Download or listen to The Second Sunday in Lent, “Back to the Beginning” (John 3:1-17)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes it’s good to go back to the beginning; put first things first. Lent can help us do that. Last week, we were taken back to the beginning of the end, the beginning of sin and death in this creation. This week, Jesus takes us back to the beginning, to birth. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, perhaps so that no one will see him talking to Jesus, and he says, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God, because no one could do these great signs that you do unless God were with him.” A teacher sent from God. Sounds well and good. But what does Nicodemus expect Jesus to teach? Maybe how to move forward, to progress, to go further; to get closer to God, and closer to the ideal of God’s Law. But Jesus shocks and surprises him. He doesn’t take him further, or teach him how to progress or move forward. He tells him that he has to go back to the beginning. C.S. Lewis says somewhere that if you take a wrong turn—and it probably doesn’t matter whether you’re driving or doing math—if you take a wrong turn, it’s no good going further, progressing, because you’re just getting further from where you need to be. Instead, you have to turn around and go back to where you went wrong, and start again in the correct direction. Jesus says something like that, but where things went wrong was all the way at the beginning. Things went wrong in the Garden; but for each of us, things went wrong before we even had anything to do with it. In sin my mother conceived me, David says. Truly, truly, I say to you that if one is not born again, he cannot see the Reign of God. Cannot even recognize it. Nicodemus can only hear that word “again.” But the word that Jesus uses, at least in Greek, can mean both “again,” and “from above.” Clearly, it’s “again.” It’s a second thing after being born the first time. But John’s Gospel makes it clear that it’s also “from above.” If you go back to John 1, John describes the children of God by faith: they are born not from blood, or heredity; not from the will of man or the will of flesh, but from God. From above, from outside the way things normally go in this physical, created world. But Nicodemus can’t get past the “again.” Born again? A man cannot enter his mother’s womb when he is old and be born again, can he? No, Nicodemus. That’s one kind of birth, but this is a different kind. Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Reign of God. What is born of flesh is flesh, but what is born of Spirit is spirit. Two different kinds of life. Flesh is flesh and remains flesh. It is born, it lives, it grows old, it dies. That’s the way of flesh. It eats physical food, wears physical clothes, lives under physical shelter. It involves all the things that anyone can experience; it has to do with what we can see and feel and know with our reason and our senses. But that’s as far as flesh goes. Paul says that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Reign of God. The perishable cannot inherit the imperishable.
But the Spirit gives birth to spirit, even if it’s still flesh and blood. You can’t see it with your physical eyes or explain it according to reason. It’s like the wind, Jesus says. The wind blows, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. Even with everything we know about wind scientifically—high and low pressure, temperature differences, the rotation of the earth, oceans, lakes, and land—even with all that, we can’t measure the wind. We can’t say it begins here and ends there. We can’t predict it or guarantee it. So it is, Jesus says, with everyone born of the Spirit. You hear the sound of the Word to which the Spirit has bound Himself, but you cannot say how it happens. Who can explain how someone goes from being a blind, dead enemy of God to being a child of God? Anyone who claims to be able to do so is contradicting Jesus. We know where the Word is, we know where the promise is, we know that where we hear the sound of the Spirit with the word, that God is doing His work. But we cannot explain it. We can simply believe it. And, as silly as it might sound to us, God has chosen to make newborn children by water and the Spirit. St. Paul wrote to Titus: “When the goodness and loving-kindness of God appeared, when it was revealed—that is, when Jesus came—He saved us, not by righteous works that we ourselves had done, but through the washing, the bath, of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-5). The Spirit hovers over the waters, and life is born.
But that’s no more ridiculous than what Moses told the Israelites when they had been bitten by poisonous snakes. He claimed to have a word from God that if those who were bitten would look at a bronze serpent on a pole, they would be healed. Come on, Moses! Can’t you just give us some medicine, some anti-venom; at least amputate the infected limb. But no. Look at the bronze serpent, and you will be healed. That was the Word of God. Those who believed it were healed. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up on the cross. The only difference is that Jesus actually is the Word of God. So look at Him, believe Him, trust Him, and you will be healed and you will live. Believe Him when He says that you are born again from above by water and the Spirit. Even though there are differences between physical, fleshly life and spiritual life, the metaphor is valid. Newborn children are born helpless; they can barely open their eyes, and when they do, everything is still blurry and out-of-focus. They have to be fed, clothed, protected by their parents. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. We begin to see things differently, even if they’re blurry for a while. And, in fact, we will always see as in a distorted mirror in this life. We must be fed, not by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God. From the solid food of Christ’s Body and Blood. And where are you before you are born physically? Essentially, you’re nowhere, except maybe in the Mind of God. And before you’re born spiritually? You are blind and dead. Then you’re born and grafted into the life of Christ by baptism. Then you’re nourished by His life. Then you are kept safe in the holy ark of the Church until God undoes the destruction of this creation and remakes it. This is the life of the Christian, born again from above: to live from the life of Christ and to live toward our neighbor in love. That’s it. Now we live by faith. We cannot see, we can only hear and believe. But, by faith, we recognize when the Reign of God comes to us, when Jesus speaks to us. Those with ears to hear will hear; those with eyes to see will see and believe and be saved. This is why God sent His Son, so that those who are perishing would be clothed with the imperishable. Those who are condemned would be so no longer. Those who are dying would be clothed with new life. This is how God loves the world, in a man lifted up on a cross. That we see and know by faith. Until the day when all things are made new, and we live forever in the eternal beginning of the resurrection.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/16/14