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Lent 2 - Who Wants to Be A Baby?!

A sermon on John 3:1-17

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here].

Our congregation is experiencing the blessing of birth this year.

Between recent births and baptisms and anticipated births, this is an exciting season for Abiding Peace. We are – very rightly, I think – taking much joy in the celebration of these precious new lives that we get to love, cuddle, pray for, and support as they grow.

And I hope that what I am going to say next does not diminish any of that joy. Because what I need to say is this: our culture’s sentimental idealism around birth and babies does us a real disservice in understanding what in the world Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel.

There has been a lot of – sometimes questionable, often unhelpful – theology over the years about what Jesus means by calling people to be “born from above” (or born again, in some translations – John 3:3). But rather than getting lost in the theological weeds, I think we just need to ask ourselves an honest question:

Would ANY of us actually be willing to trade the life we now have for the utter vulnerability and dependence of being a newborn baby again?

I’m serious! I’m sure there are some nice things about having absolutely no responsibilities, and being held and nurtured, not to mention getting to sleep 12-16 hours a day without guilt. But would it be worth it?

Imagine having ZERO control over anything in your life – not when or what you eat, not whether you are clean, not who touches your body or moves you from one place to another because you cannot actually move yourself. Imagine being totally reliant on other people for not just your well-being, but your very survival every single hour.

Imagine being so vulnerable that you couldn’t even put out your arm to break a fall, because you don’t even know that your arm is your arm.

I don’t know about you, but I have what my family lovingly calls “some control issues,” so that level of defenselessness and dependence sounds absolutely terrifying! No thank you. I am NOT interested.

Of course, I recognize that the fragility of their lives is NOT existentially terrifying for infants because they don’t know to be scared. Babies will startle at loud noises but that’s pretty much their only instinctual fear. Their own state of vulnerability does not frighten them. They are able to live in a state of total trust… because they haven’t yet been hurt.

But that’s the challenge we all confront in Christ’s instructions about experiencing a second birth. We all HAVE been hurt before. As our Lenten resource, The Book of Forgiving, explains:

“We all experience pain. This is the inescapable part of being human. Hurt, insult, harm, and loss are inevitable aspects of our lives.”[1]

That inevitability is one reason we are exploring the theme of forgiveness for Lent – because it is relevant for all of us. We all carry with us the weight of the things that have been done to us, as well as the harms that we ourselves have done. Those pains sit in our souls like rocks. Weighing us down. Uncompromising. Ever present.

And because of those pains we don’t have the possibility of returning to the state of perfect innocence and trust that allows newborn babies to exist in total vulnerability. We just can’t do that!

Nor – let’s be honest – do we really want to. We would much rather hang onto our hard-won life lessons and wisdom gained from experience. We like believing that we have things more or less figured out, and can take care of ourselves, thank you very much.

In other words, we are Nicodemus.

You see, when Nicodemus objects to Jesus’s teaching about a second birth, I don’t think his concern is really about the logistics of wombs and the physical birth process.

His concern is about being born “after having grown old.” [2] After having gained a position of wisdom and maturity. After having endured the vulnerability of infancy, and the dependency of youth, and the insecurities of young adulthood, and having finally gotten to a place where he knew how the world worked, and how to protect himself, and had some status and privilege in his society.

He asks Jesus “how,” but I have to believe that what he is really asking is “why?” Why would anyone want to be born again after having grown up? Why would we want to start over, and go through all the fragility, and need, and fumbling, and hard lessons again?

And even if we wanted to try, how could we endure it, knowing about the reality of pain? How could we live a life of total dependence and trust when we know the world will hurt us? We shrink back at the idea of a second birth, because we know it is NOT safe.

But Nicodemus knows from the outset he won’t get safety from Jesus. He comes to Jesus after Jesus has violently disrupted the marketplace in the Jerusalem Temple, rebuking the merchants and sparring with the religious leaders. That’s why he comes at night. Because even being seen with Jesus could be costly for him. He was a leader in Jerusalem – part of the group that had just challenged Jesus – he had something to lose by just being there!

But he came anyway. He came even though it was risky. He came even though he was already established, with power, and status, and a safe role to play. Instead of digging in to defend his own authority and way of understanding the world against the threat that Jesus represented, Nicodemus let himself lean into curiosity. He was willing to learn something he DIDN’T already know.

And based on their interaction, I think he came to Jesus because he had realized that he wasn’t really as self-sufficient as he wanted to believe. He hadn’t “grown out” of his need and vulnerability.

You see, when Jesus alluded to Moses “lifting up” the serpent in the wilderness, Nicodemus – a religious expert – would have known what Jesus was talking about. He was referencing the story from Numbers 21 in which the Israelites in the wilderness were being plagued by deadly snakes. The people recognized their helplessness and they cried out to God for deliverance… and in response God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and to raise it up on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, they were to look at the serpent and they would be healed.

God’s response to the people’s cry was to use the image of the very thing that reinforced their weakness and fear as the means of their salvation.

In the same way, Jesus knew that he would be lifted up on the cross – an image of human vulnerability, a shocking spectacle of the way that this broken world can hurt us, can violently rob us of the security – the old life – that we THINK is so valuable. And God uses that image of weakness and fear to save us – to demonstrate the lengths to which God will go to convince us we are loved. To show us that, actually, we CAN risk being born anew, without fear. Because despite all the painful lessons life has taught us, we can trust God.

All of that profound meaning is packed into Jesus’ 7-verse monologue that we heard proclaimed a few minutes ago. But if you didn’t get all that, don’t worry. Nicodemus didn’t either.

Or at least, he didn’t jump to sign up. The conversation that night didn’t lead to a dramatic conversion. He went back to his safe, familiar Pharisee’s life. But a seed had been planted. So that, a few chapters later (John 7:45-52), when the Jerusalem Council was seeking to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus was willing to publicly ask a challenging question – recalling the justice of their law. And later still, after Jesus had been lifted up. After the depth of his vulnerability had been put on public display, Nicodemus was among those who helped with his burial (John 19:38-42).

There is nothing that makes us feel more vulnerable than being confronted by death, but in that willingness to finally embrace vulnerability, Nicodemus showed himself ready to embrace the new life Jesus came to bring us.

“How can anyone be born after growing old?” (John 3:4) By letting go of fear and trusting the God who loves the world and proves it through vulnerability.

Researcher Brene Brown teaches that “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, joy, trust, intimacy, courage – everything that brings meaning to our life.”[3]

Vulnerability is the birthplace. Because what we need is BIRTH. NOT safety. Birth is not safe. It demands effort, and it brings us through fear, and it confronts us with our weakness and our need and our fragility… But the payoff is life.

New Life is what Jesus came to bring.

Thanks be the God.

[1] Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, New York: Harper One, 2014, p. 70.

[2] Credit to Matt Skinner, working preacher podcast.

[3] Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, New York: Random House, 2017, p. 153.

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