TITLE: My New Birthday SCRIPTURE: John 3:1-17
Sometimes Christians make the faith look unattractive. For instance, the stranger who buttonholes you to ask if you have been born again. When someone asks, "Have you been born again?" how do you answer? One woman responded, "Of course not! I'm Methodist!"
When someone asks me if I have been born again, I usually respond, "Of course!" –– but then I just keep walking.
But the idea of being born again is not foreign to us. In his book, Coming Back Alive, Spike Walker tells about the LeConte, a small fishing boat that sank in a winter storm in Alaskan waters. When they realized that the boat was going down, the five crew members put out a Mayday signal, put on their survival suits, and abandoned ship.
The water was ice-cold –– the wind was blowing 90 miles (145 km) an hour –– it was sleeting and snowing –– dark –– and they were a hundred miles from land.
One of the crew members got separated from the others. They didn't find his body until the following summer.
The Coast Guard launched three Search and Rescue helicopters, but it took them seven hours to reach the men in the water. Gusty winds made it nearly impossible to hover over the men in the water. A helicopter lowered a rescue basket on a winch, and one man got a hold of it. As they were pulling him up, he lost his grip and fell to his death.
Finally, one of the helicopters succeeded in rescuing the three remaining men. One of the rescued men was Mike Decapua –– a tough, hard-living fisherman. But listen to what Mike had to say about that night in the water. He said:
"January 31, 1998, is my new birthday.
That's when I was reborn.
The year since then was the best year I've ever had.
I have a new chance.
Prior to the sinking, I was bitter.
I walked around ticked off about life all the time, and my lot in it.
Now I'm just trying to navigate alone through my own harbor.
If I can do that, I'll be a happy guy.
That night taught me what's important in life."
When Mike talked about January 31st being his new birthday, he wasn't talking about just living longer. He was talking about living better. He was talking about being reborn into a new life –– a life no longer dominated by anger. The prospect of death made him consider what was really important in life. He came away from that experience a new man –– happier –– more fulfilled. He says, "I was reborn."
Do you happen to know a recovering alcoholic –– someone who used to be a slave to alcohol but who has managed to stay sober for a number of years? That person can tell you what it means to be born again –– to start life over again.
I read about a girl who got caught up in the Goth culture that is so popular in high schools these days. The Goths are the kids who dress in black clothing and die their hair and wear extreme makeup and jewelry. They are often associated with the occult.
This girl talked about being miserable and lonely –– most of us can relate to that. Some of us were lonely and miserable in high school. But the Wiccas accepted her, and she soon became a part of that Goth culture. But she was still miserable. She said:
"Sometimes I wish I could be born all over again.
I'd really like to start over from scratch."
(From Irresistable Evangelism by Steve Sjogren, et. al.)
Have you ever felt like that? Many of us have. You might be thinking the same thing. You might be thinking:
"I wish I could be born all over again.
I'd really like to start over from scratch."
Let me assure you that it's possible. You can be born all over again. You can start over from scratch. That's what the Christian faith is about. It's about rejecting darkness and embracing light. It's about walking with Jesus instead of wandering alone and lost.
Our Gospel lesson today is the story of Nicodemus, a devout Jew –– a Pharisee. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. He started the conversation by complimenting Jesus, but Jesus quickly changed the subject. Jesus said:
"Very truly, I tell you,
no one can see the kingdom of God
without being BORN FROM ABOVE" (v. 3).
Some translations say, "without being BORN AGAIN." That's where the "born again" idea came from. It came from Jesus, who said that we could not see the kingdom of God without being born again –– or born from above. Which is it? Let me explain.
The New Testament was written originally in Greek. The Greek word was anothen (pronounced AN-oh-thin). Like many words, anothen has two meanings –– "again" or "from above." Some scholars say that Jesus meant "born again" –– and others say that he meant "born from above." But I believe that he meant both. Jesus was saying that we need to be "born again" and "born from above." Just as we have an earthly father, we also need a Heavenly Father.
So it's Jesus who said that we must be born again –– born from above –– and, in fact, that has already happened for those of us who are Christians. I say that it has already happened –– past tense –– and that is true. But it is also happening right now –– present tense. We are in the process of being reborn right now. Someone put it this way:
Please Be Patient!
God Isn't Finished with Me Yet!
You who have been Christians for many years know what I am talking about. Christ has been in the process of shaping your life all this time –– and there is still much work to be done. You are better than you used to be, but you are still far from perfect. Even the Apostle Paul experienced that. He said:
"For I do not do the good I want,
but the evil I do NOT want is what I do" (Romans 7:19).
But those weren't words of despair, because Paul ends that passage with words of thanks that Christ has freed him from sin and death. Paul still wasn't perfect, but he was on the road to perfection with Jesus.
When we hear Jesus say that we must be born again –– born from above –– it is easy to hear that as a one-time thing –– as if we should have become perfect on the day of our baptism. But we know that we aren't perfect.
So I like the metaphor of the potter and the clay. That also comes from the Bible. Isaiah said:
"Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand" (Isaiah 64:8).
When I think of God being the potter and us being the clay, I don't think of us as clay vases sitting on a shelf –– finished –– perfect in every way. I think of us as wet clay on the potter's wheel. I think of God's hands still shaping the clay of our lives –– still working toward a perfect shape –– trimming a bit here and adding a bit there.
That's painful –– painful as it can be. I feel it every time God presses hard to rid me of an unsightly lump. I feel it every time God trims away a piece of me that I held dear. But (at least in my good moments) I thank God for the pain, because the pain shows me that God is still at work in my life –– not only working to make me fit for heaven but also making me better fitted for life on earth.
There is an old Gospel song that puts it this way. It is a prayer. Listen to the words:
Have thine own way, Lord!
Have thine own way!
Thou art the Potter,
I am the clay.
Mold me and make me
after Thy will,
While I am waiting,
yielded and still.
I love the metaphor of the potter and the clay, because it tells me that I am a work in progress. That gives me hope. God isn't finished with me yet.
But let me go back to the story of Mike Decapua and the sunken fishing boat. Mike talked about being reborn on January 31, 1998. His rebirth wasn't just a matter of living longer. It was also an opportunity to live better. He buried his old, angry self in the icy waters and was reborn to a new grateful life. That sounds a lot like baptism, doesn't it (see Romans 6:1-11).
It wasn't what Mike did that gave him new life. It was something that someone did for him. A helicopter crew risked their lives to save him. The rescue was their gift to Mike.
Mike had to cooperate, of course. He could have told his rescuers to go away –– he could have told them not to bother him –– but he didn't. He watched every move they made. When it was time to do his part, he gave it his all. He reached out for the gift of life and received it gratefully.
That is how we are reborn as Christians. Our rebirth isn't something we do, but something that Christ does for us. We have to cooperate, of course. We could tell Jesus to go away. We could tell Christians to leave us alone. But the call of Christ is to grab the rescue basket –– to let him pull us up to safety –– to allow him to give us a new and wonderful life.
Where are you in this business of rebirth? Have you allowed Jesus to begin his work in you? Are you a work in progress? Or have you said, "Later!"?
If you will allow Jesus to begin his work in your life, he will begin making something beautiful out of you. It doesn't matter how ugly your life has been. It doesn't matter what you have done. Because, in the hands of the master potter, any old lump of clay will do.
Let Jesus be Lord of your life. Look to him for guidance. Allow him to shape your life. If you will do that, he will give you a life worth living.
HYMN STORY: Come, Thou Almighty King
We don't know who wrote this hymn –– and that might be what the author intended. This is a story of a hymn of praise to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that some might have considered subversive.
This hymn originally appeared in a small pamphlet in 1757 along with another hymn by Charles Wesley. That led some people to believe that Wesley wrote "Come, Thou Almighty King" as well –– but we have no evidence to that effect other than the hymn's appearance in that little pamphlet along with another Wesley hymn.
So why would anyone consider this hymn to be subversive? Perhaps because it appeared about fifteen years after another song was written –– "God Save Our Gracious King" –– the British national anthem. While the hymn is now sung to a tune quite different from the anthem, they were originally sung to the same tune. The hymn might well have been written to call Christians to a higher allegiance than allegiance to the British king.
During the Revolutionary War, British soldiers entered a Long Island church on a Sunday morning and ordered the congregation to sing, "God Save Our Gracious King." The congregation responded by singing, "Come, Thou Almighty King" –– different words –– a higher calling –– sung to the same tune. I haven't seen a report of the outcome, but I can imagine the soldiers being quite perplexed about what to do next.
So it is entirely possible that the person who wrote this hymn may have intended to remain anonymous to avoid prosecution for subversion.