TITLE: Born Again -- From Above SCRIPTURE: John 3:1-17
Born again! People respond to those words very differently. Some people love them, but others hate them. Herb Caen says,
"The trouble with born-again Christians
is that they are an even bigger pain
the second time around."
Born again! There seems to be no middle ground -- no one who just shrugs their shoulders and says, "Yeah! That sounds about right." Everyone has an opinion about "born again." It's a hot-button topic.
Born again! The problem is that when we hear those words, we tend to think of those annoying people who stop us on the street and ask, "Have you been born again?" -- implying that there is something wrong with us if we have not been.
But those words, "born again" come from the Bible -- from Jesus' lips, no less! Jesus said that we must be born again. He should know.
Maybe I should be more exact. Jesus did not say that we have to be born again. The New Testament was written originally in Greek. In Greek, Jesus said, "You must be born anothen. (NOTE TO THE PREACHER: The accent is on the first syllable -- AN-oh-then).
Anothen is one of those words that have two meanings. It can mean "again" or it can mean "from above." I believe that Jesus chose this word for both of its meanings. He means that we must be born a second time -- "again" -- and this time "from above." He means that we must have a Heavenly Father, just as we have earthly parents.
Nearly all Christians believe that! Baptists believe it! Lutherans believe it! Catholics believe it! Nearly all Christians believe that we must be "born again" -- "born from above." Christians believe that we need the Heavenly Father to remake us -- to reshape us -- to take our broken parts and make us whole again. Christians might argue about the details -- what it means to be born again -- how that happens -- but the differences aren't really that great. It comes down to letting God transform our lives -- letting God help us become more God-like.
When you stop and think about it, that makes a lot of sense. When we are born physically, we take a great deal from our fathers and mothers. We get genes from both. We probably look a lot like one or the other. When we talk, we sound a lot like one or the other. Whether we are short or tall has a great deal to do with our parents. Whether we have brown eyes or blue eyes depends on our parents. Even if both of our parents have brown eyes, we might inherit a recessive gene from one of them for blue eyes -- but that blue-eyed gene still comes from our brown-eyed parent.
And we learn a lot from our parents. They teach us to walk and talk. They nurture us and help us along the way. They feed us nutritious food so we can grow. They make us go to school so we will have a good foundation in life. They impart certain values to us. Who we are has a great deal to do with who our parents were.
For many of us, that's good. Our parents loved us and did a good job of getting us ready for life. For some of us, it wasn't so good. Some parents don't do such a good job.
But when Jesus says, "You must be born again" or "born from above," he is saying that we don't have to be limited by our parents. He is saying that we can have another parent -- this time a Heavenly Parent:
- A parent who will guide us
- A parent who will nurture us
- A parent who will love us
- A parent we can trust
- A parent who will help us to grow strong
- A parent who will prepare us to handle the ups and downs of life
- A parent who will help us to succeed in life
- And a parent who will welcome us into a heavenly home when we die.
Let me tell you a secret. It isn't just children who need good parents -- it's all of us. All of us need good parents. Even if you are old when your parents die, you will still grieve their passing. You will still miss them. You will still feel their loss. All of us need good parents -- even those of us well along in years.
Jesus is telling us that, just as we need earthly parents, we need God. We need a Heavenly Father/Mother.
That is an exciting idea. It says that we aren't limited by the genes that we got from our earthly parents, because God can make something new of us. It tells us that we don't have to settle for the person that we are, because God can make us better.
The early church had a wonderful way of expressing its faith in the rebirth that people experience when they become Christians. As I understand it, in the early church (3rd-10th centuries) people weren't baptized in the church sanctuary. They were baptized in a separate baptismal building which was dimly lighted. Men and women were baptized separately, and they were baptized naked in a pool of water. Then they were dressed in white clothing, anointed with perfumed oil, and taken into a brightly candle-lighted sanctuary where they took Holy Communion. They would never have seen Holy Communion before -- because they would always have been dismissed at the mid-point in the service. These actions dramatized their "new birth" -- their "taking off" the old life and "putting on" the new.
I read a story that illustrates well what God wants to do with us -- with our lives. Lindsay Clegg was a businessman who owned a London warehouse that had stood empty for quite some time. He wanted to sell it, but the building looked terrible. Vandals had broken windows and scattered trash.
But Clegg found a prospective buyer who showed an interest in spite of the building's appearance. He tried to reassure the buyer that he would replace the broken windows and clean up the trash and make any other necessary repairs. But the buyer cut him short. He said, "When I buy this place, I'm going to build something completely different. I don't want the building; I want the site."
That's what God says to us. "I'm going to build something completely different. I don't care who you are now, because I'm going to make you into a new person.
Many people feel like they have nothing to offer God. They can't imagine that God would want anything to do with them. They look at their lives and see only the broken windows and trash. They think that they must somehow lift themselves by their bootstraps so that they will be worthy of God, but that seems impossible. They think of themselves as poor specimens -- unworthy -- unlovely.
But the Good News is that God just loves finding a person like that-- a humble person -- someone who recognizes her neediness. A person who knows that he is lost is open to being found.
God says, "I don't really care who you are now. You don't have to be responsible for the repairs. I intend to make you into a new person. All I need is your heart."
That's Good News! It's Good News to those who feel that they have done something terribly wrong -- unforgivably wrong. It's Good News to those who constantly struggle to do the right thing, but constantly fail. It's Good News to those who can't imagine that God would want anything to do with them. It's Good News, because it offers the reassurance that God can make the best out of the worst. It's Good News, because it reassures us that no one is hopeless.
But it's also Good News for those of us who call ourselves Christians -- for those of us who were baptized and go to church every week -- for those of us who are accustomed to the ritual of Holy Communion. It is Good News to those of us who have supposedly been reborn, but who still struggle to do the right thing. It's Good News to those of us who have supposedly been reborn, but who wonder if God is really doing anything in our lives.
Let me remind you that a newborn baby is pretty helpless. Newborn babies can't program a computer or play quarterback. Newborn babies can't even feed themselves or change their own diapers. Newborn babies are adorable, but they will spend a lifetime growing and changing.
A mother who happened also to be a physician once commented on her struggles with her teenage children. She said, "Their brains don't quit growing until they are 25 years old. It's no wonder that they have such a time making it through their teenage years."
And so it is with those of us who have been born again -- and all of us who have given our lives to Christ have been born again. When we were baptized, it didn't seem like baptism did much for us. We weren't taller. We weren't stronger. We weren't smarter. We weren't prettier.
But something did happen. We invited God to make a new person of us, and God began that work. We became "infants in Christ." That's what the Apostle Paul called the Christians at Corinth -- infants in Christ. The church at Corinth was a troubled church, and the Christians at Corinth were troubled people. Paul wrote a letter to guide them onto a better pathway. In his letter, he called them "people of the flesh -- infants in Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:1).
"People of the flesh" -- that was just another way of saying "sinners." Those Christians in Corinth were sinners. But they were also "infants in Christ" -- people who had been born into a new life. They weren't yet the people that God wanted them to be -- and they weren't yet the people whom they would become -- but they had been reborn. They had asked God to make them into new people, and God had started that work. God would be working on them for the rest of their lives.
If you haven't become a Christian yet, the word that Christ has for you is that God can do great things with your life if you will let him.
If you are a Christian, the word that Christ has for you is that God is at work in your life, chipping away the sharp edges, restoring you to the image of God (see Genesis 1:27). You aren't yet the person that God wants you to be. You aren't yet the person whom you will become. But God has started the work, and he will complete it.
So next time someone asks, "Have you been born again?" don't get angry. Say, "Yes, I have, thanks!" And then just keep walking.
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