I would like to begin my sermon with a disclaimer. I am not, nor have I ever been a parent. Nor have I ever been present for the birth of a child. My knowledge about childbirth is limited to the stories I have heard from friends and family about their labor, and the video that I can’t seem to forget (try as I might) that we were forced to watch in 11th grade AP Biology.
That being said I would like to paint a picture for you. This image is inspired and partially quoted from Gordon Mackenzie. Imagine if you will, you are a child that has not been introduced into the world yet. It all started 9 months ago where you (over time) began forming fingers and toes. You became aware and comfortable in your dark, warm, oceanic environment. At first, you were tiny, but as you became bigger, your nice warm womb began to become small and cramped. You are now stifled by this confined place, and you realize that you aren’t getting any smaller, and thus you conclude that you will have to move to a bigger place in order to continue to grow.
“After much groping about in the dark you will find an exit; the mouth of a tunnel. “too small”, you’ll decide, “Couldn’t possibly squeeze through there.” But there will be no other apparent way out. So with primal spunk, you will take on your first of many “impossible challenges”, and enter into the tunnel. In doing so, you will be embarking on a brutal, no turning back, physically exhausting, claustrophobic passage that will introduce you to pain and fear and hard physical labor. It will seem to take forever, but mysterious undulations of the tunnel itself will help squirm you through. And finally, after what will seem like endless striving, you will break through into a blinding light!
Giant hands will pull you gently, but firmly into an enormous room. There will be several huge people, called adults, huddling around you, as if to greet you. If it is an old fashioned place, one of these humongous people may hold you upside down by the legs and give you a swat on the backside to get you going.”
You now have officially been born!!
Labor and birth is tough! It is a painful and messy process that one must endure in order to be a part of this world. I am sure that it could be considered a traumatic event for the child; to be taken almost violently from the only home he or she has ever known and force them into a bigger and more uncertain world.
The English poet Thom Gunn puts it this way.
From the private ease of Mother’s womb
I fall into a lighted room
Why don’t they simply put me back
Where it is warm, wet, and black?
But one thing follows on another
Things were different inside my mother
Padded and jolly I would ride
The perfect comfort of her inside
They tuck me in a rustling bed
--I lie there, raging small and red!
Birth is hard! We know this, and Jesus knew this. Maybe that is part of the point he had in his encounter with Nicodemus in John 3.
In this passage, Nicodemus has confronted Jesus in the dark of night. Nicodemus comes as a teacher about God, to confess that Jesus is a teacher sent from God. Jesus’ reply is unexpected and seemingly unrelated to what Nicodemus has just said. “Truly, Truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Christ is telling Nicodemus, that if one is to truly be a part of the Kingdom that Christ was building, then he has to be completely reinvented, and in his terms, “reborn”.
So too, for us, if we are truly to be a part of Christ in this world, we must completely and utterly be changed…we must be “born again”.
I must say that I shy away form this phrase: ‘born again’. To non-Christians, this phrase immediately turns them off to any talk of God or Christ that may follow. Allow me an example out of Brian McLauren’s book A New Kind Of Christian. Neo is a Christian who is a high school science teacher. He has been helping Dan, a local church pastor, through some of his theological frustrations. Neo is telling Dan about an encounter that he had just had with a parent of one of his students at that student’s soccer game.
Dan- “Neo what were you just talking to that lady about over there by the concession stand?
Neo- “well Dan it was the strangest, most remarkable thing. We were engaging in idle chitchat: her child, my class, the soccer team, you know! She said that she missed the Science fair finals last spring, and that it was her daughter’s ”big day” because Melissa won 2nd place for a great project on astronomy. Then we started talking about astronomy, and I said that nothing makes me feel the presence of God more than a star-studded night sky. Then she asked me if I was a ‘born-again’. Then she said—
“What DID you say?” [Dan interrupted] you told her yes of course! You shared the Gospel with her didn’t you!
Neo—Hold on Dan! I never know how exactly to answer that born-again question. Obviously, in the way Jesus used the term, I would want to say yes. But to some people, the question means, ‘are you a judgmental, arrogant, narrow-minded, bigoted religious fanatic?’ I remember one of my students telling me once that he wanted to be a true follower of Christ, but hoped never to be ‘born-again.’ I asked him why, and told me of another student who used to be a really nice person, but then she became a born-again, and now she is always criticizing everyone and has become so negative and stuck up, and narrow-minded, that nobody can stand her. So the term has been pretty much ruined by modern Christianity.
Unfortunately, I think that Neo is on to something here, the term “born again” has, to many, become a dirty phrase in our society. But, we can’t just throw the term away, because Christ was trying to teach something important when he talked about being “born again”.
So what DID Christ mean when he told Nicodemus that to be a part of the Kingdom of heaven one must be born-again? Well, the story begins with Nicodemus coming to Christ under the cover of darkness. This has traditionally been interpreted that Nicodemus was a secret follower of Christ and that as a Pharisee; he had to meet with Jesus incognito.
We also know that the Gospel of St. John, is different from the other gospels. Although it is placed among the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, almost everything about it is different from the others. Not only does John have stories (like this encounter between Nicodemus and Christ) that do not appear in the other gospels, but the stories the books do share are different; not only in content but also in chronology. Take for example Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. In the synoptic gospels, this occurs during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. In John, Jesus overturns the tables early in chapter 2, long before the Passion Week.
What does this tell us about the book of John? It tells us that John is not concerned with chronology and details as much as he is getting the message and meaning of Christ across to his readers. Yes, John stats that Nicodemus came to Christ under the cover of dark, and, although the reason isn’t stated, assuming he was doing so in order that his true loyalties would not be discovered, is a valid interpretation. However, from the very first verse of the book, John shows a theme that will run its course in his telling of Jesus’ life.
John 1:1-5 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”
Throughout the Gospel of John, he plays with the theme of Light and Darkness, where Christ is always the light striving to break through the darkness. It could also be interpreted that the cover of dark that surrounded Nicodemus could represent his mindset in relation to Christ. This is reinforced by Nicodemus’ response to Christ’s enlightening statement: “how can one so old crawl back into his mother’s womb?” The darkness here is the ignorance shown by Nicodemus to Jesus statement: “Truly, Truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Two things should be pointed out about Christ’s statement. First, the words ‘born again’, can also be translated “born from above”. There is a play on words here, and Nicodemus takes the ‘born again’ translation literally. Secondly, it must be pointed out that Jesus uses the term Kingdom of God. This is a common phrase used in other gospels, but is only used twice in John’s gospel. Instead of the phrase “Kingdom of God”, He uses the phrase “eternal life”! Many interpret John’s choice of phrasing as him differentiating between a kingdom of God that we are supposed to be creating on earth, and an eternal life that happens after our death. Knowing this, we can rule out that Christ’s comment about being reborn is not a birth into an afterlife. Instead, it is telling the Pharisee what it will take to bring about God’s kingdom on this earth.
Jesus is making a radical statement here. One that we modern Christians take too lightly. As I mentioned earlier, birth is a painful, traumatic, and messy process. It is a process that produces a complete change in the person being born, and in the lives of all those around him or her. If birth is like that, how much harder should our rebirth be?
Modern Christianity has reduced this deep principle and marketed it as a catchy phrase to be put on bumper stickers and t-shirts, and has reduced it to a simple sales pitch that we call evangelism. Being ‘born again’ has become more about crossing a line; going from one side to the other than it is about a deep devotion. We say that a person is ‘born again’ once they walk the aisle, say a prayer, and then get dipped, dunked, sprinkled or splattered. However, is this what Jesus meant? Didn’t Jesus mean something more when he had this conversation with Nicodemus? Didn’t he tell his disciples that “if any is to come after me, they must first take up their cross and follow me?” I don’t seem to recall anywhere that Jesus said that becoming a part of the kingdom of God was as simple as shaking the pastor’s hand during the last verse of a slow hymn.
Christ is saying to one who has devoted his life to knowing God, that in order to build the Kingdom of God, you have to unlearn everything about God that you think you knew and begin again as a child, with a childlike faith. No, it won’t be easy, in fact, it should be the hardest thing that you ever have to do. However, to try and build the Kingdom without a radical rebirth is like a contractor building a sky-rise without the blueprints, or like a musician trying to play a masterpiece without ever seeing the music.
I think that this message is just as relevant to us today as it was to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee; and remind me at whom it was that Jesus was always getting frustrated? He was constantly trying to reform and revolutionize the way that the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Jews viewed God. Who was it that Jesus actually praised for their faith? A pagan centurion who spoke words of faith and respect to Jesus? A person that stretched their arm as far out of the crowd as she could simply to brush Christ’s garment? A Syro-Phoenician woman that dared to challenge Christ by stating that even the dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s tables? These were the people that Christ praised, those that were willing to unlearn everything they had ever known and see what Christ was really trying to show the world.
I think that the Challenge to be reborn is even harder for us who have grown up in church, or have been a Christian many years. We have become the Pharisees of our time! I think that we are the ones that, like the Pharisees, Christ would be getting frustrated with. We would be the ones that he would be saying would need to be reborn. Why?
Because we are stuck in our ways! We are arrogant in our beliefs, and we are close-minded to new ideas about who God is and the vision his son had. For us whom I am referring to, to be reborn, would mean that we would have to unlearn everything that our Sunday-school teachers, pastors, and parents have taught us throughout the years, and try to see Jesus for ourselves; to try to see Christ in new and different ways. It means that we would have to humble ourselves to who Christ truly was, and what it was that he was truly teaching.
Unfortunately, like the Pharisees, I am afraid that the message of Radical Rebirth will continue to fall onto deaf ears. Just like many of the teachings of Jesus, we will get out of this what we WANT to get out of it, and leave behind what Christ is really saying. I think of the man that said that he had kept all of the laws and asked Christ what he must do to enter heaven. When Jesus told him what his life was lacking, the man decided that it was too hard, that it was too high of a price to pay, and so he turned and went away. How sad Christ must have been when the man refused to be radically changed by Christ because of his desire to cling to his precious state of being. How sad Christ must be when we Christians refuse to allow him to produce a radical rebirth in us, because we cling with white-knuckled grips to what we are comfortable with, because we are scared of how hard the process of spiritual rebirth would truly be.
Change is hard. However, as George Bernard Shaw stated, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds, cannot change anything.” Christ, through his exchange with Nicodemus is asking us to change. Not just to rethink our position with God, but to allow God to radically reform us, to make us a new creation, and to help us to be reborn. It won’t be easy, in fact it will be the hardest thing you ever do, but understand you won’t and can’t do it alone. Only God can give us the gift of Radical rebirth. And it is only through this rebirth, that we will see the Kingdom of Heaven.
Yahweh, Yahweh/Always pain before a child is born -U2