Seeking the Spirit

“Seeking the Spirit”

Peace Presbyterian Church…………………………….Second Sunday of Lent

John 3:1-17.                                                             March 12, 2017

Shannon Jung


The story of Nicodemus strikes a chord in us.  Maybe that’s because there is a bit of a seeker in everyone.

Over the past two decades the language of being a seeker or searcher has become familiar to believers.  The image is of someone who has not yet arrived at the truth and is still seeking for it.  The search originates in the person’s not feeling whole, somehow.  They yearn for a firm confidence in God’s living presence. “There has to be more.” The non-affiliated have talked about being “spiritual without being religious”  -- the megachurch movement has seeker-services. There is a sense that this is new and exciting.  No more do we have to cover up our doubts, it is not only okay to be a seeker, it is admirable.  We in the U.S. find lots of ways to seek , to pursue this search for meaning.

Even church goers – you and me – find this metaphor of “seeking” or “searching” attractive. It is refreshing that we no longer have to pretend to be certain in our faith. We know that we have not yet arrived.  And yet, oftentimes we think we should have.  After all, searching is reserved for 20 or 30 year olds. We are past that, we think. I do not wish to discount those who are secure or mature in their faith, no matter what their age.  However, many of us yearn to have permission to continue the journey. We want to grow more. That is refreshing.

Well, this morning’s text has good news for all seekers.

Enter Nicodemus.

Hear the word of God.

Verses 1-3.  Nicodemus was a seeker if ever there was one.  He was a Pharisee and of course the author of John knows that Jesus was going to get into trouble with the Pharisees.  They were, after all,the religious leaders of the Jewish faith.  Here is Nicodemus, called “a leader of the Jews”, coming to Jesus in the middle of the night.  In the dark.  He probably didn’t want to be seen.  But he was curious, he was seeking.  So he says to Jesus, “ Rabbi (a term of high regard), we know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs without God’s presence.”  Nicodemus is almost persuaded, it seems to me.  Now Jesus’s response to him is a bit mysterious:  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  What does that mean?  Born again, born anew? Jesus may know that Nicodemus is looking, but he wants proof.  He wants certainty.  Like a seeker does…Willing to pursue the truth but wanting certainty. He is unwilling to take the plunge and trust.

So,Nicodemus plays dumb, in my interpretation:  Verses 4-6.

How can anyone be born again after having grown old: could a person enter a second time into his mother’s womb?

Jesus challenges him, Very truly, I tell you that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, but what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.

This is a very difficult saying.  The second half of it seems to set flesh and Spirit in opposition, but the first half says that we must be born of the flesh and the
Spirit.  Maybe there’s a clue for us in the phrase “water and Spirit”  The water Jesus was speaking of may be the water of baptism,  a quite material, even fleshy, material. But this water like our own flesh may be penetrated by Spirit; we are more than protoplasm. Just as the Spirit enters the water of baptism, the Spirit can dwell in our flesh. Perhaps Jesus meant that we need to plunge into the Spirit-filled waters of baptism.Being baptized is a matter of believing and immersing ourselves physically into a world filled with Spirit.  Only with this commitment can we be born of the Spirit.  Jesus may be saying to Nicodemus, in effect, you need to go beyond the obvious fact of these signs, you need to accept what you see. They do signify the real presence of God in our world. The rest of what Jesus says tends to confirm this:

Verses 7-8.  The Spirit, like the wind, blows where it will and you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  Jesus may be counseling Nicodemus and us to pay close attention because the Spirit is not controllable.  We can no more control the Spirit than we can control the wind.  We need to let go of our need to be without questions, our need to corral the Spirit and to box God up. We need to be open to the Spirit wherever it goes.  Now we know a few things about the Spirit, but the Spirit is still blowing and we must still flow with the Spirit. Not an easy thing to do, you say,  Yep.  We would like to have a clear path, a map, certainty. All questions answered. Nicodemus, I think, wanted a neat and tidy set of directions from the One who had done such signs and wonders.  Not going to happen. Everyone who is born of the Spirit has to put themselves in the hands of God. God is in the driver’s seat.

Nicodemus says, “How can this be?”

Jesus responds, “You are a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”

To which Jesus responds,   Vs. 11-17.  This very familiar verse – John 3:16 – takes on new meaning in the context of this encounter with Nicodemus.  Jesus, in comparing himself to Moses, is confronting Nicodemus, asking Nicodemus to affirm that salvation comes through him, the Son of God.  “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, Jesus, so that we may not perish but have eternal life.”

This passage doesn’t say any more about Nicodemus here. Did he come to confess Jesus or did he just wander home? We are not told.  But the story does not end there. Nicodemus is mentioned two more times in the Gospel of John.  It seems safe to assume that Nicodemus continued to search out the truth.

In Chapter 7 before the chief priests and Pharisees, Nicodemus offers a hesitant defense of Jesus and his right to a full hearing,  And then in Chapter 19 Nicodemus is reported to have accompanied Joseph of Arimathea and to have stood before Pilate and asked permission to bury Jesus.

Nicodemus brought with him a 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes and linens to the tomb.  This strongly suggests that Nicodemus’s search, ended in a life of faith. He has gone from wondering about Jesus in the dark of night to standing before Pilate and claiming his connection. He goes public as it were. 

This is a very affirming realization for us.

While we may have this fantasy of God appearing miraculously and changing our whole life, it may not happen that way.  Or even if it does, we may still find ourselves searching for the presence of God in certain situations.  Maybe John recognizes that while some – the Samaritan woman in the following chapter – come to faith quickly, others take more time.  Perhaps by giving us glimpses of Nicodemus’s faith journey,  John is inviting those of us  – then or now – who have difficulty believing in our heart of hearts that the cross is the moment of God’s victory to come along for the ride,.  To “come and see”

Faith may not be a once-and-done decision on the part of all believers, but for some it might be an ongoing work of the Spirit who, as Jesus says, blows where it chooses.  For some the coming of the Spirit and faith may move more slowly.  John invites us to witness the powerful and unpredictable activity of the Spirit.  Believers therefore should pray and give thanks for God’s Spirit who is eager and ready to testify to God’s ongoing activity in their lives.

This encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus and their conversation suggests two things for us:

1.  We should not feel badly if our faith seems to grow more slowly than others. …This is not a competition .Instead, as Nicodemus experienced, faith is ajourney.   What growth in faith means is that we more and more take on the lens of Jesus.  We see our daily activities and projects as Jesus would.  What is it that has lasting meaning?  We can face and interpret the reality that we experience through the faith. We find that God’s grace and love never deserts us for God so loved the world that he sent his Son.

2,. We should be open to the ongoing activity of the Spirit in our lives, ever mindful that the Spirit blows where it will, and God speaks to us in many and various ways. This business of openness to the Spirit invites us to stay alert to what is going on around us.  The Spirit may speak in ways that we do not expect.  Here is the bottom line, I think:

Do we expect to see God at work in the world?  Do we expect God to inhabit the flesh of our daily lives?  Pray that the Spirit will give you eyes to see.