There is the story of the woman and her husband sitting in their living room reading. The woman says, “This is interesting, it says here that women typically say twice as many words as a men.” Her husband says, “What?”
And then there is another story of the husband and wife sitting in their living room and the wife says in a very irritated way, “And you haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you?” The husband lifted his head, turned to her, and thought to himself, “Now that’s an odd way to start a conversation.”
You know sometimes we men just don’t listen do we? Sometimes all of us tune people out; sometimes we tune out what is familiar. It may be our husbands or wives; it may be our children or parents. Sometimes there is noise in the background and after a while we just don’t hear it anymore. Our gospel reading includes the section of what is probably the most famous and well-known phrase, “you must be born again” along with the most famous verse John 3:16. On the one hand we have all heard it and know it, but at the same time we really don’t hear it anymore. So today I would like us to look at again. Let us try to hear it as those who heard in the first century might have heard it.
It is set in the context of a conversation with another rabbi named Nicodemus. That these two men are even having a conversation itself is rather remarkable. This rabbi is part of the ruling religious class and Jesus just a day or two earlier had really gotten on their bad side. Yet, here is Nicodemus, sneaking in to talk to Jesus at night. They get right to the heart of the matter about which Nicodemus is concerned, that is, how does one really know God; how does one get into His presence and stay there? They didn’t say exactly that they use the terms of the day, ‘the kingdom of God’. Jesus says that no one even can see much less be in the kingdom of God unless, and here is where Jesus says something that at least to Nicodemus is really bizarre. Jesus talks of born again. (Our scripture reading translates it born from above, but Nicodemus clearly was thinking born again.) We hear the expression ‘born again’ and think of people like the Baptists but this is where they get that expression. Jesus used it here with Nicodemus but, fun fact, it is never used again. Jesus was trying to get something across to Nicodemus that Nicodemus was not at all familiar with. You see, for the religious Jew, it was all about one’s efforts. If one worked hard enough, then God would be pleased and count up all the good things one had done and then He would allow that person into His kingdom. Nicodemus was thinking that Jesus must have a secret way to God because clearly God was with Jesus. After all, Jesus was doing all those marvelous things, healing people and casting out demons. No one else could do what he was doing so clearly Jesus had some sort of ‘in’ with God and Nicodemus wanted to know what that ‘in’ was. And then Jesus said, “you must be born again.’ This was not at all what Nicodemus was expecting and his answer to Jesus shows it. He leans forward, his eyes get big, and he raises his hands and says, “What? What are you talking about? How can a grown man get back into his mother and go through birth again?”
Now to be fair, the language Jesus was using was a bit unclear. The phrase for being born again also can mean being born from above and being born from above, that is being born from God is what Jesus was talking about. So He makes it more clear by saying what is born from the flesh is flesh, that is, humans can only produce human beings; but what is born from God is different. God is spirit and so He is the only one who can give people this new spiritual birth. In other words, “No Nicodemus, one doesn’t re-enter one’s mother again. That would only go to repeat what we have right now.” Jesus was not teaching reincarnation, that’s for sure. What He is saying though is that there is a different kind of birth and therefore a new kind of life that is available. One needs a spiritual birth, a birth that originates from above, from God. If you want to get into the kingdom of heaven, you must have a heavenly birth and only God can give this.
Nicodemus is trying to figure this out. So this means that one doesn’t earn God’s favor in order to feel God’s presence. One doesn’t work at getting into the kingdom of God. Instead of working, one has to born into the kingdom. So then how does that happen? How does that happen, well Jesus explains that and for Nicodemus, this is really a strange conversation but now it gets stranger.
Because now Jesus says “For God so loved the world so that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” To us it just sounds like John 3:16 and we have heard it a million times. But for Nicodemus it is something that he has never heard before. First, as a first century Jewish Rabbi he doesn’t spend a lot time thinking about God’s love period. Certainly it is there in the Old Testament Scriptures, but in the first century there was a lot more talk about God’s justice and God’s righteous wrath against sin than there was about God’s love. And then look at the object of God’s love; God loves the world! Now if Jesus had said, “God loved the Faithful and Righteous Israelites” Nicodemus might have been able to have gotten his head around that. But, God loves the world? God loves even the Jews who are not living according to the Law, people like the tax collectors and other sinners of that ilk? And not only that God loves even the people who are not even Jews; God loves the Gentiles? Quite frankly, this did not compute; it did not make sense for Nicodemus. It simply didn’t seem possible that God could or would love those people. And then on top of that because God loves the world He gave His only Son. Wait a minute, when did God get a Son? If we were talking about Greek and Roman religions perhaps this would make sense. The Greek and Roman gods had all kinds of children. But no, we are talking about the God of the Hebrews. The Hebrews who say every morning, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God.” What is this business about God having a son? This is practically blasphemy! It was, almost impossible to get his head around it. And yet, Nicodemus remembers that part with Jacob wrestling with God. He remembers that part where Adam and Eve walk with God in the Garden and the One who stood with the three Jews in the fiery furnace. Maybe, just maybe that’s where the Son of God is in those old stories. Hmmm
And then the final part is also very confusing; the part about eternal life, that getting bon into the kingdom of God talked about earlier; this getting born into the kingdom and having eternal life is gotten by faith, by believing in this mysterious Son of God!
Nicodemus doesn’t ask Jesus anything else. In fact, he doesn’t say anything anymore. His mind is no doubt full of questions and he goes home to ponder them. We hear this conversation and bring in all our knowledge of what the church has taught us for these past two thousand years. Nicodemus of course was hearing this for the first time. Even though we have heard them many times, may God give us the grace to hear it again and again be amazed! We who have been born from above, who have been given this new life from God now we are to nurture this life and we are to grow in our faith. How? We grow in our faith by reading the Scriptures and considering what Jesus taught us. We work at applying his teachings to our lives and how we think. It is the 2nd week of Lent. Let us grow in our faith and strengthen our trust in God.