Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"Another Birth Story"

John 3: 1-15

Numbers 21: 4-9

      On this second Sunday of Advent, we’re going to read about a birth story, but probably not the

birth story you’d expect during this season.  This morning, we’re not going to open to either of the

birth narratives of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels.  Instead, we’re going to bring

our attention to another birth story within which – according to New Testament scholar F. F.

Bruce – is found some of Jesus’ most mysterious, yet universally-applicable, teaching.  This story is

recorded only in the Gospel of John in the form of a conversation between the grown-up Jesus, and

a man named Nicodemus.  Let’s lean in and listen.

          (Read John 3:1-15)

      Nicodemus is identified right off as a Pharisee, and “a leader of the Jews.”  That means he was

a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling Jewish council in Jerusalem.  The Sanhedrin

would have been to the temple what the Session is to our local church.  Nicodemus appears to

know Jesus, at least by reputation.  And he was genuinely impressed with what he knew of this

radical rabbi who was turning Galilee and Judah upside down with His teaching and healing

ministries.  While most of the other members of the Sanhedrin considered Jesus’ ministry illegitimate and even blasphemous,

Nicodemus sensed that the movement Jesus was leading was truly from God.  But because of his political position and reputation, Nicodemus was unwilling to

commit himself, or even lend open support, to Jesus’ cause. 

      Have we ever felt that way about Jesus?  Perhaps we’ve sensed that Jesus is worth taking

seriously.   But because of our position within our family, or circle of friends, or workplace, or

school, or community, we’ve been hesitant; unwilling to even explore, let alone commit to, such a

cause.  What might people say if they saw us doing the religion thing?

      Fearing that he might lose influence among his colleagues on the council, Nicodemus came to

Jesus under the cover of darkness.  The last thing he wanted was to be seen openly engaging with

this firebrand Nazarene.  The conversation begins with an icebreaker in the form of a compliment: 

“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.” 

      This can be said about Jesus:  He was never one to get into a game of kiss my ring.  We can

imagine Jesus thinking to Himself:  Nice try Nicodemus.  But surely you didn’t come out here in the

middle of the night to swap compliments.  There must be something else on your mind.  What is your

agenda?  So Jesus responds in typical fashion.  Instead of replying, “Well gee Nick, it’s so nice to

have your vote of confidence,” [Jesus was no politician] He brushes aside the flattery and gets right

to the heart of the matter.  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without

being born from above.”  “Whoa, Rabbi.  What does this have to do with anything?”  You see, Jesus

had a way of seeing through butter up language and hidden agendas.  And often like Nicodemus,

we too are startled by Jesus responses to us.  Jesus is addressing a problem Nicodemus doesn’t

even have…… or perhaps, and especially as a religious leader, a problem he does have, but isn’t

willing to acknowledge. 

     What Jesus sees is a man of power and influence, respected by colleagues and congregation

alike; in the dead of night; crouching among rocks and shrubs, with something more on his mind

than complimenting Jesus on His God-inspired teaching.  What Jesus’ hears is Nicodemus’ unasked

question:  “How do I find the Kingdom of God?” – a question later verbalized by the likes of a lawyer

and a rich young ruler.  Jesus’ unsolicited answer to this unasked question blows Nick away. 

Perplexed and troubled, Nicodemus replies half-jokingly:  “How can anyone be born after having

 

grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Here, although

Nicodemus is a spiritual leader, we see he is thinking purely in worldly terms.  “Come on Jesus. 

That’s silly.  We’re only born once.”  But Jesus replies with all seriousness:  “Very truly, I tell you, no

one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” 

      A perplexing and troubling saying indeed!  What is Jesus talking about?  Some commentators

have suggested that “water” here alludes to the baptisms done by John in the Jordan River; a

practice Nicodemus would have been familiar with.  But in this context, I interpret “born of  

water” to mean born of the womb of one’s mother.  Jesus is telling Nicodemus there’s another

birth story beyond physical birth – ‘born of water and the Spirit” with a capital S.  Jesus goes on:

“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit [with a capital S] is spirit [with

a small s].  Jesus is trying to help Nicodemus understand that if he is born only of the flesh, which

is perishable, he will someday perish in the flesh.  For flesh – the physical – cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

But if he is born of the Spirit, which is imperishable, he will live in the spirit; for only the spirit can enter the Kingdom of God. 

A generation later, the Apostle Paul offered the best commenary on this teaching of Jesus when he wrote to the church in Corinth: 

“Listen, I will tell you a mystery!.....this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on

immortality.  When this [happens], then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been

swallowed up in victory.’” 

      This was for Nicodemus – and is for us – a very difficult concept to grasp.  I have another story

that may clarify.  Many years ago, my friend Jerry Doughty was in his bed battling through the

final weeks of terminal cancer.  It was around Christmas time, as I remember the tree in the living room where he laid. 

During one of our last conversations, he told me that he had never been a

spiritual person.  He preferred the carnal features of life.  But during the course of his struggling

with his illness, he came to accept Christ as his Lord and Savior.  He took his focus off the physical,

focusing instead on the spiritual side of life.  Jerry was not a well-educated man.  But he remarked

with the wisdom of a great sage that had he not changed his focus – his orientation – when his

body finally gave out, he would have nothing to take with him.  His peace came from the knowledge that his impending

physical death could not claim victory over his spiritual life.  And Jerry

did die in peace.  His story illustrates that being “born” of the “Spirit” is about a radical change of

orientation, from focus on the worldly to focus on the spiritual.

      A third time, Jesus speaks of being “born from above,” or a variant reading “born anew.”  But

Jesus adds something of great import.  He tells Nicodemus not to be astonished – not to be blown

away – by this idea of being born again in the spirit.  “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.”  Is this Jesus’

way of saying that one cannot cause oneself to be born again or anew, anymore than one can

cause oneself to be born the first time?  Are we in control of the movement of God’s Spirit?  Jesus

is making clear that we are not.  We can desire it.  But Jesus is teaching Nicodemus – and us – that

it is only by the unrestrained action of God’s Holy Spirit that such spiritual rebirth can take place.

Moreover, we may see the effects – the fruits – of spiritual rebirth or reorientation.  But as with

the wind, we can only see the effect.  We cannot any more see the Spirit than we can see the

wind.

      In spite of all Nicodemus’ great learning, and all his qualifications as a teacher of the Law, he

     still doesn’t quite get it.  So Jesus alludes to the story we read earlier from the Book of Numbers. 

Surely this would make sense to an expert on the Torah.  So Jesus tries to meet Nicodemus at his

greatest point of understanding.  In that Old Testament story, only those who turned and looked

up at the bronze snake, which God commanded Moses to make, would escape certain death. Only

those who reoriented themselves were given a new lease on life.  In verse 14, Jesus gives an

answer to Nicodemus about the ultimate means of being reborn in the Spirit, thus having victory

over death in the flesh:  “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the

Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  The Christological

parallel is to Jesus being lifted on a cross, and all who turn to Him in spirit – turn to Him from the

heart – will overcome death.  Put another way, we have new life – born anew life – in the spirit. 

      This morning’s passage is challenging; especially to us Presbyterians who don’t readily talk

much about – and at times even feel threatened by – born again, or born anew, or born of the

Spirit language and experiences.  We may find ourselves confused; scared off by this sort of talk. 

Yet the fact remains that just as He called Nicodemus, Jesus calls us to a radical reorientation of

our lives.  He calls us to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, and to another birth story.  This teaching

seems so timely during a season in which the worldly dimension of Christmas vastly overshadows

the spiritual dimension.  We can’t, on our own, accomplish this reorientation; this rebirth.  But

God can.  Our part is to birth a genuine desire for God’s movement in our lives; to allow God’s

Spirit to move freely upon us and within us, and in so doing, to look beyond things of the flesh. 

During this Advent season, come seeking the Child, and all the spiritual reality to which His

coming points.  Let’s reorient ourselves to face the star which points the way.  Our prayer is that

on our journey to Bethlehem this season, we meet the Child, and ourselves become part of

another birth story.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102