In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Spirit blows where He wills. Is that Law or Gospel?
We can’t control the Spirit. That is Law. It is what we can’t and shouldn’t do. The Spirit converts whom He wants. There are no guarantees.1 God our Father does not love your loved ones just because you love them. You are not the standard or the judge. You are a beggar. You cannot save yourself and you cannot save others. The Spirit blows where He wills.
When we hear the Word of God in preaching, proclaiming Jesus Christ, we hear the Spirit. The Spirit always accompanies the Gospel. But the Spirit works on His own schedule. He determines when and if to bring people to faith. We have no control or say over this. God makes a promise, not a guarantee. Some of the baptized fall away. Some who hear the Word of God reject it. Nicodemus looks the Kingdom of God in the eye, but cannot see Him. Without the Spirit there is no faith and the Spirit blows where He wills.
So as much as we would like to be in control and expand the Kingdom of God by the power of our money or will or clever strategies, we cannot. We can create industries of consultants and bureaucrats and motivational speakers. We can cover our efforts with gimmicks, slogans, and good intentions. But we cannot control, we can neither help nor stop, the Holy Spirit.
When we try to do God’s work for Him, or tell Him what to do, we become idolaters. That is Law. It is an accusation. Who has not done this? Who has not railed against God for His mercy? Whose eye has not been evil because He is good? Who has not sought a strategy to reach the lost and carry the Spirit where we think He needs to be? Repent.
Nicodemus did not know how a man could be born again. He did not know what the Kingdom of God was or is. He had no idea how the Spirit works. But worst of all he did not know that if Jesus performs miracles and God is with Him, and He is the Teacher sent from God, that His Words are true and not open to debate.
Nicodemus came by night. He was curious but afraid. He was interested but distant. He did not come as a believer to his Savior, as one who had submitted to Baptism by John, but as an equal. He came to play a bit of Socrates and do some mental sparring.
I think I know what Nicodemus wanted. It is what I myself most enjoy about Theology. Few things in this life are as fun for me as sitting in a hotel room with a bottle of scotch and good friends arguing about whether or not baptism by a robot arm in outer space is valid, and if it matters if the arm is operated by a man or a woman or the devil, by remote control or more directly.
You have your fun. I have mine.
But that is not the way Our Lord plays. He is not interested in intellectual games. Nicodemus’ own soul is on the line. He has failed in his office of teacher. He has failed as an Israelite. And he seeks the Word of God for his own amusement. He thinks he can judge God, that he can question and suggest and react and take what is good and leave the rest. That is the way of the death. For the Spirit blows where He wills and He is not ours to critique or choose or from which we might take only part.
But who here will cast the first stone at Nicodemus? We Theologians are experts at sticking off the inconvenient bits in mental compartments far away from real life. We can love orthodoxy for its beauty, its own systematic balance and glory, but not let it change our hearts. We can revel in the joys of language and philosophy and have long debates about hypothetical situations, but fail to be the teachers of Israel. We can carefully craft our speech so that the people hear what they want. Or maybe we go to work and keep our mouths shut while our cubicle mates casually tell us of their weekend debaucheries. We leave our religion for Sunday mornings. Maybe we’ll go looking for Jesus at night, in secret, when He is less likely to embarrass us, when our friends aren’t around. We don’t want to be perceived as zealots or fundamentalists. We want people to like us. Or maybe we soothe our consciences by saying that we’re being “practical.” That is a great American excuse. We know better than God what men are capable of. His standards simply aren’t reasonable. They have to be adjusted to the modern world. We set ourselves up as the great mediators between God and men. We love to pick which rules others ought to follow and how to apply them. Is fornication really so wrong? Isn’t it natural? What about speeding? Everyone does it. So why should we ever try to remove the speck from our neighbors’ eyes? They are just specks. They are not planks. And on and on we go, not wanting people to dislike us for the sake of Jesus or thinking that Jesus Himself is some sort of Law-giver or Judge. We want people to know how nice He is and prefer they keep Him firmly in the Santa Claus/Easter Bunny column.
But the Spirit blows where He wills. The amazing thing about Nicodemus is not what a fool he was that night, but that the Lord did not give up on him. Nothing slips through Our Lord’s fingers. He not only drives forward, He also drives in reverse. Sometimes Baptism takes a lifetime before it kicks in. In death Jesus was an offense to His own disciples, but not to Nicodemus. His Body was destined for a mass grave, but Nicodemus helped remove that bloody corpse from the cross and carry it Joseph’s tomb. The Spirit blew into Nicodemus and he believed. To be among that small band, of which the twelve are not numbered, unafraid in the immediate aftermath of Our Lord’s violent trial, torture, and death, to be faithful then, is perhaps the greatest of all achievements and honor. And Nicodemus is among them, converted, believing, risking the hope that Jesus is the Kingdom of God who rebirths men into His sons, who breathes His spirit of Life into them, so that they believe and will not perish even though He Himself dies.
The Spirit blows where He wills. Thus He saves Nicodemus despite Nicodemus. That is the Gospel. Nicodemus saw Jesus lifted up from the earth, the emblem of death and betrayal, a worm and no man. He became sin for us, was counted as guilty. Nicodemus saw the Sacrifice, his own Holy Substitute, and was drawn unto Him. The poison of the serpent left Nicodemus. The Spirit blew. Nicodemus believed. He was unafraid and unashamed, expectant of the glories and joys to come.
Did he know that Jesus would rise from that tomb? I suspect he knew in the way that St. Mary and the disciples knew. He knew, but he didn’t. He knew it somewhere inside, but his sorrow overcame him and he forgot for a time. Then when Jesus did rise and spoke His Holy Spirit into the apostles and Nicodemus heard them preach, he remembered. And what he heard wasn’t new. Rather the Apostolic doctrine simply awoke in him what he’d always known. The scales fell away. Of course Jesus lives. Of course He rose. for the payment has been made. Death is dead and Life must live. The grave cannot hold Him. Hell has lost all claim upon us: Jesus lives. And is that not what He Himself foretold? Is this not the expectation and hope of the prophets? That the Messiah would die and rise for us?
And which of us has not had that same Spirit blown experience? Which of us has not had the Truth of the Spirit awakened in us by the Word of God? Have we not sat in these pews and from time to time said, “Aha! Now I remember! Jesus lives. Jesus forgives. My sins are gone!”
Jesus lives. And thanks be to God: the Spirit blows where He wills.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.