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Spirit Born

Sermon - 2/17/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 3: 1-17

I was particularly impressed by the Super Bowl this year.  I mean, the commercials were not only witty, entertaining, and fun, but the game was actually fun for a change.  I enjoyed that.

If you pay any attention to pro football, if you follow these things, you may have noticed that at almost every football game there is somebody with a sign in the end-zone that says what?  "John 3:16".

So I was watching the Super Bowl to see if in fact there would be one, and sure enough, I think I caught it for just a millisecond, a guy with a big red sign 'John 3:16'.  The networks try to avoid that, heaven forbid we might get a religious message out of a football game.

I've always wondered, whoever this is, maybe more than 1 person, I can just imagine the conversation at home:  "Well, Martha, I know it's going to cost over $1,000 to go to the Super Bowl, but it's the Lord's work, somebody has to do it" J.  I wonder if I could write it off as a business expense J.

Why 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".  You know that verse well, I'm sure.

Why not something like Matthew 19:21?  You know that one, right?  "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor".  Would that not be an appropriate message at the Super Bowl?  Or maybe Matthew 5:39, from the Sermon on the Mount:  "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also".  That would make an interesting football game!

Well, John 3:16 of course is, along with the 23rd Psalm, one of the most beloved passages of scriptures.  Martin Luther called it the gospel in miniature.  It contains the essence, the DNA if you will, of the good news.

And yet John 3:16 is not just a single verse of great spiritual insight, a pearl of wisdom in a sea of scriptural meanderings.  It is the conclusion to a larger story.  It wraps up a mini-drama in the gospel of John.  And I have a hunch that most of the folk who cite it as their favorite verse, or hold up those signs at football games, don't have a clue what that larger story is.  I could be wrong.

That's a shame, because knowing that story and the full context of the verse adds so much to the meaning of this beloved passage, and makes it even more powerful and rich.

So, I invite you to hear now, as Paul Harvey used to say 'The rest of the story'.  And, I invite you to follow along with me in your pew Bibles, or if you brought your own, to open it up to the third chapter of John.  And as I read this text, pay particular attention to the quotation marks:

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The 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.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

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.

17 ‘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.

 

Now, take note of verse 15.  At the end of that verse, you will see a little footnote -- do you see it there?  Little tiny letter at the end of that paragraph/verse.  And if you look at the bottom of your page you'll find the corresponding letter.  It should say something to the effect of "Some interpreters hold that the quotation concludes with verse 16".  And that is because the Greek has no quotation marks.  So the moment the translator makes a decision on where to start and end a quotation -- where to put those marks in the English text -- that translator becomes an interpreter of the text.  Can't put those quotes in without making some decisions about interpretation.

While the editors of the New Revised Standard Version have decided that verses 16 and following are part of the quotation of Jesus (see the quotation marks that go all the way to the end of that section), most New-Testament scholars will tell you that this wonderful summary of the gospel in fact is John the theologian not the John the biographer of Jesus speaking.

That is, John 3:16 and following is the gospel writer's own reflection and insight on the meaning of this story he has just told us.

Now when we separate this jewel of good news from that larger story, we may maintain the essence of its meaning, but we lose the power of the drama that is contained within the story that John has just relayed to us.

So I want to focus this morning on that story, and the drama it contains.

John tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.  Presumably, he did not want to be seen by day.  He is, after all, part of that religious establishment which is not too keen on this peasant maverick from Galilee.  Religious authorities like Nicodemus are those who give answers, not those who seek answers.  Especially not from someone who comes from such a wayward, backward town as Nazareth.

So Nicodemus is afraid to be seen with Jesus, he's afraid to be caught associating with someone who can be bad for his career.  He's afraid to confess by day what he admits by night -- that here is a teacher who comes from God.  He's afraid that he might be mistaken for one of Jesus' followers.  You know that feeling?

Martin Niemöller knew it.  Arrested by Hitler for his opposition to the Nazification of the German church, Niemöller candidly confessed after the war:

In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up."

 

So Nicodemus comes under the cover of darkness only to have his inner thoughts exposed by Jesus.  Answering what is on his mind before he can even ask it.  Jesus tells him:  "No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above".

Now, I'm not Jesus.  But I'll bet you anything that there are some people out here thinking 'Now, wait a second, I know that verse, that is not what it says.  It says "No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again"'. 

So what's going on here?  Is this one of those Communistic translations, that has changed the words of Jesus?

Well, in fact, if you take a look once again at the footnotes of your text. . . . .did you close your Bibles?  You should know better than to close your Bibles while I'm preaching! J.  If you look at the footnote on verse 3, at the end of that verse, where it says 'born from above'.  At the little footnote at the bottom it says "Or, born anew".  It's sort of like 'again', a little different connotation, but has that same sense.  The Greek is a little bit ambiguous, so once again when you translate the text you have to interpret it.  And the New Revised Standard Version folk have decided to use 'born from above' instead of 'born anew'.

"Born again", of course, comes from the King James version, and has spawned an entire movement within Christianity.  You're familiar with the term 'born again Christian'.  I've always thought that is redundant -- if you're a Christian, you're born again.  It's not as if there's some Christians who are and some who are not.  Though sometimes I'm not sure, by those who use the language, of what they intend.

Unfortunately, 'born again' is not a very good translation of the Greek phrase.  And that's precisely why we need new translations as our knowledge of ancient languages increases, as well as our own language evolves.  We have to update the text to make it present for our time.

In any event, the emphasis of Jesus here is not on being born a second time, as is obvious in the exchange with Nicodemus that follows.  But rather it's on being born in a new way.  To be born from above.  To be born of water (baptism) and born of spirit.

Now you might think that one way of viewing this text is as John's version of the divine birth.  After all, there is no birth narrative in the gospel of John, right?  There's no Bethlehem star, there's no manger scene, there's no angels & shepherds, there's no Magi bearing gifts from the East.  Instead, we just have Jesus explaining to the confused Nicodemus how we can be born from above.  Born anew. 

For in John's story of the good news, divine birth is not what happens to Jesus.  In John's gospel, if you remember in the prologue to John, Christ is there in the beginning, in the Word, that is in the beginning and is part of creation, part of all times, and it becomes flesh. 

So for John it's not about the divine birth of Jesus, instead, divine birth for John is what happens when the spirit comes into us.

The question that Nicodemus then asks of Jesus reminds me of another leader who comes to Jesus with some questions.  I think you'll recall the story, that young ruler who asks Jesus 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?'.  And Jesus replies:  "Go and meet the commandments of Moses".  And he says "I've done all that, is there anything else?".  And Jesus says 'Yes, there is one little small thing -- just go and sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and come and follow me'. 

Well, in this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus, the question is not "What must I do to inherit eternal life?", but "What must I do to see the kingdom of God?".  It's a different question.

The central focus of the preaching of Jesus in all 4 gospels is about the kingdom of God.  That time when God's rule will dwell on earth as in heaven. And Jesus comes to inaugurate this new realm.  "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, to proclaim the good news", you will remember he proclaims in Luke 4.  To plant this idea among his followers like a mustard seed that will spread across the face of the earth.

The kingdom of God is here, in our midst, among us, if we can but see it.

Nicodemus wants to see it.  He wants to be part of this new landscape but he doesn't quite get it.  Like that King James mistranslation, he thinks Jesus is talking about being born again instead of being born anew.  He's focused on physical limitations instead of spiritual possibilities.  He's thinking literally, Jesus is speaking metaphorically.  A wonderful illustration of the errors we create when we interpret scripture literally.  Indeed, I think Nicodemus should be the patron saint of literalism.  His misunderstanding is rather humorous.  How can one enter into a mother's womb and be born again?  It's a silly notion.

But is his question really that far off?  How can we be born in a new way?  After all we have done in this world, can we be born in a new way?  After all the mistakes and wrongs we have committed, can we be born from above?  After all the knowledge we have gained, can we start over again?  How can we become pure, innocent, guilt-free, like some newborn babies?

It's a good question.

Recall the story of Isaiah when he is suddenly in that overwhelming presence of the goodness and greatness of God.  What does he say?  "Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips".  And so too we also are all too aware of our own imperfections and failures.  How then can we expect to be born anew?  To become anything other than that which we are?  To receive that unconditional love of God like a mother for her newborn baby?

So underneath that simple misunderstanding of Nicodemus is a very hard question that many people struggle with.  Who can be born in the spirit?  Who is good enough, worthy of such divine birth?

It's the question of the lonely person who asks "Who will be my friend?".

It's the question of the addict who asks "Can anyone love me, or trust me?".

It's the question of the suicidal teenager who asks "Is there any meaning in life?".

It's the question of the adulterer:  "Can you forgive me?".

It's the question of the curious friend:  "Why are you a Christian?".

It's the question of every person who has had any doubts on whether they are good enough to be loved by God.

Jesus doesn't avoid the question, he doesn't laugh at it, he doesn't scoff at it.  He uses it as an opportunity to reveal a truth to Nicodemus that goes beyond physical realities and human imperfection.  And we, privileged to overhear this very private conversation, we too have an opportunity to learn, to discover the deeper truth beyond our questions and our doubts.

"You cannot be born again", says Jesus, "but you can be born in a new way".

To be spirit-born is to receive and feel God's mercy and love, to have a new heart, a new spirit planted within us, as Jeremiah says.  To be spirit-born is to be made clean and whole in the presence of God.  To be spirit-born is to be empowered with God's spirit to do the work of God.  To be spirit-born is to not worry whether or not we are good enough, it's to know that we too are a child of God, created in God's image.  We are born into that goodness.

To be spirit-born is to participate in the salvation, the redemption, of the world.  Not from it, not out of it.  God sent his Son to save the world, not condemn it.

So, like Nicodemus, we ask:  "How is that possible in this world?".  And Jesus responds that 'The wind of God blows where it will.  We cannot box God in.  We cannot limit God's grace.  We do not control God's spirit.  She blows where she will'.

So do not marvel if you see that spirit of God moving in the world.  Do not marvel if you see that spirit of God moving outside of the church.  Do not marvel if you see the spirit of God moving within the church.

Do not marvel if you feel that spirit of God moving within you.

For this is the good news.  That God so loved the world, that he sent his Son, that we might be born anew.

 


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