Second Sunday of Lent
John 3:1-17

If you are at all like me, there is a good chance that you’ve spent a bit of time during service looking around at all of the imagery in this sanctuary. So I did a little bit of research to figure out what exactly some of these symbols actually mean. 

There are all of the figures around the altar, where the boars devouring the lambs recall the persecution of the earliest church communities. On the lectern, we can see the imagery of an angel on whose shoulders rests the “Book of Life.” And the pulpit that I’m standing in now has four figures that represent the four authors of the Gospels, and I encourage you to walk up here and get a closer look some point after service. At the very bottom you can find what is a scallop shell, which represents Matthew. On top of this shell you will see a lion that signifies Lion, and on top of the lion is a physician who represents Luke. 

And the very top is this eagle, which represents John. The early Christians chose the eagle to represent John because—as a whole—John’s Gospel often reaches theological heights that can be difficult to understand. It’s the gospel that makes the some of the most cosmic-scale claims about Christ. After all, this is the book that starts off with some of my favorite words in Scripture: “In the beginning was the Word”—or the Logos, if you speak Greek—“and this Logos was with God and this Logos was with God.” [1] They’re beautiful words, but they’re quite lofty, unlike some more of the direct language in the other three Gospels. 

In our lesson from John this morning, we see that even the most-educated characters in the story are also struggling with some of these lofty and strange-sounding messages. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, which means that he was likely well-educated and knowledgeable in matters of faith. And yet John tells us that he comes to Jesus in the darkness of night, a symbol of both his ignorance and questioning as well as his want to keep this conversation hidden from other Pharisees who might criticize him for speaking to this young, radical rabbi. 

He comes to Jesus at night and says to him, “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.” [2] And Jesus, seemingly never wanting to give a straight response, says: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without gennēthē anōthen” — a phrase that our version of the Bible translates as “being born from above” but could also be “being born anew” or “being born again.” 

Entering this story so many centuries later, it seems to me that we like Nicodemus are still working out what exactly Jesus means by this. 

As I was grappling with how to approach this strange call from Jesus this morning, I could not help but think about how and where I most often hear this phrase. And, quite honestly, I first thought about some of those individuals that I see on the outskirts of the Pride March and standing in Union Square on nice days like today. I’m sure you know the ones that I’m talking about; they’re often on the street corners yelling at those who are passing by that they need to repent and be “born again” or risk finding themselves in hell when they die. 

I also thought about those who call themselves born again Christians in a way that it becomes less of a religious category and more of a political label, in which being born again is synonymous with a very narrow political ideology, and any deviation from that is a mark of being worldly and not a true Christian. 

All things considered, those weren’t images that I wanted to stay with for too long. 

And so I instead was faced with a question: what does it mean to be born anew? What does it mean to be born into something into the first place?

For it occurs to me that when we are born, where we are born has a significant influence on who we become. If you’re born in New York City, you’re likely going to become a different person than if you were born in Oklahoma; being born in the United States will be far different than if you were born in Yemen. Being born from here below apparently means something different than being born from above. 

And I think about Walter, the week-old son of Andrew and Marie Zinn. What has he been born into? 

Taking a sober look at the world as it is, I can’t say that it seems incredibly encouraging. As we face the prospects of constant violence, impending epidemics, and a planet that is in crisis. 

And if we look at the idea of birth throughout the Bible and in Christian tradition, time and time again we are reminded that to be born is to enter into a world of sin and death. 

The human condition is one that is turned in upon itself, as Saint Augustine famously stated. As children of Adam, we are indeed created in the image of God, but this image has been distorted; we as a whole are so focused on the self and preserving the self that we neglect our responsibility towards one another and to God. In our misguided hopes, we embrace the pleasures of this life that are temporal, be it money, fame, power, or prestige, rather than those things that are eternal. And we know how this life goes: it dies. It’s fleeting. And more often than not, we go through it full of fear and despair. 

Yet we also know that this is not the whole story. In the midst of the shadows of this world, there are sparks that catch our attention. In the midst of tragedy, we catch moments of beauty; in the midst of pain, we glimpse sparks of comfort; in the face of fear, we see stirrings of love. There’s a crack in everything, Leonard Cohen said; that’s how the light gets in.

If we let them, these cracks—these moments of grace—can begin to chip away at what we believe about ourselves and about the world. We begin to ask questions; we begin to do a bit of soul searching. 

And at some point, we very well might have the epiphany that there is something deeper; that there is something—or someone—truer and more holy that is the ground from which all of these moments of grace spring. At some point, we may very well become tired of chasing those things that do not last and instead surrender to the grace that keeps calling to us in those little moments, opening ourselves to the love and comfort and beauty and hope that we encounter. At some point, we may very well open ourselves to God. 

Then, I believe Jesus is saying, we are finding ourselves being born again; being born anew; being born from above. Something happens that we cannot control, but by God’s grace we are ushered into a new life; an eternal life in the here and now. 

And when we’re born from above, we’re kind of like infants who are just beginning to use our senses to witness the Kingdom of God that has been around us the whole time. Those sparks of grace are no longer sporadic moments but an undercurrent of a reality that is breaking into our world. We begin to be able to name the familiar feeling of the Spirit comforting us. In the midst of all of the noise of the world, we begin to be able to more clearly hear the calling of Jesus Christ, an invitation to a new life. It’s as if we open our eyes for the first time to see the love of God that has been all around us the whole time. 

It may be gradual, and at times it may be a little painful. But we’re growing; we’re maturing; we’re figuring out what this new life is all about. 

And in the same way that we were formed by being born from below, we are being formed by being born from above. The Kingdom of God that surrounds us begins to shape us—our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our strength. As we look at the brokenness and pain in the world, we see less despair and hopelessness and more opportunities for hope and love. 

My friends, we are in the season of Lent, the time when we take stock of those things that we need to carry no longer and think about what God might be calling us to. I can not help but think that this is as good of a time as ever to open ourselves so wide that we are born into something new; to set out on a new trajectory for our lives, finding new meaning and purpose.  The beginning seems just as good of a time as ever to begin to see the potential for eternal life that is breaking in around us.

For God so loved this world as to give God’s self—Jesus Christ—that we might have eternal life, both here and now and in the life to come. And this love of God is measureless; it’s surrounding us. I love the final stanza of the song we just sang:

Could we with ink the ocean fill, were the sky of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill, and all of us a scribe by trade
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky. [3]

Because three is love abound beyond our imaginations; the Kingdom of God is breaking in on us right here and right now, if only we open ourselves to it; if only we let ourselves get caught up in it; If only we have the courage to let our souls believe and join in. 

May it be so.

[1] John 1:1
[2] John 3:2
[3] From “The Love of God”, this stanza written by Meir Ben Isaac Nehorai in 1050.