Written by Mark C. Pederson, Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church
I would normally shy away from this text. When I was growing up there was no more intimidating question, than to have someone walk up to you and begin a conversation, “If you were to die tonight . . . “ Or, the equally fear inducing query, “Have you been born again?” Jesus in today’s reading is dealing with a teacher, a theologian. Dr Nicodemus has heard about Jesus, about he wonders Jesus has done. He wants to meet him, to have a conversation with him, but he wants to be careful. He apparently doesn’t want to be seen entering the house where Jesus is staying. He comes by night. Maybe he’s a Lutheran? He might be dreaming of an evening spent studying the Hebrew scriptures, being taught the finer points of understanding what has been written, sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from him. But nothing doing. He is confronted with a strange confrontation.
Additionally, if you aren’t able to be born again, you won’t be able to see God’s kingdom. But how is this birth accomplished? There is a uniquely American answer to that question. You pray a certain prayer, and then you invite Jesus into your life, and presto chango! New person. I tried it once. It didn’t take. I tried it again. Same result. Martin Luther said that we are born again in the waters of baptism. We die to our selves and are born again. He did have to admit that it was necessary to remember the event to make it effective. Turns out the old Adam is a world class swimmer. So, today, I would answer the question, “Yes, I’ve been born again, I was born again this morning when I washed my face and remembered my baptism.”
It turns out we’re in a crisis. God light has streamed into the world and the world doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. And it is not the usual list of sins Jesus is addressing–it’s not sex, or drinking, or greed. It’s addiction. Specifically, according to this translation from the Message, it’s an addiction to denial and illusions. I his book, “Parables of the Kingdom, Robert Farrar Capon states that the church should not advertise itself as primarily good, or having all the right answers. Instead he says that they might, “Just let it be what it in fact already is: a random sampling or the broken, sinful, half-cocked world that God in Christ loves—dampened by the waters of baptism, but in no way necessarily turned into perfect peaches.”
My former presiding bishop once sent out a video to share with all of the ELCA synod conventions. In it he shared that he was talking with a friend of his who is a statistician and the friend said that based on the data the ELCA will die off somewhere around the year 2043. This was met with uproarious laughter. But, if we step out of our denial it’s not funny at all. Mainline churches are dying. Likewise, my life is not together, it is a mess. I know what I should be doing. I have a sense of what God wants me to be doing (and to cease from doing) but I’m not doing it. In a sense I can’t do it.
What’s the answer? The only answer I’ve ever found is to admit that I’m helpless, that what I’m doing is about the best I can do, and then pray that God will change me. Luther called this change an alien righteousness. God does seem to get around to helping us out, giving us holy nudges in the right direction, changing us in ways we do not see or feel. And that makes sense. After all, what great effort did you perform to be born in the first place, and how aware were you of that process taking place? Maybe our new birth is something similar.
The other great denial we might confront this week is the fact of our death. We will all die, we will all cease to exist in this world. But we need not fear. Jesus came down that we might have a whole and lasting life. That’s how much God loves us.
Quotes for the Week
“So too with us. If we make deficient responses to the Word, we do not simply get ourselves in dutch; rather, we fail to become ourselves at all” Robert Farrar Capon
“How do you restart something that had never been turned off?”
― Veronica Rossi
“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come.” ― Joseph Campbell
“Hard is trying to rebuild yourself, piece by piece, with no instruction book, and no clue as to where all the important bits are supposed to go.”
― Nick Hornby
“It’s humbling to start fresh. It takes a lot of courage. But it can be reinvigorating. You just have to put your ego on a shelf & tell it to be quiet.”
― Jennifer Ritchie Payette
Lesson John 3:1-21 (The Message)
1-2 There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”
3 Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”
4 “How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”
5-6 Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
7-8 “So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”
9 Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”
10-12 Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?
13-15 “No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.
16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
19-21 “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.”
Questions for the Week
1. What illusions do you find yourself struggling with?
2. How might we become more fully ourselves, our real selves?