March 16, 2014
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Whether your Bible translates it “born from above” or “born again”, it is clear Jesus is saying a new birth from God is required if we want to see the Kingdom of God in this life.
But this answer doesn’t suit Nicodemus. I imagine he wants Jesus to validate what he already knows by giving him the small next step he must take to fully realize God in his life.
I think he wants the same thing most of us want.
We make fun of “poor old Nicodemus who doesn’t understand Jesus”, but I think he’s closer to understanding Jesus than we are.
Too often we think Jesus came into the world, not to change us in any radical way, but to share his secrets on how we can become a nice person like he is.
We believe he doesn’t need to do more than tweak us—we’re all well-adjusted, well-educated, disciplined, kind, and giving people. No big deal—just a hair trim and get the nails done and we’re ready for the Kingdom of God.
But as C. S. Lewis says, “ A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from god, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might be even more difficult to save.” Mere Chrisitanity, page 182
But what Jesus offers is not a next step but a radical remaking—and not just once, when we give our lives to Jesus as young adults, but every morning of every day.
This hurts our pride to think we require a radical makeover, but the really hard thing about being born again is leaving behind everything we have grown accustomed to.
When the Spirit blows through us She wants to break open the box created by our habitual mindset and current worldview. Spirit wants to pull us beyond the world given to us by our parents, teachers, religion, culture, history, genetic code, and choices we’ve made along the way—all that we think we are must be dropped, or at least not held onto so strongly, in order for the new person to appear.
That’s why Nicodemus baulks and we run away.
My sense of “Me” feels as heavy as gravity. Who in the world would I be if my “Me” were taken away? My “Me” is who I think I am, it’s who others think I am. What would my friends say?
My freshman year at the University of Georgia I “invited Jesus into my heart” according to the prayer on the Do you Know the Four Spiritual Laws of the Universe?” booklet put out by Campus Crusade for Christ. Shortly thereafter I wrote my closest friend and neighbor, Mike Bonner, who was a freshman at Dartmouth to tell him about what had happened. He wrote back, addressing his letter to Oral Rabbit—making fun of Oral Roberts the TV healer. As a lapsed Catholic intellectual Mike couldn’t imagine anything sillier than what I’d done.
Leaving behind the you everyone knows is the hard part of being born anew–which is why when we were all home that summer I would pull out my old self whenever Mike and I were together.
In a sense we must give up the worship of our parents if God becomes our father and mother. We must give up the worship of our teachers, if Jesus becomes our teacher. We must give up our worship of the old world, if we want to see the Kingdom of God.
Have you ever thought about how change comes into your life? It’s really a miracle because every day we wake up with the same thoughts we had the day before which produces the same story of Me through which we interpret everything the same way.
It’s Groundhog Day, over and over!
Racists don’t stop being racists just because a black person is nice to them or is smarter than them—no, a racist blocks out any contrary evidence, so that nothing will challenge his worldview.
Same thing applies to every other perspective and perception we have. We get the same world because we filter it through the same thoughts day after day.
Of course if we were not unconscious so much of the time we would see how our worldview and the story of me is failing us. We would see the suffering that is living in us and the dysfunction in our relationships and work as we live with a story that isn’t based on Truth—on God’s view of me, but my view of myself.
You can’t just tweak yourself and expect a different life.
As someone has said: “Being born again is not the turning over of a new leaf, but the receiving of a new life – not just a new start, but a new heart”
Of course people whose lives have fallen apart get this and are ready to do whatever it takes to find new birth out of the old hell of their lives.
But Nicodemus can’t wake himself up any more than we can. We are trapped. In Biblical terms, we are spiritually dead, slaves to the power of the status quo.
And I’m sure you’ve noticed the dead aren’t capable of healing themselves.
Later in his gospel John (Chapter 5) Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
Yesterday at a funeral here I noticed this: how do the dead hear? They can’t!
The dead can hear only because the voice of Jesus has the power to make them capable of hearing and capable of responding.
So Lazarus, 4 days dead in the tomb hears Jesus say: “Come out Lazarus”.
And Lazarus hears and comes limping out of the tomb because of the power of Jesus’ word.
Being born again is God’s gift to you and me in Christ. All we can do is hear the voice and follow it.
We must be born into God’s world to know God.
And we’ve seen births, most of us: they are painful, scary, and very messy.
Perhaps you’ve noticed Episcopalians don’t do messy.
We’re the neat and clean denomination.
Pentecostals do messy, but we’re the “decently and in order” crowd.
This is the opportunity, given at every moment, to give up the story of Me and to be birthed into God’s story of eternal love–“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.”
This is the new birth into a new world. It’s right here and right now—it’s closer to us than our breath.
Wake up Nicodemus—wake up out of the story of you and into God’s story.
Brand new life, every day–That’s why it’s called eternal life.
To receive it all we have to do is to believe the One who promises it to us:
“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.”
Like Abraham we believe the promise and set our course to follow Christ.
Being born from above every morning will not necessarily make us nice—but it will make us question the systems of injustice, war, politics, and the economy which are keeping this tired, old world so violent, poor, and divided.
That is, we will begin to be able to see the Kingdom of God and give our lives to work for it here and now.