Reading John 3: 1-17
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Using a very round number, I reckon it was about 10 years ago that Chaos Theory seemed to be all the rage. You heard about it everywhere. Now not so much. I suppose it’s become old hat. As far as I know, it hasn’t been disproved: people just got used to it and moved on to other, more fashionable ideas.
You will probably remember the butterfly effect: a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico causes, a few months later, a hurricane in China. The locations tend to vary in the telling but you get the general idea. It’s not that the butterfly on its own causes the hurricane but if the butterfly had not flapped its wings at just that point in space and time, the hurricane would not have happened.
What happens with, say, the weather is caused by an untold number of events. Chaos Theory states that the weather is in theory entirely predictable. If we knew everything about everything that creates the weather, we would be able to predict it.
But of course we can never know everything in absolute and perfect detail, so we will never ever be able to predict the weather perfectly. Any weather forecast is and always will be approximate. So don’t be too hard on the Met Office when they say it’s going to be dry and it rains and you haven’t got an umbrella. They have a job that is ultimately impossible.
Now, I’m suggesting that the weather can be viewed as a kind of image for God, as indeed John does in our gospel reading. Jesus says: 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.
There’s a play on words in the original Greek. The word for wind in Greek is pneuma, which is also the word for spirit and Jesus says we must be born again in the Spirit. The Spirit is like the wind.
We can feel the wind on our faces, we can sense the Spirit in our hearts, but we will never know everything about the wind or about God. However strong our belief in God, however life-giving our relationship with God, God will always remain a mystery – a reality, yes, but a mysterious reality.
And that is entirely as it should be. If we finite beings were able to understand the whole of God, then God would be a very small God.
And let’s face it, we can’t even fully understand ourselves or each other, let alone the creator and lover of all things. God, like the wind, always eludes our grasp.
I guess that’s where faith comes in. Faith has two components. Firstly, it must be about belief, but it’s more importantly about trust. It’s difficult to trust in something or someone you don’t believe in, so belief has to be there, but trust is the really important thing.
Our first two readings were about faith. Our short passage from Genesis doesn’t mention faith by name but it’s definitely there between the lines. The Lord exhorts Abram to step out into the unknown and Abram has enough faith and trust in the Lord to do just that.
In the passage from Romans St Paul quotes with approval another portion of Genesis: Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. He believed God, i.e. he trusted God.
We may not be able to know God fully but we can feel the wind of his love on our faces and so learn to trust him.
In many ways the most important word in any of today’s readings is the word ‘grace’, which appears in the reading from Romans. In the last analysis everything depends on the grace of God.
Many years ago I was asked what divine grace is – by a member of this congregation. And the question flummoxed me at the time. And I’ve been trying to work it out ever since.
I’m not sure if I’ve got to the bottom of it yet but, currently, it seems to me that grace is the unconditional and eternally active love of God for his creation, his will towards us for our eternal good and his infinite readiness to act on our behalf.
That’s a fancy way of saying that God is on our side, on everyone’s side, on the side of everything he has created.
Perhaps grace is just another word for love.
Paul tells us that the works of the Law (good works, if you like) are of little spiritual value. The point is this: if we rely on good works in an effort to get into God’s good books, it implies that we are ultimately afraid of God. We do what we do out of fear, not out of love. It’s love, I believe, that is the key difference between reliance on good works and reliance on faith. Perfect love casts out fear. When we are free from fear, we are freed and able to do truly good works. It’s not that good works aren’t good, but they do need to be purified in their motivation.
And that only comes when we are exposed to the grace of God, to the love of God rather than to the fear of God. I know that we often used to be exhorted to fear God. Well, to my mind, fear in the sense of respect is fine but fear in the sense of cowering panic is not so good. As in everything love is the key that opens all doors.
As our gospel reading says: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. In his grace towards his creation God is active in an untold number of ways. In Jesus we see that activity at its most telling and most sacrificial. In Jesus we see the grace of God made flesh in a real human life.
In Jesus we feel the wind of God’s love on our faces, the touch of God’s love in our hearts.