Born Again and Again PDF Print E-mail
Written by Pat Ireland   
Friday, 21 March 2014 19:14

First Presbyterian Church, Cottonwood Falls, KS

Born again and again1:  John 3:1-17

Rev. Pat Ireland, Pastor

March 16, 2014

John 3:1-17 (CEB)

1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew,[a] it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit [b] blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.  It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One.  14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

“No one can see the kingdom without being born from above…;” John 3:3 so Jesus says to the Pharisee Nicodemus in one of the favorite passages of every tent-pitching evangelist of fact or fiction.  Whether on street corners, tabernacles, or cable TV, these preachers of the unadorned word have labored mightily to convince us sinners that this alone will save us from our sins.

It seems clear on the surface but we want to dig a little deeper, for in the words of Robert Dalleck, ‘history resides in the details.’  If we want to be reborn, or born from above (the Greek word anothen, means both), then those details are worth a closer look.

Let us Pray:  Holy Spirit guide the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts that we might be born again in you.   Amen

Nicodemus was a scholarly man.  He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the elite governing body, schooled in the finer points of scripture and interpretation.  He was a Pharisee, the religious blue bloods of ancient Judaism whose schooling stressed a rigid interpretation of the texts, and unbending respect to the finer points of the Law, and in, all likelihood, a dose of disdain for anyone less wise or less legalistic -which for many Pharisees was pretty much everyone!

We can be pretty sure that Nicodemus was more used to answering the questions of others than asking questions of his own.  It must have been especially humbling to be asking an uneducated preacher from the north country.   To avoid being seen in this humbling situation he goes to see Jesus in the dead of night to ask him about the kingdom of God.  It may have been with begrudging recognition of the wisdom of Jesus teaching, that Nicodemus calls him rabbi – teacher.

He immediately references the miracles of Jesus calling them “signs.”  He clearly recognizes something “special” about him.  I’m guessing Nick thinks he is more than qualified to become a citizen of the kingdom Jesus proclaims.

You see, all of Judaism was anticipating the restoration of the Kingdom of God’s people.  To Nicodemus it may have meant a celestial rescue from the miseries of the current age, especially occupation by Rome.  Like all the people of all years who toil under the heavy hand of another, the Jews suffered a sorry fate under the Romans and wanted to believe that freedom was not only something worth believing in, but that is was imminent.

Jesus, the pun artist, tells Nicodemus “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom,” and for all his education Nicodemus can’t understand his answer, not because he is stupid but because he fails to hear it as metaphor.

The author of John uses a Greek word that can mean either again or from above.  In his confusion Nicodemus asks, “How can this be?” and Jesus responds: “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom… you must be born anew.”    (The Greek used here for “Spirit” is the word used in Genesis and means spirit an/or wind.)

As a scholar, Nicodemus was probably familiar with the text in Ezekiel 36:25 “I will sprinkle clean water upon you and… from all your idols I will cleanse you.”  He may have been aware of John the baptizer who, though he cleansed with water, anticipated the one who would cleanse with God’s Spirit, with fire.   Nevertheless Nick asks again, “How is this possible?” Jesus explains yet one more time, likening himself to Moses.

Then come those beloved verses 16 & 17:

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Variances in the oldest texts makes it unclear whether the words come from Jesus’ own mouth or whether they are the author’s affirmation of faith.   It doesn’t really matter, for they have become, in Martin Luther’s words, the gospel in miniature.

Here’s the catch.  The text doesn’t make clear if Nicodemus really heard and understood Jesus.  It is in that sense Nicodemus has become a metaphor for all of us who are seeking in the darkness, spiritual wanderers in the dead of night.

We are the ones unable to realize that when Jesus is talking about a new birth, he is telling us that before any rank is imposed on us here on earth, before we are defined by the family from which we came, before the accolades bestowed on us or the criticisms besetting us, we are children of God.

To be born again is to know that truth.   It is to be stripped of everything that attaches to us over time – both accolades and criticisms- and go deep to where we realize that we are children of God.

In order to discover that fundamental, irreducible core of our being, we must dig beneath the surface assumptions we normally use to define ourselves.  To be reborn means to put aside old categories we use to sum up our lives.  Our core being is deeper than what we do for a living, where we worship, or our political affiliation.  It is deeper than our status as parent, a child, or a spouse, a resident of this or that town or a member of this or that tribe.  It is not a matter of what club would or would not have us as a member, or what university we attended.   It is not enough to dig deeper in search of the logic behind our actions and choices, our strengths and weaknesses all add to the picture of who we are, but still fail to define our essential being.

Rebirth is not so much a moment as a mind-set.  It is the recognition of who we are by virtue of whose we are.  It is our desire to live lives of meaning and it is God’s desire that we understand that the most meaningful of lives are those lived in faithful reflection of God’s love for us.

The problem is that this mind-set, knowing - really knowing and feeling ourselves as a beloved child of God -  is as easily grasped as it is forgotten.   Like the wind that blows where it will we have trouble holding on to it.

We have moments when God’s love is so close and so in evidence that just know that we am anchored in it for all my days both before and hence.  Past times of trouble are forgotten or no longer matter.  Occasions of spiritual doubt or moral lax are self-edited out of my history, because it is a new day.   I am born again!

I know that God walks with me.   I know that I am God’s.  I feel a profound sense of peace and gratitude, the way a newborn might feel such utter contentment when she is swathed and held by a loving parent whose warm, caressing arms reassure her, “I am here with your, and everything is alright.”

But those moments slip away as inexplicably as they came.  I remember the felling but cannot recapture it.  And then there are times when it isn’t all right; times when we do not feel loved or even loveable?  What about the times when we suffer or are ignored or rejected by others?   What about the times when we are simply a wounded self in a fallen world?  How then can we experience rebirth?

Our search is a lot like a walk on a labyrinth.  As we follow the path sometimes we are so close to that core we think we are almost there, but the road turns taking us another way and it feels as if we are moving away even though we are still on the path.  Finally after twists and turn it reaches the center, we find that for which we have been seeking.

The center is however, just the halfway point.   I wish I could stay here forever” but like the mountain top experience, we must turn and go home.  Just because it is the core of my being does not mean that it is my earthly home.

In our call to worship we affirmed with the psalmist that God keeps our going in and our coming out.   We reenter the world with the consciousness of ourselves as a child of God.  This consciousness not only warms our heart; but compels us to carry that warmth to whatever place God calls.  “It doesn’t do any good to experience birth – the first time or the later times – if you’re not then going to experience life!

If we receive the healing power of God’s love and fail to apply it to a bleeding world, it is like stumbling upon the empty tomb of Christ crucified and hearing the good news that our sins are forgiven and then turning a deaf ear to the chamber’s echo, “Now go to Galilee.” Matt 28:10

Eternal, abundant life is living as Jesus lived; loving as God loves.   This is why Jesus answered Nicodemus’ question the way he did.  The old lawmaker wanted to know how to gain entry into the kingdom and Jesus answered by telling him to forget his laws and remember his soul, for that is where he would find his way.  He was telling Nicodemus to find the love of God where God first put it, at the core of our being.

The kingdom of God is already here if only we will live in it.  That is why Jesus’ words to Nicodemus were that being born again he would “see the kingdom.”   This being born is both a lightening-bolt-moment of divine clarity and a recurring choice that presents itself at every turn, however momentous or mundane it might be.  In each instance we choose to believe either that God is in our hearts or is not.

The content of that choice reveals the texture of our faith.  The child of God, born anew, embodies Paul’s well-worn words to the Corinthians of a love that is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful not arrogant or rude; a love that does not insist on its own way and does not rejoice in wrong.  It is a love that bears all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. 1 Cor. 13:4-7

May you be born anew this season, again and again.     Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

1 Based on the writing of Erik Kolbell in The God of Second Chances, chapter 2: Rebirth, WJK, 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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