Amelia Bedelia is a funny name and a funny person. She's the heroine of a series of children's books so you may know her if there are children in your household. But you may not know her at all-so let me introduce you.
Amelia is a maid. Today we'd probably say she's a domestic worker. She cleans houses, bakes bread, serves tea, does yard work, runs errands, but, mainly, she makes us laugh. She makes us laugh because she mixes up the meaning of words. Well, let me give you an example. Amelia is working for Mr. and Mrs. Rogers helping them get ready for a party. Suddenly, she remembers a forgotten chore. "The fish!" she shouted. "Mr. Rogers told me to scale them and ice them." She piled the fish on the scale. "There," she said, "you just scale yourselves while I ice the cakes." She spread icing on the cupcakes. "They do look nice," she said, "and there's enough icing left to ice the fish." So she picked up a fish by its tail and iced one side and then the other. When she was done, she put the iced fish and the iced cupcakes into the cupboard. (Amelia Bedelia and the Surprise Shower, Peggy Parish)
By this time, our children are laughing at the silly sight, and we're probably laughing too. It's no wonder that Amelia Bedelia got confused for the word scale can mean removing the outer layer of a fish; the very same word also means an instrument used to weigh something. And that word ice. It can mean to spread frosting, but the very same word spelled the very same way means to chill something. No wonder Amelia Bedelia got so mixed up.
Perhaps you're thinking, "It's the preacher who's mixed up! This isn't a children's program!" Well, no, it's not a children's program, but I think Amelia Bedelia might help us understand what happened to Nicodemus in today's Gospel reading. Nicodemus isn't a child. He's a grown man-a learned man, a searching man. He comes to Jesus by night, a detail that's important for John, the Gospel writer. Night is the time of unknowing, the time of chaos, sometimes the setting for evil. Later on, Judas will go out at night to betray Jesus. In the opening verses of John's Gospel, Jesus is called the Light, the Light who came into the world even as light was God's first word at the beginning of creation. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Will he see the light?
Nicodemus longs to understand. He hasn't come to Jesus to trap him with some perplexing question about the Law. He wants to know. "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Nicodemus already believed something or he wouldn't have come. You probably believe something, too, or you wouldn't be listening to this program, or maybe you came upon this station by accident. Either way, Nicodemus comes to Jesus not only for himself, but for you and me. He's standing there in the night hoping for some clearer knowledge of God.
"Very truly, I tell you," said Jesus, "no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus' reply is rather odd. "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Nicodemus' reply is rather odd. How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" This was an Amelia Bedelia experience for Nicodemus. Jesus said "anothen," a Greek word meaning from above, but the very same word spelled the very same way also means again or anew. Thus, Nicodemus heard Jesus say, "You must be born again," setting up the rather humorous scene of a grown man trying to climb back inside his mother's womb.
Jesus didn't literally mean to be born a second time. Nor does Jesus seem to be talking here about a specific salvation moment, as in the question, "When were you born again?" Instead, Jesus is pointing to the gift of the Spirit, the gift from above, from outside ourselves, from some other source. "What is born of the flesh is flesh," Jesus says, "and what is born of the Spirit is spirit." Now we must be careful. Whenever we hear that word flesh in the Bible, we often assume that it's negative. But Jesus didn't say, "What is born of the flesh is bad." Jesus doesn't demean the flesh nor condemn our bodies. Remember? "The Word became flesh and lived among us." Jesus isn't warning Nicodemus about the dangers of the flesh. He's simply saying, "What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit."
Spirit-now here's another word with double or even triple meanings. "Pneuma" is the word in Greek as in our word pneumonia, affecting the lungs, or a pneumatic tire filled with air. The Greek word can mean wind or breath or spirit. Jesus plays on these multiple meanings to try to get through to Nicodemus. "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." It's not that the flesh is awful, disgusting, or dirty. It's just that we can't learn everything through our fleshly, human selves. Our senses can teach us the difference between hot and cold. We can learn to speak-letters come together to form words and words become books. We learn to add and subtract, to work with numbers and equations. But we can't learn God the same way we learn geometry. Nicodemus wants to learn God, to know God-that's why he came to Jesus by night. "Teacher, show me, tell me, teach me how to know God."
"Trust the wind, Nicodemus. You must be born from above." Just in case Nicodemus didn't hear, Jesus repeats these words a second time, but this time something changes. When Jesus says, "You must be born from above," the word you is no longer singular but plural. This is another perplexing thing about English. The word you can mean one person or many, but that's not true in French or Spanish or in Greek. Jesus has moved from talking to one person-Nicodemus-to you plural. It's as though Jesus is looking over Nicodemus' shoulder to talk to us now, to you in your chair or in your car and to me here. You and I must listen for the sound of the wind. Learning God cannot be done with our minds alone, with even our clearest thinking. Be attentive. Look beyond yourself for signs of the wind, the breath, the spirit.
Though we cannot see the Spirit, we can see where the Spirit has been. Jesus is the sign of God's wind blowing. In Jesus we see the leaves moving on the tree. Jesus moved in certain directions and not others, directed by the Spirit that came upon him from above. This Spirit isn't for Jesus alone, but for Nicodemus and each of us peering over Nicodemus' shoulder. This becomes clear at the end of John's gospel when Jesus and his disciples gathered for their last meal. It was then that Jesus gave them this promise: "I will not leave you orphaned.... The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you."
"How can these things be?" Nicodemus asked. Of course, we're asking the same question. "How can these things be?" Theologians haven't had an easy time talking about the Spirit-indeed, they've talked far more about God the Father and God the Son, leaving the Holy Spirit for last-or sometimes forgetting about the Spirit altogether. "This is a shame," says theologian Elizabeth Johnson, "for what is being neglected is nothing less than the mystery of God's personal engagement with the world...the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves."
Perhaps you have known the Spirit's power in your own life. In my years as a pastor, people have talked with me about their own experience of the Spirit's presence: a dark room suddenly filled with unexplainable light, a feeling of being comforted at a time of aching despair, a deep silence that wasn't empty but held a connection with the source of all life, a voice that assured, "You are not alone, I am with you." Others spoke of times when the Spirit gave them new understanding of a familiar Psalm or a Bible story. But you may never have had an experience of the Spirit's presence. You would feel like a fraud if you said, "I've been born again." Remember, my friend, Jesus didn't talk about a specific time or a particular experience. The Spirit blows where it will; you can't pin the Spirit down or set it within a certain formulation.
Dr. Joseph Sittler was a Lutheran pastor who taught theology for many years at the University of Chicago. He longed for an experience of the Spirit that eluded him all his life. In a sermon years ago, he said, "It is only honest to say that I have never fully known the warm power of the faith for whose declaration I am an ordained minister." He couldn't point to any particular experience of the Spirit in his life, yet he continued to believe. "My duty," he said, "is not to reduce God's message to the size of what I have or have not. It is proper sometimes to declare what one does not know. In obedience to the bigness of God's story which transcends personal apprehension, one may do this." For Pastor Sittler the Spirit was present in God's story told and retold in the wonders of creation, in the words of hymns, in the broken bread. If you can't point to a particular experience of the Spirit, know that you are in good company.
Listen for the wind. Look at the life of Jesus to see where the Spirit has been-leaves moving, then still upon the tree, nailed down. But the story didn't end on that lifeless tree. As in the beginning, God breathed into lifeless clay and brought Jesus forth from the tomb. And when the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples, he said to them, "Peace be with you." Then he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." Listen for the sound of the wind. Listen for God's Spirit bearing witness with your spirit. That's how St. Paul put it. Even if we don't know where to begin or what to say, the Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words.
The wind blows where it will. You cannot pin it down or explain its coming. "I will not leave you orphaned," said Jesus. Rest today in that promise. And may the Spirit catch us off guard and surprise us into believing what we cannot see.
Let us pray.
Spirit of God, rest upon us and within us even as you rested upon Jesus. Pray for us when our words fail, and surprise us with your presence when we have given up. Spirit of God, be with us this day. Amen.