SERMON FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT 5TH MARCH 2023
2nd Sunday of Lent: Have you been born Again?
A song of ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and for evermore.
John 3. 1- 17
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Have you been born again?
In the church I served my Curacy members of the congregation sometimes found themselves being asked that question by an enthusiastic member of another church. He would ambush them as they walked up the path to church, ‘have you been born again?’
It was not just the congregation that he asked, he also asked the Rector and I
I must admit the first time he asked me I just assured him I wasn’t born yesterday. However, a member of the congregation told me she had been asked and was not quite sure how to answer. On inquiring it turned out that many in the congregation did not know what to say in answer to the question, ‘have you been born again?’
It is a question that Christians need to be able to answer, even if they shouldn’t be harassed on the way into church.
The question refers to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John chapter 3 where Jesus tells Nicodemus that he ‘must be born again’.
It is unfortunate that the idea of being born again has been claimed by the more evangelical parts of the Church to the exclusion of the wider Church. If someone asks, ‘have you been born again?’, it may well reflect a particular understanding of this passage of scripture, the idea that one must have converted decisively at a particular time and place to be a Christian. In such an account it is not enough to have been brought up as a Christian or to attend Church, one must have had a conversion experience. This is what was confusing the members of my previous congregation; the passage of scripture was not being used in a way familiar to their tradition.
Poor Nicodemus was similarly puzzled by Christ’s use of the phrase, the only context he had for it was literal and gynaecological, and that understandably did not seem a realistic option.
The character who kept asking members of my previous church if they had been ‘born again’ had experienced a dramatic conversion. He told of how he had been driving along in his car and having had no interest in Christianity suddenly become overwhelmingly aware of the love of God.
I have no doubt that his account was sincere. I have heard many such accounts of God intervening in people’s lives and they are marvellous and moving, but that is not how God deals with everyone. It is a mistake to think that your walk with God is the only possible walk with God, and all should follow in your footsteps. The only footsteps Christians should be following are those of Jesus.
The ‘dramatic conversion’ understanding of Christianity causes difficulty for those who, like myself, have had no defining moment of change in their lives.
I grew up in a Christian household and attended varied nonconformist Evangelical and Charismatic churches, full of born again enthusiasts. I will be forever grateful to the faithful Christians of those churches who by their example and teaching helped me along the way, but they did such a good job that I had no need of a dramatic conversion. I have self identified as a Christian as long as I have been conscious of my being. I remember as a seven year old saying the little prayer that I had been taught you had to say to be a Christian, but knowing I already was.
I once heard a preacher describe his conversion experience, he said it was like travelling on a train across a border, at some point he clearly had crossed that border, but he was not aware at the time of doing so.
The liturgy of the Anglican Confirmation service allows room for this understanding of conversion, when the Bishop asks, ‘do you turn to Christ’, the Bishop is not asking for an on the spot decision, the Bishop is asking for a public declaration of a decision that has already been taken.
So, have you been born again?
You do need to be able to answer this question, not just in case some keen Evangelical corners you, but because Jesus commands that we be born again.
This may help – the word ‘again’ in ‘you must be born again’ in the original Greek of the New Testament is ‘anóthen’. If you take the word ‘above’ and compact it in to the phrase ‘from the beginning’ then you begin to get an idea of ‘anóthen’ – a word which has no easy English equivalent.
You must be born anóthen – ‘from the beginning, from above.’
So let us turn to the beginning, to Genesis where we read that we are created in the image of God. The story is we are created good, but we go bad. The wrong we do in our life disfigures our divine created image, so Jesus came from above, the perfect image of the invisible God, to show us how the image of God may be restored in us.
A restoration symbolised in the waters of baptism. Jesus tells Nicodemus ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.’
In chapter 2 of Acts Peter explains further,
“Repent, and be baptised…in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls.”
‘All who are far away’ – that is you and me.
Baptism and repentance bring new birth; continued repentance brings maturity. Good Christians should always be a work in progress. To repent means to think again, to stop going your own way and start going God’s way. It is about our direction of travel, remember Jesus said that he was ‘the way, the truth and the life’, and early Christians were known as the ‘Followers of the Way.’
I don’t know about you, but I have to continually repent, to continually reset my direction as I wander off the path, but baptism gives me the reassurance that God’s forgiveness is infinite.
Actually when I say ‘I don’t know about you’ that’s disingenuous, I do know about you. I know that each one of us needs to lead lives of repentance, to be constantly checking our moral compass so we continue on the way. As the Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans chapter 3,’ … all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’
This is why it is so useful to know you are born again, because the evidence of your life will not support the notion that you are holy. When you wonder off the path again and again you may well begin to wonder, ‘am I beyond salvation?’ Have I been too bad?
Thanks be to God, it is not our holiness that saves but Christ’s. We receive Christ’s holiness when we accept that our own is woefully insufficient and turn to him. Being born again means that you have grasped this, that you know you have exchanged your own poor rags for the glorious garment given by Christ, a garment you may well get dirty along the way but Jesus is there to clean you up and set you straight again.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘…God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’
In Jesus God does not seek to condemn you, He seeks to save you. Do not then condemn yourself. If your Christianity causes you to condemn others, or yourself, then you are doing it wrong. If God did not send His Son into the world to condemn, I doubt he sent you. Trust that you have been born again; know that the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus can save not just you but the whole world, and all of creation.
Those who have turned to walk in the way of Jesus have entered into eternal life, they have been saved, and are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. So thank God that you are born again, and keep focused on Him so that the Spirit may continue the work of restoring in you the image of God.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
From the beginning, from above.