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Yr A ~ Lent 2 ~ John 3:1-17
Sacred conversations that reveal deep things about theology are our theme for this season of Lent, and today we have a conversation that Jesus settled once and for all, but for some reason his followers have struggled with it for around 2000 years now and we still haven’t all got it straight.
The quandary is set on the lips of a Pharisee named Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night – suggesting both that he’s doing it in secret because Pharisees were generally against Jesus, and also that the night symbolizes his not understanding. Nicodemus represents the institutional, educated, scientific, rational world – you know, us. That’s us.
We love rational, scientific explanations for things. Despite a recent fondness for “alternative facts” for many people today if you can’t prove something it isn’t true.
Although, to be fair, that attitude is changing in the actual scientific community and they are much more open to wonder and mystery these days, but the general public is still mostly caught in the “show me” phase.
Nicodemus begins by acknowledging Jesus’ authority, but he doesn’t even get a question out before Jesus bakes his poor brain.
His confusion comes from the Greek word anāothen which can be equally translated into English as again, above, and anew. And when you add the word “born” before that the fun starts!
Jesus says, “Very truly [literally, Amen, amen], I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
And Nicodemus falls into the classic trap of trying to apply a physical, scientific lens to a spiritual, metaphorical thing. He hears “born again” as being impossible – and uses the graphically hilarious image of a person climbing back in their mother’s womb. Not happening!
So we need to turn to the other meanings of anāothen: “born from above”, which gets us part way there but still is problematic because it makes it seem like God is out there or up there – or we can go to “born anew”.
And for me, all of a sudden this whole passage makes way more sense.
It’s not that born again or born from above are wrong, it’s just that born anew says what I think Jesus means so much more helpfully.
He’s not talking about a biological birth. He’s talking about a spiritual birth – a spiritual awakening, a spiritual renewal.
Why is that so hard to understand?
John 3:6-8 Jesus says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 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.”
Of course it’s poetic. Of course it’s cryptic.
He’s trying to explain to Nicodemus – and us – that this whole spiritual God-thing is all mystery and wonder and especially relationship.
He doesn’t just say we are to be renewed in the Spirit, he says we are to be reborn in the Spirit. Being born implies there’s a parent, a nurturer, a person who loves you beyond all else.
That’s very different than a series of sacrificial transactions that Nicodemus was accustomed to. For Nicodemus and the Pharisees, if you sin you need to pay this penalty of two doves, or a sheep, or whatever. God stands far off as judge and disciplinarian demanding retribution for misdeeds.
But Jesus paints a picture of something very different – he describes a loving parent who gives birth to a renewed person ‘by the Spirit’.
And Christians have been missing that fundamental point ever since. read on