“How Can This Be?” Lent 2A (March 16, 2014)
God had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram went, as God had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his spouse Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. God appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to God, who had appeared to him. From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to God and called on the name of God.
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the realm of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the realm of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Human One must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
For God so loved the world that God gave the one and only Child of God, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Child into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Will you pray with me? Holy One who rules all times and seasons, give us grace and wisdom in this time to hear and speak your truth. May our hearts be open to the message you want us to hear today. In all your names, amen.
John paints a very interesting picture here. Nicodemus is a Pharisee—one of the many streams of Judaism of the first century. Pharisees generally believed in an afterlife—which Saducees did not, and the Essenes did—and in Temple worship and sacrifice—which the Saducees did, but the Essenes did not. Pharisees were, in fact, the mainstream Judaism of the day, sort of like Presbyterians or United Church members today. They studied the Torah, the commandments of God, very closely and were committed to following them as much as they could. So they studied and discussed and argued over the meanings of words and how they could best be applied to their daily life. Remember, the early parts of the Jewish Scriptures—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—were first recorded something like a thousand years before Jesus’ day. So for the scholars of his time, these were already ancient texts. Something else to remember—which some of our modern Biblical scholars should remember—is that it was always a given with the Jewish scholars that these writings were not necessarily to be taken literally. They knew the scriptures spoke in metaphors and allegory and symbolism; that there were several kinds of literature—history, poetry, legend, and so on—in the scriptures. You will rarely find mainstream Jewish thought today taking the Scriptures literally, and they did not in Jesus’ day, either. And we know Nicodemus was a rabbi—which at that time simply meant teacher—and this is strengthened by the fact that he came to Jesus at night, which is actually the traditional time for adult men to learn and study.
So when Nicodemus asks how a person can go back into their mother’s womb and be born again, he is not being naïve and taking Jesus’ statement literally. He is making a point. When we have been born into a culture, a mindset, a way of looking at the world, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to adjust our thinking, to look at the world in a different way, with new eyes—as if we had been born again, into a different body, a different reality.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is possible—through Spirit, not the body. In other words, the flesh, our bodies, our tangible selves, can make some things happen—our human bodies can make other bodies, can (at least temporarily) change the land around us and the creatures that live there. But when it comes to things of the spirit—those can only be changed by spirit, not by our will. That doesn’t mean that those things are impossible to change or that we cannot have an effect on them, but it does mean we cannot do it ourselves, without help from Spirit. What are those things? Compassion, wisdom, understanding, love for all that is, faith, trust. Those are of the spirit, and only Spirit can bring them about. We can make it easier for Spirit to work in us by being open to these things, to recognizing their existence and by being willing to have them born, or grow, within us. We can’t do it on our own, though.
That is what the realm of God is—a state of being where all creatures share compassion, wisdom, understanding, faith, love. Jesus is not judging others—he is offering another path, another way. It is not an easy path—in fact, a person has to be born again, become another person, in order to walk that path.
But it is also a second chance—an opportunity to learn a new way of living, of loving the world, of laying down that burden of shame or feeling inferior, of hate and anger and distrust. A chance to live with grace and faith and love, with the absolute knowledge that we are all children of God, none of us are better or worse people, we are all doing the best we know to get through. Some of us have chosen the way of anger and distrust—but we don’t have to. Some of us have chosen to live for ourselves, disregarding the needs of others as long as we feel good. Some of us clutch the goods of this world to us, fearful of not having enough—except it is never “enough.”
This is what being born again is—a new life, a second chance. When we take that second chance, when we dare to believe we are worthy children of God, that every one of us human beings is one of God’s children too—then we can begin to live lives of grace and abundance. It isn’t easy—just like a young child learning to walk, we will stumble and even fall—but we can get up and try again, keep moving in the direction of that light of love and healing.
And that is Jesus’ purpose—to show us the path, to tell us that there is another way to be. But it is not just about us—helping us to live a more fulfilled and fruitful life—it is also about others. Being available as a channel of grace and acceptance and hope is part of this journey, this path with Jesus. It is not about just us ourselves and our own relationship with Jesus, although that can also be rich and rewarding and a source of healing. But Jesus was about reaching out to others—healing, teaching, comforting. We may not be able to raise the dead, but we can offer a hand to people who are lost, people who need comfort or a glass of water, or a loaf of bread or a place to stay or a listening ear. Jesus always reached out to others—he never stayed safe in the cocoon of his relationship with God, and neither should we. This is why we worship in a group—to come together in love and worship for God, to care for each other and the world. It is why we share the passing of the peace each Sunday—to remind ourselves of our deep bond with each other as Christians who come together to worship God and do our best to be the people we are meant to be. If we cannot get along in grace and love in a church, my friends, how can we expect the rest of the world to get along, when they may or may not have any bond at all with each other—except for that bond we all share, of being children of God.
So, my friends, being born again is possible—and it does happen. We all know people—or maybe we are people—who have been born again, have been given another chance to live life as we are meant to live it. Take that chance, that opportunity, to be born again into a life of grace, forgiveness and possibility.
In all God’s names, amen.