March 8th, 2020
Pastor Jenny Lee, Ph.D.
Upper St. Croix Parish UMC
“Being Born From Above”
There was a man, a rustic itinerant preacher. He changed water to wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and he dramatically cleaned the temple in Jerusalem. Many people saw the miraculous sign of the man and believed in his name. The story of the man has spread out. That man was Jesus. Wherever Jesus went, many people followed him. Surely these happenings had become common gossip on the streets of Jerusalem.
Pharisees also heard about Jesus. One day, a man of Pharisees came to Jesus at night. According to Scripture, he is a leader of Jews, named Nicodemus. The New International Version of the Bible describes him in detail that he was “a member of the Jewish ruling council.” At that time, “a leader of Jew” or “a member of Jewish council” meant that he was an elite lay theologian dedicated to studying and living out. Furthermore, it meant that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, that exclusive council that controlled the religious life of Israel. In a short word, he is a big man in a society of Israel at that time.
We may wonder why he came to Jesus at night. Some people think that he might be ashamed or fearful to be seen with Jesus by day. But, we may see a clue through him and Jesus’ conversation. Nicodemus said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.” That is, he came to Jesus as a representative of their members, and approved that Jesus came from God. Therefore, we might understand that he came to Jesus at night because he would learn something from Jesus through uninterrupted conversation. During day time, there were many people around Jesus. We may catch that he called Jesus as “rabbi,” which means a respectable teacher. Also, we might think that Nicodemus was a great leader in Israel society, but his spiritual life was in darkness. In other words, he was a teacher of the Law and living out the Law in his daily life, but he could not find out the truth of God yet.
Perhaps, Nicodemus studied the Law of God in his lifelong to seek the kin(g)dom of God. However, he did not ask Jesus about the kingdom of God directly. Nevertheless, Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus might know his mind and concern and give him the right answer directly. However, he wondered what “being born from above” means.
We have the same concerns and questions as Nicodemus did. How can we see the Kingdom of God? How do we feel the presence of God in our daily lives? In the Scripture, the phrase “Being born from above” means “born again.” We are curious about what means “born again” as Nicodemus did. Most Christians know that what the phrase, “born again” means. This phrase, in our age, is too shop-soiled to talk about it. In addition, we pretend that we are “born again.” However, do not avoid having an opportunity to know it as Nicodemus did. He came to Jesus at night, getting to learn about the truth of God.
Nicodemus was a great theologian, a teacher of the Law, and a leader of Israel. In other words, he was a great leader in religion, scholarly works, and politics at that time, but he has blocked his idea in the flesh. However, this new birth is not an intensified continuation of old ways, a deepened interpretation of the Law, or a more urgent effort to obey the Levitical code. The phrase “born again” or “born from above” is that as if water changed to wine, and the blind is open eyes. It is like a new beginning, and a starting over again. This is new life given by God. It is like the Apostle Paul changed after he met Jesus on the street of Damascus. It is like John Wesley felt warm heart when he was wander to seek for the truth of God on a street in Aldersgate. It means that totally changed to new life. It is like the Apostle Paul changed from a persecutor to the Apostle. It is like John Wesley changed to the founder of Methodism. Again, it is new life given by God.
Jesus gave Nicodemus a specific example about “born again,” “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Of course, we are born again by water, which means baptized by water. However, it is not enough. There is more than water. The phrase “being born from above” says the new birth by the Spirit.
A few weeks ago, we learned about “the Beatitudes,” which is The Sermon of Mount. We may remember that “blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” The pure in heart, in other words, means “open hearts” to God and others in action. Without open hearts and open minds, we cannot see the presence of God.
For the Spirit, in Greek word, is pneuma, and in Hebrew word, is Ruach, translated “the intimate breath of God.” It is that we may find it from in the Scripture of Genesis when God created human being at the beginning, God formed [hu]man from the dust of the ground, and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the [hu]man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). The Spirit is “the breath of God” and the wind of the Holy Spirit. We became living beings because God gave us the breath of God, the Spirit. Therefore, unless we connect with God, we will die in Spirit. And, as Nicodemus did, we are imprisoned in the flesh. Unless we are open hearts and open minds, we cannot see the presence of God. It is a gift given in God’s own way and time. Jesus has spoken of birth by water and Spirit, and wind. This breath of God brings life according to the gracious purpose of God.
Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel, but he is imprisoned in fleshly existence. The one who is close to his/her heart and mind cannot understand the mystery of God. No one can climb up and take these heavenly truths by force, either by learning or feverish obedience to the Law.
Finally, Jesus revealed his identity as the Son of God and the secret of the Cross as mentioning Moses. Near the end of years of wandering in the wilderness and before they entered the Promised Land, Israelites once again complained and grumbled in their unbelief. So, God sent fiery serpents among them that brought disease and death. Then the people repented and cried out, saying, “we have sinned.” Moses prayed to God for them as he had so many times. God offered salvation through a strange provision. God commanded Moses to make a fiery serpent of bronze and to hang it on a pole. The people who had been bitten and were sick unto death could be healed only by lifting up their eyes and looking at that serpent. They would be saved by the act of faith (Numbers 21:4-9).
As such, if we believe in Jesus Christ, we have to act in faith. Jesus lifted up on the Cross as if the fiery serpent of bronze lifted up on a pole. People who look the Cross of Jesus Christ in faith would be saved as if those who looked at up the bronze serpent are saved. Whoever will behold with eyes of faith will be given everlasting life and will not die in the wilderness. It is God’s amazing grace for our salvation.
Please remember they are saved in the act. Jesus showed us his love in action, which was died on the Cross. Love is central to the very nature of God, reaching out to all who are unlovely and sick, like those dying Israelites, like Nicodemus, and like us, sinners. Love of God is not selective or discriminating. It is universal, with no limitations. Jesus came to the whole world in love, and here with us expecting we share love and grace we received from God. The good news is that Jesus came to us in love to save, to heal, and to offer spiritual birth, not came to condemn or judge. Therefore, those who are born again in faith would love others in the act with open hearts and open minds and open doors to transform to the world. Transformation is to change totally to a new beginning. Let us go with God into a new life together.
Thanks be to God. Amen.