This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, January 10, 2021 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s the first in a series running through Easter on the Gospel of John.
This season, I invite you to make faith commitments using “A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Spirit.” You can find it here.
In Steven Spielberg’s 1991 movie, Hook, Peter Banning has forgotten who he is in multiple ways. He’s a San Francisco lawyer so focused on his next big deal that he’s forgotten his callings to be a faithful parent and spouse. And, he’s forgotten that, before he was adopted at the age of twelve, he was Peter Pan, leader of the Lost Boys of Neverland and archenemy of Captain James Hook. But all that changes when Captain Hook lures Peter back to Neverland by kidnapping his children, Jack and Maggie.
When Hook tries to turn Jack and Maggie into his disciples, his own children, the younger Maggie implores Jack to remember their mother, their home, their family, and that they are dearly loves. Then, near the end of the film, as Peter walks away from the duel with Hook carrying Maggie, she calls out to Hook saying, “You need a mother very, very badly!” She’s insistent that if Hook knew or could experience the unwavering love of a mother, he wouldn’t be acting so horrifically. And as the movie will show, love ultimately empowers Peter to remember and become again who he truly is – both Peter Pan, and a loving and faithful parent and partner.
Thinking about Peter Banning, I wonder, have we ever forgotten who we are, or who we are called to be? Sadly, I find this forgetfulness all too easy. Few of us enter into parenting, holding that newborn baby, thinking, I’m going to get so busy with work or activities, or striving to provide for a certain kind of future, that I’ll forget to be present for the daily activities – the mundane acts of cleaning up with this little one, or playing that boring game of Candyland again. Likewise, few of hold that newborn and plan, I’m going to yell and criticize this creature into submission. And yet, both things have ways of creeping in, for some of us more than others. We can see that this is true given some of the things parents said about the early part of the pandemic: when our schedules slowed allowing for more family time than we’d previously had, we enjoyed it.
Over the past few months, and especially the last two weeks, I’ve been thinking a great deal about who I, and we, are called to be as citizens of this country. And, I wonder if we’ve collectively experienced quite a bit of forgetfulness. After all, during the race protests and riots of the summer, and the recent political protests and riots in Washington DC, people have decried violence, death, and destruction saying, “This is not who we are.” When we say things like this, we’re suggesting we remember our calling to be something else, to be a people who ensure the “unalienable rights” of all, among them, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence). This is not to delve into partisan politics. Rather, it’s to name and share in a collective lament: we may have temporarily forgotten the best of who we were called to be, and we long to be something better as a nation. Is that fair to say?
But it’s not just as parents or citizens that we sometimes forget who we are, or are called to be. Have there been times in each of our lives when we’ve looked in spiritual or physical mirror and not liked who we’ve seen? We have points at which we realize we’ve messed up, we’ve sinned, we’ve broken covenants, and we’ve hurt others and ourselves. We can come to points in our lives in which we’ve let mistakes pile up upon mistakes, and some days, they’ve buried us, breeding more mistakes. We’ve let violent wishes and violent words become violent actions. We’ve let unforgiven hurts, dishonesty, and shame build walls between us and tear us apart. We can forget who we are most created to be.
As Nicodemus the Pharisee goes to visit Jesus at night, I wonder if he’s seeking out Jesus because he too has forgotten who he truly is. I suspect he saw in Jesus some bit of what he had hoped to become so long ago, when he first became a Pharisee. He saw Jesus cleanse the Temple and heal people (Jn 2:13-23). Perhaps at this, Nicodemus began to wonder, Isn’t this what I was supposed to do? Didn’t I become a Pharisee so that I could help people encounter God, experience life as God’s people, and lead us to be blessings to all the nations in God’s name? And so he comes to Jesus saying, Surely you must be from God in order to do these miraculous signs (Jn 3:2). Greeting Jesus this way, it seems clear that he’s going to Jesus to find God, again, and also, perhaps, to find himself again.
Jesus sees Nicodemus’ problem – that he’s lost himself in his work, in his culture, in his systems of religion and thought. To this problem, Jesus doesn’t give a step-solution. Instead, he says, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom” (Jn 3:3). Nicodemus, a teacher of the way of God, has always assumed that there are steps to be shaped into God’s people, to receive forgiveness, and to connect with God. He knows that people are born into the people of God as Israelites. He knows that there are systems and practices of sacrifice and worship to receive forgiveness. He knows that connecting with God depends on these practices and living faithfully to them. But Jesus offers a different way: be born again, be born from above, be born not from earthly parents, but from the Spirit of God that blows like the wind wherever it wills, be born from God through belief (Jn 1:12-13). In effect, Jesus tells him that experiencing life in the realm of God is more of a gift than something to accomplish.
Nicodemus finds this confusing, because he’s stuck in a literal interpretation of Jesus’ message – I need to crawl up in the womb again? – so Jesus continues, essentially offering proof. He reminds Nicodemus of the ways God has always worked mysteriously with people. Jesus reminds Nicodemus of how, when the people of God encountered poisonous snakes in the wilderness, God healed the people when they looked upon a bronze snake that God instructed Moses to build and put on his staff (Num 21:4-9). Jesus then says essentially, I’m like that bronze serpent; when people look upon me, they’ll be healed and made whole and new. See, he says, look to me for proof: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
In Jesus’ long speech with Nicodemus, including this famous line, Jesus proclaims and offers the only thing that can remind and empower Nicodemus, and us, to be who we are created to be: the unconditional, gracious love of God. Jesus proclaims that being who we were created to be, people of God’s realm, God’s community, and God’s mission, is a gift: that we are born anew by God through belief. To Nicodemus who came to Jesus at night, and to us gathered here today, Jesus stands as proof of God’s love, through which we are born anew by the breath of the Spirit.
Jesus embodies God’s self-giving, eternal love that draws us into new life. Jesus God’s realm of love through his sacrificial love – his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. As Paul David Tripp says, “Jesus forgives us in love and draws us into his family of love, and [sends] us out as ambassadors of the very same love” (New Morning Mercies, Jan. 15). Nicodemus goes to Jesus, inspired by his actions at the Temple, to find God, to find forgiveness, and to find himself. By the Spirit’s breathing and blowing, Jesus draws Nicodemus into a new life of love, forgiveness, family, and mission. Similarly, whenever we seek Jesus out through worship, prayer, and scripture reading, Jesus draws us into new lives of love, forgiveness, family, and mission.
Some have called this passage, and particularly verse 16, “the gospel in a nutshell,” and so it may be; however, there’s one problem: response. Nicodemus, I believe, followed the Spirit’s blowing to visit Jesus. But he doesn’t respond at all in this text. And this makes me wonder: why not? Was Jesus too mysterious, too mystical? Jesus seemed clear: follow the Spirit’s leading, see me and believe, and let your actions be shaped by the truth and light, not darkness. I wonder if Nicodemus wasn’t ready to give up all the things he’d known before, the things he’d be comfortable in, his systems of faith and life. Similarly, in Hook, Peter Banning has a hard time giving up his striving for worldly success, and his fear of flying.
So what’s our response? John invites us to follow Nicodemus toward Jesus in whatever spiritual night we’re in. Perhaps our worship today is us coming to Jesus and saying, I sense something of God in you, as Nicodemus does. Surely, Jesus meets us here, and however we go to him, with this same message: I am God’s love, poured out for you, so that you can be forgiven, made part of God’s family, and share in God’s mission. But now, the response is up to us. Is his love enough to let him birth us anew, to give us new lives free from that which we’ve known? Will we let his love lead us deeper into the realm of God? Will we let his love chip away at our violence, at our anger and yelling, at our quests for personal bliss and satisfaction, at our desire for power or control? Jesus draws us into his love, so that we can experience the realm of God: so that we can be forgiven, drawn into God’s family, and sent with God’s mission. Will we let him birth us anew, and will we let his Spirit guide us to grow as renewed children of God?
- This sermon only develops one idea: that Jesus offers us new birth – making us new through forgiveness, making us part of God’s family, and making us part of God’s mission in the world. What about this idea of new birth do you think is important? How would you describe “new birth” from this sermon?
- This sermon doesn’t develop or deal with many of the other important and powerful things about “new birth.” What else do you think needs said about being “born anew” or “born from above”?
- If you’re interested, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement that has become the United Methodist Church, wrote at least two sermons on this passage: “The Marks of the New Birth” and “New Birth.”
- This sermon gets a tiny bit political. I felt God calling me to this, because I believe our faith is not silent about how we live as citizens. What are things you believe your faith in Jesus calls you to regarding citizenship in your country? Ultimately, I think this sermon might be unsatisfying for some regarding an answer to this question, because the sermon basically boils down to “live as those born from above or born anew.” It leaves a lot of what that looks like up to interpretation, especially regarding citizenship. What would you add or omit?
- The sermon perhaps should have developed some practical faith responses to Jesus’ gift of new birth. What do you think they should have been?
- In that vein, I think Wesley’s General Rules for Methodist Societies could be a stepping off point. They are 1) Do good, 2) Avoid evil, 3) Attend to the ordinances of God (the spiritual practices through which we connect with God). Living by these rules could be a way to live into our new birth.
- Another way to live into the new birth could be through the five practices of discipleship: 1) talking to God through prayer and worship, 2) listening to God through scripture reading, 3) partnering with God through acts of kindness, mercy, and justice, 4) growing like God in generosity, and 5) sharing Jesus with others.