Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. -John 3:1-17 (CEB)
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I love ritual. That sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? But, I admit it. I love ritual. I’m a creature of habit. Whether it’s my morning ritual that begins each day, hopefully, with a cup of coffee, or whether it’s our weekly pattern of worship, our ritual, that follows the order of the mass that comes down to us from the early church--whatever the ritual, I love it.
So, it’s probably no wonder that, in seminary, my favorite courses were those about the rituals of the church, especially those of the early church. For me, studying them has helped me better understand many of the rituals that we follow today--nearly all of which came out of the early church. Studying them also gives me a deeper understanding of Scripture and the beliefs of the early church, beliefs that arose out of the Hebrew scriptures and those, written by the apostles, that we call the New Testament.
Last week, we began over these 40 days of Lent to take a look at our our ritual of baptism. We began to look at it, thinking that, if we better understand the promises made in this ritual, we might better become the baptismal people we profess to be. That we might better become the story we tell.
We began last week with the three renunciations. Those three questions asked of every baptismal candidate--questions that we still ask today. Do you renounce the devil? Do you renounce the ways of the world? Do you renounce the ways of sin?
In the early church, before these three renunciations, the candidates would have been stripped of all clothing. Stripped of their jewelry. Stripped away of anything that might suggest their former life. They would then be led naked, down into the water. Into a river or a moving stream. It was here, waste-deep in water, that they would be turned to face west. West. The place of the setting sun. Of the beginning of darkness. Of night. Or, symbolically, the place of unbelief.
Facing west, they would speak the three renunciations, declaring their intent to renounce all those things that separate us from God. Then, the priest would blow three times into each candidate’s nostrils. This blowing or breath was a ritual intended to signify the coming of the Spirit. The in-breathing of the Holy Spirit. The entry of the breath of God.
Next, although there are some variations in the early rituals, the candidates would then be anointed on the forehead and the chest with oil--an “Oil of Catechumens.” This anointing symbolized the need of each person for the help and strength of God to sever the bondage of the past and to overcome the opposition of the devil and the powers of darkness so that they might profess their faith, come to baptism, and be claimed as a child of God.
Once this anointing with oil was concluded, the candidates were, once again, asked three questions. These questions, though, were unlike the previous renunciations. This time, the questions were about beliefs. They are the same questions we ask today.
“Do you believe in God the Father?”
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?”
“Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?”
Do you believe?
Believing. That’s the point of our Gospel text today. The reason Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. In the dark. In unbelief. Seeking to believe.
Oh, perhaps, Nicodemus was on his way to believing. After all, he and the others had witnessed the signs--the miracles--Jesus did. And, they had decided that no one could do this things unless they were of God.
But seeing the signs is not enough. The kingdom of God can’t be seen with physical eyes. Rather it is a reality that can only be perceived through the eyes of the Spirit, after a person has been born “anew” or “from above.” The kingdom of God can only be seen by those who have experienced a spiritual rebirth. Who have been “born again.”
Now, being “born again” is not a re-commitment. It isn’t a decision we make once we’re past the age of consent.
To be “born again” or to be “born from above” is a spiritual rebirth that is worked in us by God through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a spiritual rebirth into the family of God, where, just like a child, we recognize that our entire existence depends upon God. That we are fully dependent upon and trust in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. For everything we need.
To be “born again” is to recognize that there is nothing we do to receive this new birth--that it is a call from God through the Holy Spirit to enter into full relationship with God. To come into the full presence of God and to find wholeness and new life.
To be “born again” is to know that God’s desire is that the whole world would come to be saved, to gain eternal life. God’s desire is not to judge the world, but to save the world.
And to be “born again” is to know that in our baptism and every Sunday when we say the words of the Creed, “I believe,” we are saying that we trust. We trust in God the Father Almighty. We trust in Jesus Christ. We trust in the Holy Spirit. We trust. And, in trusting, we are doing much, much more than simply consenting to a belief in a particular Christian doctrine. We are giving witness of this relationship with God to the entire world.
That’s what Jesus was offering Nicodemus--to come into the same relationship and to exist in the presence of God. But, eventually, he did. And eventually it was he, along with others, who anointed and buried the body of Christ after his death on the cross.
Last week, I sent you home with a wilderness stone. It was something to keep in your pocket during the week to remind you that, when you are tested, Jesus has passed the test for you.
This week, as we leave worship, I will be giving you a small bottle of anointing oil. May you use this during the week, perhaps by marking the sign of the cross on your forehead or by anointing your hands in service. May this be, as it was in the baptismal rituals of the early church--may this be a reminder to you that in your own rebirth, God has claimed you. Claimed you to be God’s own child, claimed you to be in full relationship with God, and claimed you to be given new life in God’s kingdom. Forever and ever.
This is what we believe. This is what we trust.
Preached at Grace and Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Second Sunday in Lent.
Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17.