he said, is to remember that the letters of the word ‘faith’ stand for ‘Forsaking all I trust him.’ Have you done that yet? he would say. 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. And that means letting go control, which is so difficult for many, because we like to feel we are in control of our own destiny. But that’s not how it is, says Jesus – hand control over to the Holy Spirit and let the Spirit direct your life. Allow yourself to be born from above, to be born again.
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.
The answers that Jesus gives in response to the questioning from Nicodemus is, perhaps, not what Nicodemus wanted. Because he doesn’t give Nicodemus any nice, concise, clear and simple answers. What you must do, he says, is 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 allow the Spirit of God to lead you where he will.
We’re not told what Nicodemus made of all this. But the question for us this morning is: what do we make of it all? Can we accept what Jesus says about the need to be born from above, and led by the Spirit. Like Nicodemus, it’s down to us to make the choice:
Do you want a straight-forward, safe and secure life, with no worries?
Or do you want a Spirit-led life? A life where you never know what’s round the corner? But where you know it will all be alright in the end?
Because you can’t have both.