Scripture: John 3:1–17
Some time ago I was in my office and heard Terry playing the piano in the sanctuary. The music caught my attention immediately and I was drawn to the beautifully haunting melody. I went into the sanctuary and asked Terry what he was playing and he responded, “Oh, I was just noodling” which I gather is a highly technical musical term for playing around on the piano. I told Terry that I was drawn to the beautiful melody he was playing and asked again what it was he was playing and from somewhere in his music file he pulled out the words and music for “Who Has Seen the Wind” – the anthem our choir just sang. When I looked at the words that so perfectly fit the haunting melody I immediately thought of the story of Nicodemus and Jesus. With great anticipation, I went back to my office and looked up when this particular story would surface in the lectionary cycle and discovered that it is the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Lent this year and that’s how our anthem for today was selected.
Our scripture reading this morning, from John’s Gospel, tells us the story of Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus was a “Pharisee, a leader of the Jews” who came to visit Jesus at night. Scholars note that Nicodemus was a man of immense status and authority in both the religious and governing bodies of the Jewish community.
This week I’ve read a number of commentaries about Nicodemus that reflect a variety of perspectives about Nicodemus’ motives and purpose for his nocturnal visit. Many of these commentaries paint a negative picture of Nicodemus’ reasons for his visit to Jesus. Pharisees are often portrayed as the bad guys of the Christian Scriptures and while it is true there were occasions when Pharisees tested and even tried to trick Jesus into saying something that could be used against him, there were also Pharisees who were supportive of him. I believe that Nicodemus was a secret follower of Jesus and that his visit to Jesus revealed a genuine interest and desire to learn from him.
Nicodemus is mentioned only in John’s Gospel where he appears three times. The first mention of him is the night visit story that we heard this morning from the third chapter of John. (John 3:1-17) The second time is in the seventh chapter where Nicodemus argues for fair treatment of Jesus by Temple authorities. (John 7:50-52) The third, and final time, Nicodemus is mentioned is in John’s nineteenth chapter after the crucifixion of Jesus. John’s version of the account of Jesus’ crucifixion states that it is Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who prepare Jesus’ body for burial. (John 19:38-42) This last record, I believe, significantly reveals Nicodemus’ relationship and allegiance to Jesus. I’m quoting now from John’s account of the burial of Jesus:
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of Jewish authorities, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:38-40)
I am satisfied that Nicodemus was a follower of Jesus who at the time of the first visit recorded in the Gospel of John was still in the early stages of his discipleship. This early story, that we heard today, is rich with a variety of themes and descriptive detail. However, the one theme that has caught and inspired my imagination over the years is when Jesus says, in a most mysterious way, “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.” (John 3:8)
The Christian Scriptures were originally recorded in Greek. The Greek word “pneuma” that is prevalent in the scriptures can mean spirit, breath, or wind. It is these variations of meanings that, for me, enrich the use of the word wind in the story from John’s Gospel. When Jesus is talking about the wind he is also speaking about the mysterious nature of God’s spirit that cannot be seen but whose effects can easily be witnessed.
This image and understanding of the wind of the spirit that stirs in the human soul has always interested me. At Pentecost we hear the dramatic story of a large gathering of people who experience a strong wind that left them with the feeling that they were “filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:2-4)
The idea that God’s spirit is within and surrounds us all is a theme that is easily understood when we imagine our breath as being symbolic of God’s presence. When we breathe in – inspire – we remember that God’s spirit is within us. When we exhale we remember that God’s spirit surrounds us and infuses every moment and element of life on earth. This simple movement is a very effective spiritual practice that is prayerful, grounding and calming. Breath Prayers, as they are commonly known, can be accompanied by simple phrases on the inhalation and exhalation or without words but still with an intentional awareness of God’s presence in the action of breathing.
The movement of the Spirit can be recognized in many and surprising ways. You may remember seeing a story recently on the news about a quiet and humble man in his early 40’s named, Dr. Tom Chau. Dr. Chau is a brilliant scientist in the field of Paediatric Rehabilitation Engineering with the Bloorville Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Ontario. In the late 1990’s, Dr. Chau left a lucrative position at IBM to utilize his engineering skills to improve the quality of life for children with severe disabilities. Dr. Chau works with a diverse team of scientists and clinicians to develop devices that, for instance, can enable a child who has never been able to speak to communicate with a computer generated voice controlled by muscle impulses or breath control.
This inspirational story stayed with me long after the short news clip had ended. I wanted to know more about what inspires and motivates this man to dedicate his life to helping others. With a little “googling” and internet research, I discovered that Dr. Chau’s family upbringing had instilled in him a strong sense of the importance of contributing to the well-being of others. (Science Hero: Tom Chau Biomedical Engineer by Wendy Jewell, www.myhero.com) In one article that I read this week, I discovered that as a child Dr. Chau volunteered with his mother and siblings at a local palliative care hospital. Reflecting on his upbringing, Dr. Chau is quoted as saying, “Charity and service to others should not be held back, but delivered at every opportunity…” Asked about people who have inspired him, Dr. Chau commented that one of his heroes is the late Father Tom McKillop who received the Order of Canada for his work developing Christ-centred youth leadership. Dr. Chau, says of Father McKillop, that he was a role model for him personally, a living example of “Servant Leadership”. (Same reference as above)
The Lenten season is a time of the year when we are encouraged to be attentive to the stirrings of God’s Spirit in our own lives and to gain a heightened awareness of the Spirit’s movement in the world around us. May we, like Nicodemus, and other people of faith, emulate Jesus’ example of servant leadership. Together, with courage, may we risk the unknown and go with the Spirit’s urgings and generously offer the gifts of our lives with love and service.
With this in mind, I’ll close with prayerful words from hymn writer Bruce Harding:
Loving God: be our voice, be our prayer.
Reaching out, joining hands as we share,
we seek your guidance through friendship and care.
Loving God, be our prayer.
Spirit God: be our breath, be our song.
Blow through us, bringing strength to move on.
Through change, through challenge,
We’ll greet the new dawn…
Spirit God be our song.”
(Voices United 150, v3&4)
May this be the prayer of our hearts, and our song of faith, in this Lenten season.