Born Into the Light
BORN INTO THE LIGHT
I think it is fair to say that we are all looking for some guidance for finding our way through life. We are all looking for advice, that philosophy, that program, that will be like a flash light in a dark world. While everyone else is stumbling around we want an advantage, we want to see far enough, and clear enough, to get just a little more ahead in life. That is why the area of pop psychology and self help is an ever expanding field.
And yet, we have all experienced folks who mean well, who want to give us good guidance, but the advice doesn’t tend to be helpful. From my own life there is a piece of advice that often annoys me. I am a rather forgetful fellow so I am constantly misplacing things. And when I ask others if they have seen whatever object I have misplaced in the moment their response is, “do you remember the last place you put it?” Though I am not short with people with my speech I often am in my heart. Often when I hear this question I want to say, “ if I remember where I last put it, it wouldn’t be lost now would it?” I know people are trying to get me to remember. I know they are well intentioned and want to be helpful. But I have already been trying to remember and it doesn’t work. What usually works if forgetting about it and finding the object I am looking for by accident a couple of days later. I don’t know if there is a better question to ask. I am always frustrated because my memory seems to be something out of my control so asking me to remember things doesn’t seem to be helpful.
Perhaps Nicodemus is feeling a similar frustration in today’s lectionary passage. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. A religious sect that were key in advocating for Jesus to be crucified. And yet, Nicodemus is intrigued by Jesus’ signs. He see Jesus doing so much good for the people. Perhaps Nicodemus thought Jesus was the key. The key to the good life. The key to seeing just a little further down the road. Nicodemus certainly risked his reputation to come to Jesus in the night. He did so because of the signs Jesus did. But Nicodemus calls Jesus teacher, implying that Nicodemus wanted Jesus to teach him something profound yet useful. It seems that Nicodemus left that initial conversations disappointed and confused.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is obviously confused for he replies, “ How can a man be born again from above when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” You can almost hear Nicodemus scoffing as he asks this question. And even if we don’t take Jesus as literally as Nicodemus did it is still hard to see his point. How would we know when we were born again from above when all of us don’t remember being born in the first place? The stories we receive about our births are second hand. I know from my mother that I was born twelve days late in 1983 on one of the hottest days of the year. I know my mother was in labor with me for twenty three hours, sorry mom. But this is all second hand. I don’t remember anything about being born. Jesus is trying to say that entering the Kingdom of God is like being born for a second time. It is a poor analogy since none of us remember being born the first time, how would we know if we have been born a second time? And yet, if we look at the larger context of this chapter we discover the outlines of what it means to be born again from above. We discover the outlines of being lead into the light of the Christian life.
The Good News Today: When we are born into the light we shall see how much God loves the world.
- Admitting that we love the dark
- Looking to Christ to draw the venom out of our lives
- Being Born Again.
First, our text suggests that if we are going to be born into the light, we must first admit that we love the dark. The Apostle Paul describes his struggle with sin as doing that which he hates (Romans 7). And indeed, I think from a mental perspective, we have all experienced this struggle. But Jesus suggests that in our hearts, we really don’t hate sin, we love it in our hearts. No one ever says, “Lord deliver me from the temptation of eating broccoli.” We know that broccoli is good for us, or so I am told, though it may not taste good. Though it broccoli doesn’t taste good we know it is good for us in the long term. And perhaps that is how we feel about the Christian life. We know in the long term that it is good for us but in the short term it doesn’t taste that good. But if the scripture says taste and see that the LORD is good is the problem the scriptures or our taste buds (
Part of this is because the pay off to sin, the pay off to living in the dark is generally greater in the short term, then living in the light. The Bible talks a lot about sacrifice and loving others more than ourselves and frankly that just doesn’t sound as much fun. While living in the dark sounds much more pleasurable to us. No one ever says, “Oh Lord deliver me from the temptation of eating Broccoli.” For eating Broccoli is good for us, or at least that is what I have been told. But I don’t think Broccoli tastes good enough that any of us would eat enough of it to negatively effects on our health. Perhaps that is how the Christian life feels to us sometimes. We know it is good for us. But we don’t particularly enjoy it. Perhaps that is because our spiritual taste buds have been affected by poor spiritual food. Perhaps it is because our hearts are dying from spiritual venom. After we have admitted we love the dark we must ask Christ to draw out the venom in our lives.
When Nicodemus asks how this can be Jesus tells Nicodemus that he is like the Serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. He tells Nicodemus that when he is lifted up he will draw all people to himself. To understand what Jesus is talking about we sort of have to go back to Numbers chapter 21.
In Numbers chapter 21 the people of Israel are wandering in the wilderness, journeying to the promised land, and they become impatient. Though they had been enslaved in Egypt, at least they had water and food. Though they were not free in Egypt their stomachs were filled. God provided them bread from heaven. Certainly, they were grateful when bread started to fall from the sky when they had nothing. But after a while wandering in the wilderness the people of Israel had become use to this miraculous bread, and they complained against Moses, because the bread was light, hollow, and tasted bad. In response to their grumbling God sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so many of the people died. The people of Israel, realizing they had sinned only after they are surrounded by snakes, go to Moses and ask for Mercy from the LORD. In response God tells Moses to fashion a fiery serpent out of Bronze and set it on a pole. Anyone who was bitten by one of the serpents would look at the bronze serpent and live. So what Jesus is saying is he is functioning as a reverse serpent. He takes the venom of sin and malice out of our lives when we look to him.
What I think this passage speaks to is the particular sin of harsh words and criticism which is like venom that is deadly to the spiritual life of God’s people. The scripture says we are to speak the truth in love with gentleness. And that is really hard to do. And even I have failed at that as a preacher. How do we know if the words we are speaking are venom? First, we assume that we could do it better without understanding the other person’s situation. The people of Israel cried out at Moses but they were not walking in Moses shoes. Second, we don’t offer to help, we don’t put skin the game. Instead, we tear the person down with our words and do nothing to help them with our actions. As Jesus says teaches us it is not what is outside of us that defiles us but what comes out of our hearts that defiles us (Matthew 15:11). In my ministry I have seen people go through similar wilderness experiences. But on the other end one comes out as broken and bitter while the other comes out as a saint who’s words heal those around them. The difference is how they tell their stories and see their experiences. Our scripture today tells us that we must look to Jesus to draw the venom out of our lives so we don’t become serpents ruining the lives of others.
Finally, for all of this to happen, Jesus tells us that we must be born again to see the Kingdom of God. In the scriptures, the Kingdom of God not only refers to eternal life after we die, it refers to eternal life before we die. It is the difference between how we see the world and how God sees the world. So Jesus is fundamentally saying that not only does he want to save Nicodemus, and the rest of us, he wants Nicodemus to see heaven, not just when he dies, but in the here and now. As Jesus only did what he saw what his Father was doing, Jesus wants Nicodemus to see what his Father is doing.
I know many have used this passage to talk about a moment of profound religious conversion. And I don’t want to downplay such experiences. I myself had what one might describe as a born again experience in college. Yet, as I reflect on that moment, I see now that I was being lead into the light step by step to that point, and that perhaps it was my unwillingness to see God’s hand in my life that caused me to pick out a particular point where God’s hand was more apparent. Even profound religious experience tend to be part of a process over time. They are more like being born then winning the lottery. They are more like my mother being in labor for twenty three hours with me than a quick delivery. Again, I am sorry for that mom.
Often, being born again from above is described as a profound and joyful religious experience. I don’t remember being born, but from what I have read, I would imagine that being in the womb would be a far more enjoyable experience than being born. Perhaps that is why we forget our first birth, because to remember it would be too traumatic for us. So perhaps when Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to be born again, he is asking him to see the trials in his life, those times where he feels fearful and afraid, when his life is constricted all around him and he feels things are out of control, to see those times differently. The writer of Hebrews says that our parents discipline us as seems good to them. And perhaps sometimes what seemed good to them wasn’t actually good for us. But the Bible tells us that our Father in heaven disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness (Hebrews 12:11). One of my preacher friends put it this way. If God gave you four options which would you choose. 1. To be wildly successful. 2. To be wildly attractive. 3. To be a genius. 4. To be refined into his Holiness. Which would you choose? Even, for myself holiness might fall at the bottom of the list. Because it is hard to imagine what it would be like to be Holy. But we don’t have to imagine for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that who soever believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Father, reveal the favor of your hand to us. Lift up your Son among us and draw all people to yourself. By what we can control and what we cannot control help us to be born into the light.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen .