March 16, 2014, Lent 2 – Being Born
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Three of our children have had birthdays in the last week, so Carroll and I have been doing a lot of remembering about those days all those years ago when our sons Gabe and Isaac and Colin came into the world. You know we have had ten children, and every single one of our children’s births was completely different. Some of my labors were very, very long and one was so sudden that he was coming into the world in our bedroom just as our doctor came running up our staircase. Some births were harder or easier, some were more or less risky than others, but every birth is a process: it’s a journey, messy, painful, hard work, but in the end there is the incredible joy of a brand new life.
We read from John’s gospel this morning about a man named Nicodemus, who came to visit Jesus secretly. He came under cover of night, because he was a Pharisee and visiting Jesus wouldn’t have been a popular or even safe thing to do. Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus because he recognized the hand of God in what Jesus was doing – and we know from John’s gospel that Nicodemus truly believed, and continued to believe in Jesus because later he spoke up for Jesus when the Jewish leaders were trying to have him arrested, and at the very last, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus himself brought a great quantity of spices and oils and helped Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’s body for burial.
But that first night, Jesus startled Nicodemus by telling him that the only way he was ever going to reach God was to start all over again, from the very beginning, be born again just like a newborn baby. And Nicodemus was dumbfounded; he was too old to start all over again. “What do you mean, born again? You think an old man can go back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” And he made it sound as ridiculous as possible, because to him the whole idea did sound ridiculous.
To be told you have to start all over again, when you are already old and feel you are already “there”, wherever “there” is, is terrifying. Nicodemus was an old man, a successful man, and in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees he had “arrived”. He was a teacher and follower of the law of Moses, which had taken him years and years of study and hard work. But Jesus was telling him he had to start over, let go of the law and get ready to follow God’s Spirit, which wasn’t something you could pin down and study and memorize and become an expert in, but which blew around at will, and you never knew where it was coming from or where it was going.
For Nicodemus, that must have felt like being standing on a cliff with everything he ever knew solid and safe and sure behind him, and being told that following God means taking one big step forward – into thin air. It’s like a man feels when he retires from a job he’s been working at for 40 or 50 years, and he tries to imagine what he is going to do in the days stretching ahead of him, and who he is going to be when he is no longer the electrician or teacher or bricklayer he has been for as long as he can remember. It’s what a woman feels like when her last child goes off to college and she stands looking around her at an empty house, empty beds, and silent, empty hours stretching ahead of her. Entering into an entirely new life is one of the scariest things we can be asked to do, especially when we feel old and tired, but Jesus told Nicodemus that was exactly what he was going to have to do.
I think when we hear the term “born again” many of us have it associated with a certain kind of fundamentalist Christianity: “born again” seems to be mostly identified with people who obey the Ten Commandments and take the Bible at face value and go to church several times a week and sing worship choruses – they are “born again” because of the things they do and believe, and the way they choose to live. But actually the term “born again” doesn’t belong to a certain branch of Christianity, it belongs to Jesus. He used that term because birth is a perfect symbol of what it means to follow him. And to begin with, birth is not something we do – it is something that happens to us. Think: is there any time you were less in control of your life than when you were on your way through the birth canal and into this world you knew nothing about.
But that’s exactly what it’s like to follow God; because faith means relinquishing control, and handing the reins of our life over to God. That’s what Jesus is calling us to do when he asks us to deny ourselves, and take up our cross daily. He asks us to let go of our selfishness and anger and jealousy and fear and even sometimes our big plans and hopes and certainties – which is a very hard, sometimes a very painful thing to do. But when we trust Jesus enough to let those things go, we are born once again through the process of rebirth and renewal that is our life of faith in Christ. Then we are delivered from the bondage of human expectations and rules and traditions, and led by the entirely unpredictable breath of the Spirit, who fills our lungs each time we emerge, gasping and wide-eyed, into the fresh mercies of God’s new day.
The process of being reborn by faith is never as neat and tidy and controllable as just getting baptized, and following the Ten Commandments and having a daily quiet time and spreading the gospel, as good as those things might be. If birth is a good symbol of the life of faith – and Jesus seemed to think so – it is at least in part a good symbol because living by faith is messy, sometimes scary, sometimes exhausting, and often painful. Control or no, birth is not an easy journey for a baby to make, either. But it is the only journey that leads into life.
So here’s the thing: when Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again if he wanted to enter the kingdom of God, he was not telling him that he had to do and believe the right things so that he could go to heaven when he died. And I think that is very often the way people understand what Jesus is saying here. The kingdom of God that Jesus is speaking of is not life-after-death; it’s abundant life now, living and being reborn day by day, being transformed from glory to glory, like Paul wrote: “Now the Lordis the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And beholding the glory of the Lord, we are all being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Day by day we are being reborn. And yes, we do look forward to the time when the birth pangs are finally at an end and the whole Creation is brought forth at last in wholeness and perfect deathless health.
We look forward to the time when all that has been lost through the brokenness of the world, all the things that have been destroyed, all the beloved people we have lost, will be restored to us. But even now, as we make the journey of death and re-birth with Christ day after day, we already see the kingdom of God which has broken through the darkness, and we already hear the voice of the Spirit whose breath fills our lungs. It is a journey, a hard journey and a long and tiring one. But it is the only journey that leads to life, and we are never too old, and it is never too late, and God’s mercies never fail to strengthen and refresh us. And we do not travel alone, because Jesus, the God who is with us, has chosen to go through the whole process with us, purely and simply because he loves us so very much that he wanted to share his own abundant life with all of us.
When my little brother was born I was 7 years old, just old enough to be aware, by eavesdropping on conversations and generally being nosy, of the messier aspects of childbirth. Having just begun to form a rudimentary knowledge of the whole where-babies-come-from issue, I drilled my mother with urgent questions about things like pain and blood and stitches. And I have always remembered what she told me, after she had carefully answered all my anxious questions. She told me that after her babies were born, she never remembered the pain because she was so full of joy to hold the new little life that had come into the world. And after bringing ten children into the world, I know that she was right. What stays in my mind as I remember the details of the births of my little guys is the astounding joy of seeing and feeling and hearing that brand-new little person who has entered into my world.
Every Friday during Lent we hold a simple service here called the Stations of the Cross. I think most, or maybe all, of you have participated at one time or another. We follow the icons that are hung around the walls of the nave, and those bring us from one step of our Lord’s Passion to the next, his arrest and beating, his falling down under the heavy burden of the cross, his meeting with the weeping women, the pain of his grieving mother, and the unthinkable sorrow of his death. In that short but enormous journey that we take each Friday we are following the Son of God through the dark birth passage of suffering and death. It is not an easy journey to take, even in remembrance, and I think many people choose not to participate because it is just so painful.
But when we remember that the pain of Christ’s Passion was the birth pangs into eternal life, for all of us, and for the whole of Creation, then that terrible pain is transformed into hope and joy. We know that the Incarnation and Passion and death of Jesus Christ didn’t end up in the tomb like a still-born child who will never see the light of day. We know the truth of Easter morning. The glorious joy of the Resurrection eclipses every memory of pain and suffering and loss, so that we can follow our Lord even through his Passion, in the assurance that out of all pain and all weariness and even death God is giving birth to new and abundant life.