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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sixteen years ago today, the Haug family was born. Of course, it wasn’t in the traditional way. Certainly, we had all the anxieties and fears of expectant parents. We had waited for at least nine months. But our children weren’t going to be welcomed into our home as new-borns. My wife Janna and I sat in a court room in Ekatarinburg, Russia staring at a stern-faced judge dressed in a black robe with a white fluffy collar waiting for the word to be said, that we were to be a mother and father to our two sons. March 16th was their birthday into our family, and so, to this day, we call this day our Family Day. Thus, a Russian-Norwegian-American family was born.
So let me ask you. Does it make any difference whether a child is born in Russia or in Minnesota? Does your place of birth tell others something valuable or essential about who you are? No doubt, most of us would answer this question, “Yes, of course it does.” In my home town of Austin, the home of the original Spam, we often say that you can take the boy out of the small town, but you can’t take the small town out of the boy. Though as an aside, I don’t think I know anyone who grew up in Austin who misses the smell of the packing plant.
We often use a person’s place of birth as a kind of label, or identifier which tells us something about the way he or she thinks or acts. Certainly, the place you were raised has an effect on your personality, as does the way you were raised. But truthfully, isn’t the actual place you were born merely an accident?
The visitor who came to Jesus by the cover of night certainly couldn’t imagine the place of birth as being unimportant. He believed in genealogies and the significance of the place of birth. And perhaps so do you. But my friends, the story of Nicodemus and Jesus, and its invitation to be born again, should turn that assumptions upside down. Instead, Jesus says, that your spiritual birth is far more important than your physical birth. And that is what we shall meditate upon today.
Nicodemus came to Jesus as a night visitor under the cover of darkness so that no one would recognize him. He knocked at the door of the Rabbi from Nazareth, and only when he stood in the safety of closed doors, would he reveal himself. Nicodemus was after all a Pharisee, and he knew that he was taking a risk. He didn’t come at night because he was afraid or timid, but he came to Jesus in a hidden way because he was a responsible and respected person of noble birth.
Nicodemus knew that people looked to him for guidance, and that they were waiting for his judgment, and so he asked, “Jesus, we know that you are a teacher; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” But hardly had Nicodemus begun the discussion then Jesus turned the tables on him. “Nicodemus, you have all the fine ornaments of religion. No one would question your sincerity. Your knowledge of scripture is praiseworthy. Your theological astuteness is great. You love religion and theology. You love the Law and the Ten Commandments. But you lack one thing. You have no passion for life.” And Jesus was right.
Of course, Nicodemus is not alone. It happens to many people in life and not just pastors and theologians… especially to those who lives have been planned out for them from birthplace to grave. For all of us, there are moments when life gets a little empty and it seems as if you are just doing the same things over and over again. It happens to us in our jobs when we simply go through the motions and the work becomes stale. It happens at school when your inner enthusiasm is gone and everything simply seems dull and routine. It even happens in marriage. At one time, your marriage had a touch of excitement, but now it seems merely repetitious. Regretfully, your conversations always lead to arguments Even from the start, you know where it is going to end. All the passion for life and living is gone.
Perhaps that’s how you feel about your faith this Lenten season. You have no passion or energy for life or God. Like Nicodemus you are only an occasional night visitor, and you’re curious if there is anything more? You’re in a rut, and you wonder whether the place you were born really does define your life? Isn’t there another way? To those who are searching for such clues and answers, Jesus responds, “Yes. There is. You must be born again.”
Nicodemus scoffed at such a thought. “Can a grown man crawl into his mother’s womb?” What does it mean, “To be born again?” Even in scripture the phrase can be translated in several ways as born again, or born anew or born from above. For some Christians, to be born again is to have an exciting and defining religious experience which allows them to make a decision to follow Christ. Oddly, this certainly wasn’t what Jesus expected of Nicodemus. There is no mention of such decision making or an altar call. Mind you I do believe that there should be an excitement and renewal of the faith in being born again, but it doesn’t have to be defining or dramatic. At the turn of the 19th century, the American Law Professor and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his biography, “I might have entered the ministry, if certain clergyman I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.”
Jesus himself says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know from whence it comes or whither it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” A personal religious experience is just as elusive. Some Christian portray the renewed faith in their lives as a heavy and sad burden which we should be avoided. We seldom look upon such a Christian faith as a gift to enjoy and cherish. My poor wife Janna is reminded of this when she introduces herself to new acquaintances as the wife of a pastor, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” they say, did he tell you this before you were married?”
No, I don’t think being born again needs to be overly dramatic or timed to particular place or hour. It doesn’t need to heavy and judgmental. For me, being reborn spiritually, is similar to being born physically. Just as we were completely unaware of what was happening at our physical birth, we may be just as unaware of our spiritual rebirth. Rather for me, “To be born again” is simply to recognize the spiritual mothers and fathers in your life who have fostered, nourished, and nurtured your faith so that you would come to believe.
Unfortunately, many poor souls are completely uncomfortable with the thought of being born again, because it suggests that they might have to give up something. Why change something deep inside yourself, when life is merely dull or stale? Why be born again? Simply said, because Jesus has something greater for you.
If I am honest, I would have to admit that I have been born again many times in my life. I was reborn when I accepted to the call to ordained ministry. I was reborn when I was married. I was reborn again when I became a father. Yes, I have been born again many times in my life, and I hope to be re-born, from above, many more times. You see, in Christ, my place of birth isn’t that important. It does not need to define who I am and what I can be and do. To be born again is to open yourself to the possibilities God places before- even to things that you cannot imagine- such as opening your heart and home to two Russian boys.
So what is the most important message of this morning’s lesson? Just this, you and I, we needn’t be defined by our place of birth. You can be saved from your emptiness, your hurt, your pain and your meaninglessness, and you can be born again. That is God’s desire for you and for all creation. That is the message Jesus came to share with you, Nicodemus and all night visitors. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in his should have eternal life.” This grand remaking of souls and lives is possible because God loves you more than you love yourself and allows his spirit to blow where it wills.
In the 1800s, some people attempted to build a bridge across Niagara Falls. Engineers were consulted. Money was raised. No stone was left unturned, but they could not get a cable across the Falls. They could not float it across the rapids. They could not shoot it far enough with a bow and arrow. They could not climb the steep cliffs and get it across that way. Finally, a ten-year old boy made a ridiculous suggestion: Fly the cable across the gorge on a kite. How absurd! How foolish! Yet the red-faced engineers finally flew the cable across with a kite. It cannot be seen, but the wind blows where it wills. That is God’s way- freely given.
Occasionally in life, we come to the point that we know we need to be born all over again, and we long to be saved from all that is wrong within us. At such times, it is tempting to go back out, retreating into ourselves and into the familiar darkness. But there is another way. It is to allow yourself to be open to the Holy Spirit. At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Nicodemus came as visitor by night, but he opened himself to God’s spirit and he allowed Jesus to become a permanent resident of his heart. At the end of his ministry three years later the venerable Pharisee he had become Jesus’ follower, and he was there to take Jesus’ body down from the cross. Three days later, he was there as well to celebrate Jesus’ victory over death when he broke the shackles of the grave.
How about you my friend? Is your physical birth more important than your spiritual birth? Are you still defined by your time and place of birth, or have you been reborn to celebrate God’s new possibilities? The choice is yours. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.