Sermon 08-19-12: “All Things New, Part 2: New Birth”

August 24, 2012

In today’s scripture, Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be “born again” to enter God’s kingdom. It used to be popular to talk about being a “born-again Christian.” The truth is, being born again isn’t merely something that the super-saints among us have experienced. If we’re authentically Christians, we have experienced new birth.

Have you been born again? What does it mean and why is it necessary? How can you know whether you’ve experienced new birth? This sermon will explore those questions.

Sermon Text: John 3:1-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Last week, I went to an Emory clinic to get my shots and prescriptions for my upcoming trip to Kenya. One of those shots was for yellow fever. Kenya doesn’t currently have any cases of yellow fever, but some neighboring countries do. So, just to be safe, the doctor recommended that I get the shot. “Are there any possible drawbacks to getting the vaccination?” “Oh, sure,” he said. “It’s a live-virus vaccination, so we’re going to inject a small bit of the virus into you. Your immune system should kick in and develop immunity to it. But if it doesn’t, there’s a small chance you could contract yellow fever.” Just what I needed to hear! I’m slightly, slightly a hypochondriac, soI’m thinking, “Should I call the hospital and reserve my bed now?” because I’m already convinced I’m going to get yellow fever!

I’m happy to report that I didn’t get yellow fever. 

I also got a prescription drug for malaria. Malaria and yellow fever and West Nile are all viruses that are spread by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are bad news for people. They’re good news for bats, but bad news for humans. Many of you can appreciate this postcard, which was posted on the wall of the doctor’s office last week. At the risk of annoying those of you whose skin is welted and itchy and scabbed over from mosquito bites, I confess that I’m not attractive to mosquitoes. They don’t like my blood. I don’t smell good to them. I guess I’m not sweet; I’m bitter. I asked my doctor about this, and he agreed that some people’s body chemistry simply doesn’t attract mosquitoes, and I’m one of them.

Look… I wish I were taller; I wish my hair weren’t so curly so I could style it in some way; I wish I could tan and not sunburn so easily; but I am very grateful that I was born as a person who doesn’t attract mosquitoes!

What good things are you thankful to have been born with?

If you watched the Olympics, you no doubt saw Queen Elizabeth, Prince William, and Prince Harry, at one time or another, watching Olympic events. By virtue of their births, the Royal Family enjoy many privileges that we will never get to enjoy, but these privileges come with trade-offs. For example, they don’t get to eat popcorn or hot dogs or peanuts in public—and if they did eat peanuts they certainly couldn’t throw the shells on the ground. They don’t get to wear jeans and T-shirts. They don’t get to jump up and down with excitement when their country does something thrilling on the field. They have to maintain their composure. They have to maintain a sense of decorum at all times. Oh well…

The truth is that so much of who we are is determined at birth, and we can’t do much to change it. Sometimes this works out well for us—as it did for me in the case of mosquitoes. And it worked out well for Nicodemus in today’s scripture. He was what we might call “well-born.” He was born into a good family. As a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was a wealthy elite of society, a member of the ruling class. Keep in mind, this was back in the day when there was no “middle class.” There was no social mobility. There was no pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. If you were really lucky, you were born rich, but you were probably born poor, and you couldn’t do anything in life to change that. Its hard for us Americans to wrap our minds around this.

Nicodemus, however, was born into the right family, went to all the right schools, earned all the right degrees, possessed all the right credentials to be a theologian, a teacher, a pastor, a leader of the people. And these privileges were made possible by his birth. Can you see the challenge of Jesus’ words, therefore, when he said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again”?

“What do you mean I have to be born again? Even if that were possible, I was born just fine the first time around, thank you very much!”

The truth is that, no, Nicodemus wasn’t born just fine the first time around. None of us is. I noticed during the opening ceremonies that the Most Reverend Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Church of England, was sitting behind the queen. And he would tell even the Queen of England, the same thing: “Even you, your majesty, must be born again.” Think about that for a moment. We come out of the womb defective, damaged, predisposed to sin and idolatry—this is what the Church has called “original sin,” the sin we’re born with and born into. We have what Charles Wesley, in his hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” called a “bent to sinning.” We are bent. This need for new birth means that humanity is broken beyond repair. It’s not a matter of God doing a little work around the corners of our lives. Our life is not like a house that is mostly fine except the roof is leaking and needs to be patched, or a room needs to be painted, or a floor needs a new joist. No—the very foundation of the house is defective—and the whole thing is going to come crashing down without divine intervention! This is exactly the crisis we find ourselves in from the moment we’re born. So we must be born again!

These are deeply unpopular words these days. As many of you know, I do lots of funerals at a nearby funeral home for families who don’t have a church home. When a loved one dies, they suddenly find that they need a pastor. I’m on a local funeral director’s speed-dial. If a family is generically Protestant, I get the call! And I hate to be crass, but I have student loans to repay, so I don’t mind these calls! When the funeral director calls me, he describes the family’s religious background. If he’s said it once, he’s said it a thousand times: the loved one who died was “spiritual, not religious.” Being “spiritual” as opposed to religious is very popular these days. I confess I roll my eyes when I hear this. But not so fast! Being “spiritual, not religious” has the ring of truth to it. It seems to resonate with today’s scripture. Jesus, after all, is speaking to a sincerely religious man in Nicodemus. And he tells Nicodemus that being sincerely religious isn’t enough. He literally needs to be spiritual—in the sense that he needs to be transformed by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit.

The problem is, when we dig deeper into this perspective of “spiritual, not religious,” we often find that people believe that there’s some innate quality within ourselves that is already spiritual—that the truth is within—and it’s our job to simply get in touch with what’s already there. They don’t need external things like churches and religions and pastors or priests to help them get in touch with what’s within. After all, some of us pastors and priests say unhelpful and politically incorrect things like, “Unless you experience this new birth, you can’t enter God’s kingdom.” Oh, wait. Jesus said that, too! Jesus is saying to Nicodemus and to us that, left to our own devices, apart from the most drastic sort of divine intervention in the form of a spiritual new birth—we stand condemned. God’s wrath is on us. We are bound for eternal separation from God in hell. Unless we experience new birth.

Jesus’ words seem harsh and judgmental, but it’s the exact opposite of that. Notice what Jesus says in verse 17: “God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” See, contrary to popular misconception, when God sent his Son into this world that he loved, God didn’t create a new problem for people who fail to believe in Jesus. In other words, people don’t go to hell now because they fail to believe in Jesus; they go to hell because their sin has separated them from a holy God. Sin is the problem—and it’s been a problem of our own making from the very beginning—and it’s a problem that would exist regardless whether God did anything to solve the problem. The good news is that God did something to solve our problem with sin—and the solution is Jesus Christ and the new birth that his life, death, and resurrection make possible. “[F]or there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

The good news is that when we believe in Jesus, we experience this new birth.

What about you? Have you experienced this new birth? Have you been born again?

It used to be popular to talk about being “born-again Christians,” and some people still use that language. I know what they mean when they describe themselves this way—they mean that they can point to the day and the hour—and even the very moment—when they experienced this new birth. They know that they experienced a genuine, inward transformation, and their life was forever changed. I had an experience that was like that. Some of you have, too. But if you can’t point to the day and the hour and the moment, that doesn’t mean you haven’t been born-again. All Christians who are truly Christian are born-again. We Methodists talk about John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, that moment he describes in a journal entry dated May 24, 1738, when he found his heart “strangely warmed.” But let’s not be confused. Most Wesley scholars don’t understand Aldersgate to be a “born again” experience. Rather, it was an experience that reassured Wesley of what God had already done in his life. We don’t have to feel our hearts “strangely warmed” to know that we have experienced “new birth.”

Think about the meaning of a birth certificate. A birth certificate is unlike most other official certificates and documents—like a marriage certificate, for instance. What’s the point of a marriage certificate? It tells when and where a wedding took place, of course, but mostly it proves that you’ve been properly married. A diploma tells when and where you graduated, but mostly it proves that you’ve met all the requirements to have earned a degree. A driver’s license tells when and where you received your license, but mostly it proves that you’re eligible to operate a car.

But not a birth certificate. Its only purpose is to tell when and where. As long as you’re living and breathing, guess what? No sane person will ever doubt that you were really born! You may not know when and where, but you will never need to prove that you were born.

And so it is with new birth… Do you believe in Jesus now, and have you expressed that belief through baptism? Are you living your life as a disciple of Jesus now? Are you doing the good work of God’s kingdom now? If you’ve answered “yes” to these questions, then you can be assured that you’ve experienced this new birth—even if you don’t know when and where this new birth took place. If you answered yes to these questions, you don’t have to doubt it or worry about it.

A few weeks ago, before the Olympics started and before Michael Phelps won four more gold medals, U.S. swimmer Tyler Clary called Phelps out in public. He said that he “saw a real lack of preparation from Phelps,” that while other swimmers like himself had been working their tails off, Phelps had been coasting on natural talent alone. In other words, Clary implied that Phelps was born with all these amazing gifts for swimming, but he hadn’t worked very hard over the past few years to develop those gifts, to improve them, to sharpen them. Phelps had gotten lazy. Clary later apologized to Phelps and the rest of the team. No hard feelings. Clary himself went on to win gold in the 200-meter backstroke.

But I wonder: Is this a good analogy for being born again? Now that we’ve experienced a new birth, the Holy Spirit has blessed us with all the gifts we need to be the kind of loving, faithful, holy, Christlike people that we were made to be. And if we instead find ourselves in a spiritual rut, and we’re treading water, and we’re not growing in our relationship with Jesus, is it because we’ve grown lazy?

Do you believe in Jesus? Are you living your life as a disciple? Are you doing the good work of God’s kingdom? Maybe you can’t answer yes to these questions. Maybe you’ve lived your life in a perfectly religious way. You grew up going to church. You went to Sunday school. You were baptized. You went through confirmation class. You got married in the church. Many of your best friends are Christians. You’re living in the Bible belt of this predominantly Christian country. And, look, you’re even here in church this morning. Jesus says in today’s scripture that that’s not enough to be saved. Chances are you already know that’s not enough to be saved. And you think about it sometimes, and it scares you a little. You know that your life doesn’t show any evidence in here [point to heart] that you’ve experienced this new birth. Know this:apart from this miracle of new birth, you cannot be saved. I can’t put it any more clearly than that.

But please hear this good news: God doesn’t want you to stay in that condition! “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There was an old hymn we used to sing called “Whosoever Surely Meaneth Me.” And guess what? It’s true: “Whosoever” means you, too. No one needs to be excluded. No one needs to be left out. We can all be born into God’s royal family.

Baptism is the sign and the means by which we’re made part of God’s family. But it’s only made effective through faith. Baptism alone can’t save us. Periodically, it’s good for us to remember our baptism. Maybe we were baptized as infants, so we can’t remember the event. What we do when we remember our baptism is remember what our baptism stands for: that through God’s gift of his Son Jesus, God has solved our problem with sin and given us new and eternal life. And by remembering, we commit ourselves anew to living as Christ’s faithful followers.

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