Scripture: John 3:1-17
There are milestones in every life, things we look back on or forward to. Things like marriages, graduations, a driver’s licence, or the birth of a child. These are the things we celebrate, we plan big parties for sending out invitations and usually we get a bunch of presents. These events are often the touchstones in life. The places we remember and come back to when we need encouragement.
At times these touchstones are not the traditional rites of passage that our society thinks about. Sometimes they are events that are personal, only known by our closest friends, things like the first time you realized you were in love, or maybe when you finally figured out what you wanted to do with your life. Sometimes these events are so common or random they are hard to explain in words but they changed your life as you know it.
I have one event in my life that some of you may know vaguely, maybe some of you only know part of the story, probably none of you know totally because to be honest I did not realize how important it was to my future until this week. Most of you know that I spent a summer teaching conversational American English for a summer in Ukraine. I have spoken about how that trip changed my life, but I do not think i have told you just when everything changed.
It was a rainy day, a day that the wind was blowing and it was really pretty cold, a day that we were scheduled to go sailing on the Black Sea. For a land locked country boy going sailing was pretty amazing. Now I was immersed in a ministry, I was sharing my faith and teaching. This was really a huge thing for me because I was as shy as anyone could be. Well standing on the deck of a boat a Californian student that went with us said if you throw a coin overboard the you’ll come back to it. Well I stood there looking at the city that I was in, looking at it from a different perspective, one that was bouncing up and down in waves. I tossed a coin over and watched it sink in the clear water until it vanished from sight due to the lack of light. Then I began to think about the amazing changes that I had been through that summer.
I remember standing on that deck hoping one day I could go back. God has taken me back often. It was in Ukraine where God grabbed hold of my life and forever change it. I prepared and presented my first devotional lesson sitting in a small conference room. I watched people all around me turning to God to have Him change their lives. Standing on that deck I threw a coin off the deck hoping for a vacation, but God used it for something else.
I experienced something dramatic, something I wish everyone could experience, it was as if I shed a skin and stepped into an entirely different life, a life that resembled the old person but was improved. I remembered this as I watched my son prepare to go on a trip similar to this. He was double checking his bags, I was trying to think of everything he might have forgotten. I was taken back to a deck on a sail boat.
Nicodemus visited Jesus and they talk. This conversation is almost strange. Nicodemus comes in and says I know you are from God, and Jesus jumps right into talking about the kingdom. Maybe Jesus had ADD, it is like he missed or avoided everything that Nicodemus was saying. Then he totally goes off the deep end and says you must be born again or born from above.
Born again… this is probably the biggest catch phrase of the postmodern era. It is a term that has been so abused in the past generations that it has almost lost any meaning. Is it belief or something else? You all probably have your own definition as to what this means but I want you to look at it from a different perspective.
I remember the day my son was born. He had eyes that stared at everything. He would look at things as if he were studying them scientifically. Minutes old and he was taking it all in. studying faces, voices, looking deeply into each face. I later learned that he couldn’t really see well because a baby’s eyes had to adjust and learn to focus, but to me I knew he was going to be a curious inquisitive child from the first day. I would sit holding him wondering what it was like seeing everything for the first time. He knew the voices but now it was different the world he once knew was changed, he was no longer there but was in a different place. Biologically nothing changed, yet everything did. He was no longer a fetus but an infant.
I can imagine what Nicodemus was thinking at Jesus’ words. It was bizarre. To enter the kingdom you must be born from above? Born of water and spirit? Jesus did not really help Nicodemus much, he just left him hanging there with this foreign concept, and then said you are a teacher of Israel and you don’t understand?
Nicodemus spent a lifetime learning about God. He was a religious leader, a respected rabbi. He understood much, Jesus confused him. He observed, He knew Jesus was from God. He knew that the healing and all He did had to come from God. Yet he could not grasp this concept. He spent his entire life in one aspect of existence, to him that was all there was, Life is and will always be this… or was there more?
He was a child of Israel, a rabbi of the chosen people and Jesus tells him that to enter the kingdom of God he must be born from above. Was he missing something? His mind went to the physical birth process which we should admit is really where our minds go as well. But lets consider something else. For nine months a child’s entire world is a warm, watery, dark place. Sure its a little cramped but it is comfortable. There are muffled voices that the child loves to hear. When they kick or move the voices laugh. This gives them comfort because right after the laughing the child feel the added warmth of a loving hand hovering above them. Of course they don’t know it is a hand, but there is something just beyond the world and they like it.
The child cannot stay in that place. If it were to stay it would die, and the loving voices would die with it. They must move, they must be born. They must pass through into the light, into a new world.
Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that he is living in a comfortable world, a world that is warm and safe, but not the entire truth about life. It is veiled, there is something more. The kingdom of God, or life with God is just beyond that veil, to get there you have to pass through into a different type of existence.
I’m sure Nicodemus sat there stunned. How do we do it, how can we be born from above? Jesus takes him back toward the beginning of Israel. Moses and the serpent. In brief, this story tells of deadly vipers that killed everyone, because they did not trust in God. God had Moses construct a bronzed snake and put it up for them to see and when they were bitten by the vipers they could look up to this image and God would save them. Jesus said that He will be lifted up like this. Though the world does not want to believe and they do not trust they can live by looking up at Him. He loves the world. It pains him to see them dying from the venom of the world.
Pain is part of life. Pain is often a sign of moving into a different aspect of life. I speak fondly of my time in Ukraine, the truth is it was a very trying time. I cried nearly every day because I was unable to speak clearly, sometimes I was flat out laughed at, and I missed those I loved terribly. Very few knew the pain my heart went through. Every day I spent time sitting on a cliff praying, for strength and courage. I spent most of my money on phone calls home. But it was worth everything.
Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it through Him. He came not to kill but to bring life. I looked up from the deck of a boat to a cliff in the distance, the cliff I shed tears on when no one else was looking. Below the cliff was the various night clubs, beyond the cliff was the location of our Institute. I realized something profound. I worked hard to try to take the clubs into the institute so they could be saved, but really I could not do anything.
We as humans cannot save anyone. Jesus has that power an only him. The only thing I could do is talk, and hang out with students. The best I can do is to tell to them that I looked up to the cross of Christ and that changed my life. I worked, I struggled, debated, but ultimately all I could do was stand by, holding a hand, and encouraging someone to breath. I saw this view and dropped a coin. It glimmered as it flipped through the water. I now realize that God was using that coin in the water to help me see the person I was to become. I was to reflect the light to all I could until the end. I know now what it means to be born again. It is beyond belief, beyond devotion, it is in that place where you pass from the life you are comfortable with, into a life of vulnerability. It is where you move beyond the rules into a life of relationship. It’s a process, one that may take years or just moments. It is painful and pleasurable.
Last night I got to see something amazing again. I got to see the nervous, excitement of my son getting ready to go to another place to serve in Jesus’ name. What will he experience? How will it affect his life? I do not know. I have been encouraging him all year to go on the trip, telling him how great it would be and how much serving would open his eyes. As the time neared I began watching the clock, I became nervous, I had to pray a few times that God would protect him and change his life. I am worried and proud. I am worried because I know how hard physically, emotionally, and spiritually these sorts of things can be. Proud because I know how amazing they can be physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I am the same way when I look out and look at each of you. I know what many of you have been through over the past few years. I have seen God move us as a group and individually closer to him. For some I have seen amazing things happen, things I never dreamed.
We are being reborn. We are being reformed and given a new beginning. We have been given an opportunity to see the Kingdom of God emerge around us. What do we do? We listen for the wind, learn to sense where it is blowing and listen for the Spirit to whisper to our hearts. We spend time talking and being with people, sharing our life and the things we have learned. We love the people God loves, the one for whom he died on the cross to save. And we let Him work in their lives.
As we enjoy this time of open worship, consider what born from above means to you and how that has changed and continues to change your lives. Try to listen to the wind and sense Its direction. And let us embark on a journey with Christ and each other into the adventure set before us.