Sunday, March 8, 2020

Birth from Above: John 3:1-17 - Second Sunday in Lent

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11“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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“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. (NRSV)

The Cross by RomansTenNine on Flickr. CC BY 2.0

We didn’t have cable television when I was young—so any time the family traveled and we stayed in a motel, the free cable was a big treat. We always tuned in to Nickelodeon—to watch Nick at Nite. The programming consisted of old sitcom favorites from the 1970’s and 80’s, which we never got to see in a world before Netflix or DVD.

Preachers call today’s Gospel “Nick at Night” for the Pharisee and Jewish leader Nicodemus who visits Jesus at night.

Jesus meets Nicodemus at the beginning of his ministry—but already, Jesus has caused quite a stir. At Cana, he turned water into wine. Just before Passover, Jesus rampaged through the Jerusalem temple, turning over tables, scattering animals, and driving out the moneychangers with a whip of cords. Jesus quickly became a menace for the powers-that-be.

But for Nicodemus, there’s something about Jesus for which he cannot turn away. So he comes to Jesus, but at night, in secret, so no one finds out.

He tells Jesus he knows that he is a teacher who’s come from God, because of the signs he’s seen him do. But Jesus immediately challenges him: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Or, translated another way, “born again.”

Nicodemus doesn’t understand. How do you “get born” a second time? What do you need to do?

To be born again means, essentially, becoming a baby again. Nicodemus is a highly-educated man. He has great power and authority. But he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Think about it this way: children have a much easier time learning new languages than adults. A child’s brain is unconsciously absorbing information from their environment. Their natural curiosity, combined with their excitement at mastering something new, makes the learning process much easier—and effective.

It never ceases to amaze me how much little children understand Holy Communion. Even when I come to a toddler in their parents’ arms and I see those two eyes, open wide, taking in everything going on around them, I know they’re learning. Their eyes practically say, “I want to be a part of this!”

But you take a room full of adults and try to teach them about Holy Communion—they struggle to take it all in. It requires tremendous effort for an adult brain to process new information, because it’s trying to reconcile new information with what is already known. I can’t tell you the number of times someone’s said to me, during a bible study or Sunday school class, “the more I learn, the more questions I have!”

Even worse, adults tend to seek out information that confirms what they already know. There’s an old saying: my mind is made up—don’t confuse me with facts.

Nicodemus is right to question, “how can anyone be born again after having grown old?” You can’t do it! But God can do it!

That’s the power of the cross—of God showing who God is in Jesus Christ, taking on all human sin…and dying.

“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. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When you survey the wondrous cross, God’s power is at work to make this promise a reality in you. But before you can be born again of the Spirit, you must die. You have the same name and you’re occupying the same body, but you’re not who you were. And you aren’t in control over what you will become. Believing in Jesus demands nothing putting on infancy.

Learning and growth are full-time jobs for a child. As a child, you need to be taught. You’re coming to Jesus, time and time again, to hear his word, to learn from his teachings, to be conformed to his will. But for everything you learn, there will be much to unlearn.

Are you willing to admit that you don’t have God all figured out? Are you prepared for the Spirit to radically transform what you value and live for? Are you prepared for the person everyone else knows to be strong, powerful, and right—and cast it all aside and put on infancy?

Far too often, we go to God’s word for a pep talk rather than provocation. We look for comfort, not challenge. We look for total confirmation, not total transformation. It won’t always make you feel good to hear from Jesus that you are a sinner and infant dependent on the grace of God for your salvation.

Either way, when you reach a point where you can’t go on living like this—or you can’t go on dying like this—you are ready for rebirth. And this is where God steps in. Whether you are exceptionally holy like Nicodemus or your face is pictured in the dictionary right next to the word “sinner,” God acts through water and Spirit to “rebirth” you. Being born again isn’t the end of the journey; it’s the journey itself—a lifetime of reconciliation and forgiveness; a lifetime of learning and growth; a lifetime of dying and rising again.

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