Rocket science is really cool. Rocket science is no longer at the cutting edge of intellectual pursuits, but it retains its reputation for complexity. Most of us can't calculate the path of a rocket through and beyond earth's atmosphere, or how much fuel is needed to get a rocket where you want it to go. But we often enjoy thinking about rockets, or at least watching movies about people who think about rockets. Rocket science is really cool, but if you are looking for rocket science you have come to the wrong place. God's message isn't rocket science.
In the Good News according to John we heard about Nicodemus coming to Jesus "one night". We are told that Nicodemus is a religious person and a prominent man of his time.
There was a man named Nicodemus who was a Pharisee and a Jewish leader.
[John 3: 1; American Bible Society, Contemporary English Version, 1995.]
He begins his conversation with what can only be heard as a declaration of faith.
… he went to Jesus and said, "Sir, we know that God has sent you to teach us. You could not work these miracles, unless God were with you."
[John 3: 2; CEV]
"But …" Can you hear the "but"? Nicodemus believed the miracles. Nicodemus believed that Jesus came from God. Nicodemus believed that Jesus worked with God. But there was a piece missing in Nicodemus' mind. He couldn't quite see the whole picture. Jesus replied to that "but". Jesus didn't bother to comment on Nicodemus' declaration of faith; instead, he immediately addressed the missing piece in Nicodemus' mind.
Jesus replied, "I tell you for certain that you must be born from above before you can see God's kingdom!"
Nicodemus asked, "How can a grown man ever be born a second time?"
[John 3: 3-4; CEV.]
Nicodemus is distracted by the biology of birth. He heard the word "born" and apparently his mind went immediately to the physical biology.
Biology is really cool. Among scientists today, biology is being named the capstone science, the discipline which incorporates all other branches of science. The biology of today builds on quantum physics and molecular chemistry. It uses insight from geology and astronomy, depends on statistical mechanics, and motivates the most advanced and difficult efforts in the computational sciences. Biology is really cool, but if you are looking for biology you have come to the wrong place. God's message isn't biology.
Jesus sees that Nicodemus is looking in the wrong direction, and so he provides a short exposition on what he means. For most of us, most of the time, metaphors and picturesque language are the easiest way to evoke a complicated idea in our minds. For some of us, and for most of us some of the time, when we think really hard about a puzzling question, we trap ourselves in our own rationality. When that happens, we may need to plod our way out, step by tedious step. Jesus tries to help Nicodemus work his way out of his confusion.
Jesus answered: "I tell you for certain that before you can get into God's kingdom, you must be born not only by water, but by the Spirit. Humans give life to their children. Yet only God's Spirit can change you into a child of God. Don't be surprised when I say that you must be born from above. Only God's Spirit gives new life. The Spirit is like the wind that blows wherever it wants to. You can hear the wind, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going."
"How can this be?" Nicodemus asked.
[John 3: 5-9; CEV.]
How can this be? How can a person be born of God's Spirit? How can God's Spirit make you into a child of God? Jesus reminds Nicodemus that there is more than biology. There is also the spiritual side of life.
Metaphorically, there is both water and wind. The water of the womb grows a physical human being, the flowing waters of springs and streams sustain that bodily human life. What, then, gives birth to spiritual life? The wind, the Breath of God, God's own holy Spirit. "Only God's Spirit gives new life," Jesus says. We humans have some control over beginning and sustaining the biological aspects of human life. God's Spirit, like the wind, "blows wherever it wants to."
We are not in control. We don't create life from above. Despite centuries of scientific progress, there is still a mystery in biological life; surely there should be at least as much mystery in spiritual life.
At the same time, our minds are perfectly capable of understanding the simple analogy between the life of the water and the life of the wind. We know that the characteristics of the parents are often reproduced in the children. We only need to look around us to see children with physical features and facial expressions and mannerisms and attitudes that remind us of their parents. Have you ever found yourself recapitulating your parents? You don't know how it happens, but your words or actions become the words or actions you would expect from your parent. You can't seem to avoid it; you keep proving that you are part of the same family as your parents.
We can see, too, that children of God recapitulate the characteristics of their heavenly parent. The life of the wind is not created in the same way as the life of the water, and we are even more ignorant of the mechanisms by which God's Spirit made us into God's children. But we can see that where the Spirit blows, we begin to think and act like our Father. As we grow spiritually, it starts to to become obvious that God and we are part of the same family.
We've plodded enough; let me tell you another story. This story about the Peacemaker is told among the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee (the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk peoples).
A boy was born in a Huron Village near the Bay of Quinte, on the shores of Lake Ontario. … people today know him only as the "Peacemaker" …. His coming had been announced to a young virgin woman in a dream. In this dream, a spirit messenger from the Creator told her that she would bear a son …. "He will be a messenger of the Creator and will bring peace and harmony to the people on earth. …"
[North American Indian Travelling College, Traditional Teachings, 1984; page 17.]
I know this sounds suspiciously similar to one of our stories, but it isn't that story.
The Peacemaker crossed Lake Ontario and approached the land of the Hotinonshonni. He looked for signs of ascending smoke from any villages, but saw none, for all the villages were back among the hills. Those were evil days, for the Hotinonshonni were all at war with one another.
When the Peacemaker came near the land, he saw the figures of men, small in the distance, running along the shore, for some hunters had seen a sparkle of light from the white stone canoe and ran to see what it could be. When he approached, he asked them where they were headed. They explained that they were hunters and were running away from their village, for there was much bloodshed among their people. "Go back to your people," instructed the Peacemaker, "and tell them that good news of peace, power and righteousness has come to your nation." …
[NAITC; page 18.]
For us as Christians, the good news is that God came in the human being Jesus Christ to bring us all into the family of God, children of God as Father and sisters and brothers to Jesus. "As members of one body, you were called to peace." [Colossians 3:15, New International Version].
For us as Christians, the good news is that "the LORD gives strength to everyone who is good" [Psalms 37:17, Contemporary English Version].
For us as Christians, the good news is that God refuses to condemn us for what we do, but instead counts our faith in God as righteouness: "faith is credited as righteousness" [Romans 4:5, New International Version]. For us as Christians, as for the Haudenosaune, the good news is "peace, power, and righteousness"
We'll continue the story.
As the Peacemaker continued on his journey towards the Flint (Mohawk Nation), he came upon the lodge of "the man who eats humans." There he waited until the man came home, carrying a human body, which he put in a big kettle on the fire. The Peacemaker had climbed the roof and lay flat on his chest, peering through the smoke hole.
At that moment, the man bent over the kettle and saw a reflection of the Peacemaker's face which he immediately interpreted as his own. Why would a man whose face was so kind and wise and possessed such strong characteristics have to resort to eating humans? He took the kettle out of the house and emptied the contents into a hole that he dug. … When he returned to his lodge, he met the Peacemaker who had climbed down from the roof. They entered the lodge and sat across the fire from each other. "I am the Peacemaker. I am the one who has caused this change to take place in your mind. I am the messenger of the Creator, and the message is that all men should live together in peace, and live in unity based on a Law of Righteousness, Peace and Power. …
"I have brought you a new mind to use. … "
[NAITC; page 19-20.]
"How can this be?" Nicodemus had asked. How can a man who eats humans turn his life around and work for Righteousness and Peace?
This change can occur because the Peacemaker causes it. The Peacemaker went up on the roof of the house and turned the thoughts of the man who eats humans from the things below to the things above. Not literally "above"; the man did not turn his thoughts to the Peacemaker who was on the roof. The man turned his thoughts to kindness and wisdom and to the good that he discovered living in himself.
When the Peacemaker looked in from above, from the roof, the man who ate humans saw, with his eyes, the reflection of the Peacemaker's face. But in his heart, the man who ate humans saw the human being that he had been created to be. Seeing who he really was, seeing who he could be, the man who ate humans became a different man.
The man who ate humans had been willing to sacrifice those people whom he understood to be his enemies. But when he saw the world of Peace, Power, and Righteousness reflected in his cooking pot, he stopped killing. And there is a little more in that story that I want to tell you this morning. After the Peacemaker told the man "I have brought you a new mind to use," the man replied:
"Because I have seen your face, the evil that nested in my mind has departed. I am now a new man. What can I do to help further the cause of the good message?"
[NAITC; page 20.]
"How can this be?" Nicodemus had asked.
Jesus replied: "How can you be a teacher of Israel and not know these things? … "
[John 3: 10; CEV.]
How can a grown child of human parents become a child of God? How can he not see how simple this is?
This change can occur because our Creator causes it. God came down to earth, and climbed up on the cross, and we have seen ourselves reflected in his face. We have seen the human beings that we were created to be and we are not satisfied with the lives we used to lead. The wind of God has blown right through us. God lives in what we think and what we do. We are new people, and we ask, What can I do to help further the cause of the good message?
When the wind and water meet they influence each other, but it is the wind which forms waves on the lake. I have read that it is the winds which drive the great ocean currents. With my own eyes I have seen the northeast wind push back the waters of Green Bay, reverse the Fox River, and flood the city.† When the wind from God met the water of the Red Sea, God's people walked across. When god's life of the wind meets your life of water, God says,
"I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you."‡
[Isaiah 44:22; New International Version®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society.
Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.]
Jesus did not come into the world to search out anyone's sins. Jesus came to show us our best selves reflected in his face. He came to bring us righteousness, power, and peace, and to bring us into the family of God. If any one is condemned, it is because he condemns himself.
"The light has come into the world, and people who do evil things are judged guilty because they love the dark more than the light. People who do evil hate the light and won't come to the light, because it clearly shows what they have done. But everyone who lives by the truth will come to the light, because they want others to know that God is really the one doing what they do."
[John 3: 18-21; CEV.]
God has acted, and we are new people. God is acting, and the good we do now is God acting in us. We are new people, and we ask, What can I do to help further the cause of the good message?
† Earth Day, 1973.
‡ Isaiah 44:22 is my watchword for 2008.