Second Sunday in the Midst of Lent
TEXTS: John 3:1-17
Nicodemus said to [Jesus], “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.'” (John 3:4-7)
A friend of mine who has known me for years—decades, actually—likes to refer to me as “a Winnipeg boy.”
Usually, she’s laughing when she says this. She’s laughing because when she says that—when she calls me “a Winnipeg boy”—it’s because I’m doing something that betrays my origins:
- Like repairing and patching an old winter coat again and again, instead of buying a new one.
- Like never turning down a free meal, and always finishing it—even if it’s awful—because it’s free!
- Or like inserting random words of Yiddish into a conversation. Oy vey!
She also says that—even after all these years—when I speak, I retain some trace of a “North-End Winnipeg accent” … whatever that is!
Of course, what she really means when she calls me “a Winnipeg boy” is that I’m a north Winnipeg boy—and my mannerisms and attitudes and speech have been to some degree shaped by the time and place where I grew up.
Yes, I am a Winnipeg boy, born and raised. And the place of my birth has, I guess, put its stamp upon me—and upon my friend, too, for she, if she is anything, is “a Winnipeg girl.”
Even so, neither one of us is exactly the same as we were 50 years ago, when we met in high school. We want different things now. We believe different things now. And neither one of us has ended up where we thought we were going, all those years ago.
Place of birth may have some significance, but that by itself does not finally determine what our lives are going to be like.
It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that half of the kids I grew up with have either been in prison, or should have been! But the other half …
Well, they didn’t do so badly. There’s a doctor, a rabbi, and even a couple of lawyers in that bunch.
We all grew up within a few blocks of one another, but we took different paths. So I have to wonder how much of an effect my birthplace has actually had on who I am today.
Jesus, I think, would get this. He was born in Bethlehem, and the Bible tells us he spent some years in Egypt as a young child—and after he grew up, he was known as “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Even so, he does not seem to have attached a whole lot of importance to any of that personal history.
If Jesus ever told stories about his own childhood, or related charming anecdotes about life as a carpenter’s son in Galilee … well, none of that ever found its way into the gospel accounts. It’s as if he never talked about that stuff.
However, he spoke often about how one’s spiritual birth is far more important than one’s physical birth.
“You must be born from above,” he said. Or, in the perhaps more familiar King James English: “Ye must be born again.”
In today’s gospel reading we see that—late one night in Jerusalem—his words caused great consternation to a man called Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, one of the respected leaders of the Pharisees, has come to Jesus with a sort of hesitant curiosity. Yet, when he meets Jesus, Nicodemus doesn’t even ask a question at first. He simply remarks that Jesus has obviously been sent by God.
Then Jesus makes this odd comment. He says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Well, we’ve heard that said before, haven’t we? Most often, we’ve heard the phrase translated as born again. “You must be born again.”
Apparently, the Greek phrase in the original text could mean that. Or it could mean, “You must be born anew.”
But, basically, the Greek means “born from above.” At least, that’s what the Greek scholars say. You must be born from above, which includes, of course, the necessity that you’re going to have to be born again.
Now when we hear that kind of talk, many of us imagine big evangelistic crusades and well-orchestrated, sentimental altar calls.
We may think of quick and shallow religious experiences—or even a sleazy kind of religious hucksterism. And so, we dismiss the term.
Really, that’s a shame. Because what Jesus is talking about here might just be the most important discipline of the Christian life. He’s talking about defining our identity not by earthly standards, but by spiritual standards: “The one who is in Christ is a new creation,” as the apostle Paul said (2 Cor. 5:17).
Jesus wants us to be born entirely anew—born “from above” with our identities shaped by something other than who our ancestors were or where we are from.
Why? Because Jesus has something much greater in store for us! That “something greater” is so grand that it’s hard to define, and so Jesus calls it being “born from above,” or being “born of the Spirit.”
“The wind blows where it chooses,” Jesus says, “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.”
You must be born of the Spirit, born from above—born again. Now when people talk about “born again” Christians, they are usually speaking about a specific type of Christian.
However, to me, the phrase “born again Christian” sounds like two descriptions of the same thing. It’s like saying “a round wheel” or “an orange orange.”
If you are a Christian in the first place, then you are “born again,” or “born from above.”
If you are “in Christ,” then you are reborn of and into the Spirit of God.
Today, the typical meaning of “born again” has to do with “getting saved,” and “getting saved” means entrance into Heaven.
That’s what many people think, when they think about salvation.
They think of being “born again” as something that is a one-time event, a moment in time when a person accepts Christ—and then, that’s it! It is done and over with. You’ve paid your admission, you’ve got your ticket, you get into the big show.
Now, there is a sense in which that’s true—because once you’ve put your immortal soul in the hands of God, he is not going to drop you.
But let’s look a little deeper than that.
The Greek word that is used in John … Yeah. The Greek word.
I am not any kind of Greek scholar, but I do have access to folks who are. And they tell me that the Greek word John uses is anthen, which does mean “reborn” or “born from above” or “born of the Spirit.”
However, this term does not signify a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but rather a lifelong journey of renewal and discovery. The journey begins the moment that you accept Christ, but the journey goes on from there for the rest of your days.
In other words, we don’t remain spiritual babies. We grow in our faith, if it is genuine. We mature in our relationship with God.
This is what the Lord desires for us: not that we should remain infants, but that we should grow—every day—a little deeper and stronger in the Lord.
It isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I think this is what Paul was trying to get at when—in both his letters to the Corinthians—he talked about how we are being saved.*
Personally, I consider myself as having been “born again” many times in my life. And the Bible verse I most often remember speaking to me at such times is this one: “The wind blows where it chooses.”
For me, at least, listening for that wind is one of the great disciplines of the Christian life. Awaiting the opportunity to be born again is one of the great disciplines of the Christian life. Perhaps it should be one of our disciplines during this season of Lent.
On a Sunday morning, if I were to take a poll of any Canadian congregation, I think we’d hear people say they were born in all kinds of different places: Winnipeg, Newfoundland, England … even wild, far-off places like Saskatchewan!
But, as Christians, we are citizens of another place. We call it “the kingdom of God.”
Have you been born again? Have you been born from above? I hope so. I hope you have been born again. In fact, I hope you have been born again and again and again.
Every time we allow ourselves to be caught up in the wind of God—in the Spirit of God—we let go of our earthly bonds, and we awaken to a new identity … one of grace, and one of power. A new identity in Christ.
“In a little while,” Jesus said, “the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).
“Because I live, you also will live.”
Because Jesus lives, we can face tomorrow.
Because he lives, we can face tomorrow without fear.
Because we know he holds the future, life is worth the living!
Do you know the song?
* 1 Corinthians 1:18; 15:2 and 2 Cor. 2:15