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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 33:12-21; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-16
Have you ever had a vexing question you just couldn’t shake? Worries about careers, relationships, kids, future.
Imagine the anxiety felt by Nicodemus. He is a teacher of the Hebrew scriptures. He knows the prophecies, the promises of God made to his people for security, for healing, and for the restoration of the kingdom. And he knows the Messiah was supposed to arrive with acts of power. But can he really be sure? Is it truly the time for God’s kingdom to arrive?
So, he comes with questions. And in uncertain times, that’s what we have: questions. Notably, Jesus does not condemn him, but answers with grace and generosity. Nicodemus is a high-ranking Pharisee, a leader among the most religious of the Jews, which is why he likely comes by night; he believes Jesus is from God, but it won’t do to show public approval until he can be sure. He is, as one commentator put it, like us, “the sum of all his yesterdays…He is a bundle of doubts, uncertainties, wishes, hopes, fears and habits good and bad built up through the years.” That is why he is likely so confused when Jesus answers his question by saying emphatically, “amen, amen, you must be born again,” How can that be done?
“Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, (or amen, amen) I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above. The wind blows where it chooses, 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.’
We are all born of flesh, but because of sin, which burdens us with frailty, fallibility, and brokenness, we cannot correct this. There is no self-won graduation to being like God; there is no human effort that “fixes” us. There are ways we can be healthier, that can help us on the long walk from here to God, but they ultimately only treat symptoms of our broken human life. What is needed, what is absolutely necessarily needed for us to share in the abundant life of God, found in Christ, and bestowed on us by the Holy Spirit, is to be “born again…born of the Spirit.” Sin and death, crushing humanity under their power, are the true cause of our brokenness, and the only way to treat the cause of that sickness is Christ.
The Son of God became incarnate to give to his people abundant life. And that is won through the Cross, God’s paschal sacrifice that he has provided, and everlasting life begun by the resurrection of Christ that we share in by the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit here is described as a wind that blows where he will. Wind, breath, spirit are all the same word in Greek, and Hebrew; when breath leaves a body, it is the final moment when the soul departs, and thus they are always linguistically connected in ancient cultures. The Holy Spirit, acting as a person of the Holy Trinity, with the full unified purpose of the whole triune godhead, comes like a wind, enlivening people from Pentecost on to share in abundant life, releasing them from bondage, and bringing them into the freedom of Christ.
Being born again is like being buried alive…imagine the darkness, stifling, closeness, slowly suffocating: that is life in the flesh. Christ unearths us, pulling off the lid, to light, as the breath of the Holy Spirit fills our lungs.
Jesus goes on to be clear that it is hard to believe, yes, but it is not another bodily birth he speaks of, but the rebirth of the old person being cleared out and the new person, enlivened by God, pressing on in faith. Believing the heavenly things will not be easy, but by faith, Nicodemus, and we, can see the truth.
Jesus likens it to when Moses held the serpent up in the wilderness. In that episode, the people had sinned, and so were punished with a sickness. In order to be healed, all they needed to do was do as God commanded, which was an act of faith: look upon a bronze serpent that Moses held aloft. Like that serpent, Jesus says, I will be lifted up; there is a double meaning there, as he likely means both on the Cross, and as he Ascended to the Father. But the point is the same: by faith in Christ we share in the abundant life of God.
That is the manner, the way that God loves the world: he gave his only begotten Son, the most loved, most cherished person to the Father; he gave that Son up, who offered himself willingly, as a paschal sacrifice, that the specter of death would pass over us. The Son of God did not come to just convey some general, abstract ideas, or to simply pass on some helpful life advice. The Son of God came to take on human flesh, becoming the human Jesus Christ while retaining his divine nature, two natures inextricably unified in one person, that the chasm between God and Humanity could be bridged by one who was both. And this he accomplished through taking the burden of sin and death on himself on the Cross, and destroying them by his resurrection. And we are the children of the Cross, the children of the resurrection, born again into the family of God.
You are a new creation. You are united to God in Christ and by the Spirit, and you are being deified, as the Church Fathers would put it. Little by little, you are becoming by grace what God is by nature. You will never be God, who is infinite, eternal, etc., but as you grow in Jesus by faith, receiving his life and being transformed by the work of the Spirit, you move up out of the grave, step by step, and become more and more like God as you are incorporated into the ever-giving, ever-loving life of the Triune God.
Because we are God’s adopted children, won by Christ and received by faith, we have a sure comfort in life and death. Our journey to see the face of God has begun, and as we respond to our lives in faith, we can face the hardships. Our illnesses, our failed dreams, the emotional scars we carry, the frustration with injustice, all of it: born up with Christ on the cross, and healed in us, slowly yes, but healed truly. Jesus answers our questions, like Nicodemus. Sometimes the answers are cryptic, or difficult to understand, but the heavenly truth is still always there, ready for us to gaze upon, to let it transform our vision, to calm our fears, and to assure us that we are born of Spirit and therefore God’s own children: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Amen.
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