Teshuva - Turn, Turn ‘til we come down right
Lent. It’s all about repentance. In Biblical terms that is teshuva, to turn. Nearly all the Biblical narratives having to do with this need of ours to turn away from where we are and be moved to someplace new. Which does not necessarily mean turning back to where we have been.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night (John 3:1-17). Why? Because in chapter 2 Jesus turns water in to wine and makes a scene at the Temple in Jerusalem during the Feast of Passover – the Feast of the Great Escape. The people followed God and Moses out of slavery to a land of promise. Jesus not only made a scene, he made a mess turning over tables, tossing money all over the ground, and driving away all the animals. People coming to Jerusalem for the feast need to exchange Roman coins that say “Caesar is God” for clean money to offer at the Temple, and to purchase an animal or two to be sacrifices. Nic is correct to think it would not be prudent to be seen with this Jesus character in broad daylight. Too dangerous.
Nic is a Pharisee – that is, he is a leader of a group of faithful people who study Torah, their covenant with God, and live their lives in accordance with Torah so that God will send an anointed one, a Christos or a Messhia, to restore Israel – one might say to make Israel great again. He hopes Jesus will lead the way back.
Instead, Jesus says it’s going to be a lot more like Abram in the old days. The wind comes from you know not where to take you you know not where. Abram left home with his wife Sarai and nephew Lot and his family. Abram and Sarai have no children, and yet they are chosen to be the first of descendants more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore! And on the promise of a new home and blessings for them and all the peoples of the earth, Abram and Sarai take off. Do you remember how that all works, Nicodemus?
Do we? It’s like Don Henley sang, “Out on the road today, I saw a DEADHEAD sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said, "Don't look back. You can never look back". Lot’s wife tried to look back and what happened to her? She became frozen in one place, a pillar of salt. Abram took off he knew not where, but he left home and never looked back. Jesus is trying to get Nic to learn that same lesson – those born of the wind, God’s wind, God’s breath, God’s Spirit are going to where that spirit, like the wind, sends them.
It is a grave mistake to think that to repent, to return, or as the Hebrew has it, teshuva, means going back to where we came from. Although Joni Mitchell sang “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden,” the fact is nothing could be further from the truth. The life of the spirit moves forward not back. The life of the spirit calls us to set the sails and let the Holy Wind of the Holy Spirit take us where it will.
To believe otherwise is to allow ourselves to give in to the temptations of the devil – temptations to great gestures, heroic tricks, power grabs and illusions of returning to some past golden era. Fortunately, we pray to a God whose property “is always to have mercy!” So, that whenever we go astray, whenever we are tempted like Lot’s wife to look back, or like anyone who thinks we can somehow ride a time machine back to the past, we need to repent. We need a “penitent heart.” We need to turn from looking back and let God propel us forward to a new time and a new place.
The problem is, we hate to let go. We hate to relinquish the past. So we attempt to carry it with us wherever we go. But Jesus knows that this just weighs us down and slows us down until we are stuck like Lot’s wife in one place. He constantly tells us to get rid of everything and move forward with him. This is what it means to be created imago Dei, in the image of God - to let the ruach, the wind, the breath, the spirit of God that blew across the face of the waters in creation to propel us like Abram and Sarai to a new place of promise – great promise of becoming a blessing to others, all others, all the families and peoples of the Earth!
So, we find Jesus trying to get Nicodemus and his Pharisee sisters and brothers to see that restoring the old glory days of Israel is not going to happen. It is as the Buddha said some 600 years or so before Jesus: Everything is changing. Nothing stays the same. To think otherwise is to stray from God’s ways and try to assert our ways as the only way. Which leads inevitably to being frozen as a pillar of salt. We are never told explicitly if Nic gets it. Later, however, he reminds people that before judging Jesus or anyone that person needs to be heard. And after the crucifixion he along with Joseph of Arimathea provides the Crucified One with a proper burial.
As I write this the wind is howling outside my door. I recall being on silent retreat in Racine, Wisconsin, early in Lent, praying for the Holy Spirit while the wind raged against the building we were in and rattled the windows all night long. I remember thinking, why are we in here? The wind is out there! The Spirit is out there! Why do we hide from God’s holy ruach? God’s Holy Spirit?
I suspect it is because we allow ourselves to become tenured to the past. We make the past into an idol. We cast it in silver and gold. That is, we invest our money, our culture and our very selves in a past that will never be permanent. That will never be here again. We lock ourselves in a room with windows rattling. We choose to look back and become pillars of salt.
So great is our need for teshuva – to repent, to turn. As the Shakers had it, we need to turn, turn ‘til we come down right. Just like Moses reminds the people before entering into the land of promise: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live. A life of teshuva, of turning, of repentance, is to choose life. If not now, when?