Sermon -- John 3.1-17


""Close Encounter of a Birth Kind""

During my seminary days I worked on the campus landscaping crew. On rainy days, one of our usual jobs was all the separate work areas to convene at the shop for tool maintenance. We would split up into groups and sharpen every kind of tool you can imagine. On one such day I was sitting with a group of married men who for some reason began telling of their experiences witnessing the birth of their children. Each one went through the details of putting on scrubs, holding their wife''s hand, etc. They all seemed to speak proudly of the joy they were able to share witnessing the birth of their children. Finally one guy spoke up, ""Well, it wasn''t that way for me. I almost got sick during the whole time. My wife''s face was making such painful contortions, she was sweating, she was yelling, nothing I did seemed to help. Then this bundle of blue, shriveled up skin comes out, and the first thing the doctor said was, ''He looks just like you!''"" His honesty caught us off guard, and then, of course, we all had a good chuckle about his close encounter with birthing.

This text from John 3 tells of another kind of encounter that has to do with birthing; a different kind of birthing. Nicodemus came to talk to Jesus at night and began by saying how they had all seen his work, seen his signs, and they all knew that he surely had come from God (the ''they'' and ''we'' meaning his fellow Jewish leaders and observers in general). Nicodemus was being polite, showering Jesus with a compliment. But the response he got caught him off guard. ""I tell you what, no one can see God''s kingdom unless they experience birth again.""

And immediately Nicodemus is confused. What did that comment have to do with his opening statement. I told him that we thought he was surely one sent from God because of what we had observed, and he said I had to experience birth again. What? Naturally, Nicodemus starts thinking about how on earth can someone do that again. Everyone knows that most mothers don''t want to go through that again. Everyone knows the logistics just aren''t feasible. Everyone knows that this is the most absurd thing anyone could say.

So Jesus begins to unpack this unusual statement about birth. He says things like, ""Well, there are births, and then there are births. Water''s involved but so is spirit. It''s kind of like the wind. It blows around freely. You hear it but can''t see it. You see the results of it. This is the kind of birth I''m talking about."" And Nicodemus responds, ""What on earth are you talking about?"" And so begins an encounter with one seeking life, and one giving life. In fact, it''s an encounter with one who is very familiar with the source of life. You see, Jesus tells Nicodemus that being in relationship with God is not about thinking in terms of just being born. That is important. Jesus knew as well as anyone the importance of mothers. But he said when it comes to God''s realm, there is a birth of a different sort. It''s not about being born of flesh, but it''s about experiencing birth as if you were being born all over again. Nicodemus no doubt was used to talking about God in terms of ritual and law. He and his colleagues thought that being good was the highest aim. He thought that keeping the commandments as their tradition has taught them was the way to God. And yet Nicodemus came seeking something that maybe he didn''t even know what it was. After seeing the signs, everyone was convinced that he was from God, just like the prophets of old. There was something different about Jesus and so he went for a private tutorial.

Jesus said in a nutshell, if you really want to see God''s realm, then all you have to do is this: nothing! What? Nothing? No wander Nicodemus thought this strange. Even then they knew that sloth was a cardinal sin. By doing nothing Jesus summarized by putting the action in the right place: ""Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may have life eternal."" Nicodemus was so caught up in his side of being in covenant -- keeping the law, observing the rituals and holy days -- that he forgot that it was God who gave the covenant in the first place. Jesus reminds Nicodemus -- and us -- that God gives this gift of Jesus to us. And as it is with all gifts, all we need do is receive it. The analogy of this gift that Jesus uses is twofold: it''s like being born and it''s like the wind. And we like Nicodemus miss it on both points.

Being born is perhaps the greatest gift any of us can have. Eugene Lowry reminds us: ""The one thing no one can ever do is birth oneself. Birth is always a gift of another."" [1] So it is with God''s gift to us. To encounter God is like experiencing birth all over again. It is freely given to all who would, like Nicodemus, seek out the answers to life''s questions. But not all people grasp the significance of birth and gift. Some people don''t know how to give, and some don''t know how to receive. We still get caught in doing so much that we lose the sense of the giftedness of life.

Nicodemus of all people should have made the connection however. The choice of words by Jesus, though profound in their meaning, may not have been that peculiar after all. According to rabbinic tradition, birth was often talked about when referring to proselytes: ""Rabbi Jose ben Halafta said, ''A proselyte who embraces Judaism is like a newborn child. God cannot therefore now chastise him for deeds done or duties neglected before his new birth.''"" [2]

In the same way, God encounters us like newborn children. God gives us the gift of life, healing, peace, grace, and salvation. Just as birth is a gift that something we can never do for ourselves, so are God''s gifts to us. All we need do is receive them.

Then Jesus talked about the wind. It''s interesting that in both Hebrew and Greek, wind and spirit are interchangeable. Jesus said that we don''t know where the wind comes from, we can''t grasp it, we can''t really see it, we can''t control it, but we see the evidence of it. So it is with the gift of God''s spirit. Paul Tillich''s description is timeless: ""One can compare the Spiritual Presence with the air we breathe, surrounding us, nearest to us, and working life within us. . . . Sometimes the wind becomes storm, grand and devastating. Mostly it is moving air, always present, not always noticed."" [3] Apparently it went unnoticed to Nicodemus. Yet in God''s own freedom, God moves about in our midst. And it''s not just a presence that rests in our midst, but it''s a presence and a power that permeates our being. It transforms us inside and out. It gives birth to a newness of life, a life beginning again for the first time.

Nicodemus came seeking something. We sometimes give him a raw deal when it comes to faith. Later he appears in John''s gospel again, but the level of his faith is unclear. What stands out in this encounter with the Christ, Nicodemus is invited to see faith and therefore God through a different lens. Jesus invites him to experience birth in a different way. He invites Nicodemus to receive the gift of life, life that come from knowing God. In his searching and in his duty and allegiance to his religion, Nicodemus neglects to see the heart of his covenant -- God''s presence in his midst. And we do the same. We get so caught up in ""doing"" the things of life and religion that we often miss the gift. In this season of Lent, may we slow down long enough to experience birth again. In our slowing down, may we slow down enough to just do nothing. In so doing, may we remember that there''s nothing we can do to be birthed. It is something that must always be done for us. So it is with God''s presence in our lives -- it is God''s gift to us. In our relationship with God, an encounter of birth kind, can not only give us a new awareness of God''s presence, but can in some ways begin anew life in God''s realm. And like the wind, all we need do is be still and let God''s gentle grace blow in our midst. Amen.

[1] Eugene Lowry, ""The Narrative Quality of Experience as a Bridge to Preaching."" in Journeys toward Narrative Preaching, Wayne Bradley Robinson, ed. (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1990), p. 83.

[2] Smith, Dennis E. and Williams, Michael E., eds. The Storyteller''s Companion to the Bible: Volume Ten. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 83.

[3] Tillich, Paul. The Eternal Now. (New York: Charles Scribner''s Sons, 1963), p. 86.