In today’s gospel lesson, we hear a religious leader of the Jews named Nicodemus say to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus replies to Nicodemus: “no one can see the kingdom of God without having been born from above.” Likely just as you and I would respond, with confusion and doubt, Nicodemus says, "How can these things be, we’ve already been born and grown up, how are we to enter our mother’s womb again?"
Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? You have heard God’s word and know the signs and the disciples and I we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. You fail to recognize the signs God told you of manifest in my works, so how will you believe if I try to tell you about being born from above, about heavenly things that is?
Here is the sign spoken through God’s word: do you remember when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness? That was a sign of what is to come: and now the Son of Man, me, Jesus, must be lifted up on the cross so that your faith is not in vain but secured in my resurrection to life. I descended from heaven to the earth, all the way to Hell, and will ascend to heaven, so that the whole of creation might be transformed, and you might be reconciled to God, “that whoever believes in [me] may have eternal life.”
Now it’s important to understand something here: the signs that Jesus is doing, have been given already and we read about them in the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, we hear of Moses lifting the serpent so that anyone who looked at it would be cured of the venom of the serpent, literally, of the effects of sin. Recall it is a serpent who is spoken of in Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, so also is this Jesus’s tempter. Like this serpent lifted high by Moses, so Jesus Christ is raised on the Cross, and again raised from the dead, his faithfulness in enduring this, overcoming the effects of sin and granting life to those who believe, who have faith in God. We see similar signs in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his Son Isaac. But that his Son Isaac, is saved from death by God by Abraham’s faithfulness, God’s own faithfulness, and Isaac becomes the ancestor of the Messiah and so every gentile, all of us.
So Nicodemus has no excuse: as a teacher of the Israelites, he knows these signs well. So Jesus says to him: “look I am fulfilling all the signs you ought to know in the things I’m doing here day-to-day. Can you not see dear Nicodemus, that only God himself could fulfill these signs, do you not recognize who I am, Nicodemus? Are you still blind to God come into your midst? If you do not recognize me as the fulfillment of the signs you know as an Israelite, how hard will it be for you to hear of the heavenly things? If you were to recognize me, you would know that you must be born not simply from a mother and father on earth, but from the grace of God above.
Let us contrast Nicodemus for a moment with the woman who risks her life simply to grasp onto Jesus garments in faith that he is the power who will heal her. Hers is a recognition that she must be born from above. Or think about Mary who anoints Jesus feet with oil, spending likely most of what she has, not paying attention to the housecleaning and the social customs that must be done, for she has this one moment to invite Jesus into her life, recognizing him as God, she gives freely of everything she has in that moment. Or think of Mary when she trusts an angel of God, giving up her safety, and likely her life, even her future, to bear the Son of God solely by faith. Hers is the recognition that one must be born from above by risking a life bound to faith in God, not certainty of her own circumstances. Or think of Abraham and Noah who step out to sacrifice a Son and to spend years laboring to build an ark with only the word of God to motivate them.
All of these people are signs of what it looks like to recognize Jesus Christ as Lord of all, as God, and to be taken up in him and born anew in him, of the Holy Spirit. To see the kingdom of God – isn’t a moment of insight – but a lifetime spent following the one who is the very kingdom unfolded across time: Jesus himself. But there’s this catch, to see Jesus Christ’s life unfold, to see the kingdom of God encompassing all creation, well, this requires faith. To be born from above in the life of Christ is, in this world still not yet reconciled to God, not a matter of knowing with certainty, but trusting God and so following him in faith that he will bring about the reconciliation he has promised.
To put this in Scriptural terms, to see the kingdom of God one must be born out of the womb of God; from the nothingness to which sin returned us, to new life, by grace won for us in Jesus’s death and resurrection; and in new life, to receive this grace taking our first breath in faith that the air given by God might fill our lungs and make beat our hearts; and in following being made fit, our dry bones enfleshed, crawling in confession and repentance and prayer on our knees; and in following, so also receiving the Spirit who enables us to first step out into the kingdom, into the very life of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be born from above. It is the new life of faith that we receive by grace and mark in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. Having been born from below already, as Nicodemus remarks, to be born from above is to step out from the safety of our lives into the uncertainty that comes, inevitably with faith in God whom we see now only through a glass darkly.
We like safety though; so as much as we’d like to think we would turn to God like Abraham or Job, or Ruth, or Mary, or Paul, we often end up like Peter denying Jesus three times at our circumstantial cockcrows; or like David and Solomon, given much only to make a huge error of judgment which drags us into disordered relationships that affect all around us, or maybe even like Judas, in willing betrayal of God, even knowing and having seen him as the fulfillment of all the signs God has scattered throughout our history.
Even having been born from above, born in Christ, sustained in him by the Spirit, so too do we often fall back into what Paul calls, the old life, the life of flesh; a life ordered simply to the things of this world, forgetting how the kingdom of God looks. Why? Well why does it happen for God’s people? Likely because faith is a mighty difficult thing to sustain in light of what a lot of us go through, big and small events. To offer ourselves to God in faith, to step out and follow him has become unnatural for us, enmeshed as we are in a world of sin and brokenness. We’re so often stung by our encounters in life, in sometimes horrific ways: disappointment, a lack of experienced love, the loss of relationships, fear of judgment, exclusion and rejection; disease; fear of violence, or economic failure.
Mostly though, I think that faith is difficult to sustain because we lose sight of how the events of our lives that seem our only reality, are taken up into God’s own life. Perhaps it is because we do not know the Scriptures – all of them, not just the parts that we like to read – and so we think God cannot handle the most twisted and trying events of our life. It is very hard to trust and have faith in the trials of life if we do not see how God has already taken our trials of life and death, birth, work, self doubt, abuse and persecution, destruction and falling apart, betrayal, confusion, loneliness, anxiety, fear and anger, how he has already taken these on himself. If we do not see this, how can we know we have been given a place on the ark, raised out of a watery grave, a place to live, to love, to share, to give, and to grow, where we are reminded of hope brought to us in the midst of the figurative floods of our own lives. How could we catch glimpses through our lives of the figurative olive branch carried by the dove, the Holy Spirit, that indicates the flood of our circumstances will subside, caught up in God’s own ordering of all things and our lives therein, to the good, to the dry land where we are secured by the olive tree of the Cross which brings about new life in his resurrection.
Faith can and often is in fact filled with a lifetime of painful realizations, of acts of letting go, of humiliation and of humility, of patience, endurance, courage, perseverance and confessing that whatever circumstances we come from, we are utterly dependent upon the grace of God poured out for us in Jesus Christ. Only as we let go and go up to him again and again, can the most broken aspects of our lives be healed; for only in him is love poured out in perfection that provides a balm for our wounds, whatever they are. Only as we let go over a lifetime of following, can the pain we experience be soothed by the balm of his body and blood poured out for us; enfleshing our tired, cracked, dry bones and hearts chaffed raw by the trials of life. Only then can we come to see the kingdom of God; of our true birth from above; held in perfect love in the bosom of God himself. AMEN.