Scripture: Mark 1:9-13; Galatians 5:22-23; John 3:1-8
There’s a page I follow on Facebook – it’s called Unvirtuous Abbey, and it’s a good place for theologically sound yet slightly irreverent Christian humor. One of the things that the people who run this page have done is a series of “Actual photos of the Holy Spirit,” using bird pictures, because one way the Holy Spirit is depicted in the Bible is as a bird, a dove.
Actual photo of the Holy Spirit on Her way to comfort someone in need.
Actual photo of the Holy Spirit carrying your burdens for a little while so you can rest.
Actual photo of the Holy Spirit telling you not to give up even though She knows it’s really hard right now.
Actual photo of the Holy Spirit standing in solidarity with your pandemic hairstyle and fashion.
Some of them are a little harder hitting:
Actual photo of the Holy Spirit wondering why you just said that.
Actual photo of the Holy Spirit saying, ‘Oh no you didn’t’ when you just did.
Actual photo of the Holy Spirit. She’s on Her way. You know what you did.
You might remember that last week, we talked about the Holy Spirit as parakletos, our comforter, encourager, and advocate, who I called God For Us. And the Holy Spirit is all of these things. But it’s not the Holy Spirit’s only job to comfort us and affirm us. That sounds nice, to some extent, but also ultimately lacking. Just like a good friend who is always there to listen but you know is also going to tell you the truth, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to be God For Us but also to work in us to challenge, transform, and renew us.
At the beginning of this service we heard the passage from Mark’s Gospel where the Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism (like a dove), and then – did you catch what happens after that? We read that immediately the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Not gently led him into the wilderness, which is what Matthew and Luke say, but drove him there. The Spirit is driving Jesus into this place where it’s going to be really hard for a while and he’s going to be spiritually prepared for his ministry and all that lies before him. It’s not so warm and fuzzy, but it is, presumably, something Jesus needs to do – something he might not choose to do on his own.
John doesn’t tell us about Jesus in the wilderness – probably from John’s perspective, Jesus is born prepared. But John does tell us a story about a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to see Jesus under the cover of night. He seems to know there is something special about Jesus, and he wants to be able to figure it out, to try to put his finger on what it is. He says no one can do the things Jesus does unless they are from God. And even though Nicodemus hasn’t really asked, Jesus tells him that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above – or, depending on your translation, born anew or born again.
Nicodemus says, “How is that possible?” and Jesus says to him, “Truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” In other words, this is of course not a physical rebirth, but a spiritual one, one in which the Spirit herself is at work and that is affirmed and ritualized in our baptism.
Some of us may think of spiritual rebirth as like a gentle, meditative, finding-enlightenment kind of process, but I’m going to tell you that if that’s the kind of process we’re talking about, I don’t think “birth” is a good image. You know what’s not a gentle, meditative process? Birth. Birth is, in fact, not only hard and painful but dangerous, both for the one giving it and the one being birthed. AND it’s also the only way for new life to emerge. I see no reason for being born of the Spirit to be different. Not an easy or comfortable process, but a life-giving one.
Sometimes that might mean keeping our mouths shut when we really want to say something – or finding the courage to speak up when we might have remained silent.
Sometimes it might mean going through the pain of giving up on a toxic relationship in order to move forward, or letting go of a long-held grudge and moving toward reconciliation.
Sometimes it might mean repenting, and beginning to walk down a more faithful path.
Some of you may have seen the actor Hank Azaria in the news last month. Hank Azaria was the voice of the character Apu on The Simpsons for thirty years. He’s white, and Apu was the Indian shopkeeper rife formulated largely on racial stereotypes. It was the kind of thing that not many white people thought twice about in the era when The Simpsons was first popular.
In 2017 the Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary called “The Problem with Apu,” where he talked about the harm that was done through the depiction of this character with his fake accent and stereotypes. Kondabolu had grown up watching The Simpsons, but he was also aware of the effect Apu had on him and how others saw him.
Azaria said that when he first heard about this documentary, he felt “hurt and defensive.” After all, he hadn’t set out to hurt anyone, and it was comedy, right, and maybe the people who were offended were just “17 hipsters in a microbrewery in Brooklyn.”
So Azaria didn’t stop being the voice of Apu. Not right away. But what he did do was start to learn. He talked to Indian people. He learned more about racism. He read. He educated himself and sought opportunities for others to help educate him. And, after several years of doing this work, he stopped voicing Apu, and he started working with an anti-racism group to help educate others. In April, he publicly apologized for the role he played in perpetuating these stereotypes.
I don’t want to make too much of a hero of a white person who realized that he was participating in something racist. Obviously Hari Kondabolu is important to this story, too, and all the other people who helped Azaria understand the harm that had been done. But I do think there’s a lot we can learn from Hank Azaria, when it comes to racism and beyond. Because it would have been easy to dismiss people who were offended by something he had invested a good part of his career in, to call them snowflakes, to feel like they were attacking his life’s work or even his identity. But instead he recognized his own defensiveness, and went down that hard, uncomfortable path of learning and repentance. And while I have no idea how Azaria would characterize his own spiritual life, I would call that spiritual growth, and that is the kind of work that the Holy Spirit can do in us – if we let her, and if we work with her.
Paul tells us in Galatians what new life in the Spirit is supposed to look like: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the qualities that are born of that process. Not all of them may come naturally to us, certainly not all the time, but all of them are part of the Spirit’s work to reform and reshape and rebirth us into the image of God who is Love.
And in the end, this idea of the Holy Spirit working in us isn’t so different from the Holy Spirit as our helper, encourager, and advocate. In all of it, God is for us. All of it is grace – whether it’s the kind that wraps us in a warm hug or drives us into the wilderness.
As the write Anne Lamott likes to say, “God loves you just the way you are, and God loves you too much to let you stay that way.” Thanks be to God for new life, and for the one who brings that new life into being.