By Paul Koch –
People by nature are questioning creatures. They are inquisitive and almost always searching for answers. You don’t have to have children for too long to realize that we are all full of curiosity. While it can be annoying at times, it is beautiful to watch their little minds trying to process new data in their ever-expanding world; as they ask you why the sky is blue, or why the weeds grow in the cracks in the driveway, or why our toe nails continue to grow. And I don’t think we slow down our questioning as we get older. Rather, we only become ashamed of asking the questions. So, we question in private. We question in such a way that no one else knows that we might not have the answers, which is strange seeing as how we know that we don’t all have the answers. There is much of our world that is unknown and hidden, and there is much about ourselves that we have not fully understood. So, in our own way we still question.
Now some questions can be a lot of fun. They can ignite our curiosity and creativity. Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. To examine and question is part of living. So from basic problem solving to abstract philosophical discourse there is a lot to be gained by questioning. Yet, there are some questions that are really difficult. Some questions don’t have answers. Or the answer that we give for them can be terrifying. More times than I can remember, I’ve played the part of the helpless man without any answers. “Pastor why would God let my daughter struggle so much?” Or, “Pastor why would God allow me to suffer this way? Why would he let the depression become so dark and consuming?” “Pastor why is life so unfair? Why can’t I catch a break?” And I sit there like a fool with nothing to say, no answer to the questions.
Nicodemus was a great man, a leader among his people, a Pharisee that was respected and honored by others. He was a man with some big questions. Now, it seems that he was a bit ashamed of these questions. After all, he didn’t approach our Lord in the middle of the day or outside the synagogue or something like that. No, he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, but he comes because the questions won’t stop swirling around his mind. “Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” He knows that there is something different about Jesus, something that separates him from all other rabbi’s, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. And Jesus answers his opening inquiry by making a bold statement, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Born again, there is a phrase that we know well. People will often speak about a person as being a born again Christian. Now that can mean that the person has had some sort of massive character change in their life. You know, the type that you might hear as a personal testimony. They were a wife beater and a drug dealer, or something like that, then they were born again and now they are the Sunday School teacher or volunteer at the church. Mostly of the time, when people say that this or that person is born again they mean that person is an annoying Christian. You know the type! We might call them Bible Thumpers or Super Sheep or Holier Than Thou types. They want to tell you all the ways that they are blessed, and how they see their blessings every day, and they praise the Lord for his blessedness, and they use the word bless a lot. So is this what Jesus means when he says that you must be born again if you are to see the kingdom of God?
Well, of course not. If that was the case then I think we might all agree with the bumper sticker that reads, “Lord please save me from your followers.” No, many today hear this assertion by our Lord and see this as a decisive moment for a Christian. Not a call to be annoying, but a statement of your dedication to being a follower of Christ; a willingness to bear your cross. To be born again, then, is an act of your will, a choosing to do something different, to change your course in life, to perhaps make amends for the past and work a little more diligently for others in the future. So when Jesus says that you must be born again, they get to work to do just that. Perhaps they begin with saying prayers or reading their Bible daily. They become a little more conscious of the decisions that they are making day to day as they live out their faith. Surely this seems to be more in line with what our Lord is getting at, right?
Well, Nicodemus himself works through this with his questions. Jesus says you must be born again and so he asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter into his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” And so, our Lord clarifies what he means. He says, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” This new birth is a birth that comes by water and Spirit, but Nicodemus’ questions keep pouring out of him. He shouts, “How can these things be?” This is perhaps the greatest question he asks. How can it be that water and the Spirit of God can produce a second birth? A birth that is necessary if you are to enter into the kingdom of God!
Jesus speaks about this birth in connection with the work of the Spirit. The Spirit, like the wind, blows where it wishes. You hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. The wind is not under your control. The wind is not a product or your willing or your choosing or your desire. The language here of our Lord is that of gift giving. Gifts are things that we receive, our empty hands are filled by another. So any discussion about being born again that begins within us, within our abilities or our willingness, is a discussion that will never answer the question, “How can these things be?” To be born again of water and the Spirit is to have the will of God enacted upon you. It is to be on the receiving end of his great blessings.
Nicodemus is learning, as we all learn, about the election of God through the waters of holy baptism. It is a second birth where the old is done away with and the new comes forth. It is not our decision that makes it so. It is not our willing that makes it valid, but the promises of God alone make it so. In those waters your life is emptied out. Gone is all the good stuff that you’ve done, all the blessed things that have separated you from your brothers and sisters in Christ. You know, the type of stuff you would brag about, except bragging isn’t a very Christian thing to do. None of that gets you any extra credit before God. Your works are not building you a mansion in the sky. And on the other hand, everything that you wish you had never done, all the ugliness in your life, all the times you hurt others or failed to help when you could have, all of those are emptied out as well. For just as your good works didn’t earn you the kingdom of God so your wicked works haven’t kept you out. See, to be born again is to bring an end to yourself and replace it with your Lord. His life becomes your life, his works your works. This is the gift of baptism. This is what it means to be born again.
As Nicodemus stands there, no doubt with his mouth agape finding he has no more questions but must only receive, Jesus proclaims the pure and sweet word of the Gospel. “God so loved the world,” he says, “that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not Send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Christ did not come as a new measuring stick to hold you accountable and leave you struggling under the threat of condemnation. He didn’t come so that you might finally get your act together. He came to save you, to give you hope and life in him alone. He came to give you a new birth.
It is to this gift of Christ that you run when your questions don’t seem to have any answers. It is in his love and mercy that you find comfort in the face of suffering and trial. In fact, it is just this that has become my usual way of responding to those hard questions I don’t have answers for. I say, I don’t know why God allowed this tragedy or hardship in your life. I don’t know why you seem to go from one pain to the next without any break. But I do know this; I know that you are redeemed. I know that you are already given victory in the promises of God. For you are the baptized, you are the born-again children of God. You are forgiven of all your sins and so you will taste eternal life!