Knowing – and not knowing – God

Second Sunday in Lent, Year A
February 17, 2008

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

John 3:8 – “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.”

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
That’s the iconic line sung by the iconic Bob Dylan in his iconic song,
    Subterranean Homesick Blues.
    It’s a song about the tensions and turmoil of the 1960s,
        when mistrust of “establishment” was boiling over
        and fractures along racial, gender, and political lines radically drawn,
            were threatening to burst.
The music itself is a bit raucous, reflecting the rage of the day
    with Dylan’s decidedly unmelodious voice singing in a tone that is
        rather rhythmic and monotonous.
        Almost like the sustained tone of a fire station’s siren,
he offers a warning to the young generation,
            as if calling them to respond to an urgent crisis.
You don’t need a weatherman, Dylan drones,
    to know which way the wind blows.
Don’t depend on the weatherman to tell you what’s going on, he says.
    Don’t listen to the government, to the establishment leaders, to the press.
You know yourself what is going on out there in the world.
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,
    because you can see it, know it yourself.

Yet in an apparent contradiction of meteorological metaphor,
in an earlier song Dylan uses wind as an image
    not of obvious, easily discernable facts on the ground,
    as he does Subterranean Homesick Blues, the song I just referenced.
        Rather, when he sings in his classic song
that “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,”
    Dylan suggests that the answers to life’s big questions are elusive,
        fluttering just beyond our grasp.
So what is it?  Is the wind obvious, clearly discernable,
    or is it elusive?

A wind blows in today’s reading from the Gospel of John.
And as with our lyrics from Bob Dylan’s songs,
    I wonder, too, if the wind of John’s Gospel is obvious, clearly discernable,
        or if it is elusive.
In the New Testament, including the Gospel of John,
    the Greek word pneuma is synonymous with both wind and spirit.
    In fact, literally rendered, pneuma means “powered air.”

Unlike us modern English-speakers who mean different things by the words Spirit and wind,
the ancients who wrote down our Gospel story
    did not have separate words for Spirit and wind,
        The same Greek word means both wind and spirit,
    creating for us a translation challenge that results in a footnote being added
to verses six and eight.
Oh, a footnote, an ambiguity, a dual meaning.  Do I sense some elusiveness?
Well, perhaps not properly called elusiveness,
    but there is some mystery,
some unknowing in this whole Spirit business,
    indeed, in this whole God thing we’re about here.
John writes: “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.”
The wind – or, alternatively, the powered air, the spirit, the pneuma – blows where it chooses,
    but you do not know where is comes from or where it goes.
Not only does the word itself disallow a simple, black and white definition,
    but Jesus’ own description of the nature of this wind/spirit
further refuses our attempts to contain God in an easily discernable box.
We do not know where the spirit comes from or where it goes,
    we only hear the sound of it.

One of the best lessons about God and faith I ever learned came from my college pastor,
    a retired Navy Chaplain who was not your prototypical college town minister.
Daring college ministry antics and the spiritual and emotional swings of 18-22 year olds
    was not his cup of tea.
Like the naval ships on which he ministered for 30 years,
    Pastor Larry Shoberg was strong and steady, and not prone to volatility. 
And so when I,
    a riled up 18 year-old freshman prone to volatility,
energized by a weekly evangelical Bible study in my dorm
    and experiences in a charismatic church that met in a school gym
for prayer, worship, healing and speaking in tongues –
    when I went to Pastor Shoberg,
I was teetering on the fence of leaving the Lutheran Church
    so sure was I that Lutheranism didn’t get it,
that there was so much more about God and salvation that other Christians –
evangelicals, charismatics and others –
knew about God that we Lutherans just didn’t get.
    You see, I had God figured out,
and this God I had figured out was not proclaimed in the Lutheran Church.
And then Pastor Shoberg said to me,
    “You know, Chris, God is like orange juice, all the orange juice in the world.
        And we understand but a cupful.”

Whoa.  These simple words stopped me – and my self-righteous certainty – in my tracks.
Even as a fledgling fundamentalist, I couldn’t disagree.
The Scriptures witness throughout that our human capacity to understand God is so darn limited.
In reflecting on the complex theology of the Holy Trinity, Martin Luther once wrote,
“To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation,
to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”
    Perhaps seeking to understand God is best left to the insane . . .
The wind, the spirit, God blows where it chooses,
but we do not know where it comes from or where it goes.

I worked as an Assistant Chief election officer on Tuesday,
    and one thing about being an election officer in a primary election
    is that there is not too much to do.
Back in November there was a big and complex state-wide election,
    with several offices – from Water and Soil Board to State House and Senate –
    and many ballot initiatives about bonds and amendments to the state constitution.
But on Tuesday it was easy – too easy.  Just two Presidential Primaries.
    Each voter spent less than a minute at the machines,
    and they had very few questions for us.
And so we seven election officers had lots of time on our hands to chat.
    13 hours of spending time with complete strangers,
    avoiding talk of politics, we just told stories about our lives, our travels, our families . . .

One gentleman told us odd stories –
    about his biorhythms and a kidney stone that took too long to pass.
And though I would just as well forget some of the stories and details he shared,
    there was one story that stuck with me:
    he went on and on about an argument he once had with his brother-in-law,
        an argument about where a certain store was located.
        It can’t be at that intersection, he said, because the school is there.
    And it can’t be at the other intersection, he said, because there’s a car wash there.
And he went on and on, telling me why the store wasn’t at about a half-dozen different locations.
    I’ll spare you the redundant details.
But then he said, “Because, you see, when you’re looking for something
    it helps to know where not to look.
    It helps to know where something isn’t.
    That is, it helps to know what you know, and it helps to know what you don’t know.”
Surely this man who awkwardly told awkward stories
    is not the first person to have ever uttered this advice.
But these words, spoken amidst a marathon of small talk and civic service, stuck with me.
It helps to know what you know, and it helps to know what you don’t know.

There is plenty that we don’t know about God.
This passage from John makes it clear:
    “The wind blows where it chooses . . .
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”
But it’s not only in John.  St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians,
    says that the peace of God “surpasses all understanding,”
        and in Colossians he writes that Christ is God’s mystery.
Job asks who can understand God’s power?
The Psalms speak with awe and wonder at the uncontained majesty of God.
Despite this wonderful book, which has a first page and a last page and lots of pages in between,
    there is more, so much more to God, faith, salvation, life
that remains to us a mystery.
In a world where we want certainty, not ambiguity,
    mastery not mystery,
what, then, are we to do?

Let’s look back to today’s Gospel for a clue.
Two verses after describing the wind/spirit/powered air as elusive and uncontainable,
    Jesus tells us that “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.”
Yes, dear friends, we know God, we have seen God.

As much as God is uncontainable,
    a wind, a spirit that has neither origin nor destination,
    we nonetheless have seen God –
in our own lives,
in prayer and personal encounter,
in the shared faith and experience of the church,
in the course of history,
in the majesty of creation,
in the stories and witness of Scripture –
we have seen God, we know God.
The Christian Church has taught for centuries that we know God best
    through the cross, through the passion of Christ, through the empty tomb.
Indeed, what we know about God,
    what all four Gospels agree to about God,
    what St Paul writes so much about about God,
        is the event of the cross,
an event that defines our faith and which is of particular focus this Lenten season.
What we know is that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
These three statements serve as cornerstones to the church’s life, witness and ministry.
Whatever else can be said or not said, known or not known about God,
    this much we do know – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

These are words that we will proclaim together
    in the grand Eucharistic prayer prior to Holy Communion,
    words that are referred to as . . . the mystery of our faith.
Mystery?  I thought we were talking about what we know of God!
In just a few minutes Pastor Melissa, in the midst of that prayer,
will call on us to proclaim the mystery of our faith:
    Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Indeed, dear friends, these things we know are but a mystery,
    for God’s relentlessly unending love, a love so eloquently described in today’s passage –
        For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him.
    – such a love cannot be anything but a blessed and holy mystery to us.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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