"Born again, and again"

February 28, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
 based upon John 3:1-17

I never knew Dan West. He died before I, as someone new to the Brethren, discovered who he was. I continue to marvel, though, over how a very simple idea he had developed into the worldwide, interdenominational ministry called Heifer Project. Give a young female cow to a needy family with but one string attached. When the firstborn calf comes along, theyíre to give it away to someone else in need. It doesnít take a rocket scientist to figure out that in so doing, a gift keeps on giving... Often the best ideas spring from such simple roots, you know.

Of course, it is a bit more complicated than all of that. I mean, thereís transportation, care for the animals, communication on the giving and receiving ends, in addition to cultural differences that have to be taken into account. Furthermore, thereís the growth of a ministry to involve a variety of animals and plants, as well as a variety of churches, in many different countries. In a sense, though, the idea remains very simple. One gift is born again, and again.

I continue to marvel at the story of how Nicodemus met Jesus one-on-one. It happened "by night," or so the tale goes (a first century "nic at night"). I can think of plenty of reasons why a pharisee might approach Jesus under cover of darkness. What would the colleagues of Nicodemus think if they knew he sought out this new teacher on the block, that he did so with the respect of one rabbi toward another? Actually, the truth is, of all the religious professionals then operating in Israel, the Pharisees were, perhaps, the most open to Jesus. Their minds werenít closed, at least not at the beginning.

It, therefore, was not unusual that one of them, Nicodemus, would personally seek Jesus out. As I read the story of this encounter, I wonder if Nicodemus was speaking for himself, or for his colleagues. His statements and questions are in "we" rather than "I" language, as if he had been deputized to ask these things for others. That he came at night indicates a seriousness behind the questions. He was not trying to bait or trap our Lord in front of a crowd. There was serious seeking happening on that night, one on one. Of course, as with other stories in Johnís gospel, there is a sense here that we, who are listening in (as it were) step into the shoes of Nicodemus - and these questions become our own. Jesus is speaking to us.

As conversations go, this one was a bit one-sided. The statements and questions of Nicodemus were fairly short, simple and straightforward. Jesus had a lot to say in response. We can hear the story as a monologue, with Jesus doing all the talking and little of the listening. From such a reading, some folks have developed an evangelistic style that is primarily a "let me tell you what you need to do, and donít you talk back" style. As I read this story, however, I hear the silences between the lines. This conversation is on a deeper level than mere words.

Now, it doesnít take a rocket scientist to figure out this bit about being born from above, or born "again" as the King James Version puts it. Obviously, Jesus wasnít speaking of somehow literally jumping back into the womb for another crack at entering life. He was, however, pointing to the possibility of a new beginning. The idea is very simple: new eyes, new life, new birth.

I do find it interesting to hear two men talk about "birth." Thatís not your typical "guy talk," at least not in the circles I find myself in. Youíd expect that sort of conversation in "Motherís Together," but at a menís breakfast? I donít think first century males were that much different from their twentieth century counterparts. Itís amazing, though, what you might talk about late at night when no one else is listening. Of course, since this episode found its way into Johnís gospel, the whole world is listening.

Of course, as simple as the possibility of a new birth is, we know thereís much more to it than what appears on the surface. If we are the ones to be born from above, then in some way, shape, or fashion, God is the one who gives birth. What do any of us really know about the process of giving birth from Godís perspective? All we know is that we canít begin to comprehend it unless we are provided the means for doing so.

At the end of the Lenten program last Sunday evening, Teresa Albright held up a cloth for us, asking what we saw on it. Some vague shapes were visible, but we couldnít quite make anything out. Oh, we knew something was on the other side of that tapestry, but the patterns were not obvious. And then she turned the cloth over so we could see the other side. It was a beautiful wall hanging. Looking at it "from below," it didnít make much sense. But "from above," it did. Jesus told Nicodemus, "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."

As I said earlier, I marvel at the simplicity of the idea behind Heifer Project International. When you think about it, however, the basic concept of it all upsets the apple cart of how we normally view things. Possession is nine tenths of the law, isnít that how it goes? Once something is in your hands, it belongs to you. Imagine living on the edge, barely able to scratch out a living. Into your hands comes the means not only to survive, but also to thrive - an animal, whose offspring will continue to feed your family in ever greater ways. However, in the process of receiving the gift, you also receive one request: give away the firstborn to someone else in need.

Seen from below, that is a terrifying choice, perhaps a matter of life and death. What would happen if I did this, and then the mother animal died? It wouldnít just be a return to the way things were before. Now I would know what it was to have this treasure, only my hands would be empty except for that memory. My children cannot live off a memory... The idea is not as simple as it first appeared, is it? It requires a radical shift of perspective on the part of the one receiving the gift. To release that firstborn is an act of faith, trusting that the gift will be born again, in the life of some other family, as well as my in own life.

"God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life." It does seem a bit humorous to me that a line from a private, midnight conversation has become one of the most known passages in the New Testament, perhaps even the whole Bible. That, in and of itself, says something about viewing things from above rather than from below. Our private sphere touches eternity as well. Have you ever noticed, for instance, that the things children pick up from their elders are not the up front statements and actions, but rather the words and deeds on the side? "Did I say that?" we wonder in response. "I donít recall doing that." Ah, but the things we think are trivial from below are often important parts of the tapestry as seen from above.

To "believe" in this "only Son" whom "God gave" is not merely a matter of intellectually giving your assent to a list of beliefs. Rather, it involves stepping into this gift, seeing in this Son of God your very life, trusting enough in Godís Spirit to let go of your "from below" view of things that you might live this gift "from above." It is a "birthing" process.

When asked, a majority of persons in this country will say that they have been "born again." I do not doubt the sincerity of all these individuals, though I think those words mean different things to different people. For some this "rebirth" was a time when they somehow stepped forward and at that moment gave their lives to Christ. For others it is just a general feeling that something new has happened. Some folks hold dearly the day and hour of their new birth. Lindy, a friend I met in Chicago 20 years ago, held a birthday party every year in memory of the event. I wonder if she still does.

Being "born from above" is not so much an event as it is an ongoing transformation. It is an ever deeper trusting that the wind of God will blow your sailboat in the direction of Godís new land. When the waves are rough, and the sails are ballooned out as far as they can go, and your vessel feels like it is at the point of tipping over, that is when the real "trusting" begins. Seen from below, all appears lost. Seen from above, however, the race of faith is only starting.

The image that comes to mind is a crowís nest. The old sailing ships had these platforms near the top of their masts. The job of one crewman was to climb up to the crowís nest to keep watch. It was a rather precarious position. From that vantage point high above the deck, dangers could be seen and warning shouted to the rest of the crew. From on high the object of desire, even if only a speck on the horizon, could be detected, with a resulting cry to others below: "Land Ho!" ... Jesus said, "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."

He also said, "no one can step foot on Godís new land without being born of water and Spirit." Last week I said of Adam and Eve that perhaps it was a severe mercy that led God to send humanity out of Eden. I wonder that if they had remained that garden would have become to them a hell. How many people have entered the American dream, finding here great prosperity, but also tremendous emptiness? What appears to be like a heaven of riches becomes a nightmare of spiritual poverty.

Viewed from below, Godís kingdom is like the underside of a tapestry - all sorts of threads, knots, off-colors, split ends - not a pleasing sight. Who really would want to buy such a thing? Who, in their own right mind, would hang it on their wall? But those who have caught a brief glimpse of it from above will spend their last penny for it, will make it the centerpiece of their life.

Itís sort of like this gift that keeps on giving in Heifer Project. Seen from below it makes little sense to give away the firstborn calf. Lived from above, however, itís the way Godís kingdom works. The gift of not just a "firstborn" but an "only" Son was given by a God who loves this world more than this world can ever know. To receive the gift, to trust in the One given, to venture by faith following his Word toward the promised new land blown by the wind of Godís Spirit, is to pass it on, that the gift might be born again and again in the lives of others. In so doing, the Kingdom of God comes into view... "Land Ho!"

©1999Peter L. Haynes

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