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Lent 2 – The wind blows where it will – 120317

People called Jesus a carpenter (Mark 6:3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son…), and He was known as a carpenter’s son (Matthew 13:55). My father was a carpenter, or a jeiner to use the  Glasgow vernacular – and there were often other joiners around our house when I was growing up, and I have noticed that good joiners don’t say much when they’re working. I have in my hand a guitar that I made, and the six months or so when I made it in my spare time were memorably solitary times. I have a theory that Jesus was the kind of person who didn’t say all that much. Because the biblical record of the extraordinary things he did say is a condensed, compiled account, we tend to think of Jesus as always talking. There are a number of clues that indicate he sought out quiet time. As discussed last week, he spent extended time in the wilderness. He habitually withdrew from the crowds, finding space and time to pray on his own. He spoke about ‘attentiveness’ – about looking and listening. If you’ve done at art class, you’ll know that the main agenda is to learn to ‘look’ – which is different from seeing. In the same way, ‘listening’ has a different meaning to ‘hearing’.  Let anyone with ears listen!  Matthew 11: 15

When Jesus is asked about why he teaches in parables, he quotes the Isaiah’s words about spiritual blindness and deafness.

“The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand”. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn –
and I would heal them”.
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. “
Matthew 13:13ff

‘To hear’ and ‘to be heard’  – to see and to be seen – are universal metaphors for spiritual understanding, obedience and attentiveness to divine. The Old Testament is strewn with prophetic and psalmic appeals to hear God’s promises and judgements, and for supplications and offerings of worship to be heard by God. In turn, Jesus describes the spiritual and moral shortcomings of his generation in terms of blindness and deafness. And there’s more to the metaphor than first ‘meets the eye’ (to make a metaphor of the metaphor). The very early human embryo (I understand) consists of three layers, which will later become the human body…. three primary germ layers  – They are the endoderm (inside layer), the mesoderm (middle layer) and the ectoderm (outside layer). The ectoderm will develop into the skin, the ear and the nervous system. The fact that the nervous system stems from the same origin as the ear and the skin is a subject for meditation… we are what we hear…our whole body is connected to what we hear.. (we might say) – It’s commonly argued that loss of hearing is more isolating than loss of sight.

In our Gospel text today, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus – a leader and someone who is secure behind his power and certitudes.  ‘You must be born from above. 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’. These two statements are run together.  I wonder if part of what Jesus is trying to communicate is that our walk with God (or redemptive creative living) comes out of a complete relearning to listen afresh to the sound of the spirit – as a newborn child is exposed the sound of the world for the first time at birth. I spoke last week about the idea of how redemptive creativity in our own lives comes out of a context of silence and stillness. Jesus’ image of being born from above sounds a bit like that – a new person emerging from the quietness and darkness of the spiritual womb. Perhaps we might think of every new day as a rebirth, an emerging from the silence of the night, the context for redemptive creativity to begin again. Imagine what it would be like if we were attentive enough to be always looking and listening for the signs of the Spirit. I’m greatly intrigued by this image Jesus uses to, so succinctly describe the attentiveness of faithful living.

‘The wind blows where it chooses’
The Greek word for spirit which is ‘pneuma’ has two meanings. ‘Pneuma’ is the word for spirit, but it is also the regular word for ‘wind’… the same is true for the Hebrew word ‘ruach’. I have noticed, of late, that I hardly ever use an umbrella, in Edinburgh…. Definitive proof that it doesn’t rain as much here, as in the West. In Dumfries I used to walk in the town between visits and meetings, much more than I do here – and I had to carry an umbrella a lot of the time, because it was often raining.. Jesus’ image reminds me of the very familiar experience of using an umbrella on a windy day and how (in Dumfries at least) it doesn’t matter which direction you face the umbrella, the wind still catches the umbrella. ‘You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.’ Jesus seems to be saying, ‘you need to listen to be aware that the Spirit is at work…..and it’s quite possible that the Spirit will be at work in ways you don’t expect or predict. …. For example:

  • Is the Spirit of God blowing and at work in this person I’m having difficulty having patience for? Is the Spirit of God blowing and at work in me – through the difficulty I’m having being patient?
  • Is the Spirit of God blowing and at work in the loneliness I’m experiencing?
  • Is the Spirit of God blowing and at work in my change of circumstances, or this new era in my life?
  • Is the Spirit of God blowing and at work in the uncertainty I’m facing?
  • Is the Spirit of God blowing and at work in the discomfort that I have in a decision that’s been made, or in the rage of injustice that I feel about something that I’ve heard about?
  • Is the Spirit of God blowing and at work in the peace I feel about something that used to bring me pain, or the joy that an old friendship or that a new relationship is bringing?
  • Is the Spirit of God blowing and at work in that coincidental or providential meeting, or act of kindness or generosity that I wasn’t expecting?

And all of these kinds of dynamics, we know, are hard to be sensitive to, or to be open to, or to be appreciative of – for anyone – especially because the wind blows where it chooses – you can’t predict where the umbrella’s going to blow next. This, perhaps is the rationale for nurturing in ourselves the silence and the stillness that will help us to be more attentive to the Spirit of God in our lives. Perhaps we need to think of this as a highly skilful and sensitive ability that we need to learn slowly and carefully. If we return to the analogy of hearing & listening – we should perhaps take note of the incredible sophistication and the range of sensitivity of human hearing. I spent decades of my life trying to replicate the sensitivity of human hearing using microphones – and it’s really very difficult to adapt to the huge range of loudness and intensity that make up sounds ranging from a breathy vocal to a bass drum, from a clarsach to an orchestra.. The difference in loudness between the ear’s detection threshold to that of pain is about 150 decibels (a ratio of about 30 million to 1). Listen to the skin rubbing between your fingers….and then imagine someone whacking a drum next to it. Microphones need the help of hugely sophisticated electronics to cope with these variations (invisible automated level control – the sacred art of compression).

And that’s only the mechanics. The complexity of the interpretative interplay between the listener and the environment is of particular importance. As one writer puts it:

At a busy cocktail party in a room with a low ceiling and poor acoustics, sound waves hit the wall and bounce back rather than being absorbed, and you feel as if you’re in the centre of a football match in the middle of a game. Yet you can slice through all the noise to hear one conversation taking place between your spouse and a flirtatious stranger. (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses, p.181.)

So there’s all the sensitivity of the physical ability to hear – and then a whole other universe of complexity to do with how we interpret what we can hear. So when Jesus says ‘Let anyone with ears listen’ – and listen for the Spirit… the metaphor implies a complex and demanding process… and so we shouldn’t be terribly surprised if it’s difficult.

Be still and know that I am God.