John 3: 1-17
What does Rollen Stewart and Tim Tebow have in common?
Well, Rollen “Rock’n Rollen” Stewart, or the Rainbow Man, donned a rainbow colored wig and began showing up at sports games in the late 1970’s and 1980’s with a sign that read,
“John 3:16”. That was after he became a born again Christian by accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
And of course Tim Tebow was a quarterback who played for the Denver Broncos and the New York Jets in the National Football League. Quite a football player winning the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and quite the evangelist sporting the words and numerals, “John 3:16” on his eye-black.
John 3:16 is iconic! John 3:16 is a pulpit classic! Even non Christians know John 3:16, let’s say it together the King James way, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” For as beloved as this verse is to Christians it also has the ability to divide us Christians because what precedes John 3:16 is John 3:1-15 with a lot of talk about being ‘born again’. And you know that those two words, born again, are loaded like a baked potato from the Maine exhibit at the Big E.
Let us now listen to the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus from the Gospel of John from where the phrase born again is taken.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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 answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This is a rich and provocative piece of scripture for our reflection this morning and has, as I mentioned earlier, divided us Christians because, let’s face it this passage has been used to condemn others. Born from above and born again are really synonymous. For some people being born again is a way to determine someone’s salvation. “Are you born again?” is a question that is asked by some meaning really, “Have you been saved like me?” It’s, in some minds, a way of separating the goats from the sheep, the real Christians from the fake ones, the Bible thumpers from the quazi religious, the ‘thems’ and ‘uses’.
For other people (let’s face it, us UCCer’s) being born again is a way to determine a religious fanatic and evangelical with a capital E. Neither way is helpful because they just perpetuate stereotypes within our own community and I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended for his little village of believers. The fact is this scripture is universal, it’s for all of us conservatives, moderates, and liberals; the truth that lies therein is for all Christians.
There was a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who comes to Jesus at night. Curious isn’t it? He already believes to some extent that Jesus is not your usual Rabbi but one who was from God. We’re not sure why he came at night but we do know that he was in that metaphorical state of darkness, of misunderstanding, of not being able to recognize what Jesus was really offering. And yet we also know that he was a learned man born once into human form, into the traditions of Judaism, and into the Pharisaic life.
So he wonders out loud, what would being born a second time look like? He asks those rather silly questions for us. How can you be born again, isn’t once is enough? How can you really enter your mother’s womb again only to come through that birth canal another time? I’m much larger now. He’s trying to understand, to discern what Jesus was all about. Nicodemus is in the gestational phase of his faith, his formational period where he is given a chance to understand life in a much different way – the Jesus way.
It’s time for Nicodemus to come through the spiritual birth canal, through the waters of the womb and to be reborn to life once again. ‘Jesus says that to be born from above is to be born of the Spirit and to be born of the Spirit is to believe in Jesus and in believing in him is to have eternal life.’[i] John 3:16. Looks like Rollen Stewart and Tim Tebow have something on us here.
They have been born again and they are telling us so. They have come through the waters and have been birthed from above. They are enthusiastic believers in Jesus Christ as the one who saves. And don’t we all want to be saved? Don’t we all want to be loved, accepted, forgiven and met with grace abundant, saved from our own aimlessness?
The fact is we are all in our gestational phase of faith, we are seekers looking to have a better life, a larger understanding of God. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be born again by water and the Spirit he is really asking Nicodemus to let God be in his life, to let the Spirit guide him and work through him. To be born again from above is to leave the darkness and to come into the light of life in Christ.
It is to break through from unbelief to belief, from a life that is judgmental and closed to new beginnings and a life that is abundant with possibility. Yes, it’s painful leaving the womb chasing after that new life but the birthing will be well worth it. Being born yet again from above is to know there are certain truths by which we can live.
That when you are feeling inadequate with insufficient means and ways to accomplish what must get done in your life, Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
That when you are feeling alone and dejected and far, far away from God and home, Romans 8:39 “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels or rulers, things present or things to come…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
That when you suffer through those absolutely miserable moments in your life, Romans 8: 3-4 “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” You see I can be a Bible thumper too! Because it’s all true.
The fact is being born from above, living a life with God at its very core, is what Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus. When you have these truths within you then you live and see differently and this sets you free from these worldly worries to a life that is beautiful, both here and in the great beyond.
For God so loved….and loves you to the end.
[i] George W. Stone in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2
May the road rise to meet you,
may the wind be ever at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of his hand.