I’m taking a break from my regular devotional gleaned from reflections from my spiritual journal and sharing a series of messages I’ve given on the life of Christ for our regular devotional series. I hope this week’s message gives you hope and inspiration. This is a sermon I gave some time ago at Diversity in Faith, a church my wife Katharine and I co-pastored in Fayetteville, NC.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Have you ever gone through a time you asked, “What is God’s will for me? What is your plan for my life?”
I remember a time in particular, a little after I got married. I had just left the denomination I was ordained in, over how they had treated some LGBT people. They were paying my paycheck, and really preaching was all I knew at the time. I did not know where the money would come from. Also I felt a failure as a pastor. I had only been ordained around a year or two, and everything had come to a head at that second church. Even though I followed my conscience, I knew in my heart my ministry was over. I was heart-broken. My friends who had been “prayer partners” with me in college snubbed their noses at me. A lot of mentors told me in spades how much I had let them down. And some of my family, who already had told me when I went into ministry, what a bad career choice that was, turned to me and let me know how humiliating I was to fail at even that – for those people.
When the bills began to pile up and I didn’t know what to turn, I remember walking around our neighborhood, a little apartment in Colton, CA., and crying my eyes out. “All I did was try to be faithful to you,” I remember praying, “And this? I am not even sure how we will get by. Where will I find work? Rent money? Food on the table?. I am not sure where to turn. I thought you said you had a plan for me – I thought you called me to this… Show me what to do”
I think in a very real way, in our Gospel reading Jesus is answering the question: when you come to the point you know the path you’ve been on isn’t working.
Turn if you would in your Bibles to John chapter 3, beginning in verse 1, going to verse 17.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“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. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
These are the words of God, for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.
May God add God’s blessing to us as we read these words, discuss them, and I hope and pray, embrace them. Amen.
What does Jesus say? And what does it tell us about how we can discover God’s will in our lives, especially when we find the way we’ve been going doesn’t quite work?
Jesus is telling Nicodemus – and, with Nicodemus, each of us – the first step in finding out God’s purpose and plan for our situations where the way ahead is not clear; in fact the first step in finding that out for our life in general.
For years I didn’t realize this. I don’t know about you, but when I first started to read the Bible I would hear “you must be born again to see the Kingdom of God”, and I thought it was talking about heaven. I thought Jesus was telling Nicodemus – here is how you can get to heaven, and know your place in heaven is secure. And I remember asking myself – had I really had this experience? How could I know?
But that phrase “Kingdom of God” isn’t just about heaven. It’s also about our life here and now, and our world. If you read through the Gospels, which I’d challenge you to do as we approach Easter, you’ll find Jesus uses this phrase again and again. Almost all of Jesus’ parables, or stories, begin “the Kingdom of God is like… “ this or that. A mustard seed planted in the ground. A fishing net tossed into the ocean.
What Jesus is talking about with this phrase is God’s will, God’s plan, God’s dream for this world, including your life and mine, and all the surprising ways God works in our life inviting us to work together with God to make it possible. And each of these parables of Jesus, including this popular one – the parable of being born again – invite us to join God in making this dream a reality by beginning to recognize God’s view of the world and way of working in it is not what we’d first expect.
In this moment Jesus tells us something important: to see God’s will, God’s plan, God’s dream for this world, and join God in making it a reality, both in those times like the one I shared about where everything seems to be coming unglued and all those other times knowing how to join God in what God is doing matters to us, we must go through a big change. “We must be born again”.
What do you feel Jesus means by this?
To me it is another way of Jesus saying what he did in Matthew 18:2-3 — “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”
Two Christian teachers have hinted to me what this means. GK Chesterton & Martin Luther King. Chesterton writes that “Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”
Early Christians remembered the apostle Thomas telling us that Christ’s glory and plan is hiding in plain sight, when he said, “Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” (The Gospel According to Thomas, Saying 77)
In a way this is what Chesterton is saying – that children really see their lives, really see what is right in front of them. And so they are filled with wonder. If you’ve ever seen a child play, you know what I mean.
Similarly, Martin Luther King, in his speeches would tell of how growing up had friends, white boys he would play with, who saw as little children saw him as no different than them until when they were brought to school, they learned they could not play with people of a different skin color.
Life teaches us to close our eyes to the wonder and mystery around us – where we can see, hear, and feel God speaking even in a little piece of wood, a stone, a sunset, each other. Life teaches us to see difference – color, gender, sexuality, height, weight, gifts, disabilities – as something to fear and hate for. Life teaches us to see our own worth to others and God based on being good enough, doing enough, fitting a particular mold. We do not enter life like this. And to see God’s plan, we need eye transplants. We need to see life again, with wonder. See others again, as beautiful just as God made them. And to see ourselves as precious loved, forgiven children of God.
This sounds easy but it isn’t. Like all rebirths, it’s messy.
We can see this in the talk about wombs. Nicodemus asking about going back into his mother’s womb makes us all squirm. We laugh at it, and think he missed the point. In a way, he did. Literally, of course, your can’t crawl back into your momma’s womb. But Jesus doesn’t exactly say no to Nicodemus– he says we must be born not just out of the messiness of water breaking, but equally out of the messiness of being born of Spirit. In Scripture the Holy Spirit as pictured again and again as our divine mother. In Romans 8, we are told the sufferings we go through are like labor pains through which the Holy Spirit readies us for the time we will be made new by God. In Galatians 4, Paul, full of the Spirit, talks about how the Spirit sends him through an experience like labor pains through which the Holy Spirit readies the Galatians Christians for a new type of life in Christ. And Jesus likened the heartache and loss his followers faced at saying goodbye to Jesus at his death and in his ascension to heaven as being like labor pains that hurt now, but ultimately bring a new life in John 16.
These images show that rebirth by the Spirit, like giving birth to a baby physically, is not an easy process. It is painful. It is messy. It in many ways is like going into a womb, the womb of God the Holy Spirit, and there healing, growing, yes, but also experience pain , messiness, and heartache, in order to come out able to see the world with new eyes.
How might the process of becoming like a child again, of learning to see the world with new eyes, be messy? Painful? I think a few ways are pointed to in the story itself.
The first Jesus hints at when he kind of jabs at Nicodemus a little bit in verses 10 and 12. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? … If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things.”
Jesus is letting Nicodemus know the starting place for Nicodemus is in admitting, even with all the titles behind Nick’s name as teacher, leader, ruler, rich educated man … Nicodemus needs to give up the illusion he has the answers or has figured life out. He has to admit that he is not in control. He has to be willing to lay aside all of that and come open-minded, open-hearted, to Jesus.
Nicodemus is trying to have it both ways now – keep all that self-respect, keep appearing to have it figured out, and still be able to see God’s vision for his life. This is why he comes at night, in secret. Jesus is saying, no. You’ve got to put it aside, and come to me, naked and vulnerable, like a child.
We don’t like that, but it is what works. You see it in groups like AA, NA, and AlAnon. I have family in AA and have been a part of AlAnon before. The first step in all those groups is admitting you are powerless. “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable”
In a way this is what the apostle Paul cames to, when in the book of Phillippians chapter 3, he writes “7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
To really see God’s plan for you, you have to be willing to admit you are powerless without God’s help, and really open yourself up to it. This is hard. And it is messy.
Another reason it is messy is that if God starts to change your life, it is sometimes hard to see the change. This is what Jesus is saying when he says that you cannot see the wind, but only its effects. You can’t point to wind, but only the leaves it is blowing, the trees that are rustling, the after effects of the storm. The wind itself is invisible.
When you begin to see yourself and others as God does, and begin to change how you act, it may not right away be apparent. Jesus in fact repeatedly tells us this – saying it is like planting seeds in the ground, and not knowing if anything is happening until * pop * plants spring out of the ground. It is like that when you make real changes in your life, because of those new eyes, eyes like a child’s. People may say you are just the same as always, that Jesus makes no difference. You might look and get overwhelmed by how little progress in being a better person you’ve made. As a church, we might get frustrated at how we aren’t yet making the impact we thought we could. All the while God is growing, changing us, in invisible ways. When things begin to * pop * out of the ground, leaves and trees in your life and community will begin to shake. And you and others will begin to see something different.
Another reason it is messy is it is not a one time thing. Growing up when I heard “are you born again?” everybody meant had I prayed a prayer to ask Jesus in my heart. As if it was done then. In a way it was – from God’s side, all is forgiven, I am ever accepted, nothing you or I can do will make God love us any more or any less. CS Lewis gives us a word about what this process of new beginnings really is like, when he says “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what [God] is doing. [God] is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently [God] starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is [God] up to? The explanation is that [God] is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but [God] is building a palace. [God] intends to come and live in it [God’s] self.” So, we must be ready not just for God to change one aspect of our life, but constantly to keep bringing us back to see the world afresh, so God can make us into people where God can dwell.