Born from Above

John’s gospel is “Tell” and then “Show”.  In the Prologue, John tells the reader Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.  This sets us up to know some things the characters in the gospel don’t know.  After this initial “Tell,” the rest of the Gospel is “Show.”  It shows what happens when the Word of God Incarnate encounters persons at points common to all humanity.  These encounters include-a leader of the Jews, a woman at a well, a man born blind, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and the High Priest and Pilate.  All show it’s a risky thing to be engaged in conversation by Jesus.

We might decide to fast at Lent.  After a fast, we feel a little weak but we are fine.  Yet, when we deprive ourselves of sleep, our ability to function; dysfunctions after one night.  Why is sleep the first thing we’re willing to sacrifice when the demands rise?  We live by a remarkably durable myth: Sleeping an hour less will give us one more hour of productivity.  Research suggests even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity, and our productivity.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night unable to sleep with a fevered mind.  John uses night as a symbol as a cover for this religious person.  Reminds us even religious folk have spiritual longings not fulfilled.  Nicodemus can’t sleep; and Ambien was not invented.  Sometimes we go through times needing help with sleep.  Nicodemus suffered from insomnia because he couldn’t decide what to do with Jesus.  His thoughts were like fireworks going off in his brain: “He turned water into wine. They’re saying he is the Messiah, the Son sent from God.  I wonder if they’re right, because how can he make wine out of water if he is not sent from God?  If he is sent from God, why has he not studied with our rabbis? If he is sent from God, why is he critical of our practices?  What does that say about us?”

Jesus opens the door and is back lit by the lamps.  Nicodemus comes out of the darkness into the light, temporarily.  Nicodemus babbles, like we do in meeting someone famous.  He goes on how great Jesus is, Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher who comes from God.  He begins with group-think, “We know,” it’s safer!  As long as others think the way we do, we are OK.  The fact Nicodemus comes suggests although he says he knows; he knows there’s much he doesn’t yet know and hopes to know.  The door where meaningful conversation begins is when we realize we don’t know everything-we are ready to have a fresh experience with a life-giving Lord.

Jesus isn’t an easy mark for flattery.  “I know you want to enter the kingdom of God.  No one can participate in the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  ‘Anothen’ in the Greek can be rendered “born from above” or “born again.”  We are accustomed to “born again.”  This is what Nicodemus heard and he said, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

He’s not the only one who understands “born again” in a literal sense.  I was in Sundance Square and approached by a 30-something woman with a pamphlet; I can smell a tract a mile away.  I asked her if it had something to do with Jesus.  “Why, yes,” she said, with eagerness. She asked, “Have you been born again?’  I confess my arrogance and distaste for that kind of witnessing.  It feels like they have prejudged my faith before knowing me.  Of course, I had done the same.  Christ did not put himself in the place to judge.  The verse after John 3:16 says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, so that the world might be saved though him.”  Why is it when some tell the good news it sounds like bad news?

We expect Jesus to offer Nicodemus a clear presentation.  We’ve been told we must get our words right.  We shy away; fearing we’ll sound like a failed Toastmaster or a direct-marketing pitch.  We think the transmission of the good news depends on how we pass on the data.  Jesus’ approach to witnessing is-Nicodemus comes to Jesus.  That is not to say we should never open a conversation about matters as important as eternity.  It does suggest Jesus didn’t have the same urgency as a street preacher.  We look for times when people are open, probe, but respectfully and humbly.

Danish pastor, Soren Kierkegaard saw congregants going through motions of faith without awareness of the wonderland of grace they inhabited.  He said, “There is no lack of knowledge in a Christian land, what is missing, is a something no person can communicate to the other.”  The gospel flies under the radar of handle-able knowledge.  He became a great storyteller, conjuring images and tales that opened the mind by opening the heart.  Life in Christ isn’t about data to be collected and stored on a spiritual hard drive.  It is not about a prayer to be recited or a church to be joined.  It happens to us more than it is something we make happen.

Jesus uses doubletalk to get him past things he already knew.  He employs an image instead of an idea.  You must be born again, Jesus says.  This phrase is a cliché and a subset of Christianity.  ‘Born again’ is an emotional lightning strike that once done we can check it off our list.  It’s metaphor needing resurrection.  Jesus does so by making the distinction.

He says being born of flesh means the mother’s water breaks and out we come; or being born of Spirit-our spirit breaks and our heart is opened so God has room to give new life.  This happens at places not spotted on an MRI or plotted on an SAT.  It’s a trusting that is believing IN more than believing THAT.  This is participating in a lifelong process of losing control.  This is hard because we like knowing who is righteous and who is a sinner.  Jesus invites Nicodemus to let the Spirit of God move his spirit; to let go the control of “we know” this and “we know” that.

Jesus alludes to being lifted up on the cross.  He says, we must look up and see above him a power greater than death available to us.  At the cross we understand the one who gave his life is the one who can give life to those who look up to him.  What it means to be born from above is salvation moves from sideways knowing to upward knowing, from a human fashioned self to a divine fashioned self.  We are to keep our eyes looking up for the grace of God; revealed in ways beyond what we can know.  This is a grace that comes by God moving deeply in of our lives by the power of the Spirit.  That is flipping the card that says to God “Please don’t disturb” my life to “Enter and move do what only you can do.

This makes being born from above a frightening proposition; wind is unpredictable.  If we let the wind of the Spirit blow, who knows what, might be blown out and what might blow in?  Resentments and prejudices held might blow away.  Sorrows might waft away as a fragrant breeze bears hope.  We may feel our feet moving toward a person we don’t associate.  A fog can be lifted from persons that think their best days are behind.  A whole church could feel the energizing gust of purpose that is stronger than their pain.  This happens by saying yes to being born from above?

We don’t know if this late night encounter may have been the start of faith and devotion for Nicodemus.  I suspect he endured more sleepless nights.  Nicodemus does make two more appearances in John’s gospel.  In John 7 he makes a half-hearted defense of Jesus to other Pharisees.  In John 19 he brings 100 pounds of myrrh to help Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  As Nicodemus prepares Jesus’ body, I imagine the air thick with regret, “If only we had more time with Jesus.  Nicodemus’ story is a cautionary tale of making a decision about being born from above.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him may not perish but have everlasting life.  You know that verse by heart.  Do you really know it BY HEART or is it a slogan of faith?  Jesus says to religious people, “You must be born from above?”

Published in: on March 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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