Picture the end zone of a football game. It doesn’t much matter which one. For me it will be one of the 49’er games of greatness against the Cowboys. For you it is likely the Tigers or the Crimson Tide. Like I said it doesn’t matter which one, well perhaps to you it does. What is the one thing they have in common besides the obvious things of the game of football?
In every game I have ever seen either live or on television, there is always that one sign, isn’t there? You know the one. It is usually held by a guy dressed as a clown. And what does that sign say?
One word and three numbers. You with me yet?
That’s right, John 3:16. This is the most recognized piece of scripture in America and we find it in today’s Gospel.
John 3.16. “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.”
I have to admit that I am not good with scripture memorization. I can tell you where something is within a few chapters or maybe that it was written by Paul or John. But to quote scripture chapter and verse from memory is not one of my gifts. In seminary my New Testament professor, Christopher Bryan (some of you may remember him), had us take a “Gobbets” test. Gobbets are bits of scripture. Now while I didn’t fail, I didn’t do as well as perhaps I should have.
But John 3.16, I know that. I bet you know it too. It is a piece of Scripture we see constantly in American Christianity. Sadly it has been lifted out of a portion of scripture that is full and rich. Many of us know John 3.16 and often don’t remember Nicodemus.
In today’s gospel Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a Jewish leader. He comes to Jesus at night to ask questions. It is likely Nicodemus knew of Jesus. Perhaps Nicodemus had heard Jesus speak. Some scholars even believe he may have been part of a group of Pharisees who confessed faith in Jesus.
We don’t really know why it was at night Nicodemus came. It may be that it was the only time he could come to Jesus. Perhaps it was for other reasons. Did he come at night for the secrecy the darkness provided? Or is John using night as a metaphor?
Nicodemus comes and acknowledges Jesus as a rabbi who has performed great signs. Signs that cannot be done apart from the presence of God. And what does Jesus say in response to this affirmation of his divinity? Does Jesus pat himself on the back and acknowledge Nicodemus’ words. No.
Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Not thank you for recognizing my greatness.
You must be born from above.
We all know what being born looks like. In America most of us can even say what being born again is. But to be born from above.
That is a little murkier.
Nicodemus is confused by this. He wants to know how one can be born again after growing old. And I am right there with him. The words of Jesus make no sense. Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?
Then Jesus says, "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 says to him, "How can these things be?" These words do not make sense. You must be born from above. What is born of the flesh is flesh. What is born of the spirit is spirit. And then Jesus talks about the wind.
The wind blows where it chooses. We hear the sound of it. But we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. We can look back to the recent tornadoes to see the power of wind. The devastation it can cause. We can look to windmills that provide electricity and see the goodness it can provide. Both show us its power. And Jesus says after speaking of the wind, “so it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.”
Does this mean we have the power of wind? Power that can devastate? Power that can be used for good? We who are so not like Jesus even on a really good day. We have that kind of power?And that is where that often seen scripture becomes important. That scripture that has been over used and made fun of. Perhaps the man in clown make up really gets it.
"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."
That is how we are born from above. We are born from above through Jesus, who walked the earth as we do, and was lifted up on the cross for us.
We must respond to Jesus and be changed, be born again. We cannot do this on our own. This being born again involves the actions of Jesus as well. We must look to Jesus and the cross. Nor are we changed when we live in a solitary fashion. We need the community of faith. To be born from above we look to the actions of Jesus on the cross and the community of faith that surrounds us.
To be born again is not a solitary or personal thing. It occurs on many levels and requires the actions of Jesus and the support of a faith community.
To be born again is not an event. It is a new way of living. A life born of water and of spirit.
Much like those signs at the football game we cannot make being born again a slogan. This domesticates the radical words on Jesus and hides their good news.
Being born again is about change. Life altering change. Change that allows Jesus to enter into our lives and our hearts and shake things up.
Lent is a time to deepen and redirect our response to Christ. To listen again to him, to study his work, pray for his spirit and be ready for new faith. We are being called into change, new beginnings during this time.
May we open our hearts and our eyes to that call. Let us pray:
God of new beginnings, each morning you offer to us new moments, and new opportunities to experience your grace and love in our lives.
Forgive us from all that we do that keeps us from living into this new life.
For all the ways in which we neglect the needs of those around us, or bring harm knowingly and unknowingly to others, have mercy on us. Fashion in us a new heart that receives and offers love freely.
Amen. (Chris Heckert)