Rev Frank’s Mar 15, 2014 sermon

March 15, 2014
Westmount Park United Church

 I have been told that Canadians spend more per capita on life insurance than anyone else in the world, and that within Canada Quebecers are well above the national average. We are very security conscious. One place we look for security, for comfort and assurance, is our religion. We come to Jesus in public worship and in private prayer for security and assurance and peace of mind.
The story I read this morning from John’s gospel tells how a man named Nicodemus came to Jesus one night. Perhaps he was hoping to receive some sort of reassurance or support from Jesus. He begins by trying to ingratiate himself to Jesus, telling him what a great teacher he is. But Jesus is not about to be buttered up with compliments. He isn’t going to spare Nicodemus the sort of unsettling challenge to his way of life that he must hear. “Nicodemus,” says Jesus, “You need to be born anew. You have to abandon who you are and have been up to now and become a new person, born of the Spirit of God.” This is not what Nicodemus was expecting, coming as a respected leader of the community to a teacher who had gained wide popularity and respect. He was not about to accept this sort of challenging, unsettling criticism. “What do you mean `born anew'” says Nicodemus in reply, “I can’t come out of my mother’s womb a second time.” I’m sure Nicodemus realized Jesus was not speaking literally, but he grasped at this ludicrous objection in order to fend off Jesus’ challenge to his well established and settled way of life.
The writer of John’s gospel presents this story in order to show the sort of radical change that Jesus demands of those who seek to be his followers. The gospel writer’s primary purpose in relating this story is to have it speak to the Christians of his church who would, no doubt, approach Jesus in worship with platitudes of praise and adoration, just as Nicodemus does in the story, and who needed to be challenged with these words of Jesus, “You must be born anew, reborn of the Spirit of God, which like the wind blows wherever it wills, not knowing where it comes from or where it is going.” The people in John’s church may have come to Jesus in their prayers and worship hoping for comfort and security, they may have come hoping for some sort of reassurance that their lives were basically all right. Instead they get the challenge from Jesus, through the words of John’s gospel, that they must be reborn by the Spirit of God and blown by a gusty unpredictable wind in a new and uncharted direction.
In our epistle reading this morning Paul also describes how the Christian way of life means being willing to let the Spirit of God blow us in new and unexpected directions by comparing the life in Christ to Abraham’s life. Abraham was willing to launch out into the unknown, trusting only in God’s promise. He was willing, at the age of seventy five, to leave behind him the security of life in Ur and venture forth into an uncertain future. He was willing to let the winds of God blow him wherever they would not knowing where that might lead him. Using John’s vocabulary you might say that Abraham was “born anew” because of his faith and trust in God. Paul says we too should be like Abraham. We mustn’t be cautious and go only where life is proven and safe. We must have the same sort of complete faith in God that Abraham had. And just as Paul pointed to Abraham’s radical trust in God as the pattern of living by faith, likewise in John’s gospel Jesus recommends the same sort of radical trust in God to Nicodemus. Be born of the Spirit and be like the wind, not knowing whence it comes or whither it goes.
How utterly foreign to our Canadian way of life. We are not at all like the wind, not knowing whence we come nor whither we go. We are firmly fixed in the traditions of the past and we have carefully planned a future that is secure and certain. We know where we have come from, we know where we are, and we know where we are going. But Jesus says to Nicodemus, he says to those to whom John’s gospel was addressed, he says to us, “Be born anew by the Spirit, be like the wind, not knowing where you come from or where you are going, cut loose from your present life and let the winds of God’s Spirit blow you wherever they will.”
We need to lift the anchors that keep our lives tied up and immovable, so that the winds of God’s Spirit can blow us in new directions. It’s not easy to do. It’s tough for Canadians to cut loose, to abandon our careful security, to allow the Spirit of God to blow us off our present course. It’s hard for churches to pull up anchor and set off on new courses. It’s particularly hard when we feel insecure about our future. We are acutely aware of the waning fortunes of the United Church in Quebec, due to the particular problems of the English community and the general trend towards being a society where church affiliation is no longer the required social norm. The trouble is that when we live in times when our churches are not growing we tend to expend all our efforts preserving our existing church structures rather than letting ourselves be carried on the wings of the Spirit. Our reaction to harder times is not to go where the Spirit of God is moving us but to pull the wagons into a tighter and tighter circle, spending all our energies and resources in defending shrinking institutions.
How much are we prepared to risk? How willing are we to venture into the unknown like Abraham, to let the winds of God’s Spirit blow wherever they will? How free are we to be born anew, to start over, to abandon what we have been and who we are in order to have God remake us into something new? We may think we’re reasonably good folk. But what counts, as Paul says, is not being a good person but being willing to take a gamble on God, to put all our chips on the table and not hold anything back. We may think that God just wants us to be reasonably good, clean living, do the best you can, be kind to your neighbour kind of folks. But it was not for being “good” that Abraham became the pattern for a relationship with God that is built on absolute trust in God. What makes Abraham that pattern is his willingness to venture forth in faith, to take a real gamble on God.
Can we be like Abraham, who was willing to let God blow him away at the age of seventy five? Can we cut loose and let God blow us wherever the Spirit of God wills? Can we do it as a church, or as families and individuals? Or are we just too Canadian to take a real high stakes gamble on God. When Nicodemus came to Jesus’ house he didn’t get what he was expecting. When Jesus told him he would have to be reborn and let the Spirit of God blow him right off his present course he was taken aback. We have come, like Nicodemus, to Jesus’ house. We have come, perhaps, for a word of comfort and reassurance that because we are basically good people we are all right with God. But we hear no such reassurance from God’s word. We do need security, but not security in the sense of being securely fixed in who we are and what we do. The security we need is the absolutely secure faith and trust in God that allows us to gamble all that we have and are on God, and to let God blow us wherever God wills.