The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 12, 2017
Today’s scripture strikes some of us as offensive. For what Jesus says here is an insult to our pride, an affront to our ego. He’s asserting that we just don’t have it in us, given our limited ethical and spiritual potential, to get it right with God and to keep it right with God.
In other words, we are so devoid of what it takes to do the job that our best efforts can’t accomplish the improvement we need. We can better ourselves, but we will still fall short.
This means we don’t need a better us – but a new us. We don’t need reformation; we need transformation.
We need, Jesus says here, to be born a second time. Anōthen is the Greek word translating Jesus’ original Aramaic. Anōthen means either “again” – thus conveying the idea of another birth after our first one – or “from above” – conveying the idea of the intervention of something beyond us. Either way, the thought is that – even if we’re a very good person like Nicodemus – our best hope lies, not in digging deep within us, but in our being re-made by a power from outside us.
For Jesus the highest life – though it incites vigorous action from us – begins with something done to us, and with our contributing as little to it as a baby contributes to its birth – though, unlike a baby, we must choose to let this birth happen to us.
First Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” That is to say that, apart from the inception in us of something from beyond us, we don’t have the powers of perception to discern what we’re missing.
We all tend to overestimate how much we’re able to apprehend what’s actually out there. We are in fact so limited in our ability to take in reality, that we can’t take in how limited we are in our ability to take in reality! (For example, Nicodemus a smart and well-educated man doesn’t have a clue as to what Jesus is driving at.)
Even at the physical level, our powers of perception are severely limited. Human beings can discern only 1/3rd of the range of the sun’s light and only 1/70th of the spectrum of electromagnetic energy. We can detect only1/50th of the smells beagles can. And there are all sorts of sounds we have no capacity to hear.
What’s true at the physical level is all the more true at the spiritual. We can’t pick up half of what’s there in that dimension of reality. We need to be told things and/or be given powers of perception we don’t have by nature.
Second, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Whether Jesus is speaking of the water of the womb or of the water of baptism we’ll leave unexplored, lest we lose sight of the main point, which is: We can come into a new way of being solely by the action of God, by a flow of grace from the Spirit – akin to the changed flow of water that transformed Chicago a century ago.
At the start of the 20th century, the Chicago River was a shallow, sluggish sewer. Industries and residents both dumped their waste into it, so that its waters spread infectious diseases and created a combustible sludge that could carry a fire from one side of the river to the other.
Engineers dug 28 miles of canal, moving more earth than was moved in the building of the Panama Canal. On January 2, 1900, a worker opened a sluice gate at Lake Michigan, and its clear, fresh waters flowed into the Chicago River and reversed its direction. The good, clean water pushed the sewer sludge out of the city, improved the health of its residents, and enabled Chicago to grow into the great city it is.
In the same way, rebirth through the Spirit reverses the flow in our soul that determines the quality of our life. In a process that is both immediate and unfolding, it pushes out the dangerous waters of sin and fills us with water that brings health and the ability to develop.
A young man named Jordan was drowning in the sewer water of gang life. One night, when he was high, he robbed a 7-11 store and beat the clerk within an inch of his life for being slow in handing over the money. Jordan escaped the police and went into hiding.
Laying low in a new city, with time on his hands, Jordan reflected on who he’d become, and was horrified at what he saw. He tried to turn his life around, but kept falling back into drug use and crime. Eventually, he gave up and gave himself over to God. Upon that decision he underwent a second birth and emerged into a different man. He worked hard in honest, manual labor to provide for his children. He served his community as a deacon in his church. And, finally, he turned himself in to the authorities, served some time, and made restitution to the clerk and the store. He says he would not have done any of that had not God’s Spirit changed him in ways he could never effect on his own.
That’s what happens in the inception of grace through a rebirth from the Spirit. But how does it happen from the human side?
Jesus teaches that we can do nothing to make it happen. For it is an act of God’s Spirit, and the Spirit is like the wind, which we cannot control. We can know the effect of the Spirit, but we cannot know ahead of time when He will blow God’s grace into us and change us.
If then there is nothing we do to make it happen, is there nothing we do to allow it to happen? Indeed, there is! We give God permission to transform us in the ways that are only possible to Him; and we set up the conditions by which He might. We tear down the windbreaks of sinful rebellion against God we’ve raised, and erect windmills of the soul to make good use of the power and energy the Spirit blows through our life, when God decides the moment is right.
We do that much. And then we can do nothing but wait in steadfast hope and readiness.
A pastor was speaking about the Spirit’s sovereignty, and about our resultant inability to dictate the terms and times by which He blesses us. “The gift comes,” the pastor said, “not by our efforts in self-improvement or our attempted manipulations of the Spirit, but almost by accident.” Someone immediately asked, “If the Spirit comes almost by accident, why do you urge us to keep praying, reading the Bible and serving the community?” “So that,” the pastor replied with a smile, “you make yourself as accident-prone as possible.”
Let us make ourselves as accident-prone as possible for the inception of new life from God’s Spirit. Let us keep prepared, waiting in steadfast hope and readiness. After all, the Lord has promised that those who seek shall find.