I might have mentioned that I am a recovering control freak.
Maybe some of you can relate…
You know the type: We have to be in control of all things at all times.
On the plus side, we go through life learning every single thing we can, so that we are never in a situation we can’t control.
At first, we hear the words “control freak,” and we maybe laugh or giggle a little.
But in reality, there’s something deeper that causes this, isn’t there?
That’s the negative side…
The whole reason I became a newspaper editor and not a reporter was because I wanted more control.
I loved being a reporter, I did.
But I not only wanted to write the stories; I wanted to take the pictures, write the headlines, layout the story on the page and edit it myself.
I remember at my first daily newspaper in Catskill, New York, I had an editor who fit the mold to a T.
She was the female version of Lou Grant — you know, from the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
But while she was approaching the end of her career and I was just starting mine, I had the audacity during a dispute over the way she edited a particular story of mine to tell her “One day, I’m gonna be sitting at your desk…”
And a few years later, I was…
That’s a control freak for you…
We laugh about the type — the control freaks in our world.
But they aren’t simply Type-A personalities…
And this description is not confined only to people who need to overcome their insecurities.
Being in control is the American Way.
We have to exude confidence, or we get swallowed up.
If we’re not in control of every aspect of our lives, we’re seen as being weak.
In fact, our culture teaches us that it’s weakness to depend upon others.
We are quite adept at this control thing in our culture…
But then we look at our reading today in John Chapter 3, and we see a pharisee’s encounter with Jesus.
Nicodemus, the control freak.
What do we see here?
We see Nicodemus is not just a pharisee — the Jewish religious leaders of the day —
but he’s a leader of the pharisees as well.
So he’s high up on the ladder…
He’s in control.
And he wants to stay that way, too…
Well, pharisees don’t pal around with Jesus.
They are supposed to be opposed to Jesus’s teachings and especially against the idea that this poor Galilean man is the Messiah.
The one who will unseat all power of the pharisees… among others.
And so to control that situation, Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night.
In the dark. Where no one can see him.
And that way, no one can accuse him of fraternizing with Jesus.
You know, Jesus, who dines with prostitutes and tax collectors and the unclean…
That’s all certainly out of control…
And then Nicodemus begins to play his game of rhetoric and patronization.
He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” which means teacher.
He’s giving Jesus some respect here.
Ever been patronized? This is what it looks like…
Nicodemus continues, saying we know that you “came from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the very presence of God.”
Might sound sincere at this point, and maybe there is some truth in Nicodemus’ statement…
But make no mistake, a leader of the Pharisees making this claim would be high treason.
It’s the very reason they killed Jesus, for claiming he is the Son of God (John 19.7).
Nicodemus is patronizing Jesus. He’s trying to control the situation.
But isn’t it interesting that we never really find out what Nicodemus came for?
Why he sought out Jesus?
Because the Pharisees’ job seemed to be to try to corner Jesus all the livelong day —
— to the point that Jesus started to elude them and hide out in the villages outside of Jerusalem where they largely dwelled.
No, you don’t go to see Jesus after dark if you’re trying to just corner him again. You go because you want something.
We don’t really know what Nicodemus wanted.
That’s something that he couldn’t really control.
But let’s fast-forward to a couple other places in John’s Gospel where we meet Nicodemus again.
The second time we hear of Nicodemus is at Jesus’s trial in front of the Sanhedrin — the Jewish religious counsel —
—and Nicodemus points out that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged.
That’s John Chapter 7, verses 50-51.
Nicodemus is protecting Jesus here.
And the last time we see Nicodemus is after Jesus’s crucifixion.
He is with Joseph of Arimathea helping prepare Jesus’s body for burial with embalming spices. (John 19:39–42).
So what happened in the encounter in which we read today?
Jesus tells Nicodemus flat out, if you want to see the kingdom, you have to be born from above. Verse 3
Nicodemus, still trying to one-up Jesus — still trying to control the conversation — asks, rhetorically, “what… enter your mother’s womb again to be reborn?”
Jesus, in so many words, tells Nicodemus to “let go and let God…”
What does he say?
“No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and of Spirit.” Verse 5.
The water recalls our physical births.
The Spirit recalls our Spiritual birth.
Jesus is telling Nicodemus — and us — that we are not in control of our physical births.
We have nothing to do with being born or not.
We can’t control that.
Likewise, it’s the same with our Spiritual births.
What does Jesus mean by this, and what do we believe about this?
Jesus is not saying that it’s simply up to God who is given the Spirit and who is not;
God gives the Spirit freely to all who seek.
But what Jesus is saying is that we have no control over the Spirit.
The Spirit does what God wills.
He says in Verse 8:
“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.”
And here we are again. What is the Hebrew word for Wind?
Ruach. The breath, or the wind of God.
The life-giving force of God.
The very force that gives us life.
Jesus wasn’t speaking in Hebrew, but the word Ruach has the same meaning in the Greek of the day.
That word is pneuma.
It’s interesting to observe that this word in Greek, Pneuma, is feminine.
It recalls this motherly role of giving life.
And we who have been born through this life force, this Spirit, have no control over it.
It’s all because of God’s love for us.
Now, what has Jesus done here, and why are we engaging in this reading on Trinity Sunday — the day when we celebrate the Triune God — Father, Son and Spirit?
Because all three persons of the Trinity are at work in Jesus’s words to Nicodemus.
Let’s look back:
We’ve already talked about the Spirit’s role here as this life force in which we are allowed to be born from above.
It’s through the Spirit that we are born anew, born from above, born again, choose the words that are most comfortable to you.
It is Christ Jesus who gives us the Spirit.
Remember back to last week, when we celebrated Pentecost.
The giving of the Spirit.
And that is the same Spirit that gave life to Jesus as a human, and the same Spirit that gave resurrected life to Jesus on Easter Sunday.
The same Spirit that allowed the serpent on Moses’s pole to give life to those who had sinned and were heading to death. Verse 14.
And the Same Spirit that allowed Christ up on a pole — the Cross — to give life to those who had sinned and are heading to death. Also Verse 14.
It is the same Spirit that is our life force, both physical and Spiritual, as Jesus teaches us.
It’s the same Spirit there at the beginning of creation — the wind, the Ruach, that hoovers and separates water from firmament, ground.
The Spirit that gives life.
Given by the Father in creation, and given by the Father to the Son at Jesus’s birth.
And given by the Son to the disciples at Pentecost.
And given by God to all of us through Christ’s sacrifice and by the power of the Hoy Spirit.
The three-in-one God. The Trinity. Always together. Always three persons: Father, Son and Spirit.
The Father is God, but the Father is not the Son or the Spirit.
The Son is God, but the Son is not the Father or the Spirit.
The Spirit is God, but the Spirit is not the Father or the Son.
Three persons who together are God.
A lot of times, we refer to God as “he.”
The Father is a he. The Son is a he. But the Spirit is the Spirit of God, and God transcends gender.
God transcends any human trait, characteristic, attribute or quality.
God is perfect as God.
We are — no matter what traits or qualities or genetic makeup we compose — are all created in God’s image.
Do not attempt to assign a human quality to God; God is divine, we are not.
This is our God. The Great I AM.
God is love
Like Nicodemus, we too get into all sorts of trouble when we try to assign human characteristics to the divine;
When we try to make our very human ideas define who God is;
When we think we are in control of what God does in our lives and in this world.
What we do have is a God who loves us to the moon and back and will do anything in God’s power to show us.
What does it take to see God’s love?
What does it take to experience God’s grace?
What does it mean to live into God’s kingdom?
Well, Jesus says, it just isn’t up to you.
It’s all because of God’s love, mercy and grace.
Can’t earn it, don’t deserve it.
The world that we know was created by this very God.
And through the Father to give us the Son, and through the Son to give us the Spirit.
All to give us physical life,
and all to give us spiritual life.
How cool it is that Nicodemus gets to see this.
What do I mean by that?
It’s Jesus Christ himself.
Jesus has been born of water — a physical birth.
Yet he’s also born of the Spirit.
The two are meant to be together — we’re not reborn after our physical deaths;
we’re reborn in our physical bodies.
Jesus embodies this.
And we are called to embody this as well.
If we truly believe that God’s love for us is so immense that the Son of God was given for our eternal life in God’s presence, then we will embody the Spirit as we live physical lives here, too.
Can we do that?
Or are we like Nicodemus, so caught up in the culture and the old ways of teaching, and we can’t get out of our own heads, and certainly cannot relent to that which cannot control.
We want to be all pragmatic.
We want to be intelligent.
We don’t want to appear weak, as if our own lives that we’ve worked so long and hard to build up are not our own.
This, my brothers and sisters, is true idol worship.
Maybe we only go so far in being able to relinquish that control to God.
This isn’t a question of divine providence in our lives.
This isn’t a question like some other faiths posit that God controls every single portion of our lives
and moves us about as if a great puppeteer with the rest of us dangling from strings
and decides randomly who makes it and who doesn’t make it into God’s kingdom — NO!
We certainly have been given the freedom to live and seek out and know and be assured of God and God’s salvific promises.
But it’s only when we fall to our knees before this loving God, taking Jesus as our one and only and true savior, and allowing the power of the Holy Spirit to live and move and have our being within us that we can truly experience this being born from above.
From the inside-out
Let’s take a cue from Nicodemus.
Let’s think about those places in our own lives in which we are like Nicodemus.
Always in control.
And let’s give that, once and for all, to God.
Lay it there at Jesus’s cross.
And accept the winds of change in our own hearts, through the power of the Spirit, changed from the inside out.
And what does it mean to not be in control?
Well, my friends, that is what true freedom is.
That is what we mean when we talk about freedom.
It’s actually the freedom to give up one’s control,
the freedom to give up one’s life,
the freedom to give up one’s self
in order to gain all that God wants to give us
through the power of the Spirit.
To not hold our physical births above our Spiritual births,
to not hold our humanness above out spirituality.
The former is imperfect; the latter, is perfect.
The former is temporary; the latter is eternal.
The former is human; the latter is divine.
We are free to be born into the perfect, the eternal and the divine.
Through the love of the Father,
and the sacrifice of the Son,
and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
If you don’t think you can stretch that far;
that you are too uncertain;
that you’ll never experience the fire of being born anew,
look no further than Nicodemus.
Who came face to face with the physical and spiritual Christ.
Who defended Christ even as a leader among Pharisees.
And who, after being changed completely from the inside-out — born from above, born anew, born again … —
is there caressing Jesus’s body with his own hands,
spreading perfume and oil upon the crucified Son, for all to see, and all to know.
Having given himself completely over to God,
and giving up all control over his own physical life that he gain eternal life.
It’s more than possible … God is able and willing.
That is the power of our Triune God. Amen.