Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
"How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."
"How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
"You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. - John 3:1-17
Jesus has no problem with clichés. He has no problem even becoming one. Becoming the origin of a slogan sown to clothing, painted on the chests of drunk football fans. Worn out as the verse most used to try and get people to be Christian. Jesus has no problem upsetting your expectations of a God, of a Savior, of a champion. He has no problem being seen by you as a nutcase, obsessed with telling you that he has taken care of everything and you have done nothing. He has no problem bringing the Spirit into the equation, telling you of your desperate need for salvation, for freedom, for rebirth, especially during Lent. He has no problem because he knows that life slaps you in the face with death every day. That the world can’t wait for you to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps and get to work just so you can lose your footing and fall again. That sin seeks a way to infiltrate and infect the process of life so much so that you might seem to believe that you can in fact shove yourself into your mother’s womb would actually be possible. Jesus has no problem with it because even if he becomes a cliché, he is a cliché for you.
Childbirth is the single greatest miracle known to humanity, I think. Similar ones could be gardening and farming, forests growing, even mold. Something that happens just naturally, without much that we do about it, it is always extraordinary to me. Having no real power ourselves, we find something just happening. A woman walking around making baby guts by eating and sleeping and breathing is a little too miraculous to say – Ehh. Whatever.
Or you plant a seed in the ground and water it, let the sun shine on it, and somehow, some way, the seed grows into a plant or a tree. You don’t have to tell it to do that. You also can’t plant an apple seed and have a cherry tree grow instead. It just is there as what it is.
How often do you see those things? How often do you open your eyes to look and behold all the things that you have absolutely no control over?
Regardless of whether you go to bed angry or happy, for instance, the sun comes up. You can’t do anything about it.
Regardless of whether you are full of hot air (like some of us are) or not, you can’t lift off of your seats right now and fly like birds.
Regardless of how much time you spend swimming, and trust me I have tried, you will never learn to breath under water.
As we heard on Ash Wednesday – Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
All of this may make you feel depressed, angry, frustrated. Maybe you think that this is a place, this church, to be uplifted because life sucks bad enough without the pastor bringing to mind your own smallness. But until we understand and find true the reality of our inabilities, we cannot understand the amazing ability of the work of God upon us and in us.
Whether you believe it or not, we are a cliché nation. We are a cliché church even. We so often will say – We’re all sinners. But how often do we actual think on sin? Our own sin? Owning those words “I confess that I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself.”
Or another one we say – We’re all saved by grace. We love that one. Until we start creating that laundry list in mind of what we need to add to the grace because it is just not fair to have forgiveness be so free. It seems so wrong. It doesn’t make sense, and shouldn’t. We shouldn’t get something for free, but get what we deserve. If we are to be free from sin, there must be a price.
A pastor, one day, called on a rather wealthy businessman in order to take him out to lunch. The businessman says “Sure. I’ll take you to my club.” Thinking the pastor will be impressed with the club, he shows him around, they get the best seat in the restaurant overlooking the ocean. They have a fabulous lunch with great conversation telling stories of kids and grandkids, bad golf games, and their love of the Beatles.
The meal gets finished and the businessman slides his plate away and says to the pastor, “Now, how much does the church need?”
The pastor says, “Nothing. I just wanted to get to know you.”
The man looks at the pastor a little stunned. “No. Really. How can I help you?”
The pastor repeats his previous statement. “I just wanted to meet you and hear your story; to get to know you.”
The businessman begins to weep, openly, at the table. He looks at the pastor and says, “I’ve never had anyone offer to take me out to lunch without needing something from me.”
That is our world. Everything has a price. Everything a cost. Everything an angle. Everything connected to something that has a monetary value until we get to Jesus and then we get stuck in the death spiral of clichés:
You must be born again.
Unless you are born of water and the spirit.
For God so loved the world.
Words that get bantered around, back and forth, used as taglines, to sell t-shirts, coffee mugs, and even bread boxes (“The bread of life can never go stale.”). We use them over and over again and it seems every time they are spoken, the life is sucked from them.
Maybe that is strategy of sin, death, and the devil. To lose the importance of the words and promises. To make them less valuable. Less meaningful. Because almost everyone can quote John 3:16 and yet very few seem to take the time to actual think that when Jesus says world, he means – YOU.
Nicodemus was a leader of the Jewish people. A member of the high council. A Pharisee so he knew his Bible. He probably prayed every day, could quote the Scriptures like nobody’s business, and out gave, out worked and even out loved his God and maybe even people more than you or I can give him credit for. But even he, a scholar, and educated man, faced with this Jesus, the preacher, can’t wrap his mind around this sermon – You, Nicodemus, must be born again. I don’t care about your works or obedience right now. You must be washed and reborn, or the Kingdom isn’t for you.
The actor here, the worker behind the cliché is not you, but God. Not some mystical catch phrase, but the Spirit coming to do the work the Spirit can’t help but do. Finding lost and dead sinners to give them new life in Jesus who dies for them. Taking people who are told the first commandment tells us to fear, love and trust the Lord your God and we find ourselves failing even at that. We may love him from time to time, find fear a little too daunting, and rarely have the stomach to trust that what he says is true. Normally we have the reaction of Nicodemus - How can this be? We have no clue. Nothing of this God business is fathomable because its so outside any sort of thought process we can have. Born again? How? Why? I am already born, walking around, doing my thing. Not realizing that in the eyes of God we are dead in trespasses and sins, needing the Spirit to use the holy AED to bring us again into the world. Born again as little children of faith, not enlightened adults who think they know everything.
The whole born again, John 3:16, drama seems to lose it’s power each year, each time we hear it, and yet, Jesus repeats it to you – you must be born again. You cannot believe that faith is achievable or life in Christ something you build from good works and perfect will. It is the intercession of Christ, digging deep into your heart, finding you dead as you are, and bringing you new life. Breathing the breath of the Spirit into you, nowhere from which you could prepare or understand, and the Spirit jumps on you to be born in the hands of the Creator God who has no problem making something out of nothing – as Paul says in our Romans reading.
Doing all of this by faith given to you to trust the words, regardless of the cliché. To believe in the promise that no matter how hard you try God is going to find you dead and give you birth again. Physically God was there in the beginning and now spiritually in your heart, putting you to death and bringing you to new life.
There is a reason, theologically, that we baptize babies. We baptize kids, adults, senior citizens, whomever. I’m available if you need me. But we baptize babies so that that baby can grow up and say they had nothing to do with that work of God upon them. Barely alive in the world and we come to the font, to bury them, putting them to death in Christ, and then to be raised, not by me or you, but by those words and the name above every name that is placed upon them.
Unless you are born by water and the Spirit you cannot see the Kingdom of God. Unless the work of God captures your heart, taking you away from all the world tries to do, you cannot see the Kingdom of God. And yet, in every cliché before you now, lies the Christ to tell you – Unless I am raised up on that cross, there will be no salvation. Unless I am given for the life of the world, that is for you sitting here now, there is no Kingdom. I came for you, to you, to rebirth you into my Kingdom. Here now, be born, arise, and live. Amen