“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:3, 6)
John’s Gospel is different from the other three gospels. Some of the differences are quite obvious - it’s a longer book than the others, it focuses on the ministry of Jesus while in Jerusalem, it contains none of the teachings of Jesus... no parables at all, and the miracles are not called miracles but signs and they’re limited to seven.
But there is another important difference between John and the other gospels that might not be as obvious to the casual reader. In John’s Gospel, God is revealed not so much through the acts of Jesus as through the words of Jesus. In other words, it’s not the things that Jesus does that convince us he’s from God, it’s the things that he says... it’s the revelatory discourses - the conversations he has with others where we realize he is from God.
So, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus cleanses the leper, restores sight to the blind, feeds the 5000, calms the storm and heals the sick and our eyes are opened and we say he must be from God! But in John’s Gospel we overhear a series of conversations that Jesus has with different people, and somehow his words open our eyes and we realize God speaking. (And that shouldn’t be surprising considering John starts off his gospel saying, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”)
The first revelatory discourse, or conversation Jesus has is with Nicodemus in John chapter 3. We’re told that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Strange time to visit don’t you think? Why would he conduct his visit under the cloak of darkness? It seems that Nicodemus is curious about Jesus but not ready to go public with his faith. He’s keeping his faith separate from the rest of his life. He doesn’t want his fellow Pharisees to know about it, fearing they’ll make fun of him or worse, scorn him. So, he keeps an arms length from the word “follower” of Jesus for now,
And Nicodemus is not unlike many people we know in life who are spiritually curious and might even have faith, but they aren’t ready to make a commitment. They have questions and they allow those questions to keep them from embracing the life of faith fully. They relegate faith to a narrow aspect of their life but it doesn’t encompass their entire being. They have faith but faith doesn’t have them. I wonder if these are not the same people who say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”
So Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night and says: “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.” The acts of Jesus have convinced Nicodemus that Jesus is from God, but his teachings are so unorthodox, some would say heretical, and that’s the stumbling block for him...
And so begins a conversation between these two. Jesus replies to Nicodemus saying, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being reborn.” Jesus is telling Nicodemus that rebirth must take place in him. Nicodemus is confused by this talk and says: “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus tries to explain: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” In other words, it’s a spiritual rebirth, Nicodemus... you must be reborn by the waters of baptism, and the breath of the Spirit. And now Nicodemus is completely lost. “How can these things be.” And these are the last words of Nicodemus in this passage.
“No one can see the kingdom of God without being reborn,” says Jesus. These words bring to mind the words of John the writer says earlier in chapter 1 when he says: “children of God are born not of blood, nor the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God.” The profundity of the whole born again metaphor lies right here - we must be reborn by God. The process of becoming a follower of Jesus is a rebirthing by God.
I remember when my wife was expecting our son David, we took special classes with a midwife. She had participated in many births over the years and was very experienced in the art of birthing. She taught us how to breath during contractions, about focusing on some object and resting between contractions, even what to pack in the little suitcase you bring to the hospital. When David decided to come along I thought we were all prepared for this. But we weren’t. There were a couple false calls when we went to the hospital and had to come home again. When we finally did go in, David was in no rush to be born, so we had to wait and wait. Finally, when it was time for him to be born, I was out of the room and missed it altogether. I know one thing for sure, I wasn’t responsible for the birth of our first child. Sue played a huge part of course but even she will tell you that the contractions her body was having were all involuntary... birth was happening to her. God is ultimately responsible for birthing. So, we both realized that something bigger than both of us was going on at that moment in the hospital and whether we were ready or not, whether we did the right things or not, David was going to be born!
Perhaps Nicodemus’ problem with this concept of rebirth is that he thinks he’s responsible for it making it happen. But think about it, when a baby is born who does all the work? Mom is in labor, she’s breathing through contractions and pushing at all the right moments. The child doesn’t do much of anything really. So too with rebirth, Nicodemus is not responsible for it; rather, God is the one who labors.
Or perhaps Nicodemus’ problem with it is that Jesus introduces such a radical metaphor for God in this conversation. When Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, you must be born again, or anew,” he is picturing God as a birthing mother. That metaphor clashes with our traditional understanding of God as “the man upstairs,” the big, powerful CEO in the sky who runs everything from a distance. But Jesus is inviting us to think of God as the pregnant mother rebirthing her children. Not a male God, but female, not a hands-off deity, but hands on, not a distant creator but an intimate mother, not an easy process but a laborious one. Maybe this metaphor is hard for Nicodemus to get his mind around.
Or maybe Nicodemus is resisting the notion of rebirth because it’s such an insult to his ego. After all, he’s a Pharisee, an exclusive member of the religious authority, deeply devoted to the Law of Moses. Why would Jesus say he needs rebirth? He’s head and shoulders above everyone else already when it comes to righteousness!
Maybe, but I think the real reason Nicodemus struggles with being reborn is that, like us, the very thought of being reborn is daunting. I mean, think about what it’s like to be born. Life outside the womb is nothing like life inside. Inside it’s all soft, warm, protected and all our needs are provided. But when you are born, it’s cold, it’s intensely bright, you are prodded and suctioned, and you cry for the first time ever. Once you are born you are vulnerable to all sorts of colds and diseases that you weren’t while in the womb.
If babies could talk at birth, I’m sure most of them would say - I don’t like it here, put me back. That’s likely true for us all... but once you’ve been out in the world awhile, isn’t it nice to feel the sun upon your skin? Isn’t it nice to be able stretch and grow? Isn’t it nice to smell the fresh cut grass and the sweet scent of flowers? Isn’t it good to meet your parents face to face, and play with your siblings, commune with friends and neighbors? Isn’t life on this side of the womb pretty amazing?
God is in the business of rebirthing. “It’s just what God does,” to quote Geico. Every Spring we see the hand of God giving new birth to our world. Daffodils have already pushed up through the brown dirt and are beginning to bloom – the first heralds of Spring; the grass is beginning to sprout up and turn green, trees are blossoming and budding, and soon our landscape will be transformed into a different place ‒ one of color, beauty and life again. And though it takes longer, God is at work rebirthing humanity too... because we need to be reborn as much as our landscape does.
Paul picks up on this in Romans when he says: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
We are living in a crazy age right now ‒ creation is groaning under the burden of human mistreatment, Syria is groaning under a ruthless dictator, Iraq is groaning under religious fraction, USA is groaning under political division, racial divisions, and religious intolerance. And the good news of today’s gospel is that God is at work rebirthing us. God is laboring to bring about that new birth and God focus to that task
And our job is to pray for that rebirth... rebirth for us, for our church, for our nation and for our world. Pray for the renewal that we all need so desperately to live together as one people in peace, to enjoy God’s good earth fully and to leave it healthier than we received it, and to praise and celebrate God’s goodness and faithfulness to us throughout life.
Let me end with a parable of life after delivery, which speaks to the radical wonder of rebirth that God has in store for us:
Conversation in the Womb
In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”
“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”
The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”
The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible, and eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
The second insisted, “Well, I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover, if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”
The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”
The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”
The first said: “Well, I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”
The first replied, “Sometimes, when you’re silent and you focus, and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”
(Dr. Wayne Dyer)
God is at work rebirthing us. Alleluia!