Pastor Chico Martin
March 12th, 2017 The 2nd Sunday of Lent
“The biblical narrative is ultimately a story about God’s pursuit of His people and the redemption and restoration of a world marred by sin.” – Tim Fox
I remember as a teenager watching the Billy Graham Crusade on TV with my grandmother at her home in Virginia. It was probably the first – and one of the few times – I watched an altar call. TV was also where I learned about the sinner’s prayer; this is the sort of prayer you say when you accept Jesus into your heart and invite Him into your life.
Here’s an example, from an African-American United Methodist church in Frederick, Maryland:
Father in Heaven, I know that I am a sinner and need forgiveness. I believe that Your Son, Jesus, died in my place to pay the ultimate penalty for my sins and I give You glory that He rose again for my salvation. Father, I need You in my life. Help me to turn completely away from my sinful ways and live a life that is pleasing to You. I want to have a relationship with You. So, now I ask You, Father, to come into my life as my Lord and Savior. Cleanse me, heal me and forgive me, I pray. In Jesus’ Mighty Name, I pray, Amen.[i]
Perhaps some of you here now have had an occasion to say the Sinner’s Prayer, and maybe you even mark that moment as the moment of your conversion, that is, when you were saved and became a Christian.
To be “born again” means to succumb to God’s pursuit. In the aftermath of the sixties, a born-again movement in this country found a place for itself in mainstream culture. Charles Colson, the special counsel to President Richard Nixon who went to jail for his Watergate crimes, wrote a book about his subsequent conversion, called Born Again. The same year Colson’s book was published, Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, identified himself as “born again.” Born again entails “repentance, redemption, and spiritual re-birth.”[ii] Its new-found respectability took the edge off its association with crazed, smiling, in-your-face proselytizers: the kind of persons who would latch onto you anywhere until you made clear you were not interested in hearing what they had to say. Being born again was not, however, entirely white-washed. For example, Jesus freaks avoided mainstream church ritual and tradition. Instead, they worshipped with spirit-filled enthusiasm and countercultural music, adapting an alternative life-style to keep the born-again movement outside of mainstream America, until the mainstream re-invented evangelicalism and labelled itself born again.
How did Methodists fit in with all this? Taylor Burton-Edwards, on the UMC website, notes the Methodist “expectation” that the Gospel “will lead persons to an experience of conversion, of “entirely turning over” their lives to God by becoming disciples of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Methodism grew out of and with the 18th evangelical movement; Methodists are evangelicals. John Wesley’s insistence on “perfection” marked Methodism as different “from some other evangelicals” because “we understand conversion to be a lifelong process, a continual turning of our lives and wills over to God for God’s use and purposes.” Nevertheless, “to begin that lifelong process, we must, as the scriptures teach and John Wesley reminds us, be “born again.”[iii] That is, as we read on the Asbury UMC site, we must “personally make the decision to follow Jesus.” We must admit that we are sinners, repent (or turn away from) our sinfulness, and invite Jesus to come into our life as our “personal” Savior.”[iv]
The grip of the past, our captivity in sin, is hard to break. “Go Down, Moses” and “Wade in the Water” tell the story of liberation, as it is narrated in the Old Covenant account of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. The born-again experience is the similar way God sets his New Covenant people free. In John 3:1-17, we hear the story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus – a leader of the Jews, that is, a member of the Sanhedrin – is a somewhat timid man, who later goes with Joseph of Arimathea to take down, spice, and wrap the body of Jesus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus secretly, at night, to question him about his teaching. First, he acknowledges the signs that Jesus works are proof of a divine presence. Jesus responds obliquely. He tells Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” The Greek word Jesus uses for birth is also the word for begotten, as in “begotten, not made,” or “only begotten son,” and the word for again can mean from above. Jesus tells Nicodemus, to recognize the presence of God, you must be begotten from above, in a spiritual, rather than worldly, manner.
Nicodemus, like most of his contemporaries, expects the kingdom of God to be a political-military presence, not a new understanding of how to live superimposed on the present worldly context. In John’s gospel, this new way of living is described as “eternal life.” By seeing the kingdom of God, John means entering eternal life.[v]
Nicodemus has come at night, in the dark; like us, he is a slave not to the Egyptians, but to sin. And what does Jesus tell him? “You must be born again.” Commentators note “the light/darkness contrast is a constant theme in John.”[vi] This contrast is made between eternal life and hell; righteousness and evil, or as we discussed last week, Jesus and Satan. To be born again is a gift to those of us who choose to follow Jesus, the light from above, and reject the darkness that begins within us, spreads throughout the world, and leads to hell.
Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking in riddles. Being born again doesn’t make much sense to him, and like the television jokester Dennis Miller, he’s “a little indignant” when Jesus tells him he’s going to hell if he hasn’t been born again. “Pardon me,” Nicodemus says, “for getting it right the first time.”[vii] Jesus, however, digs in; “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the spirit.” Instead of reasoning with Nicodemus, Jesus deflects attention from himself, and points to Scripture.
Ezekiel 36:25, for instance, reads, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.”[viii] Also, from Joel 2:28, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.”[ix] This is the verse Peter quotes, preaching to the crowd, in Acts 2:17, when Joel’s picture of the present kingdom life comes to life: our knowledge of God is made certain, God’s Spirit is poured out upon us, and we change. We become prophets, dreamers, and visionaries: we see heaven and earth as they are, not as we imagine them, because Jesus makes this possible.
Jesus does his signs with power and speaks with authority because he came from heaven and the throne room of God to offer himself for us. He is careful with his explanation to Nicodemus; because he is “the one who descended from heaven” he also is twice born, and he knows of what he speaks. When we believe what he says, and follow his example, we experience a second birth, and following him, have eternal life.
One more, Jesus points Nicodemus to the Scriptures. In Numbers 21:4-9, the Jews, on their way to Canaan, have become afraid. Their memories are short-term and their gratitude has vanished. We recognize this self-focus and its sinfulness, by the chaos it encourages; everyone sees his and herself as the center of the universe. God’s remedy in the desert, a snake on a pole, foreshadows the remedy he provides in Jerusalem: Christ on the cross.
God always acts out of love for the world and his creatures. His love is the nature of reality, and it is unconditional. None of us are deserving of love, but even though we are not loveable, God loves us. In the darkness that begins within us, we traumatize each other; we lose the capacity to love, because we learn the danger of trusting the love of this world. God pursues us all the way into our trauma, to the center of our being, where he offers us redemption. God pursues us, not as an army or a slaveholder might, to return us to captivity, but as a liberator, to set the captives free.
We must be born again. There aren’t any alternatives, if we are to make good our escape from sin and death. On our Lenten journey, we listen to Jesus, and we walk – together – in his footsteps. We start all over again, making the RADICAL CHANGE (not a slight adjustment) that Jesus asks of us. Together, as a church, we are restored. Angels stir the waters. We are born again.
[v] Ellicott’s Bible Commentary: Vol 3, 1878 (Delmarva Publications, 2015), John 3:2, ePub
[viii] Here is the passage from Ezekiel: 22“Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. 23I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes. 24“ ‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
[ix] This is the passage from Joel: 27Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed. 28“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. 30I will show wonders in the heavensand on the earthblood and fire and billows of smoke