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New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
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 unless God is with that person.” 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 the 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.
Wendell Berry - Sabbath Poem XII, 2007, p.312
Learn by little the desire for all things
which perhaps is not desire at all
but undying love which perhaps
is not love at all but gratitude
for the being of all things which
perhaps is not gratitude at all
but the maker’s joy in what is made,
the joy in which we come to rest.
Today is the Second Sunday of Lent. In our Sunday services and in our Wednesday night study group we are moving intentionally through this time, opening ourselves to the mystery of faith. Are we aware of our wilderness surroundings? Are we aware of moving toward pain, and sorrow, and fear before breaking through into the promise of Easter?
I encourage each of you to engage in some activity each day that causes you to ponder your social and financial status, your physical and mental health, your mortality. Ponder who or what you rely on for strength and courage to face each day. Ponder the last time you had a close encounter with God.
In May of 2010, when Pat was laid off from her job at Down East Books and I found myself commuting to work alone, I was more than a little surprised to find that I was not alone in my car, that for a period of about three weeks, each morning as I turned onto Route 52 from our driveway on Rocky Point Road, I was enveloped by a presence so strong, I could only believe that it was God.
Reading of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus in John’s Gospel this week I could not help but connect the two occurrences. I, like Nicodemus, was slow to understand. I, like Nicodemus, preferred to keep my belief, my faith, my growing awareness of God’s presence in my life a secret so as not to open myself up to ridicule. And equally importantly, so I wouldn’t be required to act on that newly discovered, or re-discovered connection to the Holy.
I, like Nicodemus, was respectful of religion but hesitant to challenge long-held beliefs; hesitant to learn something new yet eager to have “conversations” with God or Jesus or Spirit.
I, like Nicodemus, was inquisitive about God and sought God out, not in the darkness of night, but in the solitude of my commute. I, like Nicodemus, was reluctant to share my experiences with others preferring to remain, “in secret.”
The Divine Presence of Jesus that welcomed Nicodemus’ religious and spiritual explorations and held him in love was the same Divine Presence that sat with me on my drive to work all those mornings in 2010. The same Divine Presence that pushed me to move out of my comfort zone pushed Nicodemus to leave his as well. God is at the same time patient and impatient with our fear and unbelief, offering encouragement and support through strength of presence.
I want to narrow our focus of this passage to what initially made me most uncomfortable. The exchange that the Gospel writer of John sets up between Nicodemus and Jesus regarding being “born again.” The gospel writer likely chooses the word “anothen” because it can be interpreted as “again,” “anew,” or “from above.” In this conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus hears only “again” which sets up the circular word play that allows for Jesus’ discourse on being born of water and spirit.
Being “born again” can be a loaded statement. It has been claimed by evangelical Christians and is in some ways used as a litmus test to find out if others are Christian-enough to suit them.
Why the divide? Maybe because we have been taught to think in binary terms. Either / or.
Most of my life I was leery of “born again” Christians, categorizing them in my own mind as holier than thou types, as too-Christian. There was “us” and there was “them.” Nothing I am proud of, by the way, just the truth. Studying this passage gave me cause to rethink my beliefs. And what I have determined is that for me, it is best to consider all three interpretations, “again,” “anew,” and “from above,” as opposed to only one.
Is this a command to be reborn or an invitation? Some of our evangelical siblings do interpret it as a command; thus anyone not following it is doomed. I prefer to think of this as an invitation. An invitation to reconsider our relationship with God. An invitation to put God first and foremost – a re-borning of our intentions. When taken seriously, this desire to be born “again, anew, from above,” may prove as difficult as coming out of our mother’s wombs a second time.
Nicodemus recognized the Holy in Jesus, recognized Jesus’ relationship with God that made possible the signs and wonders that Jesus did. Yet there is a chasm between recognizing the truth that another speaks and taking that truth and applying it to one’s own life.
The tension in this passage is between worldly desires and other-worldly desires. A tension between trusting in oneself and trusting in God. The tension between what we were taught in Sunday School and what we were taught in Grammar School, High School, and College. It is difficult to discern the difference between what we want and want God wants for us. It is extremely difficult to let ourselves be moved in the direction that the Spirit wind is blowing.
Our gospels frequently use humor to move their point. Nicodemus interprets Jesus’ words literally, and gets stuck on “again.” Nicodemus is made to look like a fool for our sake. If we can laugh at Nicodemus maybe we can laugh at ourselves too. We are not so different than our biblical ancestors. Can we laugh at our foolishness in thinking that at a certain age we should know all that we are to know? We are never too old to learn, never to old to embrace new ideas, never too old to change our minds, change our hearts, and move in a new direction.
Nicodemus must have wondered, how could he have come to be his age and not known this before? Was he not a learned scholar that others came to for answers? Are not we, each respected in our own fields, embarrassed to admit when there is something we do not know or understand, not wanting to feel foolish or vulnerable?
Nicodemus understood Jesus’ presence of healing and teaching on the level of heart and Spirit, but could not let his mind grasp the truth that he was seeing, and hearing, and feeling.
As Nicodemus did, it is easier for us to make a mockery out of how one must change, to illustrate a ridiculous extreme, than to actually surrender to a new way that God places before us. Being re-born is to let go of old ways and embrace a new relationship with God. To make oneself new. To shed the old self. To die to the old self, thus being re-born to the hope and promise that God offers.
Think of the little ones you know. The very little ones, the newborns. They are born in perfect unity with their Creator. They are one with God. They are one with their birth mother for nine months. They are born of water, and blood. Then the cord is cut. Each day there is an infinitesimal shift away from spirit world and more fully into this world of physicality.
We’ve all heard the stories, seen the cartoons, about the older sibling leaning over the younger newborn sibling earnestly, expectantly, saying, “Tell me again about God… I am starting to forget.”
We start to forget by the time we are toddling around on unsteady legs, learning to form sounds and words. It has caused me to wonder, this week, if we had words as infants what would we describe? How might our memories be refreshed each time a child was born into our midst? The great mystery would be less mysterious because those with the freshest experience and memory might tell us. Or maybe not. Maybe the mystery simply does not lend itself to words.
By the time Nicodemus is making his pilgrimage through the dark of night to be in the presence of the one who is surely of God because of the signs that he does, Nicodemus has long since forgotten the womb from which he came, long since forgotten that invisible umbilical-like thread that connected him to the one great Spirit. Or has he? It would be much easier to climb back into that womb than to change his ways of thinking of God and his understanding of how God is present in the world. It would be much easier to climb back into that womb than to reconsider the sacred scriptures in a new light, from a new viewpoint, questioning all that he knew, all that he believed.
I could relate to Nicodemus in 2010 and I can relate to Nicodemus today. It is much easier to exaggerate the ridiculousness of literally being born again than to admit that after straying from God we must be, or are invited to, be metaphorically born “again, anew, from above.”
God wants us all to remain close, to remain at one with God. We are born that way, at one with God. We slip away as we grow into this world.
We unconsciously separate ourselves from God, then need to consciously choose God again, being reborn into the relationship that we knew from the start.
We would much rather trust ourselves than the Holy Spirit; put faith in ourselves rather than faith in God. The challenge for us all is to bring our hidden struggles and questions into the light of our daytime realities. That was my struggle in 2010. That is my struggle in 2023. I suspect it could be your struggle also.
We do not know when or why God speaks to us. It seems as if God is always speaking to us and that only when we make the space and the quiet to listen do we hear what God is saying. And when we finally hear God’s voice it is so compelling that we turn toward God with all our heart and mind and soul – casting aside our old ways and beginning anew. May it be so for you.
Rev. TJ Mack – March 5, 2023