“The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound thereof, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone that is born of the Spirit.” These words were spoken during a conversation which two men had in the stillness of a Jerusalem evening. One of the men was Jesus, carpenter of Nazareth, become prophet from Galilee. The other man who talked in the Palestinian darkness that night was Nicodemus, member of the Sanhedrin, become seeker after everlasting truth. The word floated through to Nicodemus that Jesus of Nazareth was talking about a new birth. Now, Nicodemus was not one to rest his case upon some uncertain gossip. He was not willing to reach a conclusion on a rumor. He was a man of the law and a believer in firsthand testimony. He decided to go and talk to Jesus himself. He would not send a messenger, for the report might be distorted or garbled. He would seek himself to find out just what the situation was.
There is really no other way to find a sustaining faith except in personal venture. Donald Hankey, once so widely known in this country and so beloved in his native England, used to say in his striking way that being a Christian means betting one’s life on God. The Bible is replete with almost unbelievably rich promises, but almost all of them are built upon some condition which we must fulfill. “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” This is true biblical humanism, with its recognition of vast capacities that are in us. This is refutation of the tired old claim that the faith of Christ is for weaklings and cowards and the passively inactive. Far from it! There is a call to action which rings like a trumpet on almost every page of the New Testament. Nicodemus decided to confront the man from Nazareth with the deepest concerns of his life. Likewise, we shall find strength and empowerment in him only as we make our move in his direction. No amount of armchair speculation will clear for us our doubts.
On the other hand, Jesus Christ does not depend on any dim light or vagueness in order to pass muster in people’s esteem and faith. He does not rely upon any fast sleight of hand in order to hold followers. He invites investigation, opens himself to any who will examine, as he did to those sharpest little detectives of insincerity when he said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.” I like the word of the angel at the Resurrection. There was no attempt to hustle away those who came or to divert their attention as if some piece of quick-handed magic was about to be done which could not bear scrutiny. The word of the angel was, rather, “Come, see the place where the Lord lay.” Mark this, the only way you are going to have a strong, vibrant faith is by confronting the claims of Christ with trustfulness and obedience.
The winds of gossip which bore to Nicodemus rumors of a teacher talking about a new birth, a fresh start, with the slate wiped clean, intrigued and haunted the doctor of laws. What a wild, preposterous notion! But what if, by whatever stretch of the imagination, it could actually happen? Suppose a man could really get a new start in life? And so in the evening shadows, this man of the law talked with the Son of Man. There was no question about whether there need be a new start, only how could it be possible.
In you as in me, there is surely the same longing which Nicodemus brought to Jesus in the Jerusalem night. All of us sense a profound disquiet at the heart of life, a painful awareness that we have made far less of this gift of existence than we might have. This is the age-old question. I think that wherever people have thought seriously about the nature and destiny of life, they have recognized that we human beings are not what we ought to be. The quality of “oughtness” belongs alone to the sons and daughters of earth. The instinct of the possible, as over against the actual, is the peculiar legacy of humankind. The pleasure and pain of us all are that we long to be better and other than what we are. Whatever our plight, whatever the time, there is that yearning.