I am not a parent, but I do know some parents. I don’t have any plans to be a parent, and so I don’t claim any first-hand knowledge of what parenting entails. But I have paid attention to parents who have gone through the experience, and become parents. And so, I hope I am not too far off base when I say that, becoming a parent for the first time can be somewhat of an overwhelming surprise!
First time parents may suddenly find, that children just don’t have the same priorities that they do: like, watching their favorite TV show, going to the theatre, meeting friends for coffee or a beer, and the big one, sleep!
The birth of a child can throw your life a curve-ball, and the more you try to be a good parent and respond to the needs of a totally needy and dependent infant, the deeper into the unknown you may descend. Like the Spirit blowing in the wind that we can never quite control, parents must learn to let go, and trust the path of new life that they’ve been given.
Perhaps I exaggerate, I don’t know, you’ll have to be the judge of that – especially if you’re a parent! But, if I’m close at all, there is one conclusion I think we can draw, which is, that being born, is a transformative event, not only for the child, who morphs from womb to world, but for parent, who suddenly begins a whole new life.
Nicodemus, a leader in Jerusalem, came to Jesus by night with a question. Some say, coming at night, by himself, was extremely cowardly, that a strong community leader does not come alone by cloak of darkness, but would bring supporters, and would sit down in the light of day, to engage and discuss.
But, in defense of Nicodemus, he is, it would seem, braver than his fellow believers, who have already rejected Jesus, according to John’s gospel. And so, Nicodemus is at least trying to understand. He seems to have an intuition that Jesus may possibly be the Savior and Messiah they’re all looking for. He seems open-minded.
Nicodemus, however, never quite gets around to asking Jesus about that. He gets only as far as complimenting Jesus, which Jesus then cleverly uses to reorient him – or maybe we should say, disorient him. "Rabbi,” said Nicodemus, “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." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born, anothen."
Now, anothen, has a couple of meanings. Anothen can mean ‘from above,’ or it can mean, ‘anew,’ or, ‘again’. From our all-seeing perspective, all these centuries later, we know that Jesus probably means the former. But Nicodemus, portrayed as the straight man, with a rather shallow faith, at this early point in the story, understands Jesus to be saying the later. "How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks. “Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?”
Poor, well-meaning Nicodemus! That’s so silly! Of course no one can enter their mother’s womb a second time and be born! ‘I’m talking about seeing the realm of God,’ says Jesus, ‘by being born again in baptism, by water and Spirit.’ Or, as the contemporary translation, The Message, puts it, “When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch – the Spirit – and becomes a living spirit.”
But something else may be going on here as well for Nicodemus. In the social construction of Jesus’ time, ‘birth status,’ was an all-important ingredient of ones honor within the community. Whatever family, kin and class one was born into, usually determined your socio-economic status in the community, staying with you from birth to death. And there was little, if any, room to change.
And so to be born a second time -again- however unlikely that may be, would alter your status in the world, the honor you were due. Perhaps that’s what Nicodemus had in mind, which would be closely in line with Jesus’ meaning – that you must be born from above, from the Spirit, in a whole new way.
How about us? What’s our status? If we have been baptized with water and Spirit, have we entered the kingdom of God? Where does our status come from? Can we change our place in society amongst our friends, or from one socio-economic class to another? If we work hard, and keep our noses clean, will we get ahead?
The belief that Americans can and do rise from humble origins to riches, has often been characterized as, the bedrock upon which the American story is anchored, otherwise known as, the American Dream. This is the land of opportunity. Even the President has submitted to the rather pompous and privileged, story that America is “exceptional,” that is - a nation set apart, as better than others – from which, unfortunately, all kinds of outlandish, and we must say, un-Gospel-like, and “entitled” interpretations have come. The belief system Jesus gives us is based not on ‘exceptionalism’ or pulling oneself up by the bootstraps – but on the belief that God loves us unconditionally even when we’re not exceptional – even when we have turned away from God and from our neighbors, and in toward ourselves, as we confessed this morning.
But, it’s hard to shake these views. Opinion polls show that belief in the American Dream is both stronger in the U.S. now than in years past, and stronger than in other developed countries most like us. Yet these impressions of ourselves don’t match up with reality very well. Several large studies have found that mobility from one generation to another is lower, in the U.S., not higher, than in most other developed countries. Yet most Americans still believe that individual hard work is what gets them ahead, even though the opposite reality is staring us right in the face – a shrinking middle class, and the working poor, working longer hours, and multiple jobs, just to remain stuck in poverty.
That night with Nicodemus, Jesus was inviting him, and all of us after, into the realm of God right here, right now. Not “us or them,” but everyone, all, are invited to be children of God. And if we’re all created, “from God, from above,” then we have all been made sisters and brothers to one another, our destiny afloat in the same boat. Though amazingly diverse, a rainbow of colors, nationalities, ethnicities, genders and sexualities, we are all accountable to one another, no matter our creed or origin. No one is privileged over the other, or exceptional, but each has been blessed with various gifts to share for the good of God’s glorious creation.
Being born again, born from above, however scary and unknowable, holds amazing possibility for us. The good news of the Gospel will set you free – but first it will radically challenge you and may make you miserable! Like morphing from womb to world, like learning to become parents in a whole new sleepless reality, being born from above, is often an overwhelming surprise.
In that secret encounter late at night, Jesus was not trying to accommodate Nicodemus; he was – like the arrival of a first-born child – trying to unsettle him. Jesus wants Nicodemus—and us—to leave behind one set of bearings, and to take on an entirely new set. “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above,’” said Jesus. “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.”
This is the life that is authentic life, not just a dream --like the empty, all too often, American Dream. And so, we find, with Nicodemus, that waking up in the light of day, our true status and honor in life comes solely by the grace of God – born of the Spirit, born from above.