Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, came to Jesus in the dark. He came seeking something this baffling and often infuriating rabbi. He had some questions for him. We are not sure why he came in the dark. Caution? Fear? We are not sure for that matter, why he came at all. To entrap Jesus? Or because he truly wished to learn from him? Whatever it was, it seems that before the end of the story he got a bit more than he bargained for. Jesus says to him that in order to see the kingdom of God one must undergo some sort of rebirth. The word Jesus uses is to be born "anothen"—a Greek word that can mean either born "from above" or "anew."
Nicodemus is confused by this notion, assuming that Jesus has in mind a physical birth. Or perhaps he was doing what we all do sometimes when we don’t really want to hear what we suspect we are being told. You know, something we don’t want to face, it’s too much truth so we get sort of caught up in the minutia so as not to have to hear the message? Because remember Nicodemus was a law abiding fellow—righteous and educated. He knew the rules and the laws and he followed them, and probably felt pretty secure about the place that his religious observances secured for him. He had likely heard about the baptism of water and about repentance and living within the law. But the message here is that being in the kingdom of God is about more than just being law abiding and in control and following the rules. In His discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus reveals much about being "born anew."
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the nature of this new birth involves both water and the Spirit. I love the imagery that John uses in this whole passage. Think about birth itself, a process that we are not in charge of where we are thrust pretty unprepared into a new and foreign and probably pretty scary environment. You know if you think about it, there is probably a reason most of us don’t remember being born!
And then there’s water. It can be cool, cleansing and refreshing, but it can also be powerful and overwhelming. We have only to think of things like floods and tsunamis to visualize the power of water unleashed and remember that it is something that we are not in charge of and do not control.
And Spirit, the image we often are given is the wind, it blows where it will. And out here we know about wind, don’t we….that it can generate power but it can also send your trash cans sailing down to your neighbor’s house in a heartbeat. We can’t see the wind, but we can see its effects. And it is surely another of those things that is not ours to control.
See the theme here? Perhaps what Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus that what was important was not a certainty based on understanding and following the law, but about letting go of control and letting God have at us, trusting in God’s love for us—this God who “so loved the world that he gave His son so that we might not perish but have eternal life.”
We like the feeling being in control. We, like Nicodemus, like to know what the expectations and parameters are. It gives us a sense of safety and security. It keeps us away from that dark edge of the abyss that sometimes lurks there, reminding us that though we may like to think so, we are not in charge! We like to have some ironclad standards by which we can decide what is ok and what is not. We like to know when we have done enough. We like to feel that we understand that rules so we can measure and judge—ourselves, others, our lives, our accomplishments. We like to line things up in neat rank order so we can say “This (or we) are ok and acceptable, this is not.”
But the Gospel story today tells us, “forget that notion,” It is not about that in God’s kingdom. It is about surrendering, about giving up the idea that by just arriving on the planet and doing all the right things in all the right order we can make it all come out ok. No, Jesus says—we must begin anew, be reborn, from a place that is more than us, greater than us, we must allow ourselves to be washed by that water, which not only washes away the stuff we don’t want but sometimes also the stuff we do, and be pushed by the wind of an unruly spirit that we don’t direct or control and may take us places we don’t feel quite comfortable going. He asks that we surrender to the cleansing and blowing and let ourselves be birthed and changed, transformed and converted. This does not sound like a tidy, predictable sort of process, does it? It sounds more like something that requires something rather radical in us in the way of trust in God.
It requires in us that we allow for the possibility of real change, giving up security and that old illusion of control, really letting ourselves be converted, surrendering and being willing to let ourselves be taken into new and sometimes scary places. It’s about accepting that we don’t have all the answers and we are not always as smart as we’d like to think we are.
It asks that we remember that we are charged as Christians with the bringing about of God’s kingdom on earth. And if we think about it, Jesus, our role model, did not behave in safe and predictable ways, but practiced radical hospitality with the poor and the outcasts, challenged the status quo and spoke the truth against injustice, even when it was dangerous to do so.
Being born anew means testing our limits, ourselves, and sometimes our faith. It means not simply throwing out the rules, but being willing to go beyond them if that is where the spirit pushes us to go. It means we never really get to be in that comfortable place that says, “Ok, I’m done now, all safe and secure, I know what is expected and I’ll just do that and be saved.”
Ultimately it really is about surrender…. For each of us there is something….. Something that needs to be washed or blown from us be born anew? It is something different for each of us…
Some of us have to give up knowing for certain, of figuring it out, of believing that our brains and logic can save us.
Some of us have to give up our ironclad belief in “my way” or “one way” to entertain the notion that God really is bigger than our minds can grasp,
Some of us have to let go of doubt that God is working in our lives and
Some of us have to let go of our certainty that we understand what it is God wants of us.
Some of us have to give up the quest to be perfect and just let God do God’s work in us,
Some of us have to give up our woundedness and allow ourselves to believe that healing is possible.
Some of us need to give up our discoursing and some of us need to lose our silence.
We are, each of us beloved of God, baptized in water and the Spirit. May God move in us, and help us to know what it is to be fully born anew, fully alive in God’s love. Amen.