Message for Lent 2 on John 3:1-17 given on March 8, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
I have given birth three times, and I have never known it not to hurt. You do receive the most amazing gift of life at the end of it—but it is no picnic getting there. It takes a lot longer than you want you it to—both the nine months and then the birth process itself. Then you are left with all manner of scars, tears, marks and parts that don’t quite go back where they used to be when it is all said and done.
When each of us were born the first thing we did was cry—naked and screaming about what God-awful thing just happened to ruin our peaceful, womb-bliss. It is a loud, messy ordeal and you are never the same person coming out of it—whether you are the parent or the baby—as you were going in.
If Nicodemus knew he was going to get the spiritual version of the birth process by sneaking out at night under the cover of darkness to talk to Jesus, I am not sure he would have gone. Nicodemus was looking for simple answers—ones that fit into his religious system of laws and rules that ordered his life and diet, structures that determined his schedule and that of his community. It is not that being Jewish was bad—we want to be careful not to be anti-Semitic in our reading of the Gospel of John.
But the problem is that Nicodemus was so set in his religious ways, so sure of himself, so over-confident of the rightness of his position. He was so comfortable, in control, sure that he had mastered his religion, its practices and that all his understandings were clear and correct. Such arrogance can be true of all of us, no matter our belief system.
But Nicodemus recognized in Jesus, a holy man sent from God—whose behaviors were not fitting into to his pre-conceived ideas and systems, and this made him curious. Clearly, Jesus was a powerful agent of God—otherwise how could he change water into wine? How could he have the authority to turn over the tables of the money changers at the Temple? How could he have accomplished the other signs of healing? How was Nicodemus going to fit Jesus into what he already knew was right?
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
I don’t think it’s a mistake that Jesus uses a birth image when he talks with Nicodemus about his spiritual transformation—even though it makes us uncomfortable. Not a single commentary I read about this passage talked about birth—even by women writers—because it is so feminine and messy and vulnerable. But you already know that if it is uncomfortable, I am probably going to talk about it.
I believe Jesus uses this powerful image of being reborn—because in order for Nicodemus to engage in a deeper relationship with God through the person of Jesus—he has to go through a painful, messy and vulnerable process. When he comes out on the other side, he is going to be marked by what he has had to let go, and torn by what he has had to give up, and scarred by relationships that have changed because they do not agree with him anymore. He may even cry out, feeling naked and exposed at these changes.
In the end Nicodemus will have the most amazing gift of life and love in his relationship with Jesus—but when the Spirit blows and moves him through transformation—he can count on the fact that his pre-conceived ideas, his control, and his comfort will be wrestled out of him with labor pains. Encountering Jesus and being spiritually reborn in his relationship with God means he will change and become different. Everything will not be put back where it once was.
Because finally that is what belief in Jesus does to us—and if it does not change us inside and out then it is not belief according to the Gospel of John—then we have remained with visits in the night, in the shadows where we refuse to change and be born anew. But Jesus wants Nicodemus to come to him in the light of day and deepen his faith, not by clinging to his own convictions, but instead, by being transformed in a relationship with Jesus in which he is daily made new.
And that’s what birth does, does it not? It changes our relationships—with the person being born, with ourselves, with everyone else in our life. We cannot be the same person on the other side as we were going in. And that’s true in our relationship with Jesus, too. Labor pains are part of the re-birth process.
Our relationship with Jesus that transforms our spirit from the inside out, transforms our relationship with God—not as one based on our own convictions of what is right, but rather as relationship based on love with the One who so loved the world he sent his only Son so that all those who believe in him might not perish, but have eternal life.
Jesus then shifts the question from Nicodemus to all of us. “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
We cannot hear it in English, but the “you” in these verses is plural—it shifts from a one-on-one conversation with Nicodemus to the plural “you” meaning all of you—all of you who know Jesus, all of you who are reading this story, all of you are hearing this testimony.
Are we going to recognize ourselves in Nicodemus—our desire to fit Jesus into our beliefs and our control—and then, are we going to allow the Spirit of God in a relationship with Jesus to birth us into a deeper connection, a new faith, a profound sense of love—that will cause us to let go, and mark us and change us through the pain of growing in an amazing new life in Christ?
Are you ready for that birth process St. Luke’s? The Council met yesterday for a strategic planning retreat for this year. We started out imagining what we would love to see at St. Luke’s 5 years from now, and this is what we started to envision:
• 150 people in worship representing much greater diversity
• Second worship service in another style-maybe in Spanish
• 20 kids coming up for the Children’s Message
• A thriving family ministry
• Supporting a seminary intern
• Personal outreach into the community
• A Financial plan with the budget in the black
• To be a church known for its outreach ministry
• A place where facilities are used even more for Community groups
In order for the Holy Spirit to blow through us and give birth to these dreams and goals, we will need to let go of some of our ideas of how the church should work, and some systems and assumptions will change for these new ministries to grow. It won’t always be easy and there will be labor pains. But the Council and I deeply believe God is giving birth to something new in us and through us as we each deepen our relationship with Jesus our Savior and commit to our life together as the church in this time and place.
We read this passage about Nicodemus yesterday and asked the question, “What is God giving birth to in and through us at St. Luke’s? We discovered through our conversation that:
• God is giving birth to a desire for expanded mission in our community
• God is giving birth to a trust in God’s growth here
• God is giving birth to a faith in a bigger future
• God is giving birth to hope in God’s dream for St. Luke’s
• God is giving birth to dynamic goals and analytics to measure our progress on our goals
• God is giving birth to incorporating new members with new gifts
• God is giving birth to expanding gifts of the Holy Spirit among us
We trust that through Christ, we can do this, for we follow our Lord who himself had to go through birth as a human being, but that is not all.
He suffered on the cross, which is itself, its own kind of birth. That’s where Nicodemus finally came through for Jesus. He was all in, having been changed by a relationship with Jesus; he came in the daytime toward the cross, carrying the aloe to anoint his body.
That cross, for all of it’s messy, vulnerable pain, led to the most amazing gift of life and love in the resurrection, that lets us know beyond the shadow of a doubt that death is never final, but rather, a birth into a new life with God. Yet, there are scars and marks on Jesus body to show that in re-birth we need to let go of who we were in order to become who God is creating us to be.
I’m all in, St. Luke’s! Your Council is all in! And, by your “Amen” we ask that you are all in—labor pains and all—as we are re-born in Christ!