Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” John 3:3-4
A friend told me about a frightening experience he had in college. Seems he took one of those throw away courses that you sometimes need to take to fill up electives and he chose what he thought would be an easy class. It was called, “Human Growth and Development.” It was a general health course about hygiene, reproduction, birth, adolescence, adulthood and old age.
One day they had a film called “The Miracle of Life” and it was during the days when all films were on the old school technology called VHS. The teacher was rather awkward when it came to machines and technology but fumbled her way through showing the videotape of a birth. And it was a graphic and full-frontal video of a birth. You saw everything as the baby came out into the midwife’s hands, cleaned up and handed it to its mother.
That is when the fumbling teacher turned to discuss the scene with the class of red-faced college students. As she turned she thought she hit the stop button on the VHS machine but she hit rewind and to the horror of the class, with her back to the screen explaining what had just occurred, the class sat mouths agape as the tape ran backward and they saw in slow motion the midwife take the newborn baby out of the mothers arms and shove it back where it came from.
You know those students are in therapy to this day.
That shocking image is some of what Nicodemus is going through in this nighttime conversation with Jesus when he says, Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ (vs. 7)
This image startled Nicodemus. And I think the statement “born again” might startle us as well. For many in our culture when they hear those words “Born Again” inner alarm bells start going off. It is a great way to get an extra seat on a bus or airplane just start talking about being born again.
What does the phrase born-again Christian mean to the average person in Seattle? What does it mean when it’s used in the media? It means someone who has had an emotional religious experience, usually, something fairly cathartic, maybe a crisis. It also refers to a narrow, dogmatic, and conservative brand of Christianity— cultic, fringe kind of people.
Why do born-again people so often make you wish they’d never been born the first time? ~ Katharine Whitehorn (British journalist, writer, and columnist)
That is how most people feel in our culture when they hear that metaphor to describe an individual today.
But, in this night-time conversation with Nicodemus when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born again,” he is not commending to him a particular view of immigration reform legislation or gun control laws. Jesus is using a central image for the transformation that God births in us through Jesus.
We All Need a New Birth
Jesus is saying that if we want to actually taste life with God; his kingdom, his rescue, presence, mercy, and restoration we will need a transformation that is comprehensive not unlike new birth.
People who belong to Jesus are birthed into a new way of being in which they share in the life of God. When I was conceived and born into this world some 58 years ago, I passed from a way of life for 9 months that is similar and yet quite different the moment I drew my first breath. And having been born I carry with me forever the genetic properties of Robert and Earlene Chambers. I have their chromosomes, blood, genes in me as a very part of me.
It is similar when a person is born from above. They share in the very life of God.
By the phrase born again is expressed not the correction of one part, but the renovation of the whole nature. ~ John Calvin
Jesus does not intend to merely tweak our lives or offer us minor course correction. Jesus intends to completely renovate and restore us to who He intended mankind to be when he dreamed us up before time. He intends to birth us into a new kind of life. A life from outside this reality. Birth from above where we actually share and are connected to God’s life.
And I believe that it is this that all of us most deeply desire.
There is a photo advertising plastic surgery of Michelangelo’s depiction of God on the Sistine Chapel touching a button to an elevator to his office. The caption at the bottom of the picture is “Be Born Again.”
What is it that you and I are really after? With our plastic surgery, our resume padding, our fad dieting, our football deflations, and our frantic chasing after more success after more success? What we are after? We want to be born again. We want a new life. We are not convinced that the life we are living is a life worth living.
I wish that I could sit down over coffee, let two minutes of complete silence hang between us so that our spirits are settled, and then ask each of you this question: What’s bothering you?
And as we pull that thread on the sweater surrounding your soul, I wonder what might come unraveled? I think we would see exactly where you would love to have a new birth.
Jesus says that kind of soul-renovation comes, not from a tweak on the outside, but from a restoration of the whole of you that begins on the inside. What you and I need is not a minor alteration, but a new birth.
I wonder where you and I might be looking for a new life right now. Where is our elevator button? Am I seeking it in the externals of life, or am I seeking it where it can actually be found—from birth that comes from God?
The New Birth Is a Gift
All of us know, intuitively, that birth is something that happens to us and that we had nothing to do with it in any way. Not a single one of us did anything to bring about our own natural birth. And Jesus’ point here is that it is the same with birth that comes from above. We can’t grab, earn, or conjure up life with God. The fact that we have a life with God is not due to any of our doing.
It’s all about that grace, that grace, that grace.
Like the old hymn writer Augustus Toplady said over two hundred years ago:
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
We can’t do anything to merit God’s grace, we can only receive it as a gift. Because if anyone could have merited favor with God based on achievement it would have been Nicodemus.
The resume is impressive:
A Pharisee—one of the intellectual guardians of the Law.
Member of the Sanhedrin—the esteemed ruling council.
Israel’s teacher—the authority, the one whose opinion could sway the vote, the one whose words were most quoted.
Most impressive. Nicodemus is at the top of the religious ladder, looking down.
But the view from the top is, at best, disappointing. And now, he steps down from that ladder to walk the streets. Searching.
And it is this successful, powerful, at-the-top-of-his-game-guy Jesus says, “You need another birth.”
This is what is hard and beautiful about the Christian faith. Because our faith, unique from all other religions, says “Nobody is disqualified on the one hand and nobody is good enough on the other.”
Grace is why pimps and prostitutes flocked to Jesus because they understood that their past didn’t keep them from life with God. But this is also why many of the priests, professors and the pious had a hard time with Jesus because their past didn’t get them any special favors with God. Nobody is disqualified and nobody is good enough for life with God. A new birth can only be given to you.
Nicodemus accepted the gift and moved in the direction of the new birth, I think I will too.