Love. BORN Here.

John 3:1-8, 16-21

Love. BORN Here.

December 17, 2017

 

          Our God comes up with some pretty extreme solutions.  When the world needed to be saved from sin and a lack of love, God did not just tell us that we are loved.  God did not just teach us about love.  God sent the Son to be BORN for us as love, taking on all our human frailty and suffering.  The desperation of the world’s need and the depth of God’s love demanded an extreme solution: Love.  BORN Here.

          And when Nicodemus, or when any of us, needs to get right with God, to be able to live a life of faith and love, God doesn’t give us a self-help book.  God doesn’t just show us a path of spiritual growth.  Through Christ and the Holy Spirit, God makes it possible for us to be BORN anew, to start completely over in love.  The desperation of our need the depth of God’s love demand an extreme solution:  Love. BORN Here.

 

          So God the Son was born as one of us in Bethlehem.  And that same Jesus told Nicodemus, You must be born anew.  These are extreme solutions.  A little too extreme for Nicodemus.  He took Jesus a little too literally about this new birth.  He protested that being born anew isn't possible.  There may have a part of Nicodemus that was afraid, that didn’t want to have to go back to square one, didn't want to start all over.  He tried to dismiss, he tried to tame Jesus' extreme solution.

          And we too have tried to tame God’s extreme solutions.  Or rather, let me speak for myself:  I know I have tried to tame God’s extreme solutions.  I turn the birth of God's Son into something warm and fuzzy, a time to eat too much and exchange gifts with people who don't really need them. But from Luke 1, listen to what Jesus’ mother, Mary, said about his birth:  “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).  There's nothing tame about that!  In so many ways, we try to tame what Christmas means. 

          In the same way, I often tame what it means to be BORN anew.  I have treated the term “born again” dismissively—oh, that’s something they do in other denominations.  Of I’ve pushed it off on other people--oh, that’s something other people need, people more sinful than I am.  “Born anew”—that’s not something I need; I’m ordained, for heaven’s sake!

          But the first person Jesus told—technically the only person Jesus told—about being born anew was Nicodemus, a Pharisee.  John calls him “a leader of the Jews.”  Translate it into our culture however you want, but Nicodemus was a VRP—a very religious person.  It turns out that VRPs need new birth too.  In fact, it’s not just that even VRPs need to be born anew; it's that especially very religious people need to be born anew.  Because we VRPs are tempted to think that we are good enough, right enough, spiritual enough all on our own; that we can do it with a little help and support from God.  What Jesus is saying is, “No you can’t.  You need to start all over; you need to let the Holy Spirit remake you in the power of God’s love.”  It’s an extreme solution. 

 

          There is another connection between God’s Son being BORN of Mary and the call for us to be BORN anew.  When the angel told Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  It's natural enough question, but the angel replied, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  Christmas is not about what we think is possible, but about what’s possible with God.

          Nicodemus has similar concerns.  He speaks four sentences to Jesus, and in three of them he uses a Greek word that can be translated as ‘can.’  “How can one be born after growing old?” he asks.  “You can't

enter into your mother’s womb a second time, can you?" Nicodemus' thinking is limited to what human beings can and cannot do.  Jesus is all about what God can do.1  Being born anew is not one more human step; it’s a whole new possibility from God.  Living a life totally focused on love is not something you can do or have to do; God makes it possible to be born anew into a life of love.  Love is BORN anew.  Here.

          Martin Luther taught that this new birth is not about what we must do or not do; it’s about what we must become.2  All our doing, all our thinking, all our trying, just gets in the way of what God wants to do in us. 

The story is told of the woman who set out to discover the meaning of life.  She read everything she could get her hands on—history, philosophy, psychology, religion.  But she wasn't satisfied.  She visited very smart people and asked them the meaning of life, but they didn't agree with each another.  Finally she sold all her possessions and went to far places in search of the meaning of life.  She went to South America, to Africa.  Finally she went to India.  People there told her about a man high up in the Himalayas.  She climbed and struggled and finally reached his front door.  “Yes,” said the kind-looking old man who opened it. 

          “I’ve come halfway around the world to ask you one question,” she said, gasping for breath.  “What is the meaning of life?”

          “Please come in and have some tea,” the old man said.

          ”No,” she said.  “I mean, no thank you.  I didn’t come all this way for tea.  I came for an answer!”

          “We shall have some tea,” the old man said, so she gave up and came inside.  While the tea was brewing she began telling him about all the books she’d read, all the people she’d talked to, all the places she’d been.  The old man listened (which was just as well, since his visitor didn’t leave any time for him to reply), and as she talked, he placed a cup in her hand.  Then he began to pour the tea.            She was so busy talking that she didn’t notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea began spilling out onto the floor.      

          “What are you doing?” she yelled.  “It’s full.  Can’t you see that?  There’s no more room!”

          “Just so,” the old man said.  “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do?  There is no more room in your cup.  Come back when it is empty and then we will talk.”3

          “Love. BORN Here.” is not about what we must do or not do, but what we must become, not about what’s possible for us but what’s possible for God.  This Christmas can you empty your cup enough for love to be born, here?

 

          We used to call this new birth 'conversion,' and the most famous conversion stories are alll about VRPs (remember them?).

  • Saul was the most religious person there was, following every rule in the Bible and punishing anyone who didn’t.  And then, literally, he saw the light.  He was born anew.  He received a new name, Paul.  He let go of the rules and made his message the love of Christ for all people.  Love was BORN. Here.
  • John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was definitely a VRP.  He'd been a priest for years.  He’d been a seminary professor, a missionary to America.  Yet he was discouraged and unhappy.  He went to a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street in London, where suddenly, he said, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”  Love was BORN.  Here.
  • Years ago I visited a church member who’d been given just weeks, maybe months to live.  He was a VRP, a long-time pillar of the church.  But he’d been estranged from his son for years—didn’t approve of what he called his son's "lifestyle."  The first thing he said when I got there was, “I want my son to come home.  All these years I’ve kept him away.  I was wrong.  All I want before I die is to tell him I’m sorry and that I love him.”  Love was BORN.  Here.
  • The mother of a seven year-old child in our church told this story.  She and her son were talking about faith in the car.  (I’ll pause to let that much sink in--you parents can talk to your kids about faith!)  And the seven year-old said to her, and I quote, “Mom, faith isn't just a word.  It transforms people!"  I believe, in so many words, that’s what Jesus said to Nicodemus.

 

            Christmas is an invitation to be born anew, to be transformed, to let God do what’s possible only for God.  Christmas is the perfect time to empty your cup and let Love be BORN.  Here.

 

1 See Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 174.

2 See Bruner, 172.

3 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Stay for Tea, Nicodemus,” Living by the Word, The Christian Century (February 21, 1996), 195. 

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