May 31, 2015 John 3: 1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
There’s a story that’s been floating around for a long time. I’ve heard it from various sources over the years. You may have too. It’s the story of a three year old girl who had welcomed a much anticipated baby brother into her family. Shortly after her new brother’s arrival, she made a request of her parents. She wanted to spend some time alone with him in his room, with the door closed. (Reminds me of my young nephew telling his mom: “Now mom, Sara and I are going back to my room. DON’T come in!”) The red flags go up.
In this case the parents remembered they had installed an intercom system in the baby’s room so they would be able to hear everything that was going on in there. So they let their daughter in and closed the door. And what they heard next speaks volumes to Jesus’ advice to Nicodemus this morning. She said to her three day old brother, “Tell me about God - I’ve almost forgotten.” Oh, how I wish he could have responded in a language I could understand.
It’s an evocative story. It insinuates something I’ve long believed: that we come from God, and at some point in our early childhood we still remember that. But as we grow into maturity we start to lose that connection. Back when we were toddlers, we became aware that we are separate from the world - call it “the birth of self-consciousness.” “Give me that doll. It’s mine! You can’t have it.” As we learn about the world we live in, we become increasingly consumed and influenced by it. And as that happens we become less aware of where we came from and more estranged from God.
In the process of growing up, you might say we become self-centered. Remember those teen years when you were the center of the universe? - when your appearance, achievements and affluence ruled the day - when you were constantly comparing yourself to others, and judging them, and you in the process? It spills over into adulthood too. It’s inevitable. We can’t develop into mature human beings without self-consciousness.
But in the process we pay a price - separation from God. “We live our lives in relation to what Thomas Keating calls ‘the false self’ - the self created and conferred by culture.” (Borg) - a culture that dictates who we should emulate, what we should desire, who we should love and hate, what we should wear and buy and eat and drive, and sometimes, what we should believe.
The Genesis story tells us we were born in the image of God, but are living outside paradise, in a world of estrangement and self-absorption. It can feel like a pretty empty existence. Something is missing, and it’s not a new BMW or a trip to Tahiti, although those can be very nice.
Something was missing in Nicodemus’ life too, when he visited Jesus, in the middle of the night, looking for answers. He was a Pharisee, a wealthy man, possibly a member of the Sanhedrin- sort of like a cardinal in the Catholic Church today. Replace the Vatican with the Temple. He could get into inner rooms the rest of us are excluded from. So he may have sought out Jesus in secrecy.
But we must also keep in mind that John’s gospel is filled with symbolism. Nicodemus came in darkness - connoting blindness - looking for Jesus - the light of the world. He came looking for some light in his life - some insight into the heart of God perhaps? He was ill prepared for Jesus’ response: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus was still in the dark. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” He was taking Jesus literally and missing his entire point. How often does that happen in Christianity today? Jesus wasn’t talking literally. He was talking metaphorically.
Did you notice when Nicodemus approached Jesus, flattering him a bit, talking about all the signs he had performed, Jesus didn’t even respond. That’s not what’s important. It’s about your inner life. You need to be” born from above.”
The word in Greek is “anothen”, which means three things: 1) from the beginning, completely, radically; 2) again, in the sense of for the second time, and 3) from above, from God. We don’t have an English word that means all three. One translation uses “born anew.” Put them all together, and Jesus is talking about undergoing such a radical change in your life that it’s like a new birth. It comes from the grace of God and it happens to our souls.
Poor Nicodemus just doesn’t understand how this can happen. He’s culturally conditioned, just like the rest of us. He’s one of 6,000 Pharisees who took a pledge in front of three witnesses that they would spend all their lives observing every detail of the scribal law. To the Jews, the law, as written in the first five books of the Old Testament, was the most sacred thing in all the world. Pharisees believed it had to be followed to the T.
No wonder he didn’t understand Jesus. Like all good lawyers, Nicodemus was operating out of his head. Jesus was talking about the heart, the spirit. That’s where we find God.
Did anyone ever read that book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert? In one of the first chapters she asks an Indonesian medicine man for advice:
“I want to have a lasting experience of God. Sometimes I feel like I understand the divinity of this world, but then I loose it because I get distracted by my petty desires and fears. I want to be with God all the time. But I don’t want to be a monk, or totally give up worldly pleasures. I guess what I want to learn is how to live in this world and enjoy its delights, but also devote myself to God.”
He told her “To find the balance you want....You must keep your feet grounded so firmly on the earth that it’s like you have four legs, instead of two. That way, you can stay in the world. But you must stop looking at the world through your head. You must look through your heart instead. That way, you will know God.”
You don’t get born again by learning and believing the right beliefs and following the correct set of rules. It’s something that happens from the inside out and it transforms us. It picks up the broken pieces and makes us whole again. It fills those empty parts of our lives. It makes us new again.
It can happen suddenly, like it did to Saul on the road to Damascus, but more often it happens gradually, in increments over our life time. Some people believe it takes more than one lifetime. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirt.” Like the wind, you may not be able to see the spirit or know how it works, but you can see the effect it has on human lives.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the way into the heart of God. Follow him and we will be saved. That gets a lot of lip service from Christians today, especially from the fundamentalists. But what does it mean? Frederick Buechner gives us a beautiful analogy:
When you love somebody, it is no longer yourself who is the center of your own universe. It is the one you love who is. You forget yourself. You deny yourself. You give of yourself, so that by all the rules of arithmetical logic there should be less of yourself than there was to start with. Only by curious paradox there is more. You feel that at last you really are yourself.
The experience of salvation involves the same paradox. Jesus put it like this: “He who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 10:39) (And I don’t think he was referring to throwing yourself into the lion’s pit)
You give up your old self-seeking self for somebody you love and thereby become yourself at last. You must die with Christ so that you can rise with him, Paul says. You do not love God so that, tit for tat, (he) God will then save you. To love God is to be saved. To love anybody is a significant step along the way.”
The early Christian movement saw the cross as a symbol of “the way”. It embodies the path of transformation, the way to be born again. Mark speaks of us taking up our crosses and following Jesus.
As I said earlier, you’re not going to find God in your head. But for some of us, we have to go there first, and clean out a lot of garbage, before we can allow ourselves to travel to our hearts. We’ve erected a lot of barriers during our lifetimes.
What are your barriers? What prevents you from completing that journey into the heart of God? What desires, fears, guilt, doubts, doctrine, are holding you in bondage? These are our crosses. what prevents us from being born again. Take a look at them this week. Then think about how you might mid-wife yourself into new birth.