Lent 2A 2005 Genesis 12:1-8; John 3:1-17
Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Jesus answered
him a second time, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. …
Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'"
So goes the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, born from above. The New International Version – and the King
James Version – use the term, born again. The analytical lexicons suggest that only for this specific passage in John’s
Gospel can this translation -- born again – be acceptable as an appropriate alternative, but that the translation in
the New Revised Standard version is more in accordance with the rest of the New Testament writings.
This particular phrase has been the source of some discord in the church over the years, really from the beginning and its
latest peak in the present. Saint Paul’s letters to the young church in Corinth caution against the emotionalism that
was generated by certain members of the congregation feeling that they were more reborn than others. And he was very specific
that such manifestations as speaking in tongues were at the bottom of his list of the gifts of the Spirit.
It was interesting to grow up in the Deep South in the years immediately following World War II. Even the little First (and
only) Presbyterian Church of Greer, South Carolina, was caught in the emotional revivalism that swept over much of the Deep
South in the 1940s and 1950s. Annual revivals were held, usually for a week, but sometimes for two weeks. And each day the
revival meeting ended with an altar call for all of us sinners to come forward and testify that we had just been born again.
Billy Graham Crusades were just beginning then – where many people were born again and again and again.
As a twelve year old, standing on the threshold oaf adolescence, with hormones beginning to churn my emotions, I once went
forward on an altar call with two of my friend to show that we had been reborn again. I later noticed that parental willingness
to go to revivals and take me had immediately cooled. In fact, my father was perfectly clear about it on the way home: “Don’t
you do that again!”
It was only later when I was older and able to contemplate seriously the meaning of Baptism did I realize that Baptism itself
was about being reborn. And it was about that time that I began to realize that Holy Baptism was both efficacious and sufficient
– born again was simply redundant.
And I had begun to notice that those who kept claiming to be born again and who talked about it all the time looked down their
noses at the rest of us. It was clear to me that many of them thought that those of us who didn’t go around talking
about being born again Christians were inferior Christians because we weren’t like them.
This hasn’t gone away. In fact, one of the dissident bishops of the new Network of so called Anglican Communion dioceses
and parishes, when he was rector of one of the more fundamentalist churches, said in one of his teaching tapes that, in his
opinion, you weren’t a real born again Christian until you started speaking in tongues. This is precisely the sort
of thing that set Saint Paul’s teeth on edge and drew those strong letters to the Corinthians.
It would be hard for some people to understand this true story:
One day on Florida’s Gulf coast, a grandfather was "beach combing" with his 6 year old granddaughter. The tide was
going out, leaving all of those beautiful treasures that come in from the Gulf of Mexico. Grandfather was carrying the bag
in which they were collecting the shells of all shapes and colors.
Suddenly, the little girl came running to him with sparkling eyes, saying: "Grandfather, look at this beautiful shell." He
looked at it for a minute, but with some firmness said to her, "Darling, it is pretty, but we don't want to keep that one.
It has holes in it."
The child was crestfallen at this assessment, but unwilling to surrender her view of reality. She argued. "But, look, Grandfather,"
she said, "how pretty it is here and here and here." She kept pointing to all the pretty places and finally she said, "Grandfather,
don't look at the holes." (1)
Jesus understood that little children can teach us many things. He taught us that we can only enter the kingdom of God as
The Greek root word (gennao, ginomai) here actually has three different meanings. It can mean "from the beginning." This
is the meaning Nicodemus gave it. "Must I go back to the beginning, to my mother's womb and start over," he asks? But this
same word can also mean "Again" in the sense of doing the same thing a second time. And the third and primary meaning of
this Greek word is "from above." For a Christian that means from God. To be born again is to be born from above -- to be
No single word in English encompasses all three of these meanings but all are tied up in what Jesus means by the new birth.
To be born again is to start life over again. It's to get a second chance. It's to have God's spirit break into present reality.
Context is everything when we undertake the interpretation of a Biblical passage. In this encounter with Nicodemus, our Lord
is teaching. He is teaching Nicodemus the Pharisee – and us -- four things. In the first place, he is teaching Nicodemus
that there is a new era in which the old way of doing things, the old law, has been set aside for the Good News that Jesus
is bringing into the world.
The second thing he is teaching Nicodemus is about Baptism. That is what his words about being born of water and the Spirit
mean. These are the words that are enshrined in the Christian Sacrament of Holy Baptism, one of the two central sacraments
of the faith.
These are the words said just before the Baptism: “Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy
Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Christ our Savior.”
And immediately after: “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit, you have bestowed upon these
your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace.” (BCP, 307, 308)
The important thing about our Baptism is that we are all born again, we are all washed in the blood of the Lamb, we are all
made whole by water and the Holy Spirit, we are all equally loved by God.
And that is the third thing that Jesus was teaching Nicodemus and us. The third thing lies in that most famous verse in the
Bible, John 3:16, beloved of signs at parades and football games, bumper stickers, and vanity automobile registration plates:
"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.” I hope that those who so casually advertise the citation, “John 3:16”, actually believe in this
unconditional vastness of the love of the God.
There is a story about a woman who had several children through childbirth, and several others through adoption. One day,
a visitor asked which children were "her own" and which had been adopted. The woman replied, "I don’t remember. They
are all mine." (3)
And it was the unconditional vastness of God’s love that was the third thing that Jesus was teaching.
And the final thing Jesus was teaching is that, in the end, God is in charge, whether we can understand it or not. “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."
I remember growing up in the South, in cotton and peach orchard country, in the summer, before air conditioning became something
almost every home had. While my schoolmates were at the beach or mountains or just simply enjoying the school vacation, I
spent my summers working on our peach farm, down in Greenville and Spartanburg Counties in South Carolina, where I was born.
It was hot work, hard work, bringing in a peach crop.
When the peaches had been picked and packed and shipped for another day, in the evening we would gather on the screened in
porch. Usually we just sat there quietly, too tired and hot to say anything. Sometimes we would rock and talk and laugh
in an attempt to escape the heat and humidity and mosquitoes. But sometimes, the leaves of the trees would begin to rustle.
Any conversation would die down, and everyone would just sit back and enjoy the summer breeze, the gift of the breeze.
We didn’t know where it came from. We didn’t know where it was going. But we knew it was there, because we
could feel it. And we were grateful. (4) The Greek and Hebrew words for Spirit also mean wind and breath.
Simply to be Christian means we must be on the road, always and forever on a journey, a pilgrimage toward, toward the kingdom
of God here and afterward.
In a sense, we are all like the goat lady in the novel, Cold Mountain. As the wounded Civil War soldier makes his way through
the back roads and hills toward home, he stops to stay for a while with a goat lady. She lives in what was then called a
“caravan,” apparently some sort of wagon which was a fore-runner of the modern day camper trucks and motor homes.
In order to survive, the goat lady sells cheese and trades the goats for flour and other necessities when her herd gets too
large to handle. After a good sleep and a meal, the soldier asks the goat lady why she lives in the caravan. Is she traveling?
Does she move continually from one place to another? How long has she lived in this place?
The goat lady goes to her cupboards and gets out her journals, books in which she has recorded the antics and habits of the
goats over the years. Finally, she finds the pages which record her early days in this place. And she says, “I’ve
lived here for 26 years now. No, it is 27 years, since I came here.” The hero asks, “Why do you continue to
live in this caravan, if you’ve been here so long? Why don’t you build a more permanent place?”
The goat lady responds: “One never knows when it is time to move on. I always have to be ready to get on the road again.”
And remember – don’t look at the holes.
1. Adapted from Thomas Lane Butts, Holey, holy people, SermonConnection.com
2. Adapted from N. Fred Jordan, A New Beginning, SermonConnection.com.
3. We are Family, Sermon Connection.com
4. Modified to fit my own experience from an illustration by Johnny Dean on this passage at eSermons.com.
5. The Rev. Dr. Janice W. Hearn , Traveling Song, SermonMall.com