A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”
Old Dog; New Tricks
That we were able to celebrate and partner in a baby dedication this morning is serendipitous for us this morning. It has meant that things such as “birth” and “life” and “community” are fresh in our minds as we heard today’s scripture reading.
As we look at this little girl and marvel at the miracle of her birth—of our own birth—our bodies—our own creation—we cannot help but be drawn (like Nicodemus) to Jesus’ teachings of new birth.
How can someone as old and jaded as me become so new and fresh again?
How does someone so set in his ways become a blank slate?
Is it possible for someone who forgets so much to become a sponge that remembers everything?
Can an old dog indeed learn new tricks?
To Nicodemus—and to our skepticism—Jesus responds with a resounding ” YES!!” Yes we can.
Yet despite this encouragement—and very much like Nicodemus—we get hung up on the literal, technical aspects of how it happens instead of simply trusting and following our Savior in the reformation of our entire being.
As we read the story here in John, we encounter Nicodemus: an important Jewish man who recognizes Jesus for who he is—an important teacher who has “come from God.” He expresses no doubt about Jesus’ divine origins or that Jesus is someone we need to listen to and learn form. But just as he makes this profession of faith, Jesus seemingly cuts him off—cutting to the chase—getting to the heart of what Nicodemus needs to know: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
The Bible does not tell us that Nicodemus asked about the Kingdom of God. It does not tell us Nicodemus asked anything at all. But somehow, Jesus knew what this meeting was about. In recognizing Jesus, Nicodemus knows he is the Messiah—the Christ. But being a person of faith, Nicodemus also recognizes that Jesus—the Messiah—didn’t appear in the way they anticipated and he doesn’t act like everyone thought he would. Jesus knows that in realizing he got these things wrong, Nicodemus is likely questioning everything.
For many of us, our faith is fragile like a house of cards or a game of Jenga—pull out one or two of the wrong pieces and the rest might come crashing down. Pull out enough, and even the strongest among us will plunge into doubt and reevaluation.
And when people of faith start questioning, we almost always end up in the same place where Jesus apparently found Nicodemus: “How then are we saved?”
Please recognize that the question Jesus addresses is not: “How do we get to heaven?”
The NT speaks of heaven as the God-realm; it is the place where the dead go to be with God until the resurrection takes place. It is not, however, our final destination. The Kingdom of God that everyone wants to see and get into—that is our final destination—the fully-transformed heavens and earth, united (as if) in marriage, where we as our fully resurrected selves will live and serve and work with Christ our king forever and ever.
We are saved, Jesus says, by being born again.
Now almost without exception, Jesus uses analogies and parables to describe theological realities. Instead of speaking in terms of propitiation or justification or theosis or some other theological language, Jesus prefers to employ metaphor—something we can understand (in part) if we will use our God-given imaginations, yet something that will quickly break down if we try to turn it into a systematic theology.
Like honest and responsible bible readers today, Nicodemus struggles with this imagery of new birth. When he hears “born again,” he wants to take Jesus literally. How can we enter into the womb a second time? It is impossible—inconceivable, we might even say. But Jesus does not allow Nicodemus—or us—to dismiss such realities simply because our world says they cannot be.
There’s another dimension here too; it’s not just that we readily try to dismiss Jesus’ teachings when we take him literally. I think (like Nicodemus) we want to take Jesus literally because it puts us in a more passive role.
If you’ve ever witnessed a birth—especially the birth of your own child—there’s no doubt who’s doing all the work. Despite stress and physical exhaustion, it’s not the father. It’s not the baby, either—babies are born tired because they have fought being born. The real work is done by the mother. All the work is done by the mother. Even the doula or doctor or other medical personnel can only encourage and coach the mother through the majority of the birth process.
If we (like Nicodemus) take Jesus literally here, then the process of being “born again” is something that happens to us. It is not something we participate in. It is not something we have a responsibility for. By taking Jesus literally, Nicodemus (as do we) cause his analogy to immediately break down and cease to function as Jesus intended it to.
Instead, the kind of new birth that Jesus describes here and elsewhere is an active pursuit. “Born again” involves an ongoing process of being born into God’s ways—actively partnering with God in the reforming of our thinking, our being, and everything we do.
Resembling our Parent
This understanding of new birth as a reformation of who we are fits quite closely with what Jesus actually intended with the analogy. Even though they knew nothing of genetics in the first century, they knew a lot about breeding animals. They knew how to get favorable traits among livestock and how to weed out the unfavorable ones. They knew that a child (of any species) tended to look like its parents.
In our first birth, we are born to parents who are in and of the world. We resemble them physically, but (in most circumstances) we also come to resemble them in terms of values, practices, and even employment (at least until our recent era).
In the kind of birthing Jesus talks about, we will resemble not our earthly parents, but our heavenly one. By being “born of the Spirit,” we are born into God’s ways, God’s values, God’s practices, and God’s likeness. Being “born again” is Jesus’ way of talking about the complete reformation of one’s self that Paul describes in Galatians. In the second chapter there, Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ—I am no longer alive, but Christ is living in me; and whatever life I have left in this failing body I live by the faithfulness of God’s Son, the One who loves me and gave His body on the cross for me” (Galatians 2:20 VOICE).
The way into God’s Kingdom involves being born into God’s ways—being “crucified with Christ”—so that our lives resemble not our own priorities and desires and failings, but the priorities and desires of our gracious and loving God. We live in such complete obedience and submission to God that when people encounter us, they will see Jesus.
That’s a tall order, I know. But it is what “discipleship” means. It is what being a “follower of Jesus” means. We must consciously choose each moment of every day:
to become “like little children” (Mark 10:15)
to “take up our cross and follow him” (Mark 8:34)
to “sell all we have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21)
to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44)
to become “servant of all” (Mark 9:35)
and to remember that: “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down their life for their friends” (John 15:13).
If you’re going to call yourself by his name (if you are going to call yourself a “Christian”) you’ve got to resemble Christ or else you will slander him.
And don’t worry, God knows that this reformation—this transformation—will not be complete in this lifetime. God knows that transformation will not be complete until the day of Jesus’ return. For 1John 3:2 assures us: “when he appears we shall be like him” (ESV). Our transformation will be complete as we become perfect reflectors of our God and Savior—our thinking being fully reformed, and being born (at last) into God’s ways.
As we watch this little girl grow and mature over the years, we will no doubt see her grow into resemblance of her loving mother and father. May she—and all our young folk—stand as reminders and challenges to us all that we are to resemble our loving Parent in heaven, most fully revealed through our Savior Jesus the Christ.