In 1885 Vincent Van Gogh went to Antwerp to enroll in the Academy of Fine Arts there. Being gifted he had no problem with the classwork. He did however find the academic institute stifling, probably not to different than how we came to view the institutional church. The academic setting to him was too sterile, too programmed, too removed from the beauty of life.
During those days students at the Academy of Fine Arts, and other art schools, would paint skeletons as a way of learning proper form and anatomy. No doubt the skeletons to Van Gogh represented the lifeless, academy and the institutional form of art. So Van Gogh to add life and spontaneity into the academy and into his painting, he added a burning cigarette into the mouth of the skeleton. As you can guess this prank was not particularly appreciated by his professors. He spent only a year at the academy before he could no longer stand the sterility of the academy. He left to pursue art among the living. He said, “I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral, however solemn and imposing the latter may be- a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker, is more interesting to me.” Van Gogh was full of life, spirit, and vigor, but through the influence of institutions like the Academy of Fine Arts and the Dutch Reformed church, he lost that life, that spirit, and that vigor.
The Pharisee’s of Jesus day were very much like the professors in the academy who thrived, not on life and spirit, but on theological precision, rules, and following everything to the letter. Ambiguity, metaphors, and mystery weren’t helpful in the least, and at the most they were the enemy of following God. They treated God like a gum ball machine, or even like a slot machine. They had God down to a mathematical formula, which looked like Sacrifice A + Recite Prayer B + Abstain from C = Divine Blessings D. But is that what following God is really all about? Pointing our coins (our prayer, tithe, going to church, worship, etc.) into the slot and turning the dial and getting our gum ball of blessing. But God is no gum ball machine and we our boxes that we try to place him in can never hold him. About the time that we think we got him corner and captured and will do and act the way we hope and expect him to act, he wiggles free and escapes.
Jesus had a conversation one night with a Pharisee who, at the time of the conversation, thought he had God figured out. He had his math lined up and figured out. He spent his life putting God in his box, and on a faithful night God broke the box apart, and challenged his math equation, and his life was really never the same.
Turn to John 3:1-8 to see this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
And so that fateful night Jesus gets a visitor named Nicodemus, who according to this text was not only a Pharisee but was also a member of the Jewish ruling council otherwise known as the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was a group of 23 judges ruling in every city throughout Jerusalem. Nicodemus because he lived in Jerusalem would have been part of the Great Sanhedrin, a group of 71 members who were like our Supreme Court. So Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee of Pharisees but he was also a man of considerable wisdom, knowledge and power. He followed God and also the rules, practices, and laws of the Jewish system. But something drew him that night to meet with Jesus. To look beyond his answers. To look beyond his mathematical equations and his box. To find God in Jesus.
Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in two metaphors. The first one that we find is the metaphor of birth. Of course, Nicodemus being the literal-minded pharisee, completely misses the point. He thinks Jesus is talking literally climbing back into your mothers’ womb to be born a second time, which of course, is not only gross to think about, but also completely impossible, which is of course is Nicodemus response. Jesus then tells him that it isn’t about physical birth but about spiritual rebirth. That to truly live out the Kingdom of God, that people need to be remade, renewed, and have a new way of being and living. But Nicodemus doesn’t understand where Jesus is heading.
So Jesus then shares the second metaphor. Jesus being a master teacher and one who no doubt took the environment around him to teach spiritual principles, probably used what was happening around him at the time. Maybe and quite possibly the night that Nicodemus met with Jesus was a very windy night. So Jesus uses the wind to being to talk about a spiritual reality, that of the Spirit. In fact, the Greek and Hebrew word wind also means breath and spirit. Jesus tells this deeply religious, deeply committed man that, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” What Jesus is telling Nicodemus that you can’t control, dictate, or direct the Spirit of God. Your religious precision. Your mathematical equations. Your do this and God will bless you. All those things have a huge flaw…they leave out the mystery that is God. That the Spirit of God can’t be put in our box, and pulled out when we want to show him off to our friends, or use him to fit our schedules. God is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Instead of trying to control him and put him under our thumb, or treat him like a genie in a bottle, we need to humbly submit to Him and be carried along, like a kite in the wind.
What God wants from us is relationship. In fact relationship between God and His people is at the heart of the Old Testament and the New Testament rather than the construction of religious systems of control. Sometimes the people of God create religious systems in order to actually shield themselves from actual relationship with God. Highly institutional Consumer Christianity tries to construct programs to capture God’s power and produce predetermined outcomes, rather than surrender to the mysterious movement of God’s grace, which is like fire or the wind, which is beyond our control. We can control the God that our systems make up, we can’t control the God of Gods, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. It’s like the dialogue that takes place between Lucy and Mr. Beaver in the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”
This is not to say that structures, and systems are inherently wrong. Anytime people get together there are structures and systems at work. We have systems and structures here at Veritas. But hopefully these systems and structures are subservient to the Spirit. If they aren’t, then we become like the Pharisees not even recognizing when God has left the building, so to speak. We create more systems. We build bigger buildings. We turn the volume up on the rock band that we use to lead worship. We turn the fog machines on. (not that these things are necessarily wrong in themselves) Never realizing that we are seeking to fill the institution with the Spirit, when it is people that the Spirit fills. And then we are caught propping up the system and the institution which is like the skeleton into which Van Gogh placed the burring cigarette.
But what do people look like and act like when they are filled with the Spirit and try to live their lives in tune with the Spirit? What does a community of Jesus followers/church look like when they tune their corporate existence to the melody of the Spirit? What happens when we dismantle our boxes where we have held God captive? (if that were really even possible?) What happens when we set aside our mathematical equations, our approaching God like a gum ball machine or a slot machine or even Santa Claus? What happens when we, as a community, set aside our formulas for success, our predetermined outcomes, and our own plans, and instead seek God’s face, God’s definition of success, his outcomes and his plans? I think we have a beautiful picture of what that looks like in Acts 2:42-47 which says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching( and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” As I mentioned before the driving force for God beyond his love, is his desire for relationships….both horizontal with people, and vertical with Him. This picture of the early church bears this out. The spirit moved in the lives of the believers, and they grew in their relationship with Him and with each other and with the world. The Holy Spirit led them upward in relationship with Him, inward into the community of followers of Jesus, and led them outward into the community to be a blessing to those who didn’t know Jesus. And the result of the Holy Spirit’s leading, guiding, and directing? A massive amount of people came into relationship with Jesus and his Church.
The Spirit guides us into relationships with Himself, His Church, and His world. He doesn’t guide us into a relationship with an institution. He doesn’t guide us into a relationship with a skeleton. No, he guides us into a relationship with a real, moving, active, and fully alive God. And he wants us to follow His lead by being a real, moving, active, fully alive, led by the Spirit community of people seeking the face of Jesus together. Seeking God, seeking each other, seeking the world.
Van Gogh, tied of painting the dead skeletons, in the dead environment of the Academy of Fine Arts, left to paint the living. One of his favorite subjects during that time was Augustine Roulin, a thirty seven year old mother of three. His paintings of Augustine along with other faces he painted were in contrast to the paintings he painted in the Academy. Van Gogh realized and recognized the people were the vessels of God’s Spirit and that love is something transmitted along the medium of relationships. Van Gogh experienced the world of institutional art as a skeleton. It had the form and structure of a human being but didn’t have the flesh, breath and life that would make someone alive. Van Gogh experienced the world of institutional Christianity as a skeleton. It had the form and structure of church and connecting people to Jesus but not the flesh, breath and life of the Spirit. He experienced life and breath and the Spirit of God in the relationships of those whose faces he painted. His art was transformed when it moved beyond the academy and was integrated with life and relationships. We are transformed by the Spirit when we move beyond our formulaic approaches to God, our mathematical equations, our trying to get God in a box. We are transformed by the Spirit when we also engage upward in our relationship with Jesus, inward with relationships with other followers of Jesus, and outward in our relationships with the world.
Let’s talk about the boxes that we have put God in, the mathematical equations that we have tried to deduce, and how God has squirmed out of those boxes. Let’s talk about where the Spirit has shown up outward, inward and upward. And let’s talk about what God might be calling us to and what we should do about it?
1. What thoughts, insights, questions, comments, etc… do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. What boxes have you ever put God in? What mathematical equations have you tried to run God through? How has God defied the equation and squirm out of your box?
3. Where have you seen the Spirit in your Upward relationship, your Inward relationships, and your Outward relationships?
4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?