Summit Presbyterian Church
March 22, 2009
John 3: 1-16
Born from Above
Welcoming a baby - into the world, into a family, into the church - is always moving. First, there's the loveliness of every baby, just as they are: their wide eyes, their smile and laughter, their sweetness when they're sleeping - and also when they're crying. Welcoming an older child is equally emotional - with the energy, the questions and thoughtfulness that every child brings. Welcoming children is also exciting because of our hope for their future. Their lives are ahead of them. The possibilities seem endless: what will they become? Who will they love? What kind of work will they do and where will they live? What place will they have in our lives and in the world? For example, maybe Antonio will grow up to be a barber who lives in Los Angeles with three wonderful children and he'll coach their soccer teams. Or maybe he'll become a professor of chemisty in Michigan, work on a cure for cancer, and become a gourmet cook! Perhaps Angel will be a track star in high school and go to college in North Carolina, or maybe she'll stay closer to home, raise a family and become the first woman mayor of Philadelphia. I'm just making this up. Anything could happen! We could spend days imagining the possibilities! [I know there are scary possibilities, too, but today it's OK to put those fears aside] When we imagine their future it can give us such a strong feeling of hope -- for them and for us and for the world they will bless. Especially when they're as blessed as Angel and Antonio: with loving parents who love them, wonderful sisters, doting grandparents, lots of aunts and uncles and cousins to play with. With a church home to learn the stories of Jesus and know God's love. With the chance to go to school every day, to learn ballet on the weekend, to have enough to eat. Truly, their births and their baptisms are a cause for joy.
But perhaps, along with the joy and excitement, you may feel a twinge of sadness - for yourself - or even envy. After all, we don't have our whole lives ahead of us. As adults we know the possibilities are no longer endless, if they ever were. There are things we'll never do and never be. Opportunities lost. Loves gone. Paths not taken. When we're in a happy time in our lives, it's pretty easy to make peace with our past, and with the limits to our future. Even the sad times we've known, the mistakes and the losses, can be seen as working out for the best. We're glad not to have unlimited choice ahead of us and birthdays are happy occasions. But if we're facing a tough time: grieving the loss of a loved one or a relationship, looking for work, struggling with health issues; if we're feeling trapped and don't know how we'll get out of it; if we're in some kind of danger or burdened with guilt for something we did or didn't do, angry with those who have mistreated or betrayed us -- then it can be hard to make peace with our past. Hard to see the hope in our future. Easy to look at people younger than us - not just babies - and to think that they're really lucky. They still have lots of time. All of us long, at some point or another, for do-overs. A chance to start anew.
I wonder if Nicodemus felt that longing when he came to visit Jesus at night. When he came to Jesus in the darkness and said, "Rabbi, we know that your are a teacher from God; for no one one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Nicodemus doesn't say why he came -- perhaps he was hoping for wisdom or comfort or guidance. Jesus answered him by seeming to change the subject - he does that a lot in the gospel of John - and saying something totally opaque. Something hard to understand. He says, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Now, here it gets a little complicated. The Greek words that have been translated "born from above" could just as easily be translated as "born again." And apparently that's how Nicodemus understood Jesus. So he said, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Nicodemus knew that was impossible. You're only born once. That's your chance. A grown man or woman isn't able to start all over again in their mother's womb. So Jesus says more about this kind of birth: it's a birth of water and spirit, he says, of flesh and spirit. It's mysterious, like the wind that blows but we don't know where it comes from or where it goes. Nicodemus, understandably, is still confused. Still skeptical: "How can these things be?" He knows we're born once and that's it. There's no do-over.
Nicodemus didn't understand that Jesus is making a promise here. A promise of something miraculous when we trust in him. A promise that we can be born again, that we can begin anew. Not in the literal way that Nicodemus imagines -- and I for one, am glad we don't need to go through the birth canal again. Not in the literal way we may fantasize about: to wake up one morning and find we have a new life, with debts magically erased or jobs restored or old loves back with us. (The movie "Family Man," made a few years ago, was something like that). But Jesus promises that we can be born again and saved - through his work on the cross and in the resurrection, just like- in our first lesson - the people who looked at the serpent that Moses raised up on the cross were saved.
What does being "born again" look like? For some Christians it means a dramatic, sudden moment of conversion, when they can point to their life before and after and say that nothing was the same. That they were lost - to drugs or alcohol, to sin or despair or all kinds of wrongdoing - and then they were found. That they suddenly knew the love and forgiveness of Jesus and were able to turn their lives around, no longer imprisoned by shame or guilt or compulsion. Other Christians will talk about being born again as something gradual or occasional, more stop and go, one step forward and two steps back. They may talk about growing up in the church and having that sense of being born anew in different times of their life: when they felt a depression lift, or when they were able to let go of long-standing anxiety or guilt. They may talk about being born again when they had a child, or reconciled with family or found purpose in a new job or commitment. Or when they felt God's presence in prayer and nothing was the same even though their lives were outwardly the same. There are as many ways of being born-again as there are believers in Jesus Christ: but the thing we all share, the thing we all know, deep down, is that this new start doesn't come from our will-power or virtue or effort. It comes from above, in a mysterious, inexplicable way. Like the wind, which comes from we don't know where and we don't know where it goes, but we're grateful. Such is the nature of God's grace.
In baptism we celebrate this promise of Jesus that we can be born again, over and over. That in our baptism we've been marked as Christ's own forever, and through his grace we can find new life and hope even in very dark times. We may no longer have the infinite possibilities ahead of us that babies seem to have. There are times we may feel stuck and wonder when we will be born anew. But in celebrating Antonio's and Angel's baptisms we're reminded that God's grace does break through to us in the most unlikely times and ways, no matter what our age and condition. That we can trust in God's promise. And for that we give thanks.