You must be born again.
by maggi dawn
I preached at St Michael St George, St Louis on Sunday. Several people have asked for the script. In fact, although I wrote a script I didn’t read it very closely, so the words below are only approximately, and not precisely what I said. All the same, for my new friends in St Louis, and anyone else who’s interested, here is the script:
‘You must be Born again!’
‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’
These two phrases from John 3 are associated more than anything with conversion, probably because they are so over-used in a particular religious culture in which preachers urge their listeners to change their lives without delay, and by an effort of will, make a decision to follow Jesus. It’s pitched as Good News. But does it feel like good news? Delivered like a demand, under pressure, it may feel more like bad news.
Read the story closely, though, and you find that these two phrases are not about an overnight conversion at all, but about a secret conversation.
Nicodemus, we are told, came to Jesus “under the cover of darkness”. Why did he come by night?
Perhaps he was afraid. Nicodemus was a religious leader, whose colleagues were very antagonistic towards Jesus. So maybe he was afraid of the consequences of being seen with Jesus. Would it damage his career? His spiritual reputation? His social standing?
Or perhaps he wasn’t afraid, but simply needed to find a private space for a one-to-one with Jesus, away from his colleagues who were always so busy trying to catch Jesus out with their snide questions that they never actually stopped to listen to him.
The chapter begins, then, with Nicodemus arriving under the cover of darkness, but although it ends with Jesus talking about the light (and John’s gospel is full of contrast between darkness and light), it was apparently still dark when Nicodemus sloped away.
He didn’t get his questions answered that night, he didn’t move from darkness to light, or from night to day, from bewilderment to clarity, from resistance to relationship. He came to Jesus in the dark, and left, still – both literally and metaphorically – in the dark.
Nicodemus came with questions, but Jesus did that thing he did so often: instead of giving a straight answer, he completely reframed the question.
God so loved the world, said Jesus. You must be born again.
Born again? says Nicodemus. That’s crazy and impossible, Jesus. What are you talking about?
Hey, take it easy, Nic, says Jesus, I’m talking spiritual rebirth here. And then goes on to talk in riddles about serpents and spirits and the wind blowing…
It’s easy to do the same thing Nicodemus did – to take Jesus far too literally. I don’t know how ‘you must be born again’ ever got turned into an evangelist’s demand, but it seems to me there’s a world of difference between saying birth is necessary and turning it into an order. Maybe it takes a woman to notice this, but babies don’t get born all by themselves. They don’t decide when to be born – it happens when the time is right. And when they are born, it’s the mother, not the baby, who does most of the work.
If God is offering us new birth, then it might not happen just yet, and when it does, it’s God who is going to do the hard work. If you aren’t ready for a spiritual rebirth yet, stay in the dark with Jesus a while longer. When the time is right, it will happen.
Nicodemus wasn’t ‘born again’ that night, and neither did he ‘see the light’. He came to Jesus in the dark, had the entire conversation during the hours of night, and then simply disappeared again, still under the cover of darkness. You only find out what happened to him if you read the rest of the gospel. More on that in a moment, but first, pause a moment and ask yourself this:
What would you ask Jesus if you had a secret one-to-one conversation with him? What would you like to ask God that seems an unacceptable question to ask in Church? Does it feel like you have been in the dark for a long time? Have you been waiting forever for something that never seems to materialize?
Maybe, like Nicodemus, you need the freedom to talk to God under the cover of darkness – by yourself, or with just one trusted friend who won’t tell everyone else. But maybe it’s just that your time is not quite yet. You must be born again, said Jesus – but he didn’t say when.
Real births don’t happen on schedule, they happen when the baby is ready. And it isn’t good for a baby to be born too soon; all kinds of problems follow. But even a birth at the right time is a process, not the work of a moment, and when the birth happens the baby doesn’t do all the work. Demanding that a baby is born on schedule makes no sense, and the same is true of spiritual birth. All we can do is continue to grow, and – as far as we are able – be ready when the time is right.
The language of birth is helpful here. Before a birth can begin, the baby has to be ‘engaged’, and for the best outcome the baby needs to be in the right position. Spiritually, there is a limited amount we can do to change our own lives – as the writer to the Ephesians notes, salvation is pure gift, not something we achieve by our own efforts. But we can make ourselves ready as far as possible, so that we don’t obstruct God who, like a mother, will do the work for us of bringing new things to birth.
There was no overnight conversion for Nicodemus, then. But we do have two accounts from later in the narrative that give us clues to what happened in the months and years that followed. In John 7, we find Nicodemus with a group of his Pharisee colleagues, in conversation with the Temple police. Once again, Jesus was causing the kind of controversy that made the Pharisees anxious and annoyed. They discussed whether to silence Jesus, or evict him from the Temple. But then Nicodemus spoke up. “Isn’t it in our law,” he said, “to give someone a fair hearing? We shouldn’t silence him, we should listen to him.” And later still, when Jesus died, we find that most of his disciples – including his closest friends – had fled for fear of what might happen to them. There was huge controversy around Jesus’ death, and being seen with him was risky, dangerous. But two men took the risk of being seen as supporters of Jesus. Two men who came to take him down from the cross and give him a decent burial, thus removing him from the disgrace of a criminal’s death. This was not by night, but in broad daylight – for bodies had to be buried before sunset. And one of those two men was Nicodemus.
Here at the most controversial and dangerous moment in the story, Nicodemus appears again, this time not under the cover of darkness but in clear view of the public, fearlessly associating himself with Jesus. He may not have had an overnight conversion, but the impact of his starlit encounter with Jesus ran deep, and by the time his ‘new birth’ was accomplished, he was no longer afraid of what others thought of him, and was prepared to say so in broad daylight. He found the courage to challenge the status quo. He overcame his fear that he would be isolated, neglected, left out, or that his life would be ruined. And he found following Jesus into the future more compelling than holding on to his own way of doing faith.
Nicodemus’ story, then, is like two bookends around the life of Jesus (as John tells it) – he begins in secret, hiding from view; he ends fearless and open about his faith. In between we know almost nothing about his experience. But without any altar call or ‘decision for Christ’, with no personal prayer of commitment or overnight conversion experience, Nicodemus nevertheless found himself moving, over the course of several years, from fear to faith.
For us too, God’s call is not to change our lives by an effort of will, but to make ourselves ready for God’s work. To listen, to change perspective, to make ourselves open to the gift, so that, when the time is right, God will bring to birth something new in our lives.
God will choose the moment. God will do the hard work. God will bring it safely into being. We just have to be ready.
And that, my friends, is good news.