This week I was blessed with the opportunity to lead worship at Pilgrim Lutheran. As such, I don’t have a video of the service to offer. But here’s the message I gave. Enjoy!
1Now 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.
Those who have heard me preach know that I like to start my messages with something a little funny. The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus reminds me of the one about a similar encounter between a third-grade teacher and one of her students. One day the teacher was trying to explain to her class that she was a born-again Christian. She asked the class if any of them were born-again Christians too. Not really knowing what it meant to be born-again, but wanting to please and impress their teacher, many little hands suddenly shot up into the air. There was just one girl who didn’t raise her hand. So the teacher asked her why she had decided to be different and kept her hand down. The girl said, “Because I’m not a Christian.” The teacher asked, “So what are you then?” The girl replied, “I’m an atheist.” The teacher was a little put off, her face slightly red. She asked the girl why she was an atheist. The girl responded, “It’s just that my family isn’t religious. My mom’s atheist, and my dad’s atheist, so I’m atheist.” The teacher was mad now. “That’s no reason,” she said loudly. “What if your mom was a moron and your dad was a moron. What would you be then?” “Then,” said the girl, “I’d be a born-again Christian!”
If we can’t laugh at ourselves as Christians then I think we’re taking ourselves far too seriously! Being a born-again Christian might seem moronic to that little girl but I think her response is far more profound than she thought it was. If I was her teacher, I would have pressed her a little further to explain what she thought was so moronic about being a born-again Christian. Perhaps she was simply echoing the larger culture’s perception of what a born-again Christian consists of. Go out and ask anyone on the street what makes a person a born-again Christian and you’ll likely get a response describing a charismatic nutball who can’t stop talking about the sheer joy they experience in knowing that they are a redeemed child of God. They go around in a continuously happy state of being, oblivious to the worries of this world, because they are overwhelmingly grateful for the gift of redemption. And they want others to experience their joy so they get up in people’s faces and try to convince them to repent of their sins and claim Jesus as their personal Savior. Very loud, very abrasive, seemingly disillusioned people…it’s no wonder that little girl thinks of them as moronic or at least not very reasonable people. The culture as a whole has developed a particular distaste for and distrust of such people. Born-again Christians have become these sort of comical caricatures of so-called “real life Christians”…the average quiet, faithful, generous, loving, God-fearing Christians. Born-again Christians are far too obsessed about evangelism and getting others to become Christians and need to tone it down a bit, or so the culture as a whole believes. Which is ironic to a dying church! The church needs those charismatic, evangelizing born-again Christians to help it grow! The culture has always and will always try to minimize and degrade the enthusiasm of born-again Christians. That little girl’s claim that born-again Christians are moronic illustrates this. They’re no more moronic than any passionate, convicted person of faith. Having faith IS moronic! Believing in things that can’t be seen or understood doesn’t take mental capacity. Faith involves courage and hope and persistence and self-discipline. You don’t have to be smart to have faith. I’ve often found a direct correlation between faith and intelligence: the smarter one gets, the less faith they have. But that is an illusion in itself. No one can know everything, only God can. We are all limited in what we can know in this world. Collectively we can know a lot but individually less so. Even then, our collective knowledge is pale in comparison to the wisdom of God. God knows things we can’t even imagine, let alone ponder! But getting back to born-again Christians…
Truth be told, ALL Christians are born-again Christians, charismatic and not-so-charismatic alike. We fellow Christians easily get caught up in the cultural distaste and distrust of born-again Christians but we were also born anew through the waters of baptism and by clinging to the truth of today’s gospel passage: “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.” Well, we believe in him and because of that belief we are born again. We will not perish but will have eternal life. We believe this, we confess this, we are assured by this! We may not get up in people’s faces and share our witness and joy but live by the same hope and promise. Our lives have been redeemed and restructured! God has changed our lives whether we let others know about it or not! We know the mercy and love of God or we want to know his mercy and love! That is what distinguishes us from others. Not that we are any better than anyone else. We’re not smarter, holier, humbler, more deserving than others. We’re simply blessed with an awareness of God’s love and grace and mercy. GOD LOVES US! GOD WILL ALWAYS LOVE US! We rejoice in his love for us!
At the start, I mentioned that the girl’s response to her teacher’s confession was more profound than she may have known. Being a born-again Christian…a Christian…period…is moronic and stupid. It takes courage to be a Christian. It takes persistence and doubt and self-discipline. Recall what Joshua told the wandering Israelites shortly after Moses’ death, “I hereby command you: be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (1:9) God is with us…God is within us. There is no fear in God, nor should there be fear within us. God knows all, God loves all, God blesses all. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.” (16:13) God is good. We see his goodness, we experience his goodness, we know his goodness. We live because of his goodness.
As we continue along our journey through Lent, let us somehow find a way to bear witness to God’s goodness. Maybe not Evangelically like our caricatured born-again brothers and sisters in Christ. Perhaps through a simple kindness, a blessing, a release from bondage. God has changed us and redeemed us. We are born-again! Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.