Last week I mentioned that the church has a communication problem when it comes to the words ‘temptation’ and ‘sin’; modern people don’t hear those words in anything like the way people did in Bible times. So we trivialize them, or laugh at them, or deny any implication that they might describe us. How dare you suggest we’re sinners! We’re just as good as anyone else!
We’ve got a communication problem this week, too. Our Gospel reading for today is from the third chapter of John, and in the traditional translation, it includes that dreaded phrase, ‘born again’. Whatever was in John’s mind when he first wrote that phrase – or whatever was in the mind of Jesus when he first used it – we can be sure that’s not the first thing people think of today. Today, when we hear ‘born again Christian’, we think ‘Oh yes – those are the people who voted for Donald Trump!’ And while I’m sure that there’s a variety of political opinion in St. Margaret’s, I’m also pretty sure that the majority of us are shaking our heads over Mr. Trump! So if born again Christians like him, how can it be good to be a born again Christian?
But in our gospel, Jesus doesn’t appear to think that being a ‘born again Christian’ is a bad thing. I mentioned this once to a woman who told me that she ‘didn’t like born again Christians’. I pointed out to her that, according to Jesus, there is no other kind of Christian. All Christians are, by definition, ‘born again’ – or, as our NRSV translates it, ‘born from above’ (the Greek word, ‘anothen’, can be translated either way). In John 3:3 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”, and he adds in verse 5, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”.
So there’s a process we have to go through in order to enter the Kingdom of God. And remember, ‘The kingdom of God’ doesn’t mean Christians dying and going to heaven; it’s about the love and power of God healing and transforming this world so that it becomes the place God meant it to be when he created it in the first place, completely free of evil and sin. “Thy kingdom come” means “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Do you want to be part of that? I know I do! Well then, says Jesus, you need to be born again, born from above, born of water but also of the Holy Spirit.
How can we make sense of this today?
Let’s try to make sense of it by going back to our Old Testament reading. Let’s think about Abram – or, as he’s better known, Abraham. In later years Abraham was looked on as the father of the nation of Israel, but he didn’t start out living in what we now called Israel. His origins were further east, in a place Genesis calls ‘Ur of the Chaldees’, which most modern scholars think was in what is now southern Iraq, about two hundred miles southeast of Babylon. However, at some point in his adult life Abram and his family – including his father, his brothers, and their wives and children – left Ur. They had meant to move to Canaan – what is now Palestine or Israel – but for some reason they stopped in a city called Haran on what is now the southeastern border of Turkey, and lived there for a few years.
But when Abram was seventy-five, somehow (we don’t know exactly how), the God who created the universe spoke to him.
This is an amazing thing and we shouldn’t rush over it. I don’t know very much about the religion of Ur or Haran, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that it was very similar to the religion of Babylon. Like most people in the ancient near east, the Babylonians worshipped many different gods; Abram would have been surrounded by their temples and idols as he went about his daily life. The civic life of Ur and Haran would have included community sacrifices to the gods, and everyone would have known about the things they should and shouldn’t do if they wanted to avoid offending them.
But in the Hebrew text, Genesis is very specific about who was speaking to Abram; it doesn’t just say ‘God’ in general, or one of the gods of Babylonian religion. It uses the name by which the Israelites later came to know the one God, the creator of heaven and earth: ‘Yahweh’.
‘Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…So Abram went, as Yahweh had told him…’ (Genesis 12:1, 4a).
Abram had none of the things we use to deepen our spiritual lives today. He didn’t have the Bible. He didn’t have the sacraments. He didn’t have the teaching of Jesus. He didn’t have a community of like-minded believers. He didn’t have multiple generations of spiritual ancestors whose wisdom he could draw on. He was surrounded by people who worshipped the ancient gods of Babylon, and yet somehow he heard the one creator God speaking to him. “Leave all this behind, and go to the land I will show you”. Leave everything you know, leave your safety and security. “Where to, God?” “Never mind that; I’ll show you on the way there!”
We know that Abram kept herds and flocks. I can imagine him scratching his head in confusion: “But God, I need to know where I’m going to find pasture and water for my livestock. I need a plan. I can’t just walk by faith; if I get it wrong, the animals will die and I’ll be ruined”. We don’t know whether or not Abram prayed that sort of questioning prayer, but we know from later stories about him that he was exactly the kind of guy who would have asked those questions!
In our gospel reading, Nicodemus misunderstands what Jesus means when he talks about being born again, or born from above; he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). But here in Genesis we have an example of of an old man being born again. In the ancient world, seventy-five would have been a very great age indeed. Abram probably had his retirement plan figured out. I’m sure he thought he was long past the time of life when he would be going on adventures. But now he’s supposed to leave all his security behind, and follow by faith the God who had spoken to him. Leaving the security of the womb, out into the dark and dangerous and unknown world. It was like being born. Or born again.
So what does the story of Abram teach us about what a new birth is all about?
New birth is obviously a metaphor for a decisive change in a person’s life – a break with the past and a new beginning, walking by faith in the God who calls us. It reminds me of what Paul says in Philippians 3:13:
‘But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’.
‘Forgetting what lies behind’. Abram was called to make a real break with the past, and with the beliefs and practices of the vast majority of the people around him. He would have stood out like a sore thumb in the world he was living in. “What do you mean, you don’t worship the gods? What are you going to do when your crops fail? What are you going to do when someone in your family gets sick? And if you stop worshipping them, they’ll get mad at the whole community and bad things will happen to us”. I can just imagine the sort of pressure Abram would have been under, in his old home of Haran and in the new land he moved to in Canaan. In those days it would be taken for granted that if you moved to a new country you learned to worship the gods of that country. But everywhere Abram went in Canaan he built an altar to his God, the Creator, the one who had called him.
In the Book of Acts, we read about how Paul planted a new congregation in the Greek city of Thessalonica, and three weeks later he had to leave in a hurry because of persecution. A while later he wrote a letter to the tiny congregation in Thessalonica. He reminded them of their conversion – their ‘new birth’, if you like. He says,
‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
So that’s part of what it means to be ‘born again’ – we turn away from the idols everyone worships around us and turn to the true God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus. Nowadays, of course, those idols aren’t pagan gods like Ishtar and Marduk, or Zeus or Apollo. They’re more likely to be the idols of money and the things that it can buy, or popularity, or youth and beauty, or national security. Jesus himself refers to money as an idol when he says ‘You can’t serve both God and Mammon’. In the context, ‘mammon’ obviously means worldly wealth, but when you personalize a thing like that, giving it a name, you treat it like a false god, an idol. And money is obviously treated as an idol today. When they have a lot of money in the bank, people feel secure; they have confidence that bad things can’t do so much harm to them. They also have a sense that their life has a meaning or purpose; the grand narrative of our lives today is that increasing wealth means success, so if I’m getting wealthier, I’m obviously successful.
If we choose not to participate in the worship of mammon, we’ll look just as weird in the world today as Abraham did when he stopped worshipping the gods of his ancestors, or as the early Christians did when they refused to participate in civic sacrifices to the Greek and Roman gods, or to the emperor as a god. But that’s part of what it means to be born again. What’s the true god of our life, the thing we value more than anything else, the thing we rely on when the going gets tough, the thing that gives us a sense of security and purpose and meaning? Being ‘born again’ means to take the terrifying risk of dethroning that idol, and learning to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.
And that leads to the next thing: being ‘born again’ also means making a decision to adopt the priorities of God’s Kingdom. That’s why Jesus associates the two: ‘No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above’ (John 3:3). Jesus has told us what the values of the Kingdom are: we love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and we love our neighbour as ourselves. And we dedicate ourselves to living and sharing God’s love with the people around us. I love the way God describes that call to Abram in our first reading:
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2, 3b).
The kingdom of the world says it’s everyone for himself; it’s all about you as an individual, your rights, your success, your happiness. You are the king and god of all you see! But God’s kingdom says, “No! It’s about living each day with the intent of being a blessing to the people around you, a channel into their lives for God’s love and joy and stubborn hope.
So being born again means dethroning our favourite false gods, and committing ourselves to the Kingdom of God as our priority. A third thing we can say about it is that it’s two steps forward and one step back. A new birth is a beginning, but it’s not all plain sailing from that day forward. It wasn’t in Bible times and it isn’t today.
Abraham didn’t get it right all the time. When you read his story in Genesis chapters 12 to 25, it’s very honest about his doubts and weaknesses and failures. He has a hard time believing God’s impossible promise that he and his wife will have a son in their old age. He’s afraid of the people around him, and he tells lies to save his own skin. He lets himself be manipulated, especially by his wife. He’s not a superhero; he’s a real human being, just like us.
Last week we talked about our ‘human propensity to mess things up’. We break things, and people, and relationships. We’re given the freedom to make real decisions, but we seem to have an extraordinary talent for making bad decisions. I do it. You do it. We all do it. And this doesn’t instantly change when we become followers of Jesus. The day after we choose to follow Jesus, we’ve had exactly twenty-four hours’ training in the kingdom of God, and many years’ of training in the kingdom of the worship of money and success and selfishness! It’s going to be a long, gradual process, growing and learning and being trained as disciples of Jesus. A new birth is just that: a birth. After the birth comes the growing and learning. So we have to be patient with ourselves, and patient with others.
And we have to trust the Holy Spirit. That’s the last thing I want to say about being born again. It’s not something we can do to ourselves. We can’t make it happen. There’s no formula, no ceremony, nothing we can do to command the Holy Spirit to act. He’s like the wind: he’s not under anyone’s control.
“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” (John 3:8).
We humans tend to go through what we refer to as ‘phases’ in our lives. I went through my Star Trek phase, and my Bruce Cockburn phase, and my social activist phase, and when I look back on them now I shake my head a bit and think “Well, those were good things, but I probably went a bit overboard”.
But being a Christian, if it’s real, isn’t just a phase. When I was thirteen my Dad gave me a gentle challenge: “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” I went away that night, sat down on my bed in the privacy of my room, and prayed a simple prayer in exactly those terms: “Jesus, I give my life to you”. It wasn’t a dramatic experience; I didn’t see visions or really feel overwhelmed by the love of God. But when I look back on it now, I see it was one of the most important moments of my life. The Holy Spirit must have been at work; that’s the only thing I can say. That day I began a journey of learning to pray and listen to God’s Word in the Bible, learning to be a member of the Body of Christ, learning to do God’s will in the world. That journey has continued to this day. And I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit brought me to that moment. I have no other explanation for it.
And we can trust the Holy Spirit; he is God, and God is love. So don’t be afraid of this ‘born again’ talk. And don’t be afraid of what it means: dethroning your favourite idols, seeking first God’s Kingdom, moving slowly ahead in a ‘two steps forward, one step back sort of way’, all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit won’t lead you astray. He will lead you into the centre of God’s loving will for you, and that may be hard, but it will always be good.