Born from Above
If there is one character in the Bible that resonates with us modern day Christians more than any other, it is Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. He is a spiritual person who is looked up to in his community. People know that Nicodemus attends Temple every week, helps out in the nursery when asked, and attends committee meetings. He seems to be the perfect example of what a good Jew looks like. He is also open to new ideas. He has listened to what Jesus has said and is curious about these teachings and ideas he is hearing. He wants to know more but he doesn’t want his curiosity to be public yet. He makes an appointment in the middle of the night to talk with this guy named Jesus and to ask some questions about what he is teaching.
We modern day Christians are just like this too. We are comfortable with the persona of being a follower of Jesus. We will attend church weekly and we will do what we are asked by the preacher or committee chairs. We like Jesus too. We think what he says is right on but we keep our interaction with Jesus in the middle of the night, in the dark, over there away from the light of day. The truth is we don’t want to let people see us, in our everyday lives, meeting with Jesus, talking to Jesus because then we will be labeled one of those religious people. We are comfortable being spiritual people but religious people is a whole other ball of wax.
We modern day Christians like to compartmentalize our lives. We like to break it apart and focus on one thing at a time. We keep our faith here in the sanctuary and then for the other 167 hours of the week our faith stays here until we pick it up again next Sunday morning. Compartmentalization is an effective cooping strategy. It helps people survive being in war or going through a traumatic time in their personal life. But it can be hazardous too. A person with OCD might wash her hands ten to a hundred times a day in her bathroom to make sure they are clean but forgets to clean the bathroom around her. She has tunnel vision and forgets the world around her.
We have tunnel vision too. We keep Jesus over there. We like him but just as long as we can keep him at arm’s length. We are fine with a little Jesus on Sunday morning but he doesn’t really fit in our regular lives. So we meet him in the darkness of the middle of the night because we are more scared of what the world thinks of us than what Jesus thinks of us. We keep our faith in sections because we are not truly ready for Jesus to change our lives. We have a good life that we have created for ourselves why have that ruined by inviting Jesus into it?
We compartmentalize our faith because we see ourselves as very self-reliant. We really don’t need anyone’s help. We can do it on our own. We can pull ourselves up by our own boot straps so we don’t really need anyone else to help us up. If we do then we seem weak. And we are happy to be anything but weak! Doing it yourself is the American dream and the American idea. If it is good enough for America it has to be good enough for God, right?
It takes Jesus no time to see where Nicodemus is going with this conversation. All Nicodemus can do is compliment Jesus that his teachings and miracles definitely seem to be from God before Jesus tells him what he really needs. That is the unique thing about Jesus. He looks past the façade we place in front of our daily lives and can see what our heart truly needs. When we meet with him in the darkness he doesn’t hide who he is but calls us out to be who we truly were made to be and into a deeper relationship with him.
There is a story from the 1800s about people who were attempting to build a bridge across Niagara Falls. Engineers were consulted, money was raised and they planned and planned. But no matter what they thought of they could not get a cable across the Falls. They attempted to float it across the rapids but that didn’t work. They tried to shoot it across using a bow and arrow but that failed. They even tried to climb the cliffs to get it across but that wasn’t working either. Then a ten-year old boy made a suggestion which sounded ridiculous. He thought they should fly the cable across on a kite. I mean really, a kite. That sounds ridiculous and almost absurd, yet that is exactly how they ended up doing it.
There are times in our lives when we need a fresh perspective. We need to look at our problems in a whole new light. We need to change our ways and our approach. We have to come face to face with the reality Jesus keeps telling us about. As Nicodemus talks with Jesus he is faced with this absurd idea of being born again or born from above. He faces it first literally and asks Jesus if he means he should crawl back up into his mother’s womb, which every mother knows the answer to that, HECK NO! But then he finally simply listens has Jesus fills him in on what a faith in the light looks like, one that is not born of this world but is born from above.
For Jesus when we have a hidden faith, like Nicodemus was attempting to do, it is faulty. It is truly an incomplete and immature faith. In order to receive the faith that Jesus wants us to have we have to be born into life through water and the Spirit. Jesus scolds Nicodemus for being a teacher of the law and not understanding what he is really talking about. Jesus looks at us and shakes his head as well as we gather here on Sunday mornings but then fail to live out our faith the rest of the week.
When a preacher says the words, Born Again, many people close their ears. It has been a phrase that has been used over and over again to promote a faith of judgment and condemnation. But here it is in the scripture. Here it is being said by Jesus and so what do we do with it? Do we pass it off as just being too churchy for modern people or do we wrestle with what it really means ?
Jeff is a minister in my covenant group, and he will be leading our Sunday School lesson at Homecoming. He is the associate minister at the Ward Street Mission Church in High Point. Ward Street is in the middle of a very poor and deprived part of High Point. As Jeff was explaining about what Ward Street is about he labeled his church as a ‘recovering church.’ Many people in his congregation are recovering from addiction and abuse. They are dealing with the harsh realities of what it means to live a life when something else is pulling them away from God. They are pulled by the cravings of the next high or drink. They are trying to pick up their lives after it came crumbling down because of a job loss or the cycle of poverty. When they come to worship on Sunday everyone in that room understands their need to be born from above. They have attempted to live a life here on earth but that has led them to darkness. But once they have been born from above or born again they have a fresh start and a second chance in life.
As I listened to stories about his congregation I was struck with the thought that aren’t all churches supposed to be recovery churches? On my stole there is a word. From your viewpoint it looks like it says, REP, but actually if I step away from the pulpit you can see the whole word, REPENT. The season of Lent is a time when we need to repent and be saved. It is a time when we are faced with the reality of our hearts like Nicodemus is doing in front of Jesus. During these 40 days, if we allow Jesus to, he will dig deep into our being and ask the real questions that need to be asked.
Contrary to what Charlie Sheen believes, AA is a wonderful program that has helped millions of people fight alcoholism. As one of their pamphlets say, “Alcoholics Anonymous is a voluntary, worldwide fellowship of men and women from all walks of life who meet together to attain and maintain sobriety. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” In their twelve step program the first three steps have a lot in common with this season of Lent. Step 1: Admit you are powerless over alcohol – that your life has become unmanageable. Step 2: Come to believe that a Power greater than you can restore you to sanity. Step 3: Make a decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of God.
We are all powerless. We are all controlled by something. We are truly a slave to something in this world. It is called sin. It may come as the form of alcohol to some, others lying, gossip, sex, drugs, or porn. It may be anger, distrust, fear or even anxiety. Whatever form it takes it is still sin and it still keeps us away from becoming complete and whole. Jesus tells Nicodemus that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” We are sinful because we seek Jesus out in the darkness, unseen by the world. We are sinful creatures and we cannot be made whole unless we are willing to be reborn through the power of God.
During Spring Break one year my roommates and I decided to go to Camp Don Lee, which a United Methodist Camp right on the Neuse River in Eastern North Carolina. It is a sailing camp that my roommate, Ben, had gone too all his life and was a camp counselor there for years. It is where he learned to sail. My other roommate, Joel, and I had never been sailing before and it sounded like a great Spring Break adventure. Off we went. When we arrived at the camp it was a beautiful day and the sun was out and the water was calm. It was too late to take a boat out so we had to wait until morning. When morning came the river had changed. It was choppy and the wind had picked up. Ben surveyed the scene and decided that if we stayed near the camp we should be fine. Did you all catch the key words there…“should be fine.”
We did all the preparations and soon were off into the wild wind. I had been on boats before. Bass boats, motor boats, ski boats, but never a true sail boat. There is nothing like it. The only noise you hear is the wind catching the sails and the water being pushed under the boat. What is also different is when the sail boat starts to heel. This is when the boat starts to lift up on one side. This makes the boat go faster and is what a sailor wants out of his sailboat. For those inexperienced it feels like the boat is about to tip over. As we headed out on the river the wind filled our sails and I started to rise out of the water and Joel, sitting across from me, went down towards it. Ben just laughed at us as our faces expressed our panic. We got use to it after a while and we sailed around the river for a while until the wind started to get too much. Then on our way in, as we tacked back and forth coming to shore, a wind gust caught us and we took off too fast. The boat started to heel too much and I was staring at the murky waters of the Neuse River a little too closely. Ben let the sails out and we were safe. Only later did he tell us that we were inches away from going over and capsizing the boat.
It is scary to lose control and be at the whim of the wind. You do not know where you might end up and you don’t know how scary it will be to get there. Yet when Jesus calls us out to be born from above we are to be taken by the wind. “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.” The scariest thing about being on that boat was knowing I wasn’t in control. When we decide to stop meeting Jesus in the darkness bring our faith into the light we are made whole again through the recovery process. We admit we need God and then we have to be willing to go where the wind leads. This scripture today is a command but it is also an invitation.
You are invited to hear the good news that God loves you and wants to make you whole. He is willing to meet you in your darkness but he expects you to be willing to give him the control to bring you out of it. Like a mother who is almost full term, Christ wants to birth us into this new life. He wants to lead us into wholeness and a mature faith. He wants so desperately for us to get it. All we need to do is repent and admit that we need His help to do it.
And all God’s people said…Amen.