Sometimes we have used a phrase for so long that we forget what
we are saying. For example, if I say that you are barking up the wrong
tree, you know that I mean you are looking in the wrong place, or you have the
wrong approach to a problem. But you probably aren’t actually picturing a hound
sitting at the base of an old oak barking, when the squirrel is actually in the
pine several yards away. Right?
In this case, it doesn’t change the meaning much if I tell you that you are
woofing at the incorrect woody plant.
You would look at me funny, but you could figure out what I am saying.
But some of our other phrases might totally lose their meaning if you change
the words like that. I mean if I tell you that a job is a piece of cake it
means one thing, but if I tell you it is a sliver of angel food or a slice of
Devil’s-food you get a very different image.
That is how it is with one of the phrases in our bible passage today. In
many bibles it uses the phrase born again. But when many of us think about a
person who is born again, that phrase doesn’t make us think about a person
actually going through the process of somehow being rebirthed. No, when we
think of born again, we think about a certain type of religious person. Often
Southern Baptist, but not always.
On the other hand, if I tell you that I heard about a church that offered a
ceremony for reemerging from the womb, you might think, “What kind of weirdness
is that?” Certainly you not think it was a Southern Baptist church! And yet
when you think about it, the phrases born again and reemerging from the womb have
a similar function. They are trying to get us to think about the beginning of
life, and that perhaps just being physically born is not enough to really bring
us life. It is important that we get past the preconceived notions we have
about the phrase born again before we read the scripture today, so we can hear
it in the original context as a discussion about spiritual rebirth.
Listen as Jesus explains this in John 3:1-17:
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus,
a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know
that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these
miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless
someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible
for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a
second time and be born, isn’t it?” [turn to your neighbor and say, he’s
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless
someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s
kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the
Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born
anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t
know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who
is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said, “How are these things
possible?” [turn to your neighbor and say, he’s still confused]
“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher
of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about
what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our
testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how
will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to
heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses
lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so
that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the
world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t
perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to
judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus with questions. He wants to take the next step. He
considers himself a religious man, but something isn’t working, something isn’t
right. During the conversation Jesus tries to explain that simply being born physically
in this world is not all there is. There is also a spiritual birth, a time when
we start life anew with God. Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus that at some
point, we have to open ourselves to a world that we have long ignored, we have
to be willing to experience life in a different way. Until we do that, we can’t
take our first spiritual steps or eat our first spiritual food, and we
certainly won’t reach spiritual adulthood. Whether you call it being born again
or a rebirth in the Spirit, or reemerging from the womb, it is the beginning of
the adventurous life with God.
Perhaps you are like Nicodemus.
Perhaps you have questions you would like to ask Jesus, perhaps there are
answers you want in life. Perhaps you are confused by what God is doing in the
world. Edward Markquart says, “if you have ever come to that time in your life,
when things aren't quite right, when your religion has become more of a
ritual than a real thing, when it is more of a pattern than power, when it
is more structure than Spirit, we then need to come to Jesus' home, rap on his
door and say, "Jesus, I need some help. I've got a problem … here… in my
heart. It is not quite right."
When you do that Jesus might say to you, just like he said to Nicodemus –
before you can understand my child, before you can find the answers you seek,
you have to be reborn from above. You have to allow the spiritual part of
yourself to be enlivened and awakened, by the love and grace of God.
Of course you may have done that before. You may have a moment when you can
say you did all of that. That’s the problem with the way people use the phrase
born again, like it is a one-time deal. You get reborn and voilà you are all
done. But spiritual birth is a lot like physical birth. The birth is just the
beginning, you still have to learn to walk, to talk, to move from eating mushed
up green beans to solid food. And sometimes along the way, we lose track of
what we are doing, are just going through the motions, and we have to stop and
shake up our souls again.
Perhaps spiritual rebirth is more like the cycle of nature,
than human birth. Jesus never says that this is a once in a lifetime
experience, it may be that like the coming of spring when life is reborn in the
world around us, that we need to be spiritually reborn again and again,
re-experiencing the heavenly because we have become so fixated upon the
earthly. Perhaps our spirits naturally go through phases of life where we
retreat, shed the old, and feel like we are dying or lost inside. It may be
that the cycle of spiritual life often brings us back to the place where we
need to be awakened to God in a spring-like resurrection of the soul and a new
Or perhaps, as Mickey Anders says, we should really use the word, Windborne
because the Spirit of God is the breath of God in the world, blowing where it
will. That literally is what the Biblical words for Spirit mean, breath and
wind. So when we enter into the spirit of God, we are windborne, because we
have been picked up in the wind of God and are carried along. Certainly that
helps explain the one section of what Jesus is talking about where he says “God’s
Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where
it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of
the Spirit.” When we are borne of the spirit, we are allowing ourselves to be
picked up by God’s Jetstream, and our life in this Spirit is a life that “soars
among the clouds powered by the mystery of God.”
I say all of that so that you will rethink what Jesus is saying to you.
It isn’t about that day 10 years ago when you accepted Christ. This is
about spiritual life and what it looks like from the very beginning. Whether
your spiritual life is more like the seasons of the year and you have seasons
of spring, summer, fall and winter – with the hope of coming again to a new
spring with its new life sprouting up around you. Or you are windborne and
carried like a leaf in the breath of God. Or you simply had questions and
knocked on the door of Christ hoping to have them answered and he said, “Come
in, let’s talk.” All of this is being born of the spirit.
And to each of these he says: Everyone who believes in him has eternal
life, yes, so that the world might be saved through him.