March 12, 2017
The Second Sunday in Lent
Rev. Ryan Slifka
In our scripture passage for this morning, a man named Nicodemus comes looking for Jesus under the cover of darkness. This guy’s a teacher, a religious leader. He might even be one of the higher ups. But he’s heard that Jesus has been performing signs and wonders—last chapter Jesus turned water in to wine. Him and his fellow officials are impressed. “Rabbi,” he says, “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.” Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus by the rumor of a miracle. We don’t know exactly what interests Nicodemus about Jesus’ miracles, what kind of miracle he’s looking for. But Nicodemus is drawn to them for the reason we all are. Because they point to some kind of immediate change, an instant transformation. He’s looking for something that has the potential to alter everything for him. Just like that.
But Jesus can be a real pain sometimes. Nicodemus comes looking for his miracle, but Jesus seems to be talking right past him. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “very truly, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” We’ve talked about this a lot. When the Bible talks about the kingdom of God it’s talking about heaven. Heaven, not just a place where we go when we die, but God’s rule on earth. Everything set right. Human life and creation the way God intends it to be. One that can be experienced here and now. You can’t see this kingdom, Jesus says, you can’t see God’s work in the world unless you’re born from above. Or born again—the Greek can mean either, and it’s intentional. The great New Testament scholar Raymond Brown brings the two together—born again from above.[i] This leaves Nicodemus confused. “Uh… not possible for a full grown man like me to go to go through the birth canal again…” He thinks Jesus is speaking nonsense. He thinks it means literally becoming a baby in the womb again—you know, scrunching back up into a fetus and making the birthday journey all over again. But him and Jesus are talking past each other. “Very truly, I tell you” Jesus says, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” So not only can you not see this kingdom without being born again from above, you can’t enter in to it. You can’t walk right in. You can’t be a part of it. You can’t see the world the way God wants it to be, and you can’t live in the world the way God wants you to. Unless you are born by water—born the first time—and reborn a second time, by God’s very own Spirit. Unless you are born again from above.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus drawn by the prospect of a miracle. Something quick. Something easy. An instant change. But Jesus goes in a different direction. It’s just not that easy, Jesus says. For real change to happen, you have to start from scratch. To enter see the kingdom of God, to experience it, live in it. To see the world the way it’s meant to be, and to experience life as it was meant to be, Jesus says. You have to be born from above. You have to be born again. Jesus says that real change doesn’t come about by miracles (he says this as someone who performs them!). But Jesus’ miracles themselves point to this new life.
And that’s the hard truth for us, isn’t it? There is no easy way to the life we want. Can I confess something to you? I want to win the lottery. Like, really want to win the lottery. I don’t buy tickets, so that probably makes things kind of hard. But I want to win. But I’ve come to realize that it wouldn’t be the money, which would be nice. Wouldn’t be the stuff I could buy—that would be nice, too. But I’ve realized that I want to win the lottery mostly because of the effect I’d expect it to have on my life. It’d change everything. Bills paid, house paid off. All those house maintenance things I keep putting off. It could even have a positive effect on relationships. I could afford to fly and visit my parents and grandparents on a whim. We could go somewhere amazing and interesting on vacation. I want to win the lottery because it could fix my life overnight. It would change everything. Just like that.
And I think it’s safe to assume that I’m not alone in this hope. I think many, if not all of us, have this desire for something that could change our lives in an instant. If it’s not the lottery, maybe it’s a new diet or cleanse. Maybe it’s a new routine, maybe it’s a new piece of equipment. Or maybe even the right pills. Something that will help us give up our vices or addictions, or be better people for our friends and spouses. Or something to overcome our pain and struggles. But we all desire something that can hit our lives like a lightning bolt, one that sets fire to all the junk in our lives. Leaving something new and good… someone new and good. A miracle, a quick fix. This is what Nicodemus comes to Jesus after, really. He’s hoping to get in on what he sees as an instant fix. Something that instantly changes everything. Like a winning lotto ticket. But Jesus says it just ain’t the way it works. Change doesn’t happen that way.
That’s not to say miracles—unexpected, against the odds, turnaround moments--aren’t necessarily possible. But it means that change—real change in our lives, real change in the world—isn’t so simple. It isn’t so easy. There’s no easy way to the life we hunger for. To the world we deeply long and hope for. No quick fix. Real change has to start from the ground up. From the main floor. Gotta be born again. Gotta be born from above. Whole new life. Whole new person. That’s the hard truth.
That’s the hard truth. Maybe the hardest one. The change we need is at the fundamental level. It needs to begin from the ground up. But no matter how hard we try, we can’t generate the depth of change we need. Nicodemus is kind of dense. He doesn’t really get what Jesus is saying. “How’s that possible?” he asks, still thinking Jesus is speaking at the literal level. But with this question he unintentionally tells the truth. He knows it’s not possible. Just like how we all know this kind of change, this kind of newness really isn’t possible. At least not on our own. No matter what we do. No matter how hard we try.
Like us, Nicodemus knows what he needs, comes searching for it, but doesn’t know how to get it. Doesn’t know how to find it. And when Jesus points out that he needs to start right over again, he doesn’t think it’s possible for him to do. 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 thought he could find the right answer, the quick fix. But Jesus talks about the Spirit that brings new life as something we can’t control. We can’t force. It blows where it likes. Like the wind, it blows into our lives unannounced. It’s an intrusion. Change, new life, being born again from above isn’t something we do. It’s something God does. It’s the work of God’s Spirit. And when it touches down, it changes everything—the way we see the world and the way we understand it.
Now, if you know me, you’ll know that I can be skeptical about these things. And, to be honest, I am reluctant to refer to myself as someone who’s been born again—from above or otherwise. I’ve never had that explosive life-changing experience that so many others mean when they talk about being born again. But there is one moment in my life that I’ve come to understand as the Spirit. Three and a half years ago, Cheyenne and I were right in the middle of the birth of our second son, Abraham. It was a home birth, in our bedroom, in our small apartment on the campus of the University of British Columbia. A couple midwives were there for support. It came down to the final few pushes. And all I remember is the midwife handing Cheyenne this naked newborn baby. And I can’t really describe the feeling I had at that moment. There was the joy of parenthood, for sure. But there was also something more. Cheyenne looked at me, with tears in her eyes and said “God is good.”
At that moment I felt like I finally understood something. Like the wind, setting the hair on the back of my neck on end. I felt like I could see the kingdom of heaven. I felt like in that moment all three of us were standing right in the middle of it. This beauty, this grace. No offense to our first son, Walter, but I didn’t feel that way when he was born. The Spirit blows where it will. Though now, I’m actually able to look back on Walter’s birth, too, and understand it the same way. Because now I see my life completely differently. I no longer see it as the sum of my achievements. I no longer see my life as something to be grasped at and fixed. I no longer see my life as my own. And now I look at my life and hear Cheyenne’s words “God is good.” I look at my life and understand it as nothing less than a gift. I am certainly not perfect, I am not there yet. But I can honestly say that this understanding has made me in to a better father. It has made me a better husband. It has made me less fearful, more open to the pain and suffering of others in ways I never thought possible. This experience of beginning anew, beginning afresh isn’t something I did on my own. But in that moment, I experienced God’s Spirit creating a new person in my deepest self. And the only I can really explain it now was that I was being born again. From above or otherwise.
Friends, we all want to start again. We all want new life, a new start. And we’ll try just about anything to get it. But it isn’t that easy. It requires a restart. Becoming a whole new person, being born again from above. It’s not something we can create, not something we can strive for or accomplish. No, it’s God’s doing from beginning to end, the work of the Holy Spirit that blows where it will. And the good news for us is that starting over, new life is indeed possible because the wind is already blowing. The Holy Spirit is already at work moving in and among us, giving birth to new life in each of us. Even as we speak here and now.
For God gave Christ to the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him, that those who put their trust in him may have eternal life, life at it’s fullest, life that lasts. Change, new life is indeed possible. The Spirit blows where it will. May you raise the sails of faith to be caught up in the wind.
[i] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John: Anchor Bible Commentary.